Naomi Sims, 61, Dies; Model a Vanguard of 'Black Is Beauty'

Naomi Sims, a black model who became a successful entrepreneur, once told The Washington Post that
Naomi Sims, a black model who became a successful entrepreneur, once told The Washington Post that "my ultimate goal was never to be only a model." (1973 Photo)
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By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Naomi Sims, 61, a black fashion model whose landmark appearances on the covers of major American magazines in the late 1960s were regarded as mainstream endorsements of the idea that "black is beautiful," died Aug. 1 in Newark, N.J. She had breast cancer.

Sometimes described as the first black supermodel, Ms. Sims was also an entrepreneur. She owned and operated a multimillion-dollar cosmetics and hair care business, called the Naomi Sims Collection, specifically designed for black women, and was singled out by the Harvard Business School and Oprah Winfrey as a skilled entrepreneur.

At a time of heightened consciousness of racial issues in the United States, Ms. Sims drew widespread attention in the late 1960s for her appearance on the covers of the Ladies' Home Journal, Vogue and Life magazines and a New York Times fashion magazine.

It was not only that she was among the first black women to appear so prominently in a magazine such as Ladies' Home Journal, which was recognized as a bastion of middle class culture. It was also that the shade of her skin -- dark brown, rather than tan or coffee-colored -- suggested a tacit but powerful acceptance of the idea of Black Pride.

Her work was often credited with making the 1970s a particularly favorable period for black models, including such runway stars as Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Beverly Johnson.

Naomi Ruth Sims was born March 30, 1948, in Oxford, Miss. Her parents divorced soon after her birth, and she grew up in Pittsburgh with her mother and two sisters. By age 13, she had attained her full height of 5 feet 10 inches. Later, that stature would contribute to her allure, helping her offer what was characterized as elegance and regality.

But as a teenager, it seemed only to accentuate the differences between her and many of her peers. "Black wasn't beautiful then," she told a magazine writer. "The darker your skin, the less good-looking you were considered. And I was too tall, and too skinny."

In her late teens, she joined a sister in New York and studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology, helping to support herself by posing for fashion illustrators. As a next step, she took it upon herself to phone a well-known photographer, a move that resulted in her appearance on the Times cover.

Even then, however, the doors of the major New York modeling agencies did not swing open to her. So, she took another bold step, as told in biographies, that illustrated her shrewd business sense.

She made a suggestion to Wilhelmina Cooper, as Cooper, once a top model herself, was opening an agency. The proposal was this: Send out copies of the Times layout, together with Cooper's phone number, to 100 advertising agencies. The plan would cost Cooper nothing, and every ad agency response would mean a commission.

Responses flooded in, and within weeks it was difficult to open a fashion magazine or stare at a fashion runway without seeing Ms. Sims staring back.

One of the first designers to bid for her services was Halston. "When she put on a garment, something just marvelous happened," Black Enterprise magazine quoted him. The Kansas City Star took note of her trademark walk, describing serpentine movements that were "beautiful to watch and as subtly controlled as a dancer's."

She married Michael Alistair Findlay, at a ceremony at which Dr. Kenneth Clark, the noted psychologist, gave her away. She and Findlay, from whom she was divorced, had a son, who survives along with a sister and a granddaughter. The marriage took place in 1973, her last year of modeling and one in which she appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan.

A few years later she told The Washington Post, "my ultimate goal was never to be only a model."

This explained her shift into the cosmetics, skin and wig business, and to authorship. Her first book was a compendium of health and beauty tips. It appeared in 1976 and was followed by three others, on modeling, on hair care and on success.

Staff writer Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.

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