Modeling and fashion legend, Naomi Sims, was born on September 20, 1949, in Oxford, Mississippi. She would go on to become the world’s first black supermodel before the term “supermodel” had been coined.
At 13, Naomi already measured 5’10. She left Mississippi for better schooling opportunities in Pennsylvania. Often teased because of her height and southern accent, she felt alone. She accredits her catholic faith for teaching her to walk with pride and dignity from an early age.
Later, she moved to New York City to study design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Needing more money to finance her studies, she launched her modelling career after running low on money. She began by posing for illustrators.
Naomi’s perspicacity and drive started a revolution in the fashion world and in the beauty industry. With no agent, she contacted the renowned photographer Gosta Peterson. The relationship was a revolution and would be the precursor to black being recognized as beautiful.
Naomi approached all the real agencies in New York City. They all refused to work with her. No agency at that time represented black models. It had never been done before. They feared that clients would not be recipient to hiring black models for mainstream products.
Naomi then went to see former model Wilhelmina Cooper, who had founded her own agency, Wilhelmina Models. Though Wilhelmina refused to take her onto her books, Naomi managed to get Wilhelmina to allow her to use the agency’s contact information for her photos that she personally delivered to the ad agencies “just in case”.
One day upon returning home, Naomi came across messages that had been left for from Wilhelmina. Fearing that she had done something wrong, Naomi did not respond. Then one day, Wilhelmina sent a telegram to Naomi explaining that she needed to come into the agency because they had work for her.
Naomi’s ingenuity and initiative paid off. By helping herself, she simultaneously cracked a hole in the modelling industry through which other models like Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, Grace Jones and Bethann Hardison would soon follow.
Working together, Naomi made history on August 27, 1967 by becoming the first black model to get the cover of the Fashion of Times, a supplement to the New York Times.
She posed for fashion pages in Vogue and was a spokesperson for national Virginia Slims billboard campaigns. “The editors would call for more fantasy. I gave them elegance and regality. We were reaching for the stars…”, Sims went on to say.
Naomi’s face became the muse for the “Black is Beautiful” movement in 1967, which taught black and ebony skinned women to cherish their individual beauty. Before her, no model of such dark skin had ever been so widely exposed.
In 1968, she broke through to Middle America in capturing the cover of the Ladies Home Journal. She followed that up with her simple and stunning cover of Life Magazine. By this time, she was a tender 19 years old and had been recognized both domestically and internationally as a celebrity. Others would follow for McCall’s, Essence and Cosmopolitan. The latter topped off her retirement as a fashion model.
In 1967, she was offered the role of Cleopatra Jones, but soundly turned it down. Naomi was shocked and disappointed at the way Hollywood chose to represent black women. However, Hollywood would go on to emulate Sims’ beauty in the 1975 movie, Mahogany. It goes without saying that Dianna Ross’ makeup and allure bore striking resemblance to Sims.
Naomi admits that others found her haughty and even “too grand”. However, she was reclusive and wasn’t able to canalise all the pressures that accompanied the inherent racism that came along with the territory of being America’s first black supermodel.
Giving back, she used her prestigious image to help other in the African-American community. She gave of her time to work with drug addicts, Vietnam veterans, black civic groups and various charitable organisations. Naomi is an active member of the NAACP and the Northside Center for Child Development.
Backstage gossip, drugs in the industry, gossips and racial quotas disenchanted her with the industry. Naomi was intelligent and admitted that she sculpted her career in such a way that she worked less, but always for prestigious clients, who paid her well. In 1973, she officially retired. She went into retirement in grand style making the cover of Cosmopolitan!
In 1969 and 1970, Naomi received the Model of the Year Award. In 1972 she received the Woman of Achievement Medal and then the Top Hat Award in 1974.
In 1976, Naomi Sims created the Naomi Sims Company. She brought to black woman of various skin tones beauty products that were not so easily attainable at the time. The company produces a both body and skin care lines in addition to the Naomi Sims wigs collection.
She was awarded the NYC Board of Education award for teaching underprivileged children in Bedford Stuyvesant. And in 2003, she was honoured in New York with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Fashion & Arts Xchange.
In addition to being an occasional contributor to Redbook, Essence, Encore and other periodicals, Naomi Sims has authored several books: All About Health and Beauty for the Black Women, How to Be A Top Model and All About Hair Care for the Black Woman.