Naomi Campbell may have reinvented the gallop down the catwalk with her infamous stride but Naomi Sims was clearly the first black “supermodel”. Long before the success of her multimillion dollar wig-making empire Sims was just another black model trying to break through in a world free of color.
Although born in Oxford, Mississippi her mother would later move the family to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania after parting ways with Naomi’s father. Like most models, when mentioning their formative years, she too would oftentimes find herself on the receiving end of classmates taunts because of her height. Instead of retreating into a shell of self-defeat she relied heavily on her Catholic upbringing as a means to persevere.
Sims interest in modeling was peaked while attending the famed Fashion Institute of Technology on scholarship in New York. Her striking features and flowing length should have guaranteed her ad placements in magazines. Instead she was met with the narrowness of agents intent on promoting racial prejudice. Never deterred, Sims solicited the help of New York Times photographer, Gosta Peterson. He would eventually shoot her for the cover of their fashion supplement.
It helped but did not give Sims the exposure she sought. In steps Wilhelmina Cooper who was establishing her own agency at the time, Wilhelmina Models, in 1967 . Sims and Cooper reached an agreement that would ensure Cooper a commission from any work received as a result of her agency circulating Sims fashion supplement pics. After such a slow start, eventually the buzz caught on and Sims would begin a weekly earning of $1000.
Soon followed was a national television campaign for AT&T with Sims wearing clothes by designer Bill Blass. She credits this opportunity as the moment the world got to really see what she looked like. With her face now exposed fashion offerings began to pour in from some of the top magazines. Most noticeably the Ladies Home Journal. Sims angular beauty on the 1968 cover was once described as a pivotal moment in the Black is Beautiful movement. A year later she would adorn the October 17, 1969 issue of Life magazine.
Although she experienced moderate success while working as a model, Sims became disillusioned by the whole casting process. Mounting rejection as a result of fashion editors and casting agencies reluctance to use her simply because she was black would be the deciding factor. In 1973, she would bow out gracefully. Leaving behind footprints that would eventually allow Beverly Johnson, Iman and Naomi Campbell to follow suit.
Sims now with her sights set on business would go on to start a successful wigmaking company that would expand into a fashion and beauty empire. Sharing her experience in books such as How to Be a Top Model, All About Success for the Black Woman and All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman were at the core of her business. Add motherhood and wife to her already growing list of achievements and one can’t help but be impressed.
On August 1, 2009 Sims died of breast cancer. She was only 61. Sims was a living portrait of style and grace, class and education. Possessing a determination unwithered by an industry still rooted in the past. Sadly, not much has changed. Women of color still struggle for visibility on the covers of magazines and the mere mention of their lives as content.
Naomi Sims was a true pioneer. In every sense of the word…