Naomi Sims: Model and entrepreneur who led the way for black women in the fashion industry

A supermodel before the word was invented, Naomi Sims was a trailblazer, author, entrepreneur, and an inspiration to millions of black women who wanted to make it in a predominantly white industry. Natural beauty apart, Sims' key quality was her tenacity. At the tender age of 20 years old she had made history as the first African-American model to feature on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal, in November 1968. The magazine, an American institution, had been in publication for 80 years.

Naomi Sims was born on 30 March 1948 into an impoverished Mississippi family, the third of three daughters. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born and all she knew of her father, apart from his occupation as a porter, was that, "my mother told me he was an absolute bum". Sims and her sisters relocated from the segregated South to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but fate intervened when her mother became ill and the children were placed into foster care.

By the time she was a teenager, Sims faced another hurdle. Tall and gangly – at 13 years old she was 5ft 10in – she became a target of bullying as she towered over her classmates in a predominantly poor white neighbourhood. She often talked of how her troubled childhood became the catalyst for her success. Fired by the Civil Rights movement and by racial barriers being broken, she told herself that she was going to become "someone really important".

Sims secured a scholarship to study textiles and management at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York in 1966. At the time, successful black models frequenting the fashion industry could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Two role models were Dorothea Towles Church, who starred in the Paris Couture shows of the 1950s, and Donyale Luna, Vogue's Model of the Year in 1966. Intelligent and ambitious, Sims always saw beyond the façade of the fashion industry and took night classes in psychology at New York University.

Her academic aspirations, however, were short-lived. When her modelling career gained momentum, she focussed on making commercial capital out of her god-given attributes. Repeatedly turned down by model agencies, with some telling her bluntly that her skin was "too dark", Sims cleverly shifted her focus from agencies to photographers. Eventually, Gosta Peterson, a photographer for The New York Times, agreed to shoot Sims for the cover of its August 1967 fashion supplement. Finding the model agency doors still closed, Sims, showing signs of the business savvy which was to define her life, contacted Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model in the process of starting her own agency. Sims made a pact with Cooper: she would attach Cooper's contact details to the 100 copies of the fashion supplement she was going to send to advertising agencies. It was a win-win situation: Cooper would receive commission if anyone called back.

Her rise was rapid. Within a few days, Sims was on Cooper's books; within a week, she was hired for a national television commercial for AT&T; within a year, she was earning $1,000 per week. By October 1969 Sims achieved the ultimate accolade when she appeared in a starkly beautiful head-and-shoulders shot on the cover of Life magazine, with the words: "Black Models Take Center Stage". According to Audrey Smaltz, editor at Ebony magazine, it was not just in the photographs that she made an indelible impact – in person her presence was palpable. "She would walk into a room and people would come to a stop. They would say, 'Oh my God, look at that person'." American fashion designers agreed: Halston, Giorgio di Sant'Angelo and Bill Blass contracted Sims to show their creations to the fashion world at large.

With phenomenal catwalk and magazine cover success came the inevitable celebrity associations. Soon, Sims was part of the New York crowd that had Andy Warhol at its core and had a host of artists – including Salvador Dali – as acquaintances. In 1972 she was offered the lead role in the Blaxploitation action film Cleopatra Jones, but turned it down for reasons of racism and wrote a scathing letter to the studio outlining her reasons why. Outspoken and unwavering in her principles, by 1973 Sims was both disenchanted with the industry and aware that she was often employed as a token gesture. "If they use you, it's because you're black", she once stated, reflecting that "people have the idea that models are stupid".

She married Michael Alistair Findlay, a Scotsman who owned a New York art gallery, in 1972. Sims knew that she didn't want to be another fashion-model statistic. Spotting a gap in the market, and knowing that she could create coiffures that would capture the customers' imagination, she started a wig-making business with African-American women in mind. Knowing that most were designed for Caucasian hair, Sims decided to formulate her own fibre, and began by baking synthetic strands of hair in her oven at home to achieve the desired effect of straightened black hair. Within five years her company had annual global sales of $5m. Not content with being a business guru, Sims started writing books on beauty for the black market. All about Health and Beauty for the Black Woman, All about Success for the Black Woman and How to be a Top Model sat alongside an advice column for teenage girls in Right On! magazine.

By the early 1980s, the Naomi Sims cosmetic collection had been expanded to include beauty salons and a signature fragrance, "Naomi", which cost $100 an ounce. Proud of owning a company producing prestige cosmetics, she brushed aside comments from feminists who accused her of exploiting female insecurities.

"I am sure I have my share of black female critics and enemies," she told African American Business Leaders. "It doesn't matter. I adore women and I know I am a woman's woman... I would be nowhere if it weren't for black women."

Naomi Sims, model and businesswoman: born Oxford, Mississippi 30 March 1948; married 1972 Michael Findlay (divorced, one son); died Newark, New Jersey 1 August 2009.

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