Decades before Tyra Banks built a top model empire, there was Naomi Sims. She was well before my time; as a black woman in my twenties, I know a lot more about the other Naomi (Campbell). But the first Naomi, who died on August 1, matters more to me. Yes, she was the first African American model to appear on some important magazine covers. And yes, she was among the first to successfully merge a modeling career with savvy entrepreneurship (her own line of beauty products). But what I’m most grateful for extends beyond her struggles with an industry that still hasn’t figured out how to appreciate African American women. What means the most to me is that Naomi Sims was more than a photo on a cover––she was an inspiration to black women to love our unique beauty and use all of our talents.
Sims was arguably the first black supermodel of an era that was bracketed by the turbulence of Jim Crow and the emergence of the 70s “Black is Beautiful" movement. As evidence of her status, she became the first black model to appear on the cover of Ladies Home Journal magazine in November 1968––a significant first for a mainstream women’s publication. More covers soon followed, including Life, McCall’s and Cosmopolitan. Despite her success, Sims grew disillusioned with the business, once commenting on the trend for exotic black models by saying, “If they use you, it’s because you’re black.” She reinvented herself as an entrepreneur, creating a black beauty empire that included wigs, hair care remedies, cosmetics, fragrances and even holistic products.
As a black teenage girl in the Midwest, I was a major magazine fan. In fact, if I wandered off while grocery-shopping with my mother, she always knew where to find me—buried in the magazine aisle. But despite my magazine mania, I couldn’t help noticing how few brown-skinned girls like me ever graced the pages, much less the covers. One I do recall was an issue of YM that featured the then-mega pop group The Spice Girls—and one of them, Melanie Brown, was black. The only other black models I can vaguely recall from my tween and teen years were nameless girls who’d appear beside white models in group shots.
Flash forward to the present. Black cover models are still a rarity but the spirit of Naomi Sims lives on. While Tyra, like Naomi, became famous for her covers (in 1997 she was the first black solo cover model of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue), she has also followed Sims by turning that career into a much bigger one, in her case as a TV entrepreneur. Because of what Naomi Sims started, all of us now know that black is brainy and beautiful––yesterday, today and tomorrow.