A lusty wolf whistle pierces the air as Naomi Sims strides down the street, leggy, carefree, sensuous -- enough to sizzle the sidewalks on a cold day.
Dozens of male faces press against office windows to watch the winter wind whip open her white mink coat and reveal a sheer, silky and short slip-dress. A bug-eyed passer-by stops dead in his tracks, gaping.
But the former top-model-turned-business-executive seems oblivious to the uproar she is creating. A consummate professional, she concentrates only on the photographer as she flashes through a variety of poses: haughty princess, fun-loving party-girl, wholesome earth-mother.
Sims' life mirrors this diversity of roles -- businesswoman, writer, wife, mother, lecturer, designer. But when the camera stops clicking, just one of these roles is foremost in her mind.
"My son just celebrated his fifth birthday," she says, as she glides into a restaurant for a cup of coffee. "He's wonderful, and I miss him. This (three-day tour) is the longest I've ever been away from him.
"My husband's with him and they're marvelous together, so I feel really free." A pause. "Sure I get occasional guilt twinges. But it's like I told him a few years ago when he asked me 'Mommy, why do you work?'
"I said 'Mommy loves black women and all women very, very much. Work gives me a lot of gratification and satisfaction. It makes me happy. And if I'm not happy, I can't come back and make you happy.'"
At age 30, Sims has reason to be happy. She heads her own successful beauty products company, has written two best-selling books, is launching a new "Naomi" perfume line and talks adoringly of her son John Phillip and husband, writer and businessman Michael Findlay.
"Everything I tough," she shrugs, "turns to gold."
Life wasn't always golden, admits Sims, who calls her Pittsburgh childhood as the daughter of a steelworker and a nurse's aid/seamstress "troubled." Her parents separated when she was small, and Sims lived with her "clothes-conscious" mother until the age of 9, when, because of her mother's poor health, Sims was moved to a foster home.
"When I was young," she says, "black was not beautiful." And as the only black child in an all-white grade school, Sims took special pains to be the best dressed, as she points out in "How To Be a Top Model" (Doubleday, 342 pages, $12.95).
"Ridiculed by my classmates and adored by my teachers, I made no attempt to make friends. Rather my interest in clothes grew and grew. By the time I was 8 I had to have a different outfit for every day of school, and, of course, a very special dress for Sunday mass."
At age 10 Sims developed a "scientific approach to clothes-buying," which she still uses today ("although then it was a semiannual rather than monthly event and my budget was considerably less").
She planned "to the last penny and button what I would wear every day in the months ahead . . . I revolved outfits, mixed and matched and switched accessories so that every day would be different, and every day my clothes were fresh and clean."
At age 18, while she was working her way through college as a fashion illustrator's model, Sims was spotted by a photographer's representative on a New York street and soon after skyrocketed to fame.
In the late '60s she became the first black model to appear on the covers of such fashion bibles as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and was named model of the year in 1969. Her runway stride -- more like a dance -- was copied by other models and has become a standard in live fashion shows.
"Black people have for years been fashion leaders," notes Sims. "Look at (the movie) '10' -- she's wearing cornrows as Africans have done throughout the years. Jacqueline Onassis' wedding gown was designed by a black woman (Ann Lowe, formerly of Clayton, Ala.). Makeup was invented by the Egyptians.
"Whatever the well-dressed young child or black man in Harlem is wearing is immediately seized by the fashion industry, but they are never given credit. iI've always worn black designers' clothes and white designers have copied them."
Sims retired from modeling in 1973 to devote more time to her family, writing and business interests. "Modeling was never my ultimate goal," she stresses. "Since I was 14 I wanted to manufacture beauty products."
She launched her first business venture, the Naomi Sims Collection of wigs, after she discovered that black women represented about 40 percent of the wig-purchasing market.
"But none of the wigs on the market looked like black hair," she recalls. "I bought several Caucasian-type, silky-haired wigs, wet them with setting lotion, rolled them with steel rollers and put them in the oven.
"I baked them at about 175 degrees for about 15 minutes and when they came out they looked like black straightened hair." She took her discovery to a wig manufacturer. The result: the synthetic fiber Kanekalon Presselle and the founding of Sims' own beauty-products company.
Some problems, admits Sims, have accompanied her success. "The idea of a very successful black woman scares people. They want to impose upon me their anxieties, insecurities, love, hate . . . and that makes me uncomfortable."
As a result, Sims tends to be a home-body, refusing party invitations in favor of quiet evenings with her family. "The most unhappy people in New York," she says, "are those without a family.
"No one ever told me that motherhood is such a hard job," she adds. To give her more time with her son, she works out of her Manhattan apartment (where she employs a housekeeper, cook and babysitter).
"My staff comes to me, and I go to the office once every two months or so."
Despite her many accomplishments, Sims insists she's no superwoman. "There's no such thing," she says. "Motherhood has taught me that you can't be perfect.
"Right now I'm mistress of my own destiny.I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but I've been handed a gold one. And I feel very blessed."