I learned a little bit about black history today when I read Essence magazine’s tribute to Naomi Sims, the first black supermodel, passed away on Saturday from breast cancer at the young age of 61. I had never heard of Naomi Sims and had always attributed African American trailblazers in fashion and modeling to Beverly Johnson. The Mississippi-born Sims moved to New York to pursue a career in modeling and did not let racial prejudices deter her from getting great jobs. At a time when major modeling agencies told her that her skin was too dark, Sims turned directly to photographers, convincing Gosta Peterson to photograph her for the cover of the The New York Times Magazine‘s August 1967 fashion supplement, then called Fashions of The Times.
“Black wasn’t beautiful then,” said Sims in an interview with Black Enterprise magazine. “The darker your skin, the less good-looking you were considered; and I was too tall, and too skinny.”
Sims, seen here in an interview with Andy Warhol, was loved by so many. Halston dubbed the leggy beauty the first supermodel. “Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”
Ms. Sims was suddenly in high demand, modeling for top designers like Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, and standing at the vanguard of a fashion movement for black models that would give rise to runway stars of the 1970s, including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Beverly Johnson. [New York Times]
Sims quit modeling after five years in the industry to start her own beauty empire. She wrote several books and launched a successful wig collection targeted at African-American women in 1976, followed by a cosmetics line in 1986. Sims once wrote on her personal website: “If they use you, it’s because you’re Black,” referring to the prejudices in the modeling industry.