In the remembrances of model Naomi Sims, 61, who died over the weekend, there have been a host of references to her as the “first black supermodel.” The Oxford, Miss., native was given that title because of her appearance on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968, at a time when the “black is beautiful” movement was in full swing, but before the 1970s, when the fashion industry declared brown faces in vogue—for a short while, at least.
But describing Sims as a supermodel seems like a huge disservice, considering that the term is now applied to any waifish and wan young woman who manages to book more than half a dozen runway shows in a given fashion season. In its heyday, which was the 1980s, the term had a bit more juice. It referred to a model whose name and image had managed to break free of the fashion world and enter the popular vernacular. The models who popularized the term—Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington—not only had faces that were iconic in the fashion industry, but they also became fodder for gossip columns. And, of course, they had a way with a frock on a catwalk. They could make burlap sacks look elegant —or a Gianni Versace bondage dress look like something beyond a porn star’s costume.
That wasn’t Sims. She was not known for her strut or her attitude or for throwing any sort of communication devices at the help. And her relatively short career of only about five years preceded the 24-hour news cycle when a model’s love life or her various temper tantrums could be cocktail chatter.
Today, being a supermodel has a bit of an untoward subtext. It’s sort of like describing someone as a diva. It means you’re larger-than-life, sure, but it doesn’t exactly imply that you’re a substantial sort of person. Calling Sims a supermodel feels a bit like well-intentioned revisionist history—a desperate attempt to put her career into contemporary context. But the effort ultimately lessens her accomplishments.
Appearing on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal—and Life magazine, too—was not some esoteric coup noted only by the fashion-obsessed. It was a cultural revelation. Sims pushed black beauty into the mainstream in a way that was more provocative and resonant than a million “black issues” of Italian Vogue.
Sims was also a successful businesswoman with a line of wigs aimed at African-American women. She was a model-turned-entrepreneur long before Tyra Banks ever uttered the word “fierce,” long before Banks was even born.
Those twin cover achievements are far more important and lasting than being able to strut down a runway in 4-inch heels without toppling over or being a designer’s muse. The title “supermodel” is too limited, too modest for what Sims really managed to do. She initiated a dialogue on how our culture defines beauty—a dialogue that continues to this day. She proved that a pretty face does not mean an empty head—a fact that continues to roil our assumptions. And ultimately, she let the world know that a black face—a black woman—is someone to be reckoned with.
Robin Givhan is a culture critic at The Washington Post.