Naomi Sims (1948-2009) was a black American supermodel from the 1960s, one of the first. Before there was Naomi Campbell, there was Naomi Sims. In November 1968 she became the first black woman on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, the first to appear on a mainstream women’s magazine in America. She later went into business selling her own line of wigs and make-up designed for black women and wrote books about beauty and modelling. She died yesterday of cancer at age 61.
She was born in Mississippi but her family later moved up north to Pittsburgh, where she lived in a largely poor white neighbourhood. By 13 she was already 5 foot 10 (1.78 m) . She was picked on and became a loner. Growing up in an age before Twiggy and “Black is beautiful”, she was too tall, too thin and too dark to be considered beautiful. But her upbringing and her Catholic faith taught her to always walk with pride and dignity.
In 1966 she went to New York to live with her sister and study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her scholarship money was not enough, so she turned to modelling to put herself through school.
The model agencies all said no because she was black. So she called fashion photographers herself. One of them, Gosta Peterson, agreed to meet her. His wife, it turned out, was the head of the fashion pages of the New York Times. In August 1967 she appeared in the Times.
After that success she went back to the model agencies but they still said no! So she talked one of them into letting her use their name and sent her layout in the Times to 100 advertising agencies. To the model agency’s utter amazement the calls started coming in! By November 1968 she was on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal.
Her dark skin worked to her advantage: This was just when “Black is beautiful” was becoming a catchphrase and black tokenism was cutting edge stuff.
Within two years she was in all the fashion magazines. She made anything she wore look great and had her own way of walking down the runway that was beautiful to watch. She modelled for Halston, AT&T, Virginia Slims, Life magazine and others.
In 1972 Hollywood wanted her to star in “Cleopatra Jones”, a blaxpoitation film. When she read the script she said no: she was shocked at how racist it was.
In 1973 she made the cover of Cosmopolitan and then quit modelling.
Four years before she had said, “There is nothing sadder than an old, broke model.” So she went into business making wigs. She found out how to make hair that looked like straightened black women’s hair and then designed wigs in all the latest styles. In the 1980s she branched out into perfume, skin-care and make-up. By the 2000s, however, large white companies started to push her out.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s she wrote five books. One of them,”All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman” (1976), is still in print.
- Ellen Holly – became the first regular black character on a soap opera: “One Life to Live”, July 1968
- black fashion models
- Donyale Luna – first black woman on British Vogue (1966)
- Naomi Campbell – first black woman on French Vogue (1988)
- Liris Crosse
- Toccara Jones