The History of Black Models

An epic 60 years chronicling the queens of the catwalk.

ESSENCE.COM Jan, 30, 2012

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Born in Texarcana in 1922, gorgeous Dorothea Towles was the first top Black model to work in Paris. As a teen, she modeled exclusively for Black magazines Stateside—but during a two-month vacation to Paris in 1949, she was discovered by Christian Dior, and embarked on a wildly successful career as one of the most celebrated models in Europe. During her career, she was a favorite of designers like Pierre Balmain and Elsa Schaperelli. In 1954, she returned home and began organizing fashion shows at Black colleges, showing her own couture line. Fifty years later, Towles reminisced on her time as the toast of Paris, telling WWD, “For once I was not considered Black, African-American or Negro. I was just an American.”


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In the late 1940s and ’50s, Sara Lou Harris was one of the top Black models in the country. Beyond being the most recognized runway star on the Ebony Fashion Fair circuit, Harris holds the distinction of being the first model of color to appear in a national advertisement.


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Supermodel Donayale Luna was one of the world’s most beautiful women in the 1960s. Born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit, Luna began modeling in 1965 and within months, an article in Time magazine declared 1966 to be “The Luna Year.” She was the first Black model to appear on the cover of British Vogue, was a muse to legendary photographers like Richard Avedon and David Bailey, and vamped through several Warhol and Fellini films. Famously a fan of LSD, the devastatingly beautiful model died of a drug overdose at 39.


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In the late ’60s and early ‘70s, Mississippi-born Naomi Sims’ dazzling smile graced hundreds of runways and magazines covers all over the world. At the height of her career, in 1973, Sims retired from modeling to start her own wildly successful wig line and cosmetics company for women of color. The trailblazing beauty passed away from breast cancer in 2009.


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In the ‘70s, no one worked a runway like supermodel Pat Cleveland. She was discovered by a Vogue editor in 1967 while walking to Manhattan’s LaGuardia Performing Arts School, and by 1970, she was living in Paris and setting the fashion world ablaze. The Black/Cherokee/Irish stunner dazzled the likes of Halston, Steven Burrows and Yves Saint Laurent, and set the standard for runway walking with her ethereal dance-prance. These days, she’s passed the torch to her lookalike model daughter, Anna von Ravenstein.


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Gorgeous Beverly Johnson made worldwide headlines when she became the first Black model to land the cover of American Vogue in 1974. Her cover had such a powerful effect on the fashion industry that, by 1975, all of the major mainstream magazines had run a woman of color on the cover. Not content to just be one of the world’s most famous faces, Johnson went on to act in several movies; star as celebrity judge on the TV Land reality series, “She’s Got the Look,” and launch the uber-popular Beverly Johnson Hair Collection line of wigs for African American women. Beverly’s daughter, Anansa, has followed in her mother’s footsteps, launching a fabulous career as a plus-size model.


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One of the most versatile, wildly glamorous models to ever grace a runway or a glossy, Iman Abdulmajid was discovered by photographer Peter Beard while at Nairobi University in 1975. She immediately moved to America and never looked back. After enjoying two decades as one of the industry’s greatest faces (that endless neck!) — as well as acting in films like “Exit to Eden” and “No Way Out” — the Somalian stunner decided to become a businesswoman. In 1994, she started Iman Cosmetics for women of color; in 2000 she launched I-Iman Makeup for the global consumer; and in 2007, she debuted Iman Global Chic, a collection of beauty, accessories and apparel for Home Shopping Network.


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Martinique-born supermodel Mounia was not only one of the top Black models in the late ‘70s, she was designer Yves Saint Laurent’s greatest inspiration. In 2008, she told WWD, “I was YSL’s first Black muse…he called me Moumounn. The collection that made me a celebrity was the one inspired by ‘Porgy and Bess.’ Catherine Deneuve stood up and started clapping! After that I had more than fifteen covers.” After conquering the print and runway world, Mounia became an artist in the ’90s. Her paintings have been exhibited in galleries across France, the Ivory Coast, Monaco, Japan and Guyana.


