Grand dame, great beauty and pioneer in the fashion industry Naomi Sims has died of cancer. She was 61 years old.
"Naomi Sims was an incredible role model – a trailblazer who helped to define black beauty and open the doors for all of the African American models we see today -- and a savvy businesswoman," a shaken Beverly Johnson told Black Voices. "Mostly, she was a friend and someone I greatly admired. We lost a truly dynamic woman."
Sims was born in Oxford, Miss., on March 30, 1948. An awkward teen -- 5-foot-10 by the time she was 13 -- Sims and her family left the segregated South and moved to Pittsburgh, where she completed high school.
Sim's mother took ill, and the gangly teen and her two sisters were placed in foster care. After graduation, the ambitious beauty moved to New York City to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Because of financial constraints, Sims left school and began modeling in the big city. She broke through at the age of 18 when she appeared on the cover of Ladies Home Journal. She was the magazine's first African American cover model. In 1969, Sims appeared on a simple yet striking cover of Life magazine.
Sims went on to dominate the modeling world during the late '60s and early '70s, appearing in ad campaigns and on catwalks for top designers such as Halston and Giorgio di Sant'Angelo. She ran in glamorous sets, befriending the likes of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
In 1973, after six years as a top model, Sims officially retired to create a successful wig collection, Metropa Company. Three years later, she launched the Naomi Sims Collection, a beauty line that included makeup, hair and fragrance products targeted to African American women, who were woefully underserved in the beauty industry.
Dabbling in the acting world, Sims was offered but ultimately turned down the role of Cleopatra Jones (made famous by Tamara Dobson) because of its racist portrayal of blacks. According to her Web site, she also wrote a "scathing letter to the studio" denouncing the blaxploitation film.
"Naomi Sims gave me a true understanding of a 'black gazelle' who had enormous class, grace, personality and style," model Bethann Hardison told BV. "Her dark skin gave me hope as a young model who was dark skinned. Naomi was part of all our stylish eras and an inspiration to designers and other creative energies. May she rest in peace."
Sims, dubbed the "first black supermodel,' is largely credited with opening the doors for African American models such as Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Bethann Hardison and Beverly Johnson, especially in the 1970s.
"Naomi Sims is my predecessor, and she's just a tremendous lady and great beauty," says Johnson, who also started a successful wig line. "They did an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York -- her photograph is displayed and mine. They did it for every decade."
Sims, known for her commanding and regal presence, wrote several books on modeling, health and beauty, including 'All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman,' 'How to Be a Top Model' and 'All About Success for the Black Woman.'
Sims, who died in Newark, N.J., is survived by sister Betty Sims, son Bob Findlay, and a granddaughter.
In light of a recent furor over the lack of black models on the runways in the U.S. and Europe, Black Voices honors the black supermodels of yesteryear. It's not a stretch to say that the following group of ladies (and one gent!) are some of the fiercest models to ever work the runway or pose for a photographer. Where are they now?
Before Naomi there was Naomi Sims who entered the fashion world in 1967. With her brown skin, gorgeous face and memorable walk, Sims quickly rose the ranks, appearing on the cover of Life magazine in 1969. She's often referred to as the first black supermodel.
Yale Joel, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images
Although she had the potential for a long career, Sims gave up modeling to start her own wig business at the age of 24. Since then, Sims has written several books about beauty, modeling and success and launched her own cosmetics line, the Naomi Sims Collection. She died of cancer at the age of 61 in 2009.
Katy Winn, Corbis
In 1986, Kimora Lee Perkins's mother enrolled her uncommonly tall 11-year-old in modeling classes to boost her self-esteem. Just two years later, the girl we now know as Kimora Lee Simmons signed an exclusive modeling contract with Chanel in Paris becoming Karl Lagerfeld's muse by the age of 13.
Evan Agostini, Getty Images
After marrying hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, Kimora got out of modeling and into the design business, taking over as head of Baby Phat. Divorced from Simmons, with whom she has two daughters, Kimora now runs Baby Phat and the KLS collection, in addition to starring in a reality show and writing books. She recently had a baby boy with Oscar-nominated actor Djimon Hounsou.
Ray Tamarra, Getty
Veronica Webb was just a 20-year-old design student when she was "discovered" on the streets of New York City in 1985. The Detroit-native soon became a fixture in magazines and on the runway, making history by becoming the first African American model to sign an exclusive cosmetics contract (Revlon).
Kevin Hatt, Corbis
Officially retired from the runway, Webb has seamlessly transitioned from fashion to the worlds of television, movies and book publishing. Most recently, Webb co-hosted the first season of Bravo's 'Tim Gunn's Guide to Style.' She lives in the Florida Keys with her husband and two daughters.
Beverly Johnson, a champion-swimmer-turned-supermodel, is said to have graced more than 500 magazine covers in her long and storied career. The most famous cover of all? Her history-making 1974 Vogue cover. She was the first black woman to grace the cover of the American version of the magazine. She has said that by the age of 23, she was making more than $100,000 a year modeling.
Dirck Halstead, Getty Images
Beverly Johnson, now a youthful fifty-something, has completely conquered the hair biz with her extremely successful wig line. She's also the co-host of TV Land's 'She's Got the Look,' a modeling competition show for women 40 and older.
Matt Sayles, AP
While there is a laundry list of supermodels who have ruled the scene since the '60s, there are only a handful of male models -- of any race -- who can actually claim "super" status. Tyson Beckford is one of them. In 1991, at the age of 21, the New York-native got his modeling break when an editor from The Source spotted the looker at a NYC park. From there, Beckford went on to be the spokesmodel for Ralph Lauren Polo. The rest is history...
Jordan Smith, Corbis
No longer a mainstay in magazines or on the runway, Tyson is staying relevant in the fashion world through his hosting gig on Bravo's 'Make Me A Supermodel.'
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