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c. 1969

African-American model pioneers

Prior to 1945, black people simply did not appear in U.S. advertisements at all, beyond cartoon racist stereotypes

This set of pictures were part of a cover feature in LIFE magazine under the title ‘Black Models take Center Stage’. And the ramifications of that cover continue to be felt today.

The article centered on the modeling agency ‘Black Beauty’, formed in Spring 1968, and at the time, the fastest-growing black modeling agency in the US.

By the end of 1969, it represented 45 women, 25 men and 21 children. (The original article listed the women as ‘girls’…)

Prior to 1945, black people simply did not appear in U.S. advertisements at all, beyond cartoon racist stereotypes. This changed with the arrival of the magazine Ebony.

In 1947, the first national campaign to feature a black person saw boxer Joe Louis endorsing Chesterfield cigarettes. The first black modeling agency also appeared in the 1940s — but the fees paid were about half those earned by white models.

Even by 1969, less than 10% of adverts showed any black people. The Black Beauty agency was then led by an ex — and white — model called Betty Foray, who told LIFE magazine unequivocally that her goal was to hurry the day when skin color simply didn’t matter.

One person on the Black Beauty books — and the cover star for the LIFE piece — was Naomi Sims, a woman often regarded as the world’s first black supermodel.

As a thirteen-year-old, Naomi had been ostracized by her classmates — for her height. She was 5′ 10″.

Sims was the first black model on the cover of LIFE. But she would retire from modeling in 1973, disillusioned by the industry and what felt like tokenistic racial equality. As she said “If they use you, it’s because you’re black.”

Sims didn’t look back, though, writing many books, and establishing a multi-million dollar beauty business.

She died in 2009 from breast cancer, at the age of 61. The impact she made, however, continues.

1969
African-American model Tamara Dobson
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
Naomi Sims on the streets of New York.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
African-American model Elizabeth of Toro, daughter of king in Uganda working as a model in New York City and posing in her apartment on Sutton Place.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
Models represented by Black Beauty
1969
The portrait of Naomi Sims that appeared on the cover of the October 17, 1969 issue of LIFE magazine.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
Naomi Sims wearing a pant suit and carrying a Louis Vuitton shoulder bag. New York.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
African American model Charlene Dash preparing for a commercial shoot.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
An unidentified African-American model from Black Beauty modeling agency leaping in the air while wearing a red pant suit and high heels.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
The offices of Black Beauty, with Betty Foray at her desk.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images
1969
Model Gloria O, Smith, the 1969 Miss Black America contest winner, New York, 1969.
Yale Joel / Time / LIFE / Getty Images

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