Born in Oxford on 30 March 1948 to John Sims, a porter, and Elizabeth Sims, Naomi Sims went on to become a pioneering African American model and businesswoman. Known as the first black supermodel, she paved the way for such better-known African American models as Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell.
Sims’s parents divorced when she was a baby, and she moved with her mother and sisters to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After her mother became ill, Sims entered the foster care system, and much of her childhood was spent feeling isolated and insecure, in part because she had reached a towering 5ʹ10ʺ by age thirteen. After graduating from high school Sims received a scholarship to attend New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Though her classmates encouraged her to earn extra money by modeling, every agency turned her down. She then began directly contacting photographers, and the highly regarded Gosta Peterson agreed to photograph her. He shared the shots with his wife, New York Times editor Patricia Peterson, who placed Sims on the cover of the paper’s 1967 fashion supplement.
Even that was not enough to get Sims a modeling contract: agencies still believed that there was no work for black models. Sims offered model turned agent Wilhelmina Cooper a deal she couldn’t refuse: Sims would mail out the Times cover herself but list the agency as a contact. If offers came in, Cooper would earn a commission though she had done no work. The strategy worked. Sims first landed a national AT&T commercial and then became the first African American model to appear on the covers of Ladies’ Home Journal (1968) and Life (1969). By the time she retired in 1973, Sims’s photographs had appeared in some of the world’s most prestigious magazines, and she had graced the runways for some of the world’s most celebrated fashion designers, helping to bring black models into the mainstream. In 1974 designer Halston said, “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”
Sims then turned to business. As a model, Sims had found a dearth of beauty products for black women, and she set out to fill that void, developing a lightweight wig fiber resembling low-maintenance straightened black hair. The Naomi Sims Collection hit the market in 1976 and sold more than five million dollars worth of wigs during the first year. In 1981 she added a fragrance, Naomi, and four years later she created Naomi Sims Beauty Products, which added a line of skin-care products. She served as the spokesperson for all of her products.
Sims also began writing books about the beauty and health of African American women. She published All about Health and Beauty for the Black Woman (1976), How to Be a Top Model (1979), All about Hair Care for the Black Woman (1982), and All about Success for the Black Woman (1982).
In her mid-thirties, however, Sims was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which crippled her at times and led to several hospitalizations. By 2005, when she was among twenty-five women honored at an Oprah Winfrey “Legends Ball,” she had lost control of her business, had suffered financial setbacks, and had completely left the public spotlight.
Sims died of breast cancer on 1 August 2009.
- John M. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman, African-American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary (1993)
- New York Times (3 August, 22 December 2009)
- Naomi Sims website, www.naomisims.com
- Jesse C. Smith, Encyclopedia of African American Business (2006)