Honoring Supermodel Naomi Sims
Her College choice was New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, but when she ran too low on funds to continue studying, she supported herself by posing for fashion illustrators. At this time she did the unheard of, and it ended up launching her modeling career. Without benefit of an agent or an introduction, she boldly phoned prominent fashion photographer Gosta Peterson. Their meeting had led her to the highest echelons of the business, a cover of the Fashions of the Times supplement to The New York Times.
It was 1967. While "Black is Beautiful" sounded a vigorous call to confront and love our authentic African selves, Naomi became "the first black woman accepted as a beauty in her own right," as she was later described. Her image of authoritative ebony inspired all women of color to pride. Never had a model so dark-skinned received so much exposure, praise and professional prestige. She strode through the pages of Vogue and across billboards for Virginia Slims cigarettes. "Nothing was too good for a picture," she says in her precise dramatic voice. "The editors would call for more fantasy. I gave them elegance and regality. We were reaching for the stars." She was equally outstanding on the runway, igniting the normally blasé audiences.
By 1968 she was awarded an unusual merit badge by Middle America: the first black cover of Ladies Home Journal. A stunningly simple cover for Life in 1969 - another major first for a Black model - confirmed her status as a national and international celebrity by age 19. She remained, nevertheless, committed to the African- American community. Inherent in the word model, she felt, was the obligation "to give something back to the people." She gave not only an image but her time and dedication to the community needs, working with young drug addicts, Vietnam veterans and Black civic groups, among others.
Despite her success, Naomi got bored with modeling. Superficial values, dressing room gossip and drug use and abuse were disenchanting. "Intelligence was often rebuffed in the studio," she says. Racial quotas, not star quality, determined who worked. "If they use you, its because you're Black," she says. But Black is such an inherent part of our beauty and appeal as models, Naomi believes, that Black models should never hold themselves back or de-emphasize that part She planned her career strategy so that she worked less often but for more prestigious - and financially rewarding - clients. An articulate spokeswoman, she traveled worldwide, lecturing extensively on fashion, beauty and health. In 1973, after six years as a top model, Naomi ended this facet of her extraordinary career with a Cosmopolitan cover.
The previous year, her popularity had led to the offer of the title role in the Warner Brothers film "Cleopatra Jones". She flew to Hollywood and read the script, but she was appalled by what she perceived as the script's distorted images of Black people. She eventually wrote a scathing denunciation to the studio.
Some in the business considered her daring and "too grand," she says. While she "worked and occasionally played very hard," when she could, she rested behind a protective emotional shield, living a rather reclusive lifestyle, as she describes it. It was not easy to deflect prejudice and turn negativity around. She admits, “I had to spend a lot of time and energy getting things to go my way. It takes a lot out of you.” But, she adds, “I'm very good at working people.”
Born Naomi Sims on March 30, 1949, in Oxford, MS; daughter of Elizabeth Sims; married Michael Alistair Findlay; children: Pip.
Education: Fashion Institute of Technology; New York University.
Memberships: Board of directors, Harlem Northside Center for Child Development; NAACP; Sickle Cell Anemia Drive; Play Schools Association NY.
Fashion model, 1967-73; Naomi Sims Collection, founder and CEO, 1973-; author: All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman, 1976; How to Be a Top Model, 1979; All About Hair Care for the Black Woman, 1982; All About Success for the Black Woman, 1982; Naomi Sims Beauty Products, founder and chairman, 1985-2009.
Model of the Year Award, 1969, 1970; Women of Achievement, Ladies Home Journal, 1970; New York City Board of Education Award, 1970; Key to Cleveland, 1971; Women of Achievement, American Cancer Society, 1972; International Best Dressed List, 1971-3, 1976, 1977; Modeling Hall of Fame, International Mannequins, 1977.
- All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman, 1976.
- How to Be a Top Model, 1979.
- All About Hair Care for the Black Woman, 1982.
- All About Success for the Black Woman, 1982.
- African American Business Leaders, Greenwood Press, 1994.
- All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman, by Naomi Sims, Doubleday, 1976.
- Black Enterprise, March 1989, p. 42; July 1979, p. 41.
- Fortune, Nov. 9, 1987, p. 162.
- Mademoiselle, August 1974, p. 296.
- New York Times, May 15, 1987, p. A20.