Black Modeling Pioneer Cleo Johnson Dead at 88

Cleo Johnson (Chicago Tribune)
Cleo Johnson (Chicago Tribune)

Long before Tyra Banks started whipping aspiring cover girls into shape on Top Model, Cleo Johnson was putting her personal credo ("poise, personality and charm") into action as the founder of the nation's first black-owned modeling school. The pioneering founder of Cleo Johnson's School of Charm and Modeling died today at age 88.


AOL Black Voices reports:

Johnson, who many considered to be the epitome of elegance, style and grace, and lived by her own personal credo, "poise, personality and charm," was a model during the '50s, when society did not regard women of color as beautiful and black models struggled to take center stage.
Experiencing the same reality, Johnson decided to open up the first black-owned modeling school, Cleo Johnson's School of Charm and Modeling, in the country in 1956 in order to help black children and adults with proper diction, social graces and, of course, modeling.

The school that Johnson built began with three of her neighbor's children and two of her nieces and a $100 one-year course fee. Word of the school spread like wildfire throughout the years, and it soon grew to tremendous proportions, forcing Johnson to relocate to a larger building on Chicago's Southside.

As the school grew in popularity, Johnson was approached by entrepreneurs who were interested in buying her business, but she insisted on staying the course with her dream:

"I've turned down a lot of money and [business] offers to stay here on the Southside," she once said.

… In 1960, Johnson helped organize the Modeling Association of America, International, a worldwide organization of more than 100 modeling schools. Later, in 1982, she became the first African-American president of the organization.

"Johnson inspired her students to believe in themselves, no matter where they lived or what their economic level," said Ollie Sims Parker, longtime friend, former student and instructor at Johnson's School. "She wasn't rich, but she never turned anyone away," said Parker. "If you came to the school with no money, she would find a way."

Read more at AOL Black Voices.

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