Over the next two weeks, ESSENCE will present TWENTY—three digital exhibits I curated celebrating excellence in the worlds of acting, art, and fashion. These galleries tell the stories of people of color who have stepped out on faith and paved the way for the next generations of artists and creators. I believe it is only by acknowledging our triumphs that we see what is possible and dream of what is next. Success acts as an inspiration that propels us forward.
In my bestselling book, Supreme Models: Iconic Black Women Who Revolutionized Fashion, I propose that Black models are the precursors to societal change. Each time a model of color breaks through, she redefines the standards of beauty. Everyone knows Iman, Naomi, and Tyra, but what about activist Bethann Hardison, trailblazer Helen Williams, and forever muse Karen Alexander? Or the new “It Girls” Adut Akech, Imaan Hammam, and Dilone who are setting international runways and the pages of top fashion magazines on fire with their modern multicultural beauty. I want to introduce you to TWENTY MODELS YOU SHOULD KNOW.
TWENTY LEGENDARY ACTRESSES is a group of women whose work continues to redefine the worlds of cinema, television, and theater. It’s not about who is the best. We’ll leave that to the Academy Awards, the Emmys, and the Tonys. It’s about the lasting impact of these women. This list of icons like Josephine Baker, Dorothy Dandridge, and Cicely Tyson, as well as young legends Halle Berry, Viola Davis, and Regina King, are women who made an indelible impact on the world through their talent and by using their voices to enact social change.
And finally, with temperatures dropping, the ongoing need for social distancing, and the holidays fast approaching, I will present the chicest list of books ever! 20 MUST OWN ART BOOKS FROM A – Z lists books that celebrate every area of excellence within the Black diaspora. From visual celebrations of the lives and work of celebrities Pharrell Williams and Rihanna to a celebration of Black style in Brown Bohemians and Dandy Lion. From the work of legendary photographers like Kwame Brathwaite, Gordon Parks, and Kehinde Wiley and beautiful representations of Black people in art and fashion in Supreme Models, The New Black Vanguard to Ebony: Covering Black America. These books celebrate the beauty and diversity that is the Black race. They are the gifts that keep on giving!
I couldn’t be more thrilled to contribute these lists of my favorite things to a magazine as historic as ESSENCE. As a child, I read my mother’s ESSENCE magazines from cover to cover, breathing in the beauty and wonder of the Black experience. I found inspiration in the pages of ESSENCE. I hope these galleries do that for a new generation of readers also.
See below for my second curated digital exhibit:
TWENTY LEGENDARY ACTRESSES
With three Academy Award nominations, five Golden Globe nominations, five Primetime Emmy Award nominations, three BAFTA Award nominations, and six Screen Actors Guild nominations, Viola Davis is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. In 2017, the Emmy and Golden Globe winner won her first Academy Award for her portrayal of Rose in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences.
Since her debut as the good girl next door Brenda Jenkins on the hit television show 227, Regina King has dazzled us with performance after performance grounded by authenticity and humanity. Few other actresses are as successful in both film and television. On the small screen, King has delivered Emmy Award-winning performances in American Crime and The Watchmen. King, an actress of exceptional range, moves effortlessly from contemporary roles in hit movies like Boyz n the Hood and Jerry Maguire to period pieces like Ray and If Beale Street Could Talk, for which she won the 2019 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award.
Actress, activist, and humanitarian Cicely Tyson is a national treasure. During her seven-decade career, Ms. Tyson has delivered unforgettable performances resulting in three Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, and an Honorary Academy Award. From her Golden Globe and Oscar-nominated performance in Sounder to her double Emmy Award-winning performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to her five-time Emmy Award-nominated performance in How to Get Away With Murder, Ms. Tyson is one of the most lauded actresses in film and television history.
During her career on the stage and screen, Diahann Carroll never shied away from controversial roles. In her Tony Award-winning portrayal of a model in an interracial relationship in No Strings!, her starring role in the groundbreaking sitcom Julia, her Oscar-nominated role as a single mother of six trying to keep her family together in Claudine, and of course, her career-defining role as primetime television’s first black diva Dominique Deveraux in Dynasty, Diahann Carroll left an indelible mark upon the history of entertainment. “I like to think that I opened doors for other women, although that wasn’t my original intention,” said Ms. Carroll in 2002. With an Academy Award nomination, multiple Emmy Award nominations, a Golden Globe Award, Grammy Award, and Tony Award, she did just that.
In 1955 Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award. Forty-seven years later, in 2002, Halle Berry became the first person of color to win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball
. Interestingly, Berry won both the Best Actress Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her breakthrough performance in Introducing Dorothy Dandridge
“It’s one of my biggest heartbreaks. The morning after, I thought, ‘Wow, I was chosen to open a door.’ And then, to have no one… I question, ‘Was that an important moment, or was it just an important moment for me?’ I wanted to believe it was so much bigger than me. It felt so much bigger than me, mainly because I knew others should have been there before me and they weren’t,”
— Halle Berry, Variety
As the first woman of color to receive the Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her breakthrough role in Carmen Jones, Dorothy Dandridge is arguably Hollywood’s most iconic African American actress. Known as “the black Marilyn Monroe,” Dandridge is also the first African American woman to appear on the cover of Life magazine. The star who broke barriers in 1950’s Hollywood continued to inspire actresses of color like Janet Jackson, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Halle Berry, who in 2002 became the first black woman to win the Best Actress Academy Award.
