America’s First Black Model ~ Helen Williams

This month is about celebrating black excellence, starting with Ms. Helen Williams, one of America’s first black models. Hats off to this queen for paving the way for other young and upcoming aspiring black models.

Born in New Jersey in 1937, tall and beautiful with gorgeous dark brown skin, Helen Williams was one of the first African American Models during the 1950s-1960s. While working in a photography studio at the age of 17, she was recognized by Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne, who soon took her under their wing and turned her into a beautiful glamorous model.

Other black models preceded her, but Miss Williams was like no other. Her smile, long neck and stunning posture, was more graceful and elegant than anyone can imagine for a woman of color who had never really been given the opportunity to shine.

At a very young age, Helen Williams loved fashion and would never go out in public without looking as if she were already a model. Helen Williams was the first model to work with Ophelia DeVore, who opened up the first African American Modeling Agency, ‘Grace DeMarco Modeling Agency’.

Miss Williams was put through rigorous hours of modeling, stage presence, posture, grace and etiquette training. She soon masters all of the necessary skills and was sent out into the world of fashion modeling.

She began working for African American Fashion and lifestyle magazines, Jet and Ebony. Having dark skin, she faced discrimination, while trying to extend her career with other companies and modeling houses. So, Miss Williams decided to move to France in 1960. She heard Paris was a bit more opened-minded to skin color, as long as you were beautiful and could do the job correctly, they would welcome you in.

Helen Williams had much better success in Paris, France and began working for Christian Dior as well as other high fashion designer houses. Becoming home-sick, Miss Williams soon moved back to the U.S.

Upon returning she realized nothing had changed and decided to take her fight head-on. With the strong, ignorant racism happening in the modeling industry, she had no choice but to become a force to be reckoned with, and did not back down.

She used the press as her ammunition to announce to the world what was actually happening in the fashion industry. She made it very clear that no matter how beautiful you were and how talented and skilled you were for the job, dark-skinned women were being denied time after time, because of the color of her skin.

Being black was one thing, but being dark and ‘a real black’ was another. Dark black skinned women during those times, had been denied jobs all over the country. Having lighter skin, gave women a much better chance at success, especially in the modeling world. The ‘lighter-the whiter’, and Miss Williams was neither.

Helen Williams had to put a stop to the ignorant and hurtful discrimination, and finally opened up the eyes of America. She no longer wanted it to be perceived that ‘dark was ugly’.

With lots of hard work and long hours and years of campaigning, Miss Williams found a career modeling in magazine Ad campaigns for Budweiser and Sears, Kent cigarettes, and many additional print Ads.

Helen Williams had finally broken the color-barrier after a four-year struggle. Beautiful, talented and inspirational, we gracefully and honorably, salute Helen Williams!  

   – Stalletto ( )

Loving. Living. Growing.

~ Forever Trina

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