Rejected by agencies for being too dark, first Black supermodel Naomi Sims explains how she made it

Stephen Nartey January 05, 2023
The cover of Life magazine features Sims. Photo: Yale Joel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

She managed to beat the odds to become the first Black supermodel. Naomi Sims had to grow up with a foster family because her father abandoned her mother when she was born in Oxford, Mississippi. Her mother could not take care of her because she was sick.

Sims endured mockery from her peers because she was taller than many of them. At 13 years old, she had seen the harsh reality of life but she decided to push on to achieve her ambition. Through a scholarship she secured at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York after completing high school, she moved an inch closer to her dreams of becoming a model.

She enrolled in an evening school at New York University during the same period to study psychology. She worked on a part-time basis as a model to pay for her tuition. When she was done with her graduate education, she wanted to give her all to her career in modeling but no agency will sign her because they said her skin was too dark.

She was not daunted by efforts to dampen her dream. She looked for fashion photographers to take pictures of her. She met with the Times photographer Gosta Peterson, who was enthralled by her beauty and decided to offer her assistance. He accepted to photograph her for the cover of the August 1967 edition of the Fashions of The Times.

After this breakthrough, Sims approached all the best modeling agencies in New York including Eileen Ford. Ford rejected Sims by declining an invitation to meet her. She was told that there were already models of her type at the agency.

Sims was not deterred by the rejection; she contacted former model Wilhelmina Cooper, who was starting her own agency. Sims told Cooper that she would distribute copies of the Fashion of The Times magazine to advertising agencies with Cooper’s number attached. If anyone called back, Cooper could have a commission. Cooper later called her to come over because she had a job for her.

Sims’ fortunes changed, with her earning $1000 per week a year later. Her career got a further boost when she appeared in a television ad campaign for AT & T where she advertised clothes for designer Bill Blass. “It helped me more than anything else because it showed my face,” Sims said in an interview. “After it was aired, people wanted to find out about me and use me.”

She became the cover for a number of magazines including becoming the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Ladies Home Journal in 1968 and Life Magazine in 1969.

Her feature in Ladies Home Journal sparked the “Black is Beautiful” movement, according to the Times. There was high interest in her services by top designers like Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Fernando Sánchez and Teal Traina.

After five years in the industry, Sims retired from modeling in 1973 to focus on her business empire which was into wigs for Black women. She wrote several books on modeling and beauty in the 1980s.

Sims died of cancer in August 2009. She was 61.

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