Four-time Emmy Award winner Alfre Woodard first came to our attention in the off-Broadway play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. It’s her Oscar-nominated role in the movie Cross Creek that made her a star, showing us a bit of the talent we would see in scene-stealing performances on hit television shows like Hill Street Blues and The Practice. To fully understand the scope of Alfre’s career, here’s a historical fact. Between 1984 and 2013, Alfre Woodard received an incredible seventeen Emmy Award nominations.
Like a fairy tale princess, Lupita Nyong’o seemed destined to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her feature film debut as Patsey, a slave who endures unspeakable horrors, in the Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave
. Nyong’o followed up her Academy Award win with roles in two blockbuster Hollywood movie franchises, Star Wars
and Marvel’s Black Panther
“When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid. Thank you.”
— Lupita Nyong’o, The 2014 Academy Awards
Activist, director, and producer Angela Bassett is one of her generation’s most acclaimed actresses. Bassett, who received her Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama, began her stellar career with roles on two daytime soaps; Ryan’s Hope and Search For Tomorrow. Powerhouse performances in critically acclaimed films like Passion Fish and Malcolm X quickly followed. But, it’s her tour-de-force portrayal of Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It that earned Bassett her first Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe win.
Audra McDonald is the winner of a record six Tony Awards, two Grammy Awards, and an Emmy Award. She is also the only actress to win Tony Awards in four different acting categories. One of the few stars whose success on television rivals her stage career, Ms. McDonald collected her first Emmy for her role in PBS’ production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And speaking of awards, in 2015, President Barack Obama presented her with the National Medal of Arts.
BAFTA Award-winning actress Thandie Newton who mixes roles in blockbusters like Mission Impossible II and independent films like Flirting has found her biggest success for her Emmy winning role Maeve in HBO’s Westworld. An actress of uncommon versatility, Newton’s notable performances include controversial roles in the films Jefferson in Paris, Beloved, and the Academy Award-winning film Crash.
The 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards were historic for several reasons. In 2020, out of 102 acting nominees, 35 black actors scored a record number of Emmy nominations. With her win as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Movie, Uzo Aduba won her third Emmy Award, tying with legendary actress Cicely Tyson.
The beloved actress has a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series and is the first black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.
We know the actress and singer for her iconic performance as Catwoman in the 60s and as the hysterical seductress Lady Eloise in the hit 90s rom-com Boomerang
, but she’s so much more. An outspoken activist throughout her career, in 1968, Eartha Kitt’s career suffered a setback when during a White House luncheon with FLOTUS Lady Bird Johnson, Ms. Kitt spoke out against the Vietnam War. The resulting backlash led her to be blacklisted in the US.
“The thing that hurts, that became anger, was when I realized that if you tell the truth in a country that says you’re entitled to tell the truth, you get your face slapped, and you get put out of work.”
— Eartha Kitt, Essence magazine
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel made history, becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind. As she accepted her Best Supporting Actress Oscar, McDaniel said, “I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” It would take five decades before another African American actress would win the award again.
Oprah Winfrey is one of Hollywood’s most prolific figures. By the numbers, O has 18 Daytime Emmy Awards, 2 Primetime Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe Award, and a Tony Award. She has two Academy Award nominations—Best Supporting Actress for The Color Purple and Best Picture as the producer of Selma, becoming the first African American woman to be nominated. And there’s that honorary Oscar win, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
Iconic Broadway star Lena Horne began her career singing in the chorus of the legendary Cotton Club. Before long, Hollywood came calling, with MGM put the young starlet under contract. During this time, she starred in the two films she is most famous for Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather. Still, her career floundered when filmmakers didn’t know what to do with a black actress of her beauty and talent. Eventually, leaving Hollywood, Horne turned to a successful career in music, winning five Grammy Awards.
Pam Grier is the iconic star who became the face of the blaxploitation era, changing the image of the African American woman in cinema. In genre-defining films like Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Sheba, Baby
, Grier’s performances imparted strength, sexuality, and intelligence to roles that may have seemed demeaning on the surface.
“You know, I had to bump heads with a lot of men in the industry. They were not comfortable with showing a progressive black female in an action role. As a strong woman, I was seen as a threat.”
— Pam Grier, The Guardian
Josephine Baker, Fredi Washington, Ethel Waters
Three iconic actresses who were each victim of the era they were born. Racism and the Hays Code prevented black actresses from appearing in movies as more than servants and slaves. It would have been interesting to see what work they would have done had challenging and exciting parts been available for black actresses in Hollywood’s early days.
With her scene-stealing performance as psychic Oda Mae Brown in 1990’s Ghost, Whoopi Goldberg became the second black actress to win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar and only the fifth African American to win an Academy Award.