She did not throw telephones or tantrums. She did not sulk in the backs of limousines, refusing to meet her public. She was never rude or snobbish. She was the personification of approachable elegance. She always remembered that somewhere, some little black girl was gazing at her in open-mouthed admiration, and she acted accordingly. Naomi Sims was a true class act.
Sims came along at a time when black was beginning to be considered beautiful in our community, but certainly not in the white world that dictated who and what is beautiful for the purposes of selling everything from haute couture to cleansing powder. The only black folks showing up regularly in magazines were Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemimah. She saw a way to turn her height and slender frame into a possibility for survival and she worked to make that happen.
There was no sense of entitlement about Naomi Sims. Growing up as a foster child, she understood that any success she was going to have would come from her own enterprise. Pretty girls before her had made the same pilgrimage to the big model agencies hoping for work—probably few had been so bluntly dismissed for being too dark.
So she contacted photographers directly, and she struck a deal with a fledgling agency (opened by an about-to-retire model who was ready to segue into business) to work with them on bringing in clients. Her charm, grace and unflappability earned her a tryout and soon after—voila—a spot on the cover of the Ladies' Home Journal. From there it was off to the pages of Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and the fashion bibles that ruled the late 60s and early 70s. Sim's breakthrough allowed the next three waves—the Beverly Johnsons, the Pat Clevelands and after that, the Tyra Bankses and now, the Chanel Imans to glow and flourish.
She stayed for five years and got out—Sims knew a model's shelf life was short, that the industry traditionally looked for the Next New Thing—and Naomi Sims knew she didn't want to end up poor, telling strangers how big she used to be. So she went into business—wigs for black women, a signature line of cosmetics. Fragrance. And she often showed up to promote her lines, being as charming, as warmly open to her mall customers as she had been to buyers who were considering orders for couture clothes. Naomi Sims never forgot her beginnings or that many of her admirers, especially in the black community, looked at her as a role model. If that was a burden, it never showed. She was steel beneath the style, grit beneath the grace.
So tonight dear ones, when you're home, open a bottle of good wine and toast the woman who was the personal embodiment of Black Is Beautiful—inside as well as out. Here's to you, Naomi.
Karen Grigsby Bates a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News, and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The Ne Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).
is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for NPR News and co-author, with Karen Elyse Hudson, of The New Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times (Doubleday).