NAOMI RUTH SIMS
During the late 1960s this statuesque beauty broke down racial boundaries after a New York Times photographer decided to take her picture for the paper’s August 1967 fashion supplement. It was because of the NYT spread that Sims was soon dubbed as the first African-American supermodel. Despite this success, Sims decided to retire from modeling to start her own line of hair wigs for black women. She also became a prolific author of several books on modeling and beauty.
Best known as the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in 1974, Beverly Johnson, solidified herself as one of the original pioneers to help pave the way for other black models like Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. It was because of this cover that soon every major American fashion designer began using African-American models. A former champion swimmer, Johnson was always ambitious. In addition to her modeling, Johnson is also the author of Beverly Johnson’s Guide to a Life of Health and Beauty and owner of a popular line of hair wigs and products for African-Americans.
(AP Photo/Dave Pickoff)
Born in Jamaica in 1948, Grace Jones, is best known for influencing the androgynous trend, a look that became extremely popular during the 1980s. The cross-dressing model, with her square-cut hair and shoulder pads, is also an actress. Many of us remember her as Helen Strange, the eccentric supermodel featured in the 1992 Eddie Murphy film, Boomerang. Jones, however, is most notable for being a singer. Jones had secured her first record deal with Island Records by age 30 and it was during this period she became close friends with Andy Warhol, who photographed her extensively. In 2006, Jones was the celebrity runway model for Diesel.
(AP Photo/Paul Hawthorne)
Iman, which means “faith” in Arabic, is an internationally known supermodel. Fluent in five languages—Arabic, English, French, Italian and Somali—the Somalian model and actress is also a highly successful entrepreneur launching business endeavors including IMAN Cosmetics, Skincare & Fragrances. Having studied political science while attending Nairobi University, Iman is passionate about global issues, particularly concerning women and children. The spokesperson for the Keep a Child Alive program, can currently be seen on the Global network as the host of Project Runway Canada.
(AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock)
Born in Detroit in 1965, Veronica Webb was first discovered by a makeup artist on the streets of NYC. Speaking of makeup, Webb became the first African-American supermodel to obtain a major cosmetics contract (Revlon). In 1991, Webb explored her acting chops making her feature film debut in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, which lead to more acting opportunities . Over the years, Webb has also contributed to several magazines and newspapers including Interview, Details, Elle and The New York Times. Recently Webb served as the co-host of Bravo’s first season of Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.
(Sipa via AP Images)
A member of the “big six”, Naomi Campbell established herself as one of the highest paid supermodels during the 1990s. Campbell, who is an English supermodel of Jamaican descent, is the second black model to appear on the cover of Vogue UK. She has befriended and worked with nearly every fashion designer, from Ralph Lauren to Yves St. Laurent. The former ballet dancer has also been featured in several music videos over the years including Bob Marley’s “Is this Love?” and Michael Jackson’s “In the Closet.” When she’s not modeling, Campbell performs charity work focused mainly on Africa.
(AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
With her trademark hair, it would be hard to forget Roshumba, who first became known for her appearance in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue during the 1990s. A successful model in her own right, Roshumba was discovered by fashion designer Yves St. Laurent when she was only a teenager. Roshumba can currently be seen as a judge on the Oxygen Network’s hair-styling competition reality TV series, Tease.
(AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock)
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Tyra Banks is in a league of her own as a successful supermodel, actress, media mogul and business woman. After becoming the first African-American woman to grace the cover of GQ, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and Victoria’s Secret catalog, the now former model devotes her career to TV endeavors including the very popular show America’s Next Top Model, and mentoring young girls on self-esteem.
(AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Born in Ethiopia in 1978, this exotic beauty is not only a humanitarian; she is also the first Ethiopian to represent cosmetic giant Estee Lauder. Liya Kebede’s first big break came when fashion designer Tom Ford asked her to model exclusively for Gucci during its Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. Since then Kebede’s popularity has soared, appearing on the cover of countless fashion magazines including Paris Vogue (the entire issue was dedicated to her). Kebede is also one of few non-white models to ever appear on the cover of American Vogue.
(AP Photo/Marion Curtis, Starpix for Lemlem)
A Sudanese model, Alek Wek first came onto the fashion scene at 18-years-old. Not surprisingly, her unique look caught the eyes of several high-end designers such as John Galliano and Donna Karan. Wek, who possesses an eye for fashion, also designs her own line of handbags called “Wek 1933,” named after her father’s birth year. She is also an active member of the U.S. Committee for Refugees’ Advisory Council which seeks to raise awareness about refugees worldwide and Sudan.
(AP Photo/Stuart Ramson)
Born in George Town in 1983, Selita Ebanks is undoubtedly not only a stunning beauty, but she is well on her way to establishing herself as Victoria’s Secret’s newest “It” girl, just like her predecessor Tyra Banks. Ebanks is best known for her appearances in Victoria’s Secret catalogues and Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. She is set to join the third season of NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice.
(AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock)
Born in Atlanta, but raised in Los Angeles, her name alone is synonymous with fashion. Although a relative newcomer to the modeling world, Chanel Iman, who is half-Korean and African-American, is quickly taking the fashion industry by storm. She has already modeled for top designers such as Dolce & Gabbana, Issey Miyake, Anna Sui, among others. Iman has also been featured in several fashion magazine editorials including Harper’s Bazaar, Allure and Teen Vogue.
(Photo by Scott Gries/PictureGroup)
Touted by Tyra Banks as the “model of her generation,” Jessica White is on the fast track to becoming the next big thing, particularly among African-American models. She has already broken the record as the most featured black model in the history of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. By age 16, White was already walking the runway for top designers such as Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Tommy Hilfiger.
Newcomer Sessilee Lopez, who is half-Dominican, half-Portuguese, began her modeling career in 2004, but it didn’t take long before this beauty began walking runway for top fashion designers such as Fendi, Jean Paul Gaultier and Marc Jacobs among others. Lopez has also appeared in fashion editorials for magazines ranging from Allure, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, including the cover of Italian Vogue’s “All Black” issue.
(AP Photo/Jennifer Graylock)
21 year old Supermodel Jourdan Dunn’s son was recently diagnosed with Sickle Cell Anemia and is gathering more support for the Sickle Cell Society (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
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Never before has the modeling industry looked so diverse, and yet racial disparities remain one of the most hotly debated issues facing the fashion world. Despite this controversy, the modeling industry has made significant progress over the years. This past decade the fashion world saw an influx of South American models (otherwise known as the Brazilian model invasion) which ushered in household named models like Gisele Bundchen and Adriana Lima. But before Gisele and Adriana, there was Iman, Beverly Johnson, and of course, Tyra Banks.
It was these legendary black models and many others who helped break down racial barriers, particularly during the 1960s and 70s, consequently opening doors for women of all colors enabling them to succeed within the cut-throat world of modeling. TheGrio takes a look back at these leading pioneers, as well as a few newcomers trailing in the footsteps of their predecessors. Although these women may stem from different walks of life and different eras, what they have in common is a not only a will to succeed, but a desire to help the less fortunate and a passion for fashion.