By now you may have heard that over the weekend, Naomi Sims, the first black model to grace the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968, muse to many, and a successful designer of wigs and cosmetics for black women, died in Newark at the age of 61. While everyone knows the name of say, Christie Brinkley, Sims may not have been as famous, but she was certainly far more influential when it comes changing the fashion model status quo.Although Sims is often referred to as the first black supermodel, garnering success during the Black is Beautiful Movement of the late ’60′s and early ’70s, it was difficult for her to get a big break. She had a painful upbringing living in foster homes in Pittsburgh and was insecure about her height and living in a largely poor white neighborhood. Sims was told her skin was too dark by modeling agencies when she first tried to break into the business in the ’60s. But the determined spirit to become “somebody really important” that she developed while living in Pittsburgh kept her motivated.
Sims appeared on the cover of The Times August 1967 fashion supplement, then called Fashion of The Times, after approaching photographer Gosta Peterson without the backing of an agency. But her big opportunity came in 1967 when she was booked, alongside a white model and an Asian model, for a national AT&T ad campaign. “It helped me more than anything else because it showed my face,” Sims told Ladies’ Home Journal when she appeared on its cover a year later. After that, she was in high-demand, modeling for industry heavy hitters like Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez, and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. Sims also appeared on the covers of Essence, Cosmopolitan, and Life. She also had enough celebrity status to hang with folks like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
But Sims often expressed in interviews her low respect for the industry, saying male executives mistreated her and “people have the idea that models are stupid.” She eventually quit the modeling biz after five years and started a wig collection specifically for black women, which eventually expanded into a multi-billion dollar beauty empire and several books about modeling and beauty.
Although her race was considered a barrier by some early in her career, Sims reportedly attributed her success to using her black skin to her advantage:
“It’s ‘in’ to use me,” she said at the onset of her success, “and maybe some people do it when they don’t really like me. But even if they are prejudiced, they have to be tactful if they want a good picture.”