When I was a kid growing up in Harlem, everyone knew who
Naomi Sims was. She was what many young Black girls wanted
to be like and what many Black women wanted to look like. But few
really knew the obstacles she had to face to rise to the top of the
modeling world. Keep in mind that Black people have always set
fashion trends that are imitated globally. According to Target
Marketing News, Black Americans in 2008 spent over
$40 billion on fashion.
Sims, 61, who died of cancer on Saturday, was the first African-American fashion model on the of cover many fashion magazines in the 1960s. She is credited with opening the door for other black models and many in the fashion world consider her the first black supermodel.
It didn't come easy. She didn't know her father, grew up poor and ostracized in Pittsburgh, including time in foster homes. After attending the Fashion Institute of Technology on scholarship, she was rejected numerous times by modeling agencies who thought she was too dark.
Sims persisted and reached out directly to fashion photographers, which is how she landed her first magazine cover. Her achievement was the natural culmination of the Civil Rights era that sought inclusion and representation for people of color in all areas of public life.
After she left the catwalk, Sims went on to write and build a cosmetic and wig business geared toward the specific needs of black women. In recent years she lived in Newark.
What Sims accomplished is no small thing. For better or worse, women of all ages receive subtle and not-so-subtle messages about beauty and self-worth in the pages of fashion magazines. Naomi Sims' persistence gave us all a better reflection of what beauty is all about.