Models like Adrienne Fidelin, Dorothea Towles Church and Donyale Luna may have paved the way, but Halston called her the first black supermodel. She posed with Andy Warhol for an iconic cover of Interview in 1972 and was the first female model of African descent featured on the covers of Ladies Home Journal in November 1968 and Life in 1969. She broke the color barrier at mainstream women’s magazines and went on to grace the covers of Cosmopolitan and McCall’s while she was featured in the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She personified perseverance and her role in fashion opened doors for the legendary African-American models to come.
Naomi Ruth Sims was born on March 30, 1948, in Oxford, Mississippi, to John and Elizabeth Sims. She was the youngest of three daughters. She endured a tumultuous childhood in which her parents divorced shortly after she was born, her mother became ill, she was placed in foster care, and she endured living in neighborhoods consumed with immense poverty. Peeking at her statuesque height of 5’10 during early adolescent, Sims garnered a tremendous amount of taunting from classmates. She stated that her childhood experiences were the driving force behind her fortitude to succeed. Sims remained close to her sisters throughout her unstable upbringing and later followed her sister, Betty, to New York. Her modeling career began in the mid 1960s when she needed to find a way to financially support her studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The major modeling agencies were less than enthused by Sims’ look, often calling her skin “too dark.” After being turned down by numerous agencies, she decided to take matters into her own hands by approaching photographers herself. Gosta Peterson was the first to capture her, placing her on the cover of The New York Times Magazine entitled “Fashions of the Times” in 1967. Determined to find representation, Sims told Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model turned agent, she would send out copies of “Fashions of the Times” with Cooper’s contact information offering her commission if anyone called back. Her ambitious nature made her among the first to be represented by Wilhelmina Models. Suddenly, she was in high demand by such designers as Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez and Bill Blass, and was also hired for national television and print advertising campaigns. As her rise to fame took place during the 1960s, a pivotal time filled with changing views towards race and politics, she became an icon of the “Black is Beautiful” movement. After five years, Sims quit modeling in 1973, disheartened by the industry’s incessant racial stereotyping; becoming a businesswoman and writer focusing on the subjects of health and beauty. Although the presence of woman of African descent in fashion was still very limited, her presence confronted Western society’s perception on how to view women of color.
She was exceptionally prolific because while beauty barriers were traditionally broken by women of lighter skin including Josephine Baker, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, she was the first darker skinned African-American woman to enjoy such mainstream success. While at a time other models of African descent were working alongside Sims, she was the one to have the most profound impact. Her revolutionary role in fashion extended beyond the industry’s own walls, altering the ways in which black Americans were viewed in visual and popular culture. She helped illustrate the beauty of all skin colors. Sims’ ground-breaking imagery was recently given recognition when two photographs of her were featured in the The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion, a New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition on iconic models of the 20th century — one from the career starting “Fashions of the Times” and the other from a 1969 issue of Life. Sims was a luminary in an industry that was just beginning to accept racial difference in a world that was struggling to accept it as well.
Her career in the modeling industry was short-lived, yet undoubtedly remarkable. Sims’ contoured face with its chiseled cheekbones, captivating eyes, svelte and exquisite form, striking uniqueness, and smooth yet darker complexion permeated the exclusionary world of fashion and its periodicals, challenging how America defined the standards of beauty. In the words of Halston, “When she put on a garment, something just marvelous happened… Naomi was the first… She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”