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Born in Jamaica in 1948, Grace Jones took the modeling world by storm as a fabulously androgynous 1970s supermodel — but soon, her unforgettable voice took center stage. Inspired by everything from David Bowie to reggae, Jones became a dance music diva, releasing albums like “Nightclubbing” and “Slave to the Rhythm.” Her to-the-max personal style made her a muse to the most exciting artists of the era (think Andy Warhol, Basquiat and wildman designer Thierry Mugler).


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Supermodel Waris Dirie was born into a nomadic tribe in Somalia, and ran away at age 13 to avoid marriage a much older man. After working odd jobs in London, she was discovered by photographer Terence Donovan, who shot her for her the cover of the 1987 Pirelli calendar. From there, she became a star, landing ads for Chanel, Levi’s, L’Oréal and Revlon. She’s become an outspoken activist against female genital mutilation, and wrote two bestselling memoirs, “Desert Dawn” and “Desert Flower” about her experience with the atrocity. A film about Waris’ fascinating life, “Desert Flower,” was released in 2011 starring Liya Kebede (flawless casting!).


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Surinamese/Dutch beauty Louise Vyent’s delicate, sultry beauty made her a favorite of beauty companies during her heyday in the ‘80s. Not only did she appear on the cover of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, she graced the 1990 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and was a favorite of Revlon. Here, she poses between Beverly Johnson and Iman in a legendary “Revlon Unforgettable Woman” campaign in ’89.


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New Jersey-born Karen Alexander is a striking beauty known for her strong brows and creamy, burnt sienna skin. Along with landing the coveted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in ‘88 and ’89, Alexander landed the covers of some of the biggest magazines in the world, including Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and Harper’s Bazaar. Plus, in 1990, she appeared in People magazine’s inaugural list of 50 Most Beautiful People. Not bad.


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Wesleyan University graduate Gail O’Neill had a fabulous international modeling career in the late ‘80s and ’90s, posing for Vogue and Mademoiselle covers; steaming up the pages of the ’92 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue; and starring in campaigns for Liz Claiborne. At the height of her career, O’Neill famously refused to appear in ads for corporate sponsors that didn’t divest of South African investments. Still stunning, O’Neill recently modeled for the 2009 Spring/Summer Calvin Klein ckOne fragrance campaign, and appeared in Vogue Italia’s “The Black Issue.”


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In her heyday in the late ‘80s and ’90s, Kara Young was one of the most desirable models in the world (here, she’s pictured in a 1990 French Vogue). Her golden complexion and regal features landed her ad campaigns with cosmetics giants, including Revlon, L’Oreal, Clairol, Maybelline and Victoria’s Secret. But her biggest break was probably her shoot with Richard Avedon for Revlon’s Most Unforgettable Women campaign, alongside supermodels Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford and Claudia Schiffer. She continued to work as one of Revlon’s top models for the next ten years. In 2004, she retired from modeling to open the celebrated New York City salon, Hair Rules, with hairstylist-to-the-stars Anthony Dickey (an Essence.com favorite!).


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Born in Chicago in 1968, the impossibly statuesque Roshumba Williams was discovered by Yves Saint Laurent as a teen, and quickly became one of the top runway models of the Nineties. Her graceful, athletic build landed her on the pages of several Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues in the early ‘90s (here, she’s pictured in the 1992 issue). Roshumba also appeared in feature films like Woody Allen’s “Celebrity,” Robert Altman’s “Pret-a-Porter” and “Beauty Shop,” starring Queen Latifah. In 1999, Williams published her first book, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Being a Model,” and was a judge on the Oxygen Network’s bi-weekly hair-styling competition reality series, “Tease.”


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Los Angeles-born Beverly Peele began modeling in 1987 at only 12 years old, and landed her first magazine cover, Mademoiselle, in 1989. With her long, sinewy body, creamy cocoa skin and sultry lips, Peele became an instant star, landing ads for Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Versace and working the runway for Chanel and Comme des Garçons. Along with Mademoiselle, Peele also appeared on the cover of Vogue, Elle, and Cosmopolitan. In ‘92, she famously rocked out in George Michael’s Thierry Mugler-styled “Too Funky” video alongside Nadja Auermann, Tyra Banks, Linda Evangelista, Estelle Hallyday, and Rossy de Palma. The following year, Peele had her first child, a daughter named Cairo, and retired from modeling.


