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Mississippi Monday: Naomi Sims, The 1st Black Supermodel

Updated: Feb 12

Supermodel. Writer. Innovator. Entrepreneur. Naomi Sims is all of this and so much more. Oxford, Mississippi 1948, Sims was born as the youngest of three daughters to John and Elizabeth Sims.

After moving to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania with her mother and sisters, Sims was placed into foster care where her foster family encouraged her to pursue modeling professionally. These events would shape who she grew into and change the fabric of the fashion industry for Black women as Sims would trailblaze, by breaking down barriers with each step higher on the ladder of success. 

Naomi Sims holding a copy of her book (title not shown).
Naomi Sims holding a copy of one of her books. Corbis.

Sims began her career in 1967, after several attempts to break into the industry, being photographed for The New York Times August 1967 fashion supplement cover by Gösta Peterson. Despite this amazing debut and being a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, Sims struggled to find more work by major fashion houses and agencies due to prejudice for being a dark-skinned Black woman. These obstacles would not deter Sims. 

As all Mississippians know, if you want something done well you have to do it yourself. As she continued to seek work within fashion and beauty, Sims would realize this truth as well.

Naomi Sims took her career into her own hands and approached Wilhelmina Cooper, former model and founder of Wilhelmina Models modeling agency, and proposed that she would be allowed to use the agency to get more bookings and offered a commission on any work she received, essentially positioning herself as one of the agencies top models. Within a year she earned at least $1,000 per week and would appear on a national TV campaign for AT&T. 

Naomi Sims covering Essence October 1974 issue. Essence.
Naomi Sims covering Essence October 1974 issue. Essence.

Her career as the first Black Supermodel impacted movements such as Black Is Beautiful and left a legacy of barrier-breaking innovation for others to follow.

However, Sims had much more to offer the world and her impact on the beauty industry would be far-reaching. Keenly aware of the prejudices within the modeling world Sims has been quoted as saying, “It’s ‘in’ to use me, and maybe some people do it when they don’t really like me. But even if they are prejudiced, they have to be tactful if they want a good picture."

Often relegated to doing her own hair and makeup styling, Sims recognized the lack of products available to Black women and went on to create Kanekalon Pressele, one of the first kanekalon brands to mimic the unique texture of Black hair in 1973 after retiring from the runway. 

Naomi Sims attending Legends Ball. Essence.
Naomi Sims attending Legends Ball. Essence.
"Sims' career catered to Black women... she showed that Black women from all backgrounds could and should be the face of beauty."

Naomi Sims covering Life October 1969 issue. Corbis.
Naomi Sims covering Life October 1969 issue. Corbis.

She would continue creating products specifically for Black women with her beauty brands The Naomi Sims Collection (1973) and Naomi Sims Beauty Products (1985).  

From being the first Black woman to cover Vogue, Ladies' Home Journal, Life, and Cosmopolitan, to building her beauty brands Naomi Sims was truly a force to be reckoned with. Sims’ beauty campaigns and products redefined Black beauty by offering Black women an opportunity to be at the forefront of beauty and fashion trends. Sims' career catered to Black women by elevating herself through working with exclusive clients and brands; she showed that Black women from all backgrounds could and should be the face of beauty.

We honor Sims’ legacy as an iconic figure in fashion and beauty history this Mississippi Monday.

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