Lafayette County Historical and Genealogical Society logo
Home » Naomi Sims

Naomi Ruth Sims was born on March 30, 1948, in Oxford, Miss., the third of three daughters of John and Elizabeth Sims. Her father was a porter. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born. The family moved to Pittsburgh.  She remained close with her sisters, and followed the next oldest, Betty, to New York after graduating from Westinghouse High School.

When Ms. Sims arrived in New York on a scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966, there was very little interest in fashion for black models and only a handful who had been successful, like Dorothea Towles Church, who starred in the couture shows in 1950s Paris, and Donyale Luna, who was named Vogue’s model of the year in 1966.

In need of money, Ms. Sims, with her heart-shaped face and long limbs, was encouraged by classmates and counselors to give it a try. But every agency she approached turned her down, some telling her that her skin was too dark.

Undeterred, Ms. Sims decided to approach photographers herself. Gosta Peterson, a photographer for The Times, agreed to photograph her for the cover of its August 1967 fashion supplement, then called Fashions of The Times.

The agencies were still not interested, so Ms. Sims, showing a dash of enterprise that would later define her career, told Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model who was starting her own agency, that she would send out copies of the magazine to advertising agencies with Ms. Cooper’s number attached. Ms. Cooper could have a commission if anyone called back.

Within a year, Ms. Sims was earning $1,000 a week and had been hired for a national television campaign for AT&T, which showed her and two other models, one white and one Asian, wearing fashions by Bill Blass.

“It helped me more than anything else because it showed my face,” Ms. Sims told Ladies’ Home Journal the following year, when she appeared on its cover, the first time a black model was featured so prominently in a mainstream women’s publication. “After it was aired, people wanted to find out about me and use me.”

Ms. Sims was suddenly in high demand, modeling for top designers like Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, and standing at the vanguard of a fashion movement for black models that would give rise to runway stars of the 1970s, including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Beverly Johnson.

Two images of Ms. Sims, one from the 1967 Times fashion magazine cover and the other from a 1969 issue of Life, are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition “The Model as Muse.” In a catalog, the curators Harold Koda and Kohle Yohannan wrote, “The beautifully contoured symmetry of Sims’s face and the lithe suppleness of her body presented on the once-exclusionary pages of high-fashion journals were evidence of the wider societal movement of Black Pride and the full expression of ‘Black is Beautiful.’ ”

But Ms. Sims, in interviews, often said she held the industry in low regard because of the way male executives treated her and, more generally, she said, “because people have the idea that models are stupid.”

After five years, Ms. Sims gave up modeling and started a wig-making business with styles designed for black women. It eventually expanded into a multimillion-dollar beauty empire and at least five books on modeling and beauty.

She retained, however, the sense of propriety that her foster parents had instilled in her. In 1972, the producers of the movie “Cleopatra Jones” sought to cast Ms. Sims in the title role, but she turned it down because, she said, she was offended by its racist portrayal of black people.

In 1973, Ms. Sims decided to start her own business. As a model, she often did her own hair and makeup, since many studio assistants were unfamiliar with working with darker skin. And she noticed that most commercially available wigs were designed for Caucasian hair, so she began experimenting with her own designs, baking synthetic hairs in her oven at home to create the right texture to look like straightened black hair. Within five years, her designs, produced by the Metropa Company, had annual sales of $5 million. She also began writing books, including “All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman,” “How to Be a Top Model” and “All About Success for the Black Woman,” as well as an advice column for teenage girls in Right On! magazine.

In the 1980s, she expanded the Naomi Sims Collection to include a prestige fragrance, beauty salons and cosmetics, but by the end of the decade she had become less involved with its daily operations. Many images of Ms. Sims from that period are still used to promote the products that bear her name.