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Not only is Veronica Webb gorgeous (those doe eyes!), whip-smart (she’s an accomplished journalist) and multi-talented (she co-starred in “Jungle Fever” and “Malcolm X”)—she was also the first Black model to score a major cosmetics campaign, with Revlon. And despite her multi-hyphenate supermodel status, she somehow finds the time to write for magazines like Details, Elle, The Sunday Times (UK) and The New York Times—while also co-hosting the first season of Bravo’s “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style.” Veronica Webb, you rock.


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This Jamaican-English catwalk queen is arguably the greatest Black supermodel on the planet. Soon after a 15-year-old Campbell was “discovered” while shopping in London’s Covent Garden, she landed the April 1986 cover of Elle. Two years later, she became the first Black model to grace the cover of Paris Vogue—but only after Yves St. Laurent threatened to withdraw his advertising after it refused to place Campbell, or any Black model, on the pages (how much do we love YSL?). The rest, as they say is “herstory.” In the early ‘90s, she, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington (ie, the biggest models on the planet) were dubbed “The Trinity,” and scored all the most coveted ads, editorials, runway shows. She starred in George Michael’s music video “Freedom’90;” appeared nude in Playboy and was the second model, after Donyale Luna, to appear on the cover of Vogue UK.


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Born in Uganda in 1976, Kiara Kabukuru was one of the biggest models of the ‘90s. She walked for all the hottest designers, including Christian Dior, Gianni Versace, and Pierre Balmain haute couture; and she’s landed campaigns including Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino, L’Oréal, Calvin Klein and, most famously, CoverGirl cosmetics. She graced the cover of American Vogue in July 1997, to much fanfare—she appeared in the July 2008 all-Black issue of Vogue Italia.


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This Canadian-born ’90s supermodel holds the distinction of being the first Black woman to sign an exclusive contract with Cover Girl. Always classy and elegant, Lana Ogilvie was the picture of poised beauty.


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Ingelwood-born Tyra Banks began modeling in eleventh grade, and within two decades, she managed to parlay her supermodel status into a veritable media empire! She was a success from the beginning—her first week in Paris, designers were so loving her runway walk that she was was booked for 25 shows (a record for a newbie). Banks went on to do tons of editorial, advertising and runway work for brands like Anna Sui, CoverGirl, Badgley Mischka, Cynthia Rowley, Chanel, Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta and famously, Victoria’s Secret. She was the first Black model to grace the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue…and in 1997, she received the VH1 award for Supermodel of the Year. That same year, she became the first-ever African American chosen for the cover of the Victoria’s Secret catalog. In ‘05, Tyra retired from modeling to start her television career. "America’s Next Top Model" is now a pop culture mainstay.


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When Alek Wek was discovered at a London flea market in 1995, the Sudanese stunner immediately made a splash in the modeling world, her distinctly African features setting her apart from the crowd. She posed in ads for Issey Miyake, Moschino, Victoria’s Secret and Clinique; and walked for designers John Galliano, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. By the time she won MTV’s Model of the Year in ‘97, Wek was a bonafide fashion star.


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In 2003, Ethiopian supermodel Liya Kebede became the first woman of color in Estee Lauder's 57-year history to sign a contract with the cosmetics giant. We applaud this catwalk and editorial star for representing the Lauder brand with grace and unsurpassed gorgeousness.

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Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Oluchi Onweagba won the 1998 “Face of Africa” contest at only 17 years old. After landing a three-year-contract with Elite, Oluchi moved to New York City and promptly became one of the most in-demand models in the industry. She graced the covers of Italian Vogue, i-D, Elle, and Surface; became the face of Gianfranco Ferré, Gap, Express, and Banana Republic; landed a coveted position as one of Victoria’s Secret’s hottest Angels; and worked the runway for designers like John Galliano, Christian Dior, Costume National, Chanel, and Luca Orlandi (who she eventually married!). Oluchi is a major role model to young Nigerian girls, and is involved with several charities devoted to providing options for African youth.


