Naomi Sims is Gone at 61–First Black Supermodel

The youngsters probably only know her through her wig collection for African American women. Sherri Shepherd on The View wears her wigs, and both she and Whoopi Goldberg paid homage to her on Monday morning. But in the late Sixties and early Seventies, you had to be there: this girl was a breath of fresh air among the white mannequins. Her obituary is being printed all over the world, in French, Portuguese and Spanish, as I write.

Naomi Sims, 61, who died of breast cancer in Newark, New Jersey on August 1, was the first black supermodel (Courtesy: theconnection103)

Naomi Sims, 61, who died of breast cancer in Newark, New Jersey on August 1, was the first black supermodel (Courtesy: theconnection103)

From the Daily

Her successful incursion into a white-dominated fashion industry came in the second half of the 1960s, a period when many social norms were being challenged. In the United States the “Black is Beautiful” movement was in full swing, and Naomi Sims became one of its most potent emblems, paving the way for black models of the 1970s such as Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Beverly Johnson, Dunyale Luna and, later, Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell.

The breakthrough came in 1968, when she was given the cover of the mainstream magazine Ladies’ Home Journal. The following year she appeared on the cover of Life magazine. As the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974: “Naomi was the first. She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”

A handful of black girls had been successful models before her (Dorothea Towles Church, for example, had been a star of the Paris couture shows in the 1950s); but until Naomi Sims came along, none had managed to penetrate the public consciousness. That she did so was entirely due to her determination, forged during a difficult childhood in Pennsylvania.

Naomi Ruth Sims was born in Oxford, MS on March 30, 1948. The youngest of three daughters, her parents divorced before she was 2, and her mother later relocated Sims and her two other sisters to Pittsburgh, PA. Her mother described her father to Sims as “an absolute bum.” However, Sims was given over to foster care when her mother fell ill, though she was able to keep in touch with her sisters.

In high school, her insecurities–stemming from living in largely poor white neighborhoods, and in several foster homes–were compounded when she was ostracized by her classmates for being too tall. Naomi Sims was nearly 6 feet tall. Yet all this dismissal fueled her determination to succeed. As it happened, she was at the right place at the right time.

From the New York Times:

In need of money (to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology), Ms. Sims, with her heart-shaped face and long limbs, was encouraged by classmates and counselors to give it a try. But every agency she approached turned her down, some telling her that her skin was too dark.

Undeterred, Ms. Sims decided to approach photographers herself. Gosta Peterson, a photographer for The Times, agreed to photograph her for the cover of its August 1967 fashion supplement, then called Fashions of The Times.

The agencies were still not interested, so Ms. Sims, showing a dash of enterprise that would later define her career, told Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model who was starting her own agency, that she would send out copies of the magazine to advertising agencies with Ms. Cooper’s number attached. Ms. Cooper could have a commission if anyone called back.

Within a year, Ms. Sims was earning $1,000 a week and had been hired for a national television campaign for AT&T, which showed her and two other models — one white and one Asian — wearing fashions by Bill Blass.

Sims ended up giving up her studies and modeling for Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo. Yet Sims often felt and said that she held the fashion industry in low regard because of how male executives treated her and, more generally, she said, “because people have the idea that models are stupid.” I would have to add, not just because models are stupid, but that models who are female and black are also considered insipid and brainless. (Makes one wonder why Naomi Campbell is always on a short fuse. It may not all be her fault.)

Two images of Ms. Sims — one from the 1967 Times fashion magazine cover and the other from a 1969 issue of Life — are in the current Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “The Model as Muse.” In a catalog, the curators Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan wrote, “The beautifully contoured symmetry of Sims’s face and the lithe suppleness of her body presented on the once-exclusionary pages of high-fashion journals were evidence of the wider societal movement of Black Pride and the full expression of ‘Black is Beautiful.’ ”

Naturally, in her day, Sims partied and hung out with an artsy crew that included Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. In 1973, she married a Manhattan art dealer, Michael Findlay, and produced a son, Robert “Bob” Findlay, who survives her, as well as a granddaughter and her sister, Betty. The marriage foundered in 1991, but before that, Sims had retired from modeling and had launched what turned out to be a highly successful career creating wigs, fragrances, and cosmetics for black women.

Sims also wrote several books on health, beauty, fashion and style for black women and girls, like All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman, and All About Success for the Black Woman. She also was a monthly columnist for Right On! magazine. Sims said, “There is nothing sadder than an old, broke model, and there are many models who have nothing at the end of their career,” and Sims was determined not to sit on her laurels or depend solely on her husband for her livelihood.

Sims knew that she had turned race to her advantage in her career. In the NYT obituary, she was quoted early in her career, “It’s ‘in’ to use me, 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.

Rest in peace, Sister Sims, and thank you for being here.

Bookmark and Share

~ by blksista on August 5, 2009.

%d bloggers like this: