Through the Decades, These Black Model Pioneers Shaped Fashion for the Better

Since the 1950s, Black models have been an integral part of the fashion industry trailblazing a path that is hard to forget, but often overlooked. As Black History Month winds down, is showcasing Black model pioneers through the decades that contributed to the elaborate fabric of the modeling industry today. Whether you’re a model junkie or looking to learn something new, this extensive list highlights how these pillars of model history started off in the industry, climbed to notoriety, their claims to fame and beyond.

The 00s

Ajuma Nasenyana
A Kenyan world champion track star and model, Ajuma Nasenyana crowned Miss Nairobi in 2003 was discovered by Surazuri Modeling Agency. Nasenyana’s discovery led to her signing with Ford Models, walking for Alexander McQueen, and becoming Vivienne Westwood’s muse. The radiant model eventually moved back to Kenya to start her own modeling agency City Models and created the Ajuma Nasenyana foundation to empower next-generation Kenyans.

Arlenis Sosa
Dominican Republic model Arlenis Sosa was scouted while strolling the streets of Santo Domingo by designer and agent Luis Menieur. He promptly sent her pictures to the Marilyn Agency, which swiftly flew her to New York City. In her second week there, she met the legendary photographer Steven Meisel, marking the beginning of her rapid rise. Shortly after, she made a significant appearance in the iconic Black issue of Italian Vogue. Sosa’s trajectory continued to ascend as she walked the runways for brands such as Bottega Veneta, Oscar de la Renta, and Hermès. Her career reached new heights as she landed covers with publications including Vogue Germany, WSJ, and i-D.

Armando Cabral
Born in Guinea-Bissau, Armando Cabral spent his formative years in Lisbon before relocating to London for his education, where he was discovered. Cabral quickly ascended to prominence, strutting the runways for esteemed brands such as 3.1 Phillip Lim and Michael Kors. He also secured a prominent role as the face of J. Crew Menswear. Today, Cabral stands as the creative director of his eponymous luxury men’s footwear brand, Armando Cabral.

Chanel Iman
Raised in Los Angeles, Chanel Iman ascended to prominence in the fashion world after winning 3rd place as a teenager in the 2006 Ford Supermodel of the World contest. She has graced the covers of esteemed publications, including American Vogue, i-D, and Vogue Korea, collaborating with renowned photographers such as Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, and David Sims. Throughout her career, Iman has served as the face of numerous campaigns for brands such as Victoria’s Secret, where she held the coveted title of Angel and graced the runway in three shows, as well as for Ralph Lauren and DKNY. Beyond her modeling triumphs, Iman has showcased her acting talents in films such as “Dope” and “Mad Families.”

David Agbodji
Togolese model David Agbodji made his debut in Milan in 2010, where he notably opened and closed Calvin Klein’s Spring/Summer collection. He has since walked in over 100 shows for prestigious brands including Bottega Veneta, Zenga, and most recently, Fear of God, while also professionally competing as a Muay Thai fighter and boxer.

Fernando Cabral
Born in Guinea-Bissau, Fernando Cabral followed his brother Armando’s path and was discovered in 2010. Throughout his career, he has graced the runway over 200 times for esteemed brands such as Missoni, Moncler, and Burberry. In addition to his runway achievements, he has featured in campaigns for COS, Hermès, and Louis Vuitton, solidifying his status as a Icon.

Jaunel McKenzie
One of Jamaica’s first models to appear on American Vogue, Jaunel McKenzie was spotted by Pulse agency at 16. McKenzie walked for the likes of Gucci, Oscar de la Renta, Bottega Veneta and was featured in Tommy Hilfiger’s winter campaigns and Saks catalogs.

Jeneil Williams
Jamaican model Jeneil Williams was discovered in the Caribbean Model Search competition in Jamaica back in 2005. Williams swiftly made her mark on the runway, strutting for renowned fashion houses such as Lanvin, Vivienne Westwood, and Loewe. In 2014, she achieved a significant milestone by becoming the first model from the Caribbean to feature in a global cosmetics campaign for L’Oreal Paris. Additionally, she graced the pages of the prestigious 2011 Pirelli Calendar, lensed by the iconic Karl Lagerfeld. Williams boasts an impressive portfolio of campaigns, including Jimmy Choo, Calvin Klein, and Tom Ford beauty.

Jessica White
Born and raised in Buffalo, NY, Jessica White was scouted at the shy age of 12. At 16, she attended the Personal Best Modeling Talent training agency and got her big break when Anna Wintour noticed her and gave her an editorial feature in American Vogue. White’s career took off after she signed to IMG, and became the first black model to appear five years in a row in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, and received multiple cosmetic contracts with Maybelline. The Sports Illustrated model also had a video vixen stint, appearing in music videos for Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Beyoncé.

