The video for John Legend’s “You & I (Nobody In The World)” feels familiar, at first–we’ve seen over the past few years a rash of campaigns and short films designed to highlight the unique faces of “regular” women. But as the video, directed by Mishka Kornai of Everdream, progresses, it’s clear that this is a unique take on the concept. “Let’s look at real women” might have begun as “let’s use size 8 models instead of size 0 models in our campaign.” But in “You & I,” Legend and Kornai have created a tribute to the faces of a broad spectrum of women and girls: breast cancer survivors, those with disabilities, trans women, and others who rarely find themselves the subject of a mainstream, romance-forward content (the video also features Legend’s wife in real life, Chrissy Teigen, who often finds herself the subject of romance-forward content).
Kornai and Everdream were approached by Legend and his manager, Ty Stiklorius, to create a special video that would tie into the #OperationGirl campaign that Legend, along with Ryot News + Action and Burkle Global Impact Initiative, have been involved with, which raises money for nonprofits that provide services to women and girls around the world. “Everything we do at Everdream is kind of collectively based in creativity, so we all generated concepts, and John ended up going with mine, which was the idea of seeing women from the perspective of their own reflection,” Kornai explains.
Legend and Sitklorius gave Kornai a wide berth in pursuing that concept–the video shoot lasted over two weeks, which Kornai says is “a crazy thing to pitch to any client who’s used to doing a three-day music video shoot.” But the project required that much time in order to cultivate the broad base of women who would make up the final product. “We filmed over 70 women,” he says. “Our talent search had to involve reaching to so many people, and making a grassroots effort, to make sure that we could find someone with Down’s syndrome, or someone who’s a breast cancer survivor. We wanted to show as many different colors of the spectrum as possible.”
Some of those colors are some of the more famous examples of women who belong to groups that are frequently marginalized: Namely, Orange Is the New Black star Laverne Cox, one of the more prominent transgender women in the country, and stand-up comic Tig Notaro, who’s both a breast cancer survivor and an out lesbian.
“It was really important to find someone who was prominent, because it’s important that people recognize it,” Kornai explains. “The question is, how do you showcase a trans woman, which is a woman, in a way that indicates that they’re a trans woman. And the answer is that you kind of don’t. If you don’t know who Laverne is when you’re watching, you don’t necessarily know at all that she’s a trans woman. You just know that she’s taking off her makeup.”
Notaro, meanwhile, got involved late in the project. “I really wanted there to be a prominent lesbian figure who could show off a different side of the spectrum,” Kornai says. “Our casting director suggested Tig to me, and she was really excited about the project. John Legend is such a big pop artist, and Tig is not the Hollywood look–she’s not the person you expect to be in this video.”
The idea of Tig Notaro and Laverne Cox starring in a John Legend video a couple of years ago would have been nearly unfathomable–but at this point in 2014, it’s a reality. And without women like them, or their less-famous counterparts who make up the myriad other women throughout the “You & I” video, any point that Kornai and Legend might have made would have been impossible.
“The media landscape has become too rich and too fundamental to the way we communicate to restrict it to just models,” Kornai says. “And John and his manager just gravitated toward the process and said, ‘Look, we trust you. Just let us know how we can help.’”