Helen Williams is a name not many people know but she definitely made her mark when she broke barriers in the modeling and fashion industries during the 1950s and 60s. She was born in east River, New Jersey in 1937 and became the first black fashion model to cross over into the fashion mainstream. In 1954, she was spotted a few times by Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr! They were struck by her beauty and urged her to take up modeling at the age of 17.
She modeled for black magazines such as Jet and Ebony. But getting modeling jobs were hard for her in America because of the color of her skin. Even some in the black community rejected her because she was considered too dark. Back then, lighter skin blacks were more accepted in the fashion industry. But she didn't give up and moved to Paris in the 1960s.
Paris was more accepting of her and fell in love with her charm. She was soon modeling for big names like Christian Dior and posing in glamorous magazine ads. When she returned to America, she was still faced with a lot of rejection, but eventually, she booked ads that were featured in Redbook Magazine, Times magazine, and The New York Times.
She was also one of the first black fashion models to feature in specialist print advertising for cigarettes, alcohol and cosmetics. Check them out below!
There were of course women before her that paved the way, but Williams was a pioneer for getting into the main stream. We wish there were more books, articles, and even a Wikipedia about her! Her life story would make for a great inspiring movie! We'll definitely buy a ticket.
Some of our favorite Helen Williams quotes:
"Modeling gave me the strength to keep on pushing."
"I was too dark to be accepted."
"Over there (Paris) I was La Belle Americane."
"One time they asked the white model if she minded being photographed with a Negro. But do you think they asked me if I minded being photographed with a white?!"
XO Wil Harris