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As word of the death of Barbara Cheeseborough spread, tributes for ESSENCE’s first cover model have been coming in. The trailblazing model died of colon cancer in Pomona, California on Thursday, October 24th. She was 67.
“My heart is heavy, but I feel so fortunate to have known the history-making Philadelphia beauty, Barbara Cheeseborough, whose photograph on the inaugural issue of ESSENCE marked the first time that natural Black beauty was elevated and celebrated so magnificently,” says ESSENCE’s own iconic former editor-in-chief Susan Taylor.
NPR praised Cheeseborough’s bravery in the modeling industry in the ’70s saying she “was the first to show an Afrocentric beauty standard when millions of young women were casting about for a kind of beauty they could identify with and replicate.”
Cheeseborough’s fellow models of the era echoed that sentiment. Former model, model agent and activist Bethann Hardison told ESSENCE that, “Barbara Cheeseborough was a face of the 70’s. I adored Barbara and was ‘jealous’ that she was chosen to be on the cover of the new magazine ESSENCE. Because she was perfect, absolutely perfect. Hard to compete with, her features were undeniable perfect. She was a true Black beauty.”
Iconic catwalk queen Pat Cleveland acknowledged Cheeseborough’s spirit by complementing her “friendly smile” and ability to say “a kind word” about everyone. That same joie de vivre touched others Cheeseborough worked with.
“I remember Barbara as one of my favorite models when I started out at O Boutique in the late ’60’s,” says Stephen Burrows, one of our most influential designers. “She had a vivacious sense of humor, a great body, [she] loved fashion and life.”
“I will always remember when I saw her on that first cover of ESSENCE. Bronze. Natural hair. Full lips. Cheekbones carved, reaching for her eyebrows. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, and she stared right back at me, so regal and with a silent bearing that spoke volumes about being Black and proud,” says Taylor. “Within months I began writing beauty stories for ESSENCE. Then I joined full time as fashion and beauty editor, and ‘Cheese,’ as we all called her, became one of our favorite models. However we presented her, no matter what price-point the fashion or how dramatic or simple her hair was styled, she’d step onto the set, own it and nail it!”
Barbara Summers, the author of Skin Deep: The Story of Black Models in America and Abroad, praised Cheeseborough’s beauty and influence on Black women. “I was sorry to hear that Barbara had passed,” Summers tells ESSENCE. “While I do not know if the ESSENCE cover was her very first, I feel that it might have been her most influential. ESSENCE was launched with natural hair, sending an important signal that Black women could be beautiful and valuable as their original, unprocessed selves! Barbara Cheeseborough’s proud pose was a landmark not only in fashion journalism but also in cultural acceptance. In an era when our nation’s First Lady and [New York’s] First Lady-to-be wear such contrasting hair styles, it’s important to remember that diverse choices weren’t always so common. Hair often speaks louder than words. And what I (like to) think it says is Freedom.”