The Troubles and Triumphs of Black Supermodels

The recent misfortunes of models Beverly Peele and Noemie Lenoir are a sad reminder that a model’s life can be a tough one—even more so for models of color. The Root takes a look at the careers of some of fashion’s brightest stars.

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  • Donyale Luna

    Donyale Luna

    Born Peggy Anne Freeman in Detroit, Luna was a breakthrough cover girl on British Vogue in March 1966. A favorite of fashion photographer Richard Avedon, she presented herself as an exotic, mixed-race, otherwordly creature “from the moon.”  Luna appeared in several art films by Andy Warhol and played a witch in Federico Fellini’s Satiricon She died of an accidental drug overdose at age 34 in Rome in 1979.

  • Naomi Simms

    Naomi Simms

    In 1967, the Oxford, Mississippi, native appeared on the cover of Ladies Home Journal, the first black model to do so; in 1969, she made the cover of Life. Today, she is widely regarded as the first black supermodel, but she faced racism throughout her career. She left modeling in the early 1970s and founded her namesake wig business, creating a successful line of wigs fashioned after the texture of straightened black hair.  Sims died  of breast cancer in 2009 at age  61.

  • Beverly Johnson

    Beverly Johnson

    Beverly Johnson – A pioneering black cover girl with a girl-next-door persona, Johnson got her start in 1971 modeling for Glamour. In 1974, she became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue; she was also the first black woman to appear on the cover of French Elle. Her success paved the way for black models to work in the mainstream fashion industry.  She has acted in movies and television and even had a brief singing career. These days, she can be found hawking her successful wig line, the Beverly Johnson Hair Collection.

  • B. Smith

    B. Smith

    Barbara Smith began modeling for the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair, launching her career as a popular print model who appeared on more than 15 magazine covers. In 1976, she became the first black model to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle In the late 1980s, she became an entrepreneur, founding B. Smith restaurants in New York, Washington, and Sag Harbor, New York. She  is a TV personality and the former host of the nationally syndicated series, B. Smith With Style.   Her B. Smith With Style Home Collection was the first line from an African-American woman to be sold through a national retailer.

  • Pat Cleveland

    Pat Cleveland

    Cleveland was a teenager when she first appeared in the Ebony Fashion Fair in the late 1960s, after which she became a top model on Seventh Avenue and Paris, heralded for her theatrical playmaking on the runways.   She was a popular print model and one of Halston’s original models in the 1970s, known as the Halstonettes.

  • Bethann Hardison

    Bethann Hardison

    A pioneer model in the 1970s and contemporary of Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, and Iman, Hardison worked for many years with designer Willi Smith, first as his model and then as his business partner. In 1984, she founded Bethann Management talent agency, where she launched the careers of Veronica Webb and Tyson Beckford. An outspoken activist lobbying for better representation of black models, Hardison co-founded the Black Girls Coalition with her friend Iman in 1988.  In February, Hardison was named editor at large of Italian Vogue.

  • Iman


    The Mogadishu-born supermodel was discovered by photographer Peter Beard in Kenya in the mid-1970s. At the time, Beard told the world that he’d discovered her while she was herding cows. In reality, Iman was the daughter of a Somali diplomat and gynecologist. Fluent in five languages, Iman was an immediate runway success. She married David Bowie in 1992 and launched her highly successful eponymous cosmetics line in 1994. These days, she also markets her namesake Global Chic accessories on HSN shopping network.

  • Katoucha Niane

    Katoucha Niane

    A doe-eyed beauty and top Paris model in the 1980s, Niane lived a tragic life.  Born in Guinea, she lived in Mali and Senegal before migrating to France when she began modeling at age 17. She was a favorite model of designer Yves Saint Laurent. In the 1990s she became an activist against female circumcision and wrote a book in France about her own circumcision at age nine. She died at 47 in 2008, in a suspected accidental drowning, when her body was found in the Seine River.

  • Waris Dirie

    Waris Dirie

    Some models use their fame as a tool for change. Somali-born Dirie began her modeling career in the 1980s, walking the runway in Paris, Milan, London, and New York and appearing in ads for Chanel, L’Oreal, and Revlon. In 1987, she made the transition to the big screen, playing a Bond girl in The Living Daylights.  These days, Dirie, who was circumcized at age five, is best known for her human rights work. Her bestselling memoir, Desert Flower, has been made into a movie starring Liya Kebede.

  • Gail O'Neill

    Gail O'Neill

    Gail O’Neill – A native New Yorker, O’Neill appeared on the covers of Vogue and Mademoiselle in the 1980s;she was also a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. Since then, she has worked as a TV journalist for CNN, The Early Show and HGTV. Known for her curly hair, the Wesleyan University graduate once said, “With models like myself coming in who are portrayed with their natural hair, little Black girl began seeing images that reflected themselves. Roshumba coming in with her own short hair, unprocessed.

  • Veronica Webb

    Veronica Webb

    This Detroit native is a contemporary of Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. During the 1990s’ supermodel era, she was a favorite of Azzedine Alaia, Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham, and Karl Lagerfeld.  A former style columnist for Paper magazine, Webb was the first black model to sign an exclusive contract for Revlon cosmetics as a spokesmodel.  Her film credits include Jungle Fever and Malcolm Xshe also appeared on Bravo TV’s Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style. Recently, she was featured in a fashion layout for More magazine.

  • Karen Alexander

    Karen Alexander

    New Jersey native Alexander was a popular model on runways for designers such as Ralph Lauren and Geoffrey Beene in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  She’s appeared on the covers of Essence, Glamour, Elle, Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar and in ads for Cover Girl.

