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The Story Of The First Black Fashion Model

She pushed through colorism within the African American modelling scene

BY Vongai Mbara

Feb 08, 2023, 11:40 AM

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Before Naomi Campbell, there was Helen Williams. A pioneer in the modelling industry, recognized for opening doors for African American fashion models, particularly those with dark complexion tones. It is because of her that we see dark-skinned models appearing in important periodicals, advertisements, and high-end catwalks both domestically and internationally.

Helen, who was born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, was passionate about fashion. As a stylist in a New York photographic studio, she got her start in the field. Entertainers Lena Horne and Sammy Davis, Jr. allegedly encouraged her to start modelling after spotting her while taking press pictures at the studio. But the person who actually persuaded her to pose for the camera was a photographer by the name of Eric Nepo.

In the 1950s, Helen Williams was the first Black fashion model to break down racial barriers and enter the mainstream of fashion. In a time and place when conventional beauty and fashion barred non-white models, she was successful in her career. She also overcame colourism in the African American modelling industry, where models had to have light skin tones (much like the chorus girls of the 1920s).
At the beginning of her career, Helen only collaborated with the Ebony and Jet publications. But because of the prejudice she encountered in the United States, she moved to France in 1960. She was successful as a model for renowned fashion houses Christian Dior and Jean Dessès.  She received three marriage proposals from her French fans during her stay there, and by the end of it, she was earning an astounding $7,500 a year working part-time. One of them reportedly kissed her feet and said, "I worship the earth you walk on mademoiselle."

After Paris, Helen moved back to the United States, where racial stigma was particularly severe for African American women with deeper skin tones. She was often told "No" when she looked for modelling agencies. She once heard an agency in New York City tell her that they already have "one black model already, thanks" as she was looking for a new agent.

She was tenacious, though, and would not accept a negative response. “I was aggressive and upbeat”, she said. She chose to go to the press after being turned down. Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson, two white journalists, wrote about her course, eventually drawing attention to the exclusion of black models from the modelling and fashion industries.
Suddenly, doors started opening up and Helen started receiving jobs. She was hired for a range of projects for companies like Budweiser, Loom Togs, Sears, and Modess, which broke into the mainstream press for the first time in publications like The New York Times, Life, and Redbook. Her hourly pay skyrocketed to $100 by 1961.

Racial barriers have been said to have been destroyed by Helen. At a ceremony held at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in 2004, Helen was presented with the Trailblazer Award by the Fashion & Arts Xchange organization. As she defied the convention of solely utilizing white and light-skinned models in the mainstream, her caramel complexion cleared the way for darker-skinned African American models.

It took some time, but ultimately more avenues in the world of fashion opened for women of colour thanks to this new acceptance. Supermodels Naomi Sims, Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Jourdan Dunn were born thanks to Helen's legacy. She is the archetypal black diamond—beautiful, distinctive, and incredibly uncommon.

In 1970, Helen Williams stopped modelling but kept working in the industry as a stylist. In 1977, she wed Norm Jackson, whom she had met while modelling. They are New Jersey residents of Riverton.

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