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Jessica White is one of the few high fashion models that has managed to crossover into mainstream pop culture. The Buffalo-born Maybelline spokesmodel has walked Ralph Lauren and Oscar de la Renta’s runways and posed for all the top glossies—but her wildly sultry spreads in almost every Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue since 2003 (she took a well-deserved break in ‘06) and her slinky status as one of Victoria’s Secret’s most popular Angels catapulted her from insider fashion favorite to sex symbol.


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Selita Ebanks is more than one of fashion’s hottest bodies—she’s also a brainy beauty. The Cayman Island native was accepted into Spelman College, Columbia University and New York University, but at 17 years old, a chance meeting with an Elite Model agent at Six Flags Great Adventure changed her plans. Within a couple of years, Ebanks was working with legends like Ralph Lauren and photographer Bruce Weber; and broke into the mainstream with her steamy Victoria’s Secret shoots and a smoking-hot pictorials in the 2007 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. She recently starred in Kanye West’s short film, “Runaway.”


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The future of the Black supermodeldom looks pretty much like this September 2009 i-D magazine cover! The headline-making cover featured the most powerful, wildly sought-after group of top Black models on the planet: Chanel Iman, an American beauty; Dominican-Portugese stunner Sessilee Lopez; British-born top model Jourdan Dunn; and Arlenis Sosa, a Dominican supermodel. Between the four of them are countless magazine covers (including the much-touted Vogue Italia “All Black Issue”), millions of dollars in cosmetics contracts, a couple of fierce Victoria’s Secret Angel wings…and the respect of the international fashion industry. Go ’head, girls!


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This Senegalese stunner is the darling of the fashion set! Fashion Week isn’t Fashion Week until audiences have seen this leggy beauty blaze down the catwalk with her slinky strut.


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Nineteen-year-old Rose Cordero is a new face, but in 2010 she was ubiquitous on the New York, Paris, London and Milan runways — and in March, she landed the cover of Paris Vogue.


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This Sudanese rising star has captured the fascination of the fashion flock. With her deep mocha complexion, pillowy lips and beyond-chic short natural, Deng is one of our most buzzed-about models!


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With cheekbones to cut glass, caramel-kissed skin and the most elegant strut in all of modeldom, Joan Smalls easily gets our vote for fashion’s MVP.


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French stunner Melodie Monrose tears up the runway with her fierce strut, wide-set eyes and pouty, crimson mouth.


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Tanzanian model Henrieth Paul is famous for her flawless complexion and sweet, baby doll features. She steals almost every show with her ethereal grace and lovely smile.


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This Dallas-born newcomer has serious "it" factor. With her almond-shaped eyes, statuesque frame and sultry strut, Ms. Dade is a fashion force to be reckoned with.

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Since her debut at the Fall ‘09 Calvin Klein show, she’s become a staple on Gucci, Prada and Victoria’s Secret catwalks; and she’s posed in countless high-fashion spreads.


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African/Polish model Anais Mali stole the show last Fashion Week with her impeccably glamorous walk and her doe-eyed, honey-skinned beauty.


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If Deng looks familiar to you, it’s because she’s supermodel Alek Wek’s niece! The sexy Texan quickly became an editorial and runway favorite with her flawless skin and piercing eyes.


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The Somalian-born, Boston-bred former “America’s Next Top Model” cycle 10 contestant is determined to prove that she’s more than just a reality show star. Siad landed a sexy Spring 2012 ad campaign with Herve Leger and recently graced the runways of Hermes and Dries Van Noten.


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Born in the Dominican Republic, Pasible landed an ad campaign with American Eagle and has ripped the runway for many big names and designers of color including Duro Olowu, Tracy Reese, and Cushnie et Ochs.


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Eighteen-year-old Zimbabwean beauty Nyasha Matonhodze debuted with a bang, scoring a Fall/Winter 2011 ad campaign with Louis Vuitton at the tender age of 16. Now she’s the face of Versace’s Pre-Fall 2012 campaign and has walked for designers ranging from Galliano to Giles.


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