  • Naomi Campbell

    Naomi Campbell

    Naomi Campbell – This London native has had incredible staying power in the fashion industry.  Known for her killer body and sassy strut, the ballet-trained Campbell reigned during the height of the supermodel era in the 1980s and 1990s. She was among the highest paid supermodels who were part of “The Trinity” alongside Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, all favorites of designer Gianni Versace. A long-time Victoria’s Secret model, she remains a headline-grabber to this day. Her volatile temper has led to several run-ins with the law, for which she recently confessed to being ashamed on Oprah.

  • Tyra Banks

    Tyra Banks

    The savviest models develop their personal brands into business empires. Case in point: Tyra Banks. With her curvaceous body and sexy persona, Banks made a splash on the runways in the late 1980s.    She was a popular Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and reigned over the catwalk at the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion shows.  She made the leap from supermodel to actress and media personality – and then mogul – as the creator of TV’s America’s Next Top Model and the daytime Emmy-winning talk show, The Tyra Banks Show.

  • Lana Ogilvie

    Lana Ogilvie

    Born in Toronto a surgeon father and a teacher who immigrated from the Caribbean, Lana Ogilvie was the first black model to sign with Cover Girl Cosmetics in 1992.  She appeared as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model in 1994 and has been on the Fashion Television Channel in Toronto. “Gay, straight, bi, whatever, fashion has always been inclusive,” Ogilvie blogged last year. “Sadly, these days the visual aspect of fashion has become monochromatic. That HAS to change…MUST change.”

  • Kimora Lee Simmons

    Kimora Lee Simmons

    St. Louis-born Simmons, of Japanese and black-American descent, modeled on the international runways during the supermodel era in the early 1990s.  After she married hip-hop mogul  and entrepreneur Russell Simmons, she founded Baby Phat, a spinoff of Phat Farm, her husband’s menswear line.   Simmons starred in her own reality TV show, Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane. She divorced Russell Simmons and is now linked with actor Djimon Hounsou, with whom she had a son in 2009.

  • Beverly Peele

    Beverly Peele

    Dramatic rises are too often coupled with equally dramatic falls. Alongside the supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Peele was a leading model in the late 1980s for designers such as Todd Oldham, Chanel, and Ralph Lauren.  After leaving modeling in the mid 1990s, she was sentenced to restitution and community service after pleading no contest to identity theft for making purchases on someone else’s credit card. She is currently recovering from a serious car crash in Los Angeles.

  • Roshumba


    Roshumba – Known for her short-cropped Afro, Roshumba Williams was a popular runway model in Paris and New York in the early 1990s. The Chicago-born Williams was one of the first black models to appear in Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit edition. As an actress, she’s appeared in Woody Allen’s Celebrity, Mortal Kombat: Conquest, and on Ally McBeal. as well as in Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter. She also has been a judge on Oxygen Network’s hairstyling reality-show, Tease.

  • Chrystele


    French-born Chrystele Saint Louis Augustin, known for her massive, dark blonde ‘fro, was a hot runway model in the mid 1990s who walked the catwalk in Paris, New York, Milan. and London and has appeared on the covers of French and German Vogue and Elle. Fans of Maxwell will remember her from his music video, “Sumthin’ Sumthin’.”

  • Alek Wek

    Alek Wek

    Sudanese supermodel Wek began her career in 1995 and has modeled for  Issey Miyake, Clinique, and Victoria’s Secret.  She is a human rights activist, raising awareness of refugees worldwide, especially in Sudan, referencing her own experience as an impoverished refugee fleeing the war in Sudan.  She also markets her own handbag line, Wek1933.

  • Oluchi Onweagba

    Oluchi Onweagba

    Born in Nigeria, Onweagba  has been an international runway model for many houses including John Galliano and Giorgio Armani. She’s appeared on the cover of Italian Vogue and Elle and was a regular feature in the Sport’s Illustrated swimsuit editions. A former Victoria’s Secret model, she lives in New York, where she is married to Italian designer Luca Orlandi, founder of Luca Luca.

  • Liya Kedebe

    Liya Kedebe

    Another beauty from eastern Africa, Kebede has been a top model since the 1990s when she debuted on the Gucci runway in Milan. The Ethiopian-born Kebede has become one of fashion’s top paid models in recent years, and she became the first model of color to become the face of Estee Lauder in 2003.  As an actress, she plays model Waris Dirie in the 2009 movie Desert Flower, based on Waris Dire’s autobiography.  In 2007, Kebede launched her sustainable clothing line, Lemlem.

  • Noemie Lenoir

    Noemie Lenoir

    Beauty and success won’t always make you happy. Lenoir is a stunning French model who appeared in ads for L’Oreal, Victoria’s Secret, and Gap and is the former face for the London department store chain, Marks & Spencer. A Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, she was also featured in the music video for Usher’s hit, “Hey Daddy.” However, on May 9, 2010, she was found unconscious after a suspected suicide attempt in Paris.

  • Chanel Iman

    Chanel Iman

    The current “It” girl of designer fashion shows, Iman was featured on the May 2007 fold-out cover of Vogue as one of the new generation of supermodels. If there is only one black model in a big show, she’s likely to be the one you’ll see trotting down the catwalk. Since 2006, she has appeared in shows and fashion ads for designers such as Ralph Lauren, Dolce & Gabanna and Gap. Born in Atlanta as Chanel Iman Robinson, Chanel is black American and South Korean.

  • Jourdan Dunn

    Jourdan Dunn

    In 2008, the London-born Dunn became the first black model to walk the Prada runway in ten years; that same year, the British Fashion Council named her Model of the Year. Last year, she caused a stir when she appeared pregnant on the cover of Teen Vogue. “There are loads of black models working and the idea that there’s only a few of us, or four of us, to let in as top models at any one time is just bullshit,” she told i-D magazine.