From invisibility to superstardom - the faces that altered our ideas of beauty

Not so long ago, fashion editors wouldn't look at anyone with a dark face. Maxine Watson explains how times have changed
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The Independent Online

When I was a child at school in Birmingham a white, blond, blue-eyed schoolmate called Paul looked intently at me and said: "Max, you'd be really pretty if you were white." Then he grinned as if he'd just paid me a huge compliment.

I smile about that childish observation now because, hey, it's the 21st century and black girls rock. They sashay up and down the catwalks of Milan, Paris, London and Rome and grace the pages of glossy magazines. Halle Berry and Iman are international icons. The days when it was unquestioned that all things white were beautiful and all things black were otherwise are thankfully long gone. But it's been a hell of a journey.

In 1947 the Vogue photographer Irving Penn photographed the 12 most successful models of the 1940s. They were all white and defined the standard of beauty that was to dominate the first half of the 20th century. Black women were invisible. Any posing they did was as caricature mammies used to sell pancake mix and corn bread.

While Mary Pickford enthralled audiences, a chorus girl called Freda McDonald dreamed of stardom too. She changed her name to Josephine Baker, built a reputation and by 1923 was making $125 a week - unheard of for a black girl from Missouri.

Against the backdrop of racial segregation in America, an invitation to Paris in 1925 to star in La Revue Nègre, an all-black stage show, was to transform Baker's life and create the world's first black sex symbol and star.But her success was down to her being marketed with racist clichés as the sexy, "savage" black woman. In response, and like many black women of the time, she straightened her hair and bleached her skin.

From the 1930s most black beauty products were about skin lightening. Madam CJ Walker, the daughter of former slaves, created a cosmetics empire aimed at black women. She employed door-to-door agents to sell hair dyes, creams and irons.

But the post-war years saw the rise of popular jazz. Black baseball player Jackie Robinson made it into the major leagues, Little Richard crossed over into the mainstream and black women had the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan to admire.

In 1941 Lena Horne became the first black performer to get a long-term contract with MGM. Although Lena's contract stipulated that she would not play servant roles, her scenes were shot to be easily cut from the movies when they played in the South.

In 1954 Dorothy Dandridge starred with Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones, an all-black musical. She was beautiful and super-sexy and became an icon for young black women.

But while Dandridge gained success, black models fled abroad, frustrated by their limited opportunities. London in the 1960s welcomed "unconventional" looks on its catwalks - and that included black women.

The Supremes became style icons; Nichelle Nichols was thrilling as Uhura in Star Trek; the first black Bond girl was Trina Parks in 1971; the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams in 1983.

In 1997 the photographer Annie Liebowitz recreated that Irving Penn photo, but this time all the beauties were black. Organised by the East African model Iman, the photograph featured Naomi Campbell - the definitive black supermodel of the age. In 2004, Beyoncé is the biggest female solo artist in the world and possessor of a multimillion-dollar contract to model hair for L'Oreal - as a blonde. Now that really would have confused Paul.

Maxine Watson is the executive producer of 'When Black Became Beautiful', BBC2 from 14 March

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