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Cleo Johnson, founder of nation's first black-owned modeling school, dies at 88

By Lauren Wiseman
Monday, March 21, 2011; 6:00 PM

Cleo Johnson, a Chicago model who founded the nation's first black-owned modeling and charm school, which helped students gain self-confidence to improve their opportunities in life, died March 8 at her Chicago home. She was 88. Her death was reported by the Chicago Tribune, but the cause was not disclosed.

Mrs. Johnson taught modeling for 50 years and emphasized the three components of her signature motto, PPC: poise, personality and charm.

"If you try, if you believe in yourself, the color of your skin doesn't mean a thing," Mrs. Johnson told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. "Your knowledge, your abilities and what you feel about yourself - that's what's important. And that's more important than any turn or walk I teach my models."

Her definition of a model was not a man or woman strutting down a runway but rather someone worthy of being imitated or followed.

"Modeling and beauty are really my life," she said. "But what I stress most is self-esteem. Self-motivation. I want [the models] to believe in themselves."

In addition to aspiring fashion models, ministers, business owners and journalists took Mrs. Johnson's classes. Some of her notable students included actress Sherri "Peaches" Brewer, who appeared in the movie "Shaft," former U.S. representative Cardiss Collins (D-Ill.) and soul singer Minnie Riperton.

"Minnie Riperton was sent here by the record company," Mrs. Johnson said in a 2005 interview with ABC News. "They said, 'We have a girl we want to send to you for you to get together, because she's just a hippie.' "

Cleo Johnson's School of Charm and Modeling Agency opened in 1956 in the basement of her South Side Chicago home with a homemade six-foot ramp flanked by a six-foot mirror. Her first students were three of her neighbor's children and two of her nieces.

Her popularity grew, and the school moved twice before closing in 2007.

Mrs. Johnson was born in Louin, Miss., to a poor family, and her interest in fashion began at age 4. Because she did not have any dolls, she draped used fabric around discarded soda cans. She moved to Chicago in the 1940s and in 1947 married Willie Johnson, who predeceased her.

Mrs. Johnson attended a dressmaking school, but after she had difficulty sewing a blouse, she turned to modeling. At the time, there was little interest in black models.

"I wanted to be so many things," she said. "I wanted to be a designer, I wanted to be a nurse. And people kept saying to me, 'You can't do that because you're black.' I got tired of that. I got tired of those words: 'because you're black.' "

After attending modeling school, she was a runway model in the early 1950s for stores including Lane Bryant. She appeared in advertisements in Ebony and other national magazines and modeled for Lucky Heart Cosmetics.

In the early 1960s, the Merchandise Mart, a retail and wholesale shopping center in Chicago, proposed that Mrs. Johnson open a chain of beauty salons. She turned down the lucrative offer when she realized that she would have had to close her modeling school.

"If a little black child comes to my door, and wants charm, and needs charm and doesn't have one cent, I am going to bring her in and give it to her," she told the Chicago Tribune of her encounter with Merchandise Mart executives. " 'What you're asking me to do is cater to the rich. But that's not me,' I said. 'I have a goal in mind, and I am going to stick to it.' "

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