Thursday, August 13, 2009

a role model worth remembering.

Confession time: I had never heard of Naomi Sims until she was already gone.

I might say it was because she hit her professional-profile peak about the time I was an infant. But the truth is, I strongly suspect I had never heard of Naomi Sims because I'm not a black woman.

Which is not an excuse. She was dubbed the first black supermodel, before Beverly Johnson and way before Tyra Banks or that other notorious Naomi.

But fascinatingly, Naomi Sims - having spent the late 1960s and early '70s modeling the haute-est couture, gracing the covers of mainstream publications like Life, the New York Times fashion supplement and Ladies' Home Journal, and appearing in a national TV campaign for AT&T - retired from her model life after only five years.

"There is nothing sadder than an old, broke model," she told the Times in 1969. "And there are many models who have nothing at the end of their career." Sims made sure her career was just beginning as she left modeling behind.

In 1973, she launched her own business. As a model, she had found that many studio assistants knew next to nothing about doing black women's makeup and that almost all wigs were designed for Caucasian hair. Sims began experimenting on her own, baking synthetic hairs in her home oven to try to create the right texture to look like straightened black hair.

Within five years, her designs were being produced by the Metropa Company, with annual sales of $5 million. During the '80s, the Naomi Sims Collection extended into cosmetics and fragrance, even opening boutique salons. Meanwhile, Sims also authored five books about modeling, beauty and success. Sims was married for 18 years to Manhattan art dealer Michael Findlay. Their son, Bob, survives her, as does Sims' granddaughter and one of her two older sisters, Betty Sims.

The product line she originated survives her as well, still going strong over 30 years later, a household name among black women.

One of which I'm not. And though I had not heard of Naomi Sims until she died last Saturday at the age of 61 from cancer, I'm happy to know about her now.

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