Jourdan Dunn
London-born Jourdan Dunn was discovered at the age of 16 in a local Primark and has since been unstoppable. She has graced the pages of publications including Vogue Italia’s Black Models issue, i-D, and British Vogue, among others. Dunn has strutted down the runway in over 200 shows for brands like Prada, Givenchy, and Burberry. Her modeling prowess transcends the catwalk, with appearances in campaigns for brands such as YSL Beauty and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as securing a beauty contract with Charlotte Tilbury. Beyond her modeling endeavors, Dunn has emerged as an advocate for sickle cell anemia, driven by her son’s genetic condition, and serves as an ambassador for the Essenelle Foundation.

Michelle De Swarte
South London born and raised Michelle De Swarte was scouted in a mall by a Select booker and soon after moved to NYC. De Swarte booked her first editorial with Harper’s Bazaar in her first month of living in the city, and eventually walked for Gucci and worked with Tommy Hilfiger and Missoni. The model transitioned into comedy and now does stand-up skits while appearing in the Netflix show “The Duchess”.

Nadine Willis
From exotic dancer to model, Jamaican native Nadine Willis found herself in the fashion world after being discovered by Pulse Agency in Kingston. Willis first moved to London to find an international agency but after multiple rejections, she was finally signed and her career took off a few weeks later. The driven model booked editorial in Vogue Paris and eventually bagged an exclusive campaign with Gucci, becoming a Tom Ford favorite.

Oraine Barrett
Jamaican model Oraine Barrett launched his career after winning the Male Face of Jamaica and the Male Face of the Caribbean 2004 competition. Despite a distinctive scar acquired from a traumatic robbery, Barrett ascended the ranks of the industry. He has featured in numerous campaigns for Ralph Lauren and editorial spreads in publications such as i-D and Vogue Hommes Japan.

Sessilee Lopez
Hailing from Philadelphia with Dominican roots, Sessilee Lopez was catapulted into the spotlight in 2005 with a coveted contract for Calvin Klein’s CK One fragrance. Her runway presence soared as she graced catwalks for esteemed brands including Fendi, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Zac Posen. Recognized as’s Model of the Week in April 2004, the Afro-Dominican sensation also made waves in the viral Vogue Italia All Black issue in July 2008 and secured covers for i-D and Numero. She was also shot by renowned photographers like Emma Summerton, Peter Lindbergh, and Alasdair McLellan.

Selita Ebanks
Cayman Islands native and Staten Island raised, Selita Ebanks was discovered by an agent while visiting Six Flags in New Jersey. Ebanks made her big debut walking for Tuleh and quickly descended into a Victoria’s Secret runway Angel appearing in 5 shows. The former VS model dabbled into acting and appeared on How I Met Your Mother and Kanye West’s Runaway short film.

The 90s

Alek Wek
South Sudanese-British model Alek Wek was discovered at an outdoor market in London in 1995 while studying at the London College of Fashion. Her modeling career swiftly took off, marked by appearances in the music video for “GoldenEye” by Tina Turner. Wek’s runway presence has been showcased in major fashion shows for over 200 designers, including Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, and Christian Dior. Additionally, she has been featured in campaigns for brands such as Saint Laurent, Jil Sander, and Alexander McQueen. Notably, Herb Ritts captured her for the Pirelli campaign early in her career, while in 2004, she made history as the first Black model to close the Chanel haute couture show. Beyond her modeling triumphs, Wek is a dedicated advocate for human rights, actively supporting charitable causes such as the fight against HIV/AIDS and speaking out against the Sudanese conflict. Her platform has been instrumental in raising awareness about humanitarian crises, cementing her role as a trailblazer in the industry.

Brandi Quinones
Brandi Quinones was arguably one of the most recognized models of the 90’s. Born in New York but raised in Florida and Oklahoma by a mother who was a model and hair and makeup artist, Brandi grew up already aware of the industry. She was discovered in 1992 and after Donatella saw her, Brandi immediately booked a Versace campaign. She went on to do multiple Versace and Chanel campaigns and appeared on the April 1994 cover of American Vogue shot by Herb Ritts. Her stunning smile, natural hair and effusive personality captivated designers such as Gianni and Donatella Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Azzedine Alaïa and brands such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.

Chrystèle Saint Louis Augustin
Born in Paris, Chrystèle was discovered at an open call for United Colors of Benetton when she was still in high school and went on to become a muse for Gaultier, Chanel, and Dior. She was one of the first black models to demand to wear her hair in its natural state and appeared in music videos with musician Maxwell.

Gin Clarke
From southeast London, Gin Clark was discovered by Jean Paul Gaultier on a trip to London. From there she was a constant muse to Gaultier (Alexander McQueen loved her too) appearing on his runways and campaigns in 95 before Hollywood called. She took her edgy look and talent to the sets of Star Wars and The Fifth Element.

Kimora Lee Simmons
Kimora Lee Simmons, a St. Louis native of Black, Korean and Japanese heritage, was discovered at the age of 13 during a model search in Kansas City. She catapulted onto the international stage when she was exclusively selected to walk the runway for the Chanel show in Paris, making history as the youngest bride for the luxury house. Simmons quickly became a muse for Lagerfeld and graced the catwalks for renowned designers such as Isaac Mizrahi and Fendi. In 1999, she reshaped the Y2K fashion aesthetic by launching the brand Baby Phat, which swiftly became a cultural phenomenon. Simmons’ influential impact extended beyond the fashion world and was further showcased through her reality TV show “Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane.”

Liya Kebede
Ethiopian icon Liya Kebede, embarked on her career at the age of 18 when she relocated to Paris. Within a year, her modeling journey reached new heights as she made her debut at prestigious shows for Ralph Lauren and BCBG Max Azria. Notably, she was personally chosen by Tom Ford for an exclusive contract at the Gucci Fall/Winter 2000 fashion show. In a momentous occasion in May 2002, Kebede graced the cover of Paris Vogue, which dedicated the entire issue to her. Since then, she has adorned the covers of Vogue editions worldwide, alongside other renowned publications such as V, i-D, and Time’s Style & Design. Kebede’s portfolio boasts prominent ad campaigns for brands like Yves Saint-Laurent, Victoria’s Secret, and many others. Her groundbreaking achievement in 2003 as the first-ever black model to represent Estée Lauder underscored her influence and trailblazing status in the industry. Beyond her modeling endeavors, Kebede is a dedicated activist, serving as the Goodwill Ambassador for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health for the World Health Organization.

Lois Samuels
Model, author, and designer Lois Samuels was born in St. Elizabeth’s Parish, Jamaica, and paved the way for other models from her home country, working in the mid-90s with photographers like Steven Meisel, Ellen von Unwerth, and Peter Lindbergh. She was the first Black model to land a cover for Vogue Germany in 1997 and was part of iconic ads for Calvin Klein Jeans.

Naomi Campbell
London-born Naomi Campbell’s discovery at the age of 15 marked the beginning of her illustrious career. Renowned for her commanding presence and iconic runway strut, Campbell swiftly ascended to prominence as a supermodel. Notably, she achieved groundbreaking milestones, becoming the first black model to grace the cover of French Vogue and the first British black model featured on the cover of British Vogue. With a portfolio boasting over 500 magazine covers, Campbell has lent her allure to campaigns for brands such as Burberry, Prada, and Chanel. Beyond her modeling endeavors, Campbell is a staunch advocate for diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. Co-founding the “Diversity Coalition” alongside Bethann Hardison and Iman, she has been at the forefront of initiatives to address the lack of racial representation in the industry. Campbell’s influence extends beyond fashion, as evidenced by her acting career, including roles in Lee Daniels’ STAR, Fox’s Empire, and FX’s American Horror Story: Hotel with Lady Gaga. She was appointed Contributing Editor of British Vogue by former Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful in 2017 and continues to cement her status as a global icon with a lasting impact on the fashion world and beyond.

Oluchi Onweagba Orlandi
One of Nigeria’s most notable models, Oluchi was discovered after winning a modeling competition in 1998. The prize was a modeling contract for three years and she moved to New York to work. She went to walk for all the high-profile names in the late 90s/early aughts like Tom Ford’s Gucci, Dior, Givenchy, and Fendi. She’s been featured on magazine covers from i-D, Vogue Italia, Elle, and Pop. She founded her own agency based in South Africa in 2007 and hosted the only season of Africa’s Next Top Model where she discovered model Aamito Lagum.

Tyra Banks
Raised in Inglewood, Los Angeles, Tyra Banks embarked on her modeling journey at the age of 15, strutting the runways for brands like Chanel and Azzedine Alaïa in her debut season. Shortly thereafter, she secured her inaugural cover for Vogue España. Throughout her career, Banks graced the catwalks for renowned designers including Isaac Mizrahi, Michael Kors, Armani, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta, Tommy Hilfiger, and Yves Saint Laurent. Her striking presence also adorned the covers of magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, and Elle. Banks revolutionized the industry as the new face of CoverGirl and made history as the first black woman to grace the covers of GQ, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and the Victoria’s Secret catalog, subsequently earning the distinction of being the black woman with a Victoria’s Secret contract. Beyond modeling, Banks made an indelible mark on television by hosting the immensely popular reality show “America’s Next Top Model” in 2003, where she served as a mentor to aspiring models.

Tyson Beckford
American model Tyson Beckford was scouted in 1992/93 when Erik Lauren, a Counsel at the hip hop magazine The Source, approached him “in Washington Square Park” about appearing in an editorial for New York City magazine. Shortly after, Ralph Lauren selected him as the front model for the company’s Polo line of male sportswear. In 1995, Beckford was honored as “Man of the Year” by the cable television music channel VH1, and he was also recognized as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” by People magazine.

Vladimir McCrary
A muse of Jean-Paul Gaultier, the 6’7″ McCrary similarly went from runways to movie sets appearing in The Fifth Element, which Gaultier famously costume designed. The Texan ex-pat and former basketball player was also a favorite of Thierry Mugler, appearing in campaigns and the runway and has resurfaced on the cover of L’Uomo Vogue in 2021.

The 80s

Ann Fiona
Ann Fiona Scollay was a Kenyan/Swiss model and one of the top runway girls in Europe from the 80s until the mid-90s. Known for her incredible walk and versatility, she was a favorite of Emanuel Ungaro and a regular on the catwalks of Dior, Gianni Versace, Chanel, YSL, Ferre, Givenchy, Paco Rabanne, and Giorgio Armani. After battling with personal demons, Ann Fiona passed away in Kenya in April 2015.

Anna Getaneh
Born in Sweden with an Ethiopian background, Anna Getaneh was based in Brussels when she took a train to Paris and landed on the front steps of an agency. A month later, Getaneh was signed and working for Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, and eventually for all 7 markets. The Ethiopian model’s interest in design and fashion grew from her experiences on the runway and she eventually opened her own company African Mosaique to promote African fashion and talents.

Aria Riccardo
Valeria “Aria” Riccardo was born in Queens, NY, and became a model at the age of 16 after attending an open call with a friend. She wasn’t really interested in modeling, what she really wanted to do was become a New York police officer like her father. But the world of fashion beckoned, and Aria went on to star in Ralph Lauren and Clairol campaigns as well as walk the runways for Givenchy, Ralph Lauren, YSL and Calvin Klein.

Beverly Peele
A favorite of Chanel, Aaliyah, Versace and Mugler, Beverly Peele had one of the best walks in the business. The LA native was on the cover of Vogue Italia, Vogue Germany and Mademoiselle. Modeling since she was 12, she walked back to back Victoria’s Secret shows and starred in music videos for Heavy D’s “Nuttin’ but Love”, Jodeci’s “Freakin’ you”, and George Michael’s “Too Funky.”

Charles Williamson
Born in the small Caribbean nation of Grenada, Charles first came to prominence through the Ebony Fashion Fair. One of the highest paid Black models in America during the 70s and 80s, he regularly appeared in the pages of GQ Magazine. In the 1980s, he became a follower of Rajneesh and began to model under the name of Bodhananda. He passed away in 2004.

Connie Fleming
Model and nightlife queen Connie Fleming, was born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and initially found her way into the limelight by performing drag and posing for Steven Meisel. Even though she dealt with vicious ridicule and pushback from people within the industry, Fleming’s undeniable star power carried her to become one of Thierry Mugler and Vivienne Westwood’s early muses. In the latter half of the ‘90s, naysayers in the industry tried to box out transgender models and gatekeep opportunities. She was also a trailblazer in other ways, like becoming an iconic door girl for NYC parties and has recently reappeared on the cover of Paper Magazine and in collaborations with Area and Mugler.

Djimon Hounsou
Before acting, Djimon Gaston Hounsou was found in the pages of your favorite glossy and the small screen. Born in Benin, Hounsou immigrated with his brother to Lyon, France and shortly dropped out of school. A chance connection with a photographer led him to a meeting with Thierry Mugler, who encouraged him to pursue a modeling career. In the early 90s, he would connect with Herb Ritts and appear in Interview Magazine with Naomi Campbell. After moving to the States, Hounsou connected again with Ritts in the music video “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” by Janet Jackson and Madonna’s “Express Yourself shot by David Fincher.

Gloria Burgess
Gloria Burgess was born and raised in Washington DC but led a very international life. After studying political science at a university in Pakistan, in the mid-70s she traveled to Japan with a Polynesian dance troupe and was discovered by Issey Miyake. During the 70s and 80s, Gloria was one of the top models in Europe, working often for Miyake as well as Kenzo, Dior, Mugler, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. Her daughters, Olivia Burgess and Glovindra, also model.

Karen Alexander
Healing from New Jersey, Karen Alexander was a favorite subject of the late Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts. Before she landed covers for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and she was infamously rejected by Eileen Ford and John Casablancas for being “unphotogenic.” One of the first black models in Sports Illustrated, she landed major beauty contracts with Chanel and L’Oreal. She turned to acting appearing in Bad Boys as Max Logan.

Mario van Peebles
The son of legendary African American filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, Mario van Peebles had a foray into fashion in the early 1980s. After getting a degree in economics from Columbia University, Mario signed to Ford Models and quickly became one of the top print models in the US. He then shifted his focus to filmmaking, and went on to write and star in cult classics New Jack City and Posse.

Rashid Silvera
While staying at the house of a friend in the early 1980’s, Silvera was noticed while walking along a beach by the owners of a modeling agency who soon after launched his career as a model. He first modeled for fashion photographer, Rico Puhlmann. In April of 1983, Silvera became the fourth black male model to appear on the cover of GQ magazine. Silvera also appeared on the covers of Essence magazine and CODE magazine and was the first African American male to model for a Polo Ralph Lauren advertisement campaign. Now retired from education, Silvera taught in the Hudson Valley area at Scarsdale High School for almost four decades after earning not one but two master’s degrees from Harvard, one from the Divinity School and one from the Graduate School of Education.

Veronica Webb
From Detroit Michigan, Veronica Webb was scouted by a makeup artist in 1983. She got signed to an agency moved to Paris and soon was walking for Alaïa, Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. Webb stand as the first black model to have a major cosmetics contract with Revlon and scored editorial stories in Vogue, Vogue Paris, Vogue Italia, and Elle along the way. She turned to acting in the early 90s and was in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Jungle Fever. She was a close friend to Azzedine Alaïa, who she considered a father figure. The Battle of Versailles model turned agent, Bethann Hardison represented her at the time and introduced the two of them.

The 70s

Alva Chinn
Before Alva Chinn was a Halstonette, she studied at the University of Massachusetts and then moved to New York to start her modeling career. Chinn was discovered through word of mouth upon meeting Oscar De La Renta during an Ebony photoshoot, which led to her introduction to Halston and joining the Halstonette entourage. Chinn worked for the likes of Valentino and participated in the legendary Battle of Versailles show that changed American fashion and showcased Black models in a way that had never been seen.

Beverly Johnson
From Buffalo, New York, Beverly Johnson was the first black woman on the cover of American Vogue in August 1974 at the age of 22. While attending Northeastern University, she came to Manhattan and tried to find an agency, ending up getting hired to model for Glamour Magazine in 1971. Three years later, Vogue came calling and her appearance on the cover changed the beauty ideal in US fashion, so much so that by 1975, every major American fashion designer had begun using African-American models. After going into acting, she starred in Michael Jackson’s Liberian Girl music video and went on for appearance in films like Crossroads, How to Be a Player, and the hit TV show Martin.

Grace Jones
Born in Spanish town, Jamaica, Grace Jones is an iconic model, singer, actor, and performance artist. After her family relocated to New York City, she was discovered at 18 by Wilhelmina Cooper who transformed her career. She moved to Paris in the 70s and worked with Yves Saint Laurent, Kenzo, Alaïa, and Claude Montana, who admired her androgynous look. Photographers like Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, and Hans Feurer couldn’t get enough of her. She played muse to Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, but her most important collaboration was with photographer and graphic designer, Jean-Paul Goude who shot her album covers, music videos, and developed much reference images of her with the elongated limbs. Known for being on the disco scene at Studio 54, her biggest singles were “La Vie En Rose,” “Slave to the Rhythm,” and “Pull Up to the Bumper.” She became the first black Bond girl in A View to Kill and also starred in Boomerang and Conan.

Iman Abdulmajid
An ambassador’s daughter who speaks five languages fluently, Iman took the role as muse of Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, and Halston. While studying political science, at the University of Nairobi, Iman was discovered by photographer, Peter Beard. He was desperate to shoot her, paid an exorbitant fee, and she secured a contract and one way ticket to New York. Photographers like Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Annie Leibovitz shot her for every top magazine imaginable, and after two decades of modeling, she started Iman cosmetics because it was impossible for black models to find their foundation shade. Her marriage to David Bowie was an enduring love story for over 23 years that started when Bowie said he fell in love with her at first sight in 1990.

Josy Numa
Josy Numa Gil was born in Guadeloupe, French West Indies, and at the age of 16 received a scholarship to study law in Paris. She was known for making daring fashion choices, and cut off her hair and shaved off her eyebrows, starting a trend amongst models in Paris during the late 60s/early 70s. On the runway, she walked for Ungaro and Courreges and was photographed by the likes of Guy Bourdin, David Bailey and Helmut Newton.

Marion Womble
A former dancer, Marion was one of the top male models in Europe during the 1970s. A regular on the catwalk of Yves Saint Laurent, he was also close to designers Kenzo and Karl Lagerfeld. In addition to his runway work, Womble appeared in Vogue Paris and L’Uomo Vogue, graced on the cover of Essence, and was photographed by the likes of Helmut Newton, David Bailey, and Oliviero Toscani.

Mounia, aka Monique-Antoine Orosemane, was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique, the daughter of a French former police detective and a Martinican mother. It was in the late 70s while working as a flight announcer at Orly Airport in Paris that Mounia was spotted by Hubert de Givenchy and Jean Bousquet of Cacharel, who both encouraged her to pursue modeling. The first Black model to walk the Givenchy runway and work for Coco Chanel, Mounia is most famously remembered as the favorite muse of Yves Saint Laurent.

Peggy Dillard
The youngest of 13 children, Peggy Dillard grew up in Greenville, North Carolina. She began modeling after moving to NYC to attend the Pratt Institute where she studied fashion merchandising. Initially working as a runway model solely for Black designers, Peggy’s big break came when she was eventually signed by model agent Ellen Harth. Peggy made the cover of American Vogue three times and also appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan and in Italian Vogue shot by Irving Penn. Quickly she was considered the top Black model in the industry despite refusing to ever straighten her hair, explaining “Growing up I was taught to love hair that’s alive and healthy and to believe that it didn’t have to be straight to be beautiful.” She and her husband later opened a salon in Harlem specializing in natural hair care.

Renauld White
Newark, New Jersey native Renauld White began his modeling career in 1967. At the time a computer programming trainee, he took a day off to visit model agencies in New York City and was eventually signed by Wilhelmina. In November 1979, he became the first African American male model on the cover of GQ. One of the most visible male models of the 70s and 80s, Renauld’s success extended to Europe, where he worked for Missoni and Italian Vogue. A longtime companion of Aretha Franklin, Renauld was also friends with Stephen Burrows and was interviewed by Andy Warhol. In 2023, he made his fashion comeback, as the one of the faces of Dolce & Gabbana’s Re-Edition campaign, photographed by Steven Meisel.

Sterling St Jacques
The tale of Sterling St Jacques is a mysterious one. Reportedly the adopted son of legendary blaxploitation actor Raymond St Jacques, details of Sterling’s actual background and upbringing are few and far between. What we do know is that he dramatically arrived on the fashion scene in the early 1970s. Known for his gray eyes (often covered with blue contacts) and dazzling personal style, he modeled for Yves Saint Laurent, Givenchy, Halston, and Willi Smith, and was one of the few men to participate in the Battle of Versailles. A regular at Studio 54, Sterling’s dance moves were allegedly the inspiration behind Chic’s disco hit “He’s The Greatest Dancer.” Romantically linked to both Pat Cleveland and Hubert de Givenchy, he also partied with Liza Minelli, Bianca Jagger, Jackie Onassis, Elton John and Karl Lagerfeld. In the 1980s, he moved to Europe where he recorded Italo Disco music. His fate, after that, remains as unclear as his origins.

Tracey Norman
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Tracey “Africa” Norman posed for Irving Penn for Italian Vogue and worked for brands such as Clairol and Avon in the mid-to-late 1970s. On a shoot for Essence in 1980, she was outed as transgender by an assistant hair stylist and from then on received discrimination from the NY fashion community, leading to challenges in finding work. After moving to Paris and working for Balenciaga, Tracey retired from modeling and became involved in the drag ballroom scenes in New York, New Jersey, and Brooklyn. After a 2015 biographical article in The Cut, Tracey once again began to model, appearing on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar India and working once more for Clairol and Italian Vogue.

Urs Althaus
Born to a Nigerian father and Swiss mother, Urs Althaus grew up in the small canton of Uri in Central Switzerland. After initially trying to become a professional football player, injury led him to instead move to Paris and start modeling. From the mid-70s until the early 90s, Althaus worked for the likes of Calvin Klein, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Armani. After modeling, Urs worked as an actor, became a model agent, and published an autobiography.

The 60s

Bethann Hardison
Bethann Hardison was working at Ruth Manchester Ltd., a junior dress company, in New York City when designer Willi Smith discovered her in 1967 during her sales rounds. Smith appointed her as his fitting model and muse, and through him, she met Bruce Weber, a burgeoning photographer at the time. This connection led to opportunities to work with renowned designers such as Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Issey Miyake, Kenzo, and Claude Montana. Notably, Hardison broke new ground as one of the few Black models cast in the historic Battle of Versailles show in the early 1970s. Following her successful modeling career, she joined Click Models before establishing her own agency, Bethann Management, where she continued to challenge prevailing notions of beauty. Hardison played a pivotal role in discovering talents like Veronica Webb and representing figures like Kimora Lee Simmons and Tyson Beckford. Co-founding The Diversity Coalition with Iman and Naomi Campbell, she tirelessly campaigned for improved racial diversity in the industry. Additionally, she consulted on the groundbreaking 2008 Vogue Italia Black issue and received the prestigious Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Eleanor Lambert Founder’s Award for her efforts in championing diversity. Furthermore, she co-directed the documentary “Invisible Beauty,” which premiered at Sundance, and she was honored with’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Donyale Luna
Born Peggy Ann Freeman in Detroit in 1945, she adopted the name Donyale Luna during her teenage years. Luna was discovered by fashion photographer David McCabe at the age of 19 and later moved to New York to collaborate with Richard Avedon and became associated with Andy Warhol’s “Factory.” Her breakthrough came shortly after she arrived in the UK, when in March 1966, she became the first black model to grace the cover of Vogue in a shoot with David Bailey. Subsequently, she became an international sensation, with Time dubbing 1966 the “Luna Year.” Luna walked the runway for designers such as André Courrèges, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, and Paco Rabanne, and she also became a muse for Salvador Dalí. Her presence extended beyond the runway, appearing on the covers of Interview, Vogue Italia, and Elle, and starring in several films produced by Andy Warhol. Tragically, Donyale Luna passed away from a heroin overdose in a clinic in Rome at the age of 33. She is survived by her husband, Luigi Cazzaniga, and her daughter, Dream.

Elizabeth of Toro
Princess Elizabeth of Toro had a versatile background before transitioning into the modeling world. Born in Western Uganda to the royal family, Elizabeth went on to graduate from Cambridge University with a law degree, becoming the first East-African woman to be admitted into the English Bar. Upon her father’s passing, she went back to Uganda and became the most powerful woman in the country which made international headlines. Soon after, Princess Margaret asked Elizabeth to walk for a charity show in London which was the start of her vast modeling and acting career. The Princess of Toro was featured in British and American Vogue, becoming the first Black woman to grace the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and later undertook acting making a debut in “Bullfrog in the Sun” and eventually became Uganda’s ambassador to the United States.

Kellie Wilson
Born in Washington D.C, Kellie Wilson was raised by her businesswoman mother in Hawaii, Michigan, and Chicago. A gifted student, Kellie studied psychology at the University of Chicago and fashion design at the Chicago Art Institute. It was after graduating in 1964 that she got her big break: in New York to find a job working in fashion, Kellie was instead spotted in a diner by French photographer Jean-Loup Sieff. Taken with her outlandish personal style and unusual beauty. Sieff whisked Kellie off to Paris, where she modeled in the salons of Paco Rabanne, Pierre Cardin, Nina Ricci, Christian Dior, Lanvin, and Courrèges. Eventually based in Chelsea, in the heart of Swinging London, Kellie was photographed by the likes of Richard Avedon, Clive Arrowsmith, Bert Stern and Brian Duffy, and worked often with iconic British designers Jean Muir, Mary Quant, and Ossie Clark. Andy Warhol shot a screen test with her at The Factory in 1966. In 1970, Kellie was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery. She tragically passed away a few years later, in September 1973, at age 31.

LeJeune Hundley
LeJeune Hundley’s start came through the pageant circuit, winning the “Miss American” beauty contest and then Miss Cannes Film Festival in 1960. Born in Alexandria, Virginia, LeJeune’s ambition to succeed was fuelled after her mother was fired from a longtime school cafeteria job in 1959 due to her fight to enroll her two younger daughters into integrated schools. LeJeune modeled briefly for the House of Dior in Paris before returning stateside and in October 1962 she became one of the first Black models to appear in American Vogue. A graduate of the Ophelia De Vore School of Charm, LeJeune balanced modeling for 7th Ave designers with working at De Vore’s legendary Grace Del Marco Agency.

Mozella Roberts
Mozella Roberts was one of the first Black models to work in the showrooms of New York’s Seventh Avenue designers. Born in rural North Carolina, Mozella was raised by her great grandfather, a former slave, until the age of 6, when her mother moved the family to Pittsburgh. In 1959 Mozella married and moved to New York. It was there, in 1960, that she began freelance modeling, often pretending to be her own agent while organizing bookings over the phone. She walked for designers such as Bill Blass, Emilio Pucci, YSL and Oscar de la Renta, was a muse of Arnold Scaasi, and posed for Richard Avedon, Gordon Parks and Salvador Dali.

Naomi Sims
Naomi Sims, born in Oxford, Mississippi, pursued higher education after winning a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Despite encounters with racism, she managed to secure modeling opportunities and then was approached by Wilhelmina Cooper, which accelerated her career. Selected for a national television campaign for AT&T, showcasing designs by Bill Blass, Sims became one of the first successful black models. She made history gracing the cover of Life magazine on October 17, 1969—the first black model to achieve this milestone. Retiring from modeling at twenty-five in 1973, Sims ventured into entrepreneurship, establishing a successful wig collection that evolved into a multimillion-dollar beauty empire. Additionally, she authored five books on modeling and beauty. Naomi Sims passed away from breast cancer on August 1, 2009, at sixty-one in Newark, New Jersey. She is survived by her son, Bob Findlay, a granddaughter, and her elder sister, Betty Sims.

Pat Cleveland
Pat Cleveland a Harlem native, was discovered while standing on a train platform in New York City by a Vogue editor’s assistant. During the 1960s, she faced numerous rejections due to limited opportunities for black models. In a bold move in 1971, Cleveland relocated to France, vowing not to return to the US until a black model graced the cover of US Vogue. Two years later, she participated in the groundbreaking Battle of Versailles fashion show, where American and French designers competed. This pivotal event featured 11 African American models, marking a significant shift in the industry. Cleveland’s return to New York in 1974 coincided with Beverly Johnson’s historic appearance on the cover of US Vogue. Throughout her career, Cleveland collaborated with renowned photographers such as Irving Penn, Steven Meisel, and Richard Avedon, and was featured in publications like Essence. Renowned for her runway prowess, she was a staple in shows for designers including Kenzo, Valentino, and Yves Saint Laurent. Cleveland’s legacy lives on as she continues to book covers and through her daughter, Anna Cleveland, who is also a successful model who recently closed the Thom Browne F/W 24 Show.

Richard Roundtree
Before taking on the iconic titular role in the 1971 film Shaft, Richard Roundtree was a successful male model. Discovered by Eunice W. Johnson of Ebony Magazine in the early 60s, Roundtree went on to become a Ebony Fashion Fair fixture and popular print model in the US, appearing in ads for cigarettes and hair products. In the early 70s, he gave up modeling in favor of acting. He passed away in 2023.

The 50s

Helen Williams
Born in East Riverton, New Jersey, in 1937, Helen Williams ventured into the fashion world as a stylist at a New York photography studio. Starting her career at 17, she was featured on publications like Ebony, Jet, and TAN magazines. However, her journey was hindered by racism in the modeling industry until she found representation with Grace Del Marco, an African American modeling agency owned by Ophelia Devore. Moving to Paris marked a turning point in her career, where she modeled for prestigious luxury houses including Christian Dior and Jean Dessès, earning her the nickname ‘La Belle Américaine’. Back in America, she bravely confronted the industry’s prevailing racism, garnering attention from the press with support from journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson. This advocacy led to notable advertising campaigns for brands such as Budweiser and Loom Togs. Despite retiring from modeling in 1970, Williams continued her impact on fashion as a stylist. She passed away from Alzheimer’s disease at a care facility in nearby Moorestown on July 26, 2023, at the age of 87.

Dorothea Towles Church
Born in Texas, Dorothea was the first successful black model in Paris. A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. she followed her sister, a concert pianist and singer, on a two-month vacation to the city of lights. Dior hired her to replace one of its regular models and she spent the next five years walking for designers like Jacques Fath, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Pierre Balmain. When she returned to the US, she spread the wealth by touring with her collection of couture at black colleges to fundraise for AKA. She was on the cover of Jet Magazine and earned success but still dealt with racial prejudice. Pierre Balmain notoriously refused her request to borrow dresses for an Ebony magazine photoshoot because he was concerned white clients would be displeased and that black women couldn’t afford him. She eventually signed with the New York modeling agency, Grace Del Marco, and