The year was 1968 and the world as a whole was going through massive transformation that manifested in all corners of society.
For African-Americans, in particular, revolution was the keyword and years of racial and sexual prejudice were at their apex when a young Naomi Sims, an aspiring model, arrived in New York as a student of the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Her first attempts to be represented by modeling agencies were not successful. They rejected her, saying that her skin was too dark. Sims ignored the refusals and decided to go to the photographers themselves. Her tenacity paid off when a New York Times photographer agreed to do a photo shoot of her for the paper’s August 1967 fashion issue.
Having achieved this success, Sims still found difficulty in finding steady modeling work. She sought help from Wihelmina Cooper, a former model who was just starting her own modeling agency. Sims offered to pass out the Times fashion issue to advertising agencies accompanied by Cooper’s office number. Sims added that if she got any work from this, the agency would get a commission.
Supermodel and businesswoman Naomi Sims. Photo- www.panachereport.com
Within a year, Sims was earning at least $1000 a week. She appeared in an AT&T national television campaign and soon modeled for the likes of Bill Blass, Halson, Teal Traina, and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo.
“Naomi was the first,” said Halston in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all Black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”
In the early ’70s, during the height of the so-called Blaxploitation films, Sims was approached by Hollywood to play the title role in the film “Cleopatra Jones.” (The role ultimately went to Tamara Dobson.)
Even though Sims was a celebrated figure in the modeling world by showing that Black is indeed beautiful, she began to think about her future.
“There is nothing sadder than an old, broke model,” she said in 1969. “There are many models who have nothing at the end of their career.”
After five years of working as a successful model, Sims embarked on her own wig making business for Black women. Several years after the launch of her business, her sales grew to $5 million a year.
Her groundbreaking success paved the way for other successful Black models of all shades, including Beverly Johnson, Karen Alexander, Alek Wek, Chanel Iman, Grace Jones and Tyra Banks.
Naomi Sims died earlier this month from cancer at the age of 61.
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