Helen Williams was the first Black Fashion Model to break color barriers in the 1950’s and to cross over into mainstream fashion. She was triumphant in her career, in an age and era when mainstream beauty and fashion excluded non-white models. Even more so she pushed through colorism within the African American modelling scene where models were required to be light-skinned (just like the African American chorus girls of the 1920’s).
Helen was born in Riverton, New Jersey in 1937. At an early age she showed a great obsession for fashion and even began sowing her own garments at the age of 7. She studied dance, art and drama before obtaining work as a stylist for a New York photography studio. At the age of 17, celebrities such as Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. began to notice her work and urged her to pursue fashion and modeling.
In the early stages of her career, Helen worked exclusively with Ebony and Jet magazines. However, in 1960 she relocated to France due to the discrimination she faced in the United States. She found success modeling for famous designers Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she recalled. By the end of her tenure she was making a staggering $7,500 a year working part-time, and had received three marriage proposals from her French admirers, one of whom reportedly kissed her feet and murmured, “I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.”
After Paris, Helen returned to America where the stigma of race was worst especially towards darker toned African American females. As she searched for modelling agencies she was told “No” numerous times. While searching for a new agent in New York City, she was once told by an agency that they already have“one black model already, thanks.” However, she was persistent and would not take no for an answer. “I was pushy and positive,” she recalled. Despite being rejected, she decided to take her case to the press. Two white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson wrote about her cause, ultimately bringing attention to the exclusion of black models within the modeling and fashion industry.
Suddenly doors began to open and Helen started getting work. She was booked for a variety of jobs for brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs, Sears, and Modess, which crossed over for the first time into the mainstream press, in titles such as The New York Times, Life and Redbook. By 1961, her hourly rate had shot up to $100 an hour.
Helen was one of the first clients of Ophelia DeVore’s Grace De Marco modeling agency. Ophelia (former model turned agent) was a shrewd businesswoman with keen insight and endless aspirations, who worked to smash stereotypes and empower black women by teaching them poise, confidence, and the courage to get ahead in a world deeply etched by racial discrimination. Through her modeling agency, DeVore helped launch the early careers of many black celebrities, including actresses Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson,mand actor Richard Roundtree. Needless to say, Helen benefited under her tutelage. DeVore continued to follow Helen’s career through personal correspondence and the press and kept letters, photographs and press clippings, both positive and negative, in carefully organized binders.
Helen has been credited with breaking down racial barriers. In 2004, Helen was the recipient of the Trailblazer Award by the Fashion & Arts Xchange organization at a ceremony at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her caramel complexion paved the way for darker skinned African American models as she broke the tradition of only using white and light-skinned models in mainstream. Although it took some time, this new acceptance eventually resulted in more doors of opportunity being opened for women of color in the world of fashion. Helen created a legacy that gave birth to daughters Naomi Sims, Beverly Johnson, Iman, Naomi Campbell, and Jourdan Dunn. She is the classic example of a black diamond, which is beautiful, unique and extremely rare.
Helen retired from modeling in 1970, but continued her career in fashion as a stylist. She married Norm Jackson in 1977, whom she had met during her modeling days. They reside in Riverton, New Jersey.
Recreate Model: Jasmine Y. Williams
Recreated Photograph Credit: Ciara Kelley
Beauty History & Culture by Ben Arogundade: http://www.arogundade.com/helen-williams-the-first-black-female-fashion-model.html
Times Free Press: http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/life/entertainment/story/2013/may/21/empowering-black-women-ophelia-devore-shrewd-georg/108616/
The Darling Abbey Fashion Art & Sex Museum: http://online-darlingabbey.blogspot.com/2015/02/black-beauty-legend-helen-williams-too.html?view=snapshot
Black Diamonds & Pearls: http://www.blackdiamondsandpearls.com/diamonds–pearls/helen-williams-jackson-fashion-model