Naomi Sims, the first black model on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal in November 1968, died over the weekend at the age of 61. Her obituaries reveal a classic American rags-to-riches tale:
According to The New York Times, Sims was born in 1948 in Oxford, Mississippi. She was the third of three daughters, and her parents divorced shortly after she was born. All she knew of her father, she told Ladies' Home Journal, was "that my mother told me he was an absolute bum." Her family moved to Pittsburgh, but when her mother became sick, Sims was placed in foster care. In 1966, she came to New York with a scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. Since she "towered" over her classmates, some encouraged her to try modeling — but, writes Eric Wilson, "every agency she approached turned her down, some telling her that her skin was too dark."
Sims decided to go directly to photographers instead, and landed the cover of the 1967 Fashions of The Times supplement. From there, her career took off, with the LHJ cover, the cover of a 1969 issue of Life and ad campaigns. The country was going through a "Black Is Beautiful" movement, and, according to former fashion model and model agency owner Bethann Hardison, who spoke with WWD: "She was that elegant, beautiful, classic, dark-skinned beauty that we really needed at that time. She came off of the civil rights movement and the theme of ‘Black is beautiful.' She really was the epitome of that and made it so true."
In the mid-1970s, Sims slowed down on modeling and started her own business. She developed wigs, fragrances and cosmetics targeted at African-American women. She wrote several books about modeling, health and beauty. But Naomi Sims will be remembered as a gorgeous and stylish woman who made a big difference in the world of modeling. As we search for diversity on today's magazine covers, we have to remember those who had the courage and persistence to be pioneers. As designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974:
"Naomi was the first… She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers."