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Trailblazers: Black Models that Changed the Fashion Industry (Part 1)

African American supermodels

African American Supermodels: Naomi Sims, Donyale Luna, and Pat Cleveland

Growing up, sometimes our greatest challenge is learning how to embrace who we are when we feel rejected by the world around us because  we are told we are different, and being different is not good.  What I love about each one of the women profiled is they too were labeled different in a negative way, but their being different was what made them famous.  Growing up each one felt akward and unbeautiful but eventually their “difference” helped them rise to coveted spots as top models.  They made a profound impact in changing the world’s image of beauty to begin to include black women whose beauty had been ignored.

As a young black girl growing up these women were my glimmer of hope because I also looked different and was not considered to be beautiful by my school peers.  For me, this became an opportunity to define myself by what I think not what others thought about me, but it was difficult to do.  Now, I find myself struggling with this same issue with my middle school age child because he has been demeaned different.  When is this even going to end?


These trailblazing women changed the image of what is beautiful forever and made history in the process.  Their beauty was so striking, it could not be ignored or rejected.   I hope hearing about them inspires you to embrace completely who you are and stand in your differences no matter what until your world understands your difference is good.  Love.


Dorothea Towles Church

From the streets of Texarkana, Texas to the runways of Paris, France Dorothea Towles Church became the first successful black model in Paris.  She ignited the runways at the top couture houses of Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli, Pierre Balmain and others in the 1950’s. Dorothea discovered personal liberation on those runways and worked in Paris for five years opening doors for black models.  Then upon returning to the US she became the first black Maybelline model and appeared in advertising in Ebony Magazine.

Dorothea was the seventh of eight children in a farming family. She studied biology at Wiley College in Marshall, Tex., and planned to go into medicine, but when her mother died, she moved to Los Angeles to live with family and eventually completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Southern California.   Dorothea’s modeling career began when she accompanied her sister on a Fisk University European music tour and had the opportunity to replace a vacationing model for Christian Dior.   The rest was history.

Dorthea Towles Jet magzine coverDorthea Towles – Model Pioneer of the 1950’s


Dorthea Towles Ebony cover 1960“For once I was not considered black, African American or Negro. I was just an American.”

The French fashion establishment “treated you like a queen,” she said in a Women’s Wear Daily article.

Dorothea Towles face shotDorothea Towles Church was born on July 26, 1922.  She died July 7, 2006

Donyale Luna

Born in Detroit in 1946 Peggy Ann Freeman had a hard time fitting in because she was different.  So by high school she had reinvented herself into Donyale Luna, her alter ego and fully embraced her differentness.  Eventually, so did the fashion world in Europe and a new fashion star was born.

Donyale was discovered on the streets of Detroit by photographer David McCabe.  She moved to New York to pursue a modeling career.  In January 1965, a sketch of Donyale appeard on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.  Following that she became the first black model to appear on the cover of a Vogue magazine (British Vogue in March 1966).  She  was under exclusive contract with noted fashion photographer Richard Avedon for a year at the beginning of her career.  By the end of 1966, Time magazine had pronounced Donyale “unquestionably the hottest model in Europe.”

Unfortunately, she lived too much of the hype and became a drug user.  Donyale died of a heroin overdose in 1979.  Remember the movie, Mahogany with Diana Ross?  Well, it’s based loosely on Donyale Luna.

Donyale Luna model by Charlotte March's shoot for Twen magazine 1966Donyale Luna – American born European Model Sensation of the 1960’s

 DONYALE-LUNA Vogue cover 1966Donyale Luna was the first African American model to appear on the cover of British Vogue


Donyale Luna model 1960s

Donyale-Luna full bodyLuna’s sister described her as being “a very weird child, even from birth, living in a wonderland, a dream”.


Naomi Ruth Sims

Naomi Sims was an American model and business woman.  She was the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Ladies Home Journal, and is considered to be the first African-American Supermodel.  Naomi Sims was also the first black model to be on the cover of Life magazine in 1967.

Naomi Sims was born in Oxford, MS  in 1948 but grew up in Pittsburgh when her mother moved there with her sisters.  Her family experienced hard times and her mother had to give her children up to be raised by a foster family.   Naomi won a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology and was discovered when she moved to NY to attend college.   All the modeling agencies told her she couldn’t  be a model because her skin was too dark.  But ultimately, she got a break when she was hired directly by fashion photographer, Gosha Peterson  from the New York Times who photographed her for the cover of the fashion supplement Fashion Of The Times Sunday supplement in 1967.  That supplement launched Naomi’s career!

After retiring from modeling, Sims became a business woman and author starting her own successful wig line and cosmetics company for women of color and writing books on beauty, modeling and health.  Naomi Sims, the trailblazing beauty died of breast cancer on August 1, 2009.

Naomi Sims 1st supermodelNaomi Sims was born March 30, 1948. She died on August 1, 2009.

Naomi Sims is considered by many fashion authorities as the first African American Supermodel

Naomi SIms by Chris Von WangenheimNaomi Sims by photographer Chris Von Wangeheim

Naomi Sims 1960sNaomi in Indian inspired bohemian chic.

Naomi-Sims fashion pose

Naomi did not have an easy childhood.  She was teased for being 5’10 at the age 13, her mother was forced to give up her children to foster care and because of her height, she was ostracized by many of her classmates.  Naomi credited her Catholic upbringing to getting through those difficult years of adolescences.

Naomi-Sims-by Stan ShafferNaomi Sims developed into quite a unique beauty.

Naomi seen through the lense of photographer Stan Shaffer.

I hope you have enjoyed this trip down beauty history to remember trailblazing women that helped shape the image of our beauty to the world.  Come back for part 2.  It will be just as beautiful.  In the meantime – Embrace the beauty that exist in your being different.