Naomi Sims, among first black models, dies at 61

NEW YORK — Naomi Sims, whose 1968 Ladies’ Home Journal cover shot was a breakthrough for black fashion models, has died. She was 61.

Sims, said by some to be the first black supermodel, died Saturday of cancer in Newark, N.J., her son Bob Findlay told The New York Times. It had been decades since she left the runway to become an author and launch her own beauty empire.

Sims attained success at the same time that the “Black is Beautiful” movement was taking hold, and her accomplishments as a barrier-breaking African-American model helped pave the way for the black runway stars of the 1970s, including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Beverly Johnson.

Sims often spoke of her difficult start — as a gangly foster-care kid in Pittsburgh who towered over the other children in her school. In 1966, she came to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology on scholarship.

When she began approaching modeling agencies, she was turned down again and again — with some telling her that her skin was too dark. Instead of giving up, she pushed forward and approached photographers directly.

The approach landed her the cover of the Times’ August 1967 fashion supplement. She used that photo to market herself directly to advertising agencies, and within a year she was earning $1,000 a week and appearing in a national television campaign for AT&T. Before long, she was modeling for top designers.

Sims gave up modeling after five years and launched her own wig-making business geared toward black women. She eventually expanded the multimillion-dollar business to include beauty salons and cosmetics, and she wrote “All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman” and other books.

Sims was born in Oxford, Miss., in 1948. Her parents divorced soon after she was born and her mother moved Sims and her two sisters to Pittsburgh.

Besides her son, Sims is survived by a sister, Betty, and a granddaughter.

The Associated Press