Naomi Sims

Model, Businesswoman, & Author

“ … ”

Naomi Sims was the first black supermodel, she broke the color barrier starting with the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968.

Naomi Ruth Sims (March 30, 1948 ‐ August 1, 2009) was an American model, businesswoman and author. She was the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal, and is widely credited as being the first African-American supermodel.

Sims was born in Oxford, Mississippi, the youngest of three daughters born to John and Elizabeth Sims. Her father (whom she never knew) reportedly worked as a porter, but Sims’ mother later described him “an absolute bum” and her parents divorced shortly after she was born. She was teased for her height of 5’10 at the age of 13. Mrs. Sims later moved with her three daughters to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Naomi’s mother was forced to put her child into foster care. She attended Westinghouse High School. There due to her height, she was ostracized by many of her classmates.

Naomi Sims

Sims often said childhood insecurities and a painful upbringing ‐ living in foster homes, towering over her classmates and living in a largely poor white neighborhood in Pittsburgh ‐ had inspired her to strive to become “somebody really important” at a time when cultural perceptions of black Americans were being challenged by the Civil Rights Movement and a renewed stress on racial pride.

Sims began college after winning a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in 1966, while also taking night classes in psychology at New York University. Her early attempts to get modeling work through established agencies were frustrated by racial prejudice, with some agencies telling her that her skin was too dark. There was very little interest in fashion for black models and only a handful who had been successful, like Dorothea Towles Church, who starred in the couture shows in 1950s Paris, and Donyale Luna, who was named Vogue’s model of the year in 1966.

Her first career breakthrough came after she decided to sidestep the agencies and go directly to fashion photographers and Gösta Peterson, a photographer for The New York Times, agreed to photograph her for the cover of the paper’s August 1967 fashion supplement, then called Fashions of The Times.

Despite this breakthrough, Sims still found it difficult to get work, so she approached Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model who was starting her own agency, saying that she would send out copies of the Times supplement to advertising agencies, attaching Cooper’s telephone number, and that Cooper’s agency would get a commission if Naomi received any work. Within a year Sims was earning US $1000 a week. The key breakthrough came when she was selected for a national television campaign for AT&T, wearing clothes by designer Bill Blass. In 1968, Sims told Ladies’ Home Journal: “It helped me more than anything else because it showed my face. After it was aired, people wanted to find out about me and use me.”

Sims was suddenly in high demand, modeling for top designers like Halston, Teal Traina, Fernando Sánchez and Giorgio di Sant’Angelo, and standing at the vanguard of a fashion movement for black models that would give rise to runway stars of the 1970s, including Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn and Beverly Johnson.

She became one of the first successful black models while still in her teens, and achieved worldwide recognition from the late 1960s into the early 1970s, appearing on the covers of prestigious fashion and popular magazines. The New York Times wrote that (her) “appearance as the first black model on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in November 1968 was a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement”.

She also appeared on the cover of the October 17, 1969 issue of Life magazine. This was the first African-American model on the cover of the magazine. The images from the 1967 New York Times fashion magazine cover and the 1969 Life magazine cover were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in an exhibition entitled The Model as Muse.

In 1969 and 1970, Naomi Sims received the Model of the Year award. In 1972 she received the Woman of Achievement Medal and then the Top Hat Award in 1974.

Naomi Sims

By 1972, Hollywood took an interest in her as a potential actress and offered her the title role in the movie Cleopatra Jones, but when Sims read the script, she was appalled by the racist portrayal of blacks in the movie and turned it down. Sims ultimately decided to go into the beauty business for herself. Sims retired from modeling after five years to start her own business which created a successful wig collection fashioned after the texture of straightened black hair. It eventually expanded into a multimillion-dollar beauty empire and at least five books on modeling and beauty.

She authored several books on modeling, health, and beauty, including All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman, How to Be a Top Model and All About Success for the Black Woman, as well as an advice column for teenage girls in Right On! magazine.

In the 1980s, she expanded the Naomi Sims Collection to include a prestige fragrance, beauty salons and cosmetics, but by the end of the decade she had become less involved with its daily operations. Many images of Sims from that period are still used to promote the products that bear her name.

In August 1973, she married art dealer Michael Findlay. Findlay and Sims caused a stir as Findlay was white and interracial marriage in 1973 was still considered taboo. Findlay and Sims were both profiled separately in the February 1, 1970 issue of Vogue before they met and married. They had one son, Bob. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1991.

Sims died of breast cancer on August 1, 2009, aged 61, in Newark, New Jersey.

Quick Facts

Birth Date:
March 30, 1949

Death Date:
August 1, 2009

  • In high school, Naomi Sims was teased for being noticeably taller than most girls.
  • Upon graduation, she was without an agent, nevertheless she arranged a meeting with fashion photographer Gösta Peterson.
  • By 1968, she became the first black model to appear on the cover of Ladies Home Journal.
  • After getting front cover exposure on such magazines as Cosmopolitan and Life, she decided to retire as a model.
  • In 1986, Naomi Sims Beauty Products was established and featured cosmetics for black women.
  • Naomi Sims
  • Naomi Sims
  • Naomi Sims


BIO: +
PHOTO: Pinterest + MuseumOfUncutFunk + Post-Gazette + HuffingtonPost + BeyondClassicallyBeautiful + Essence

Last Updated

June 2021

Original Published Date

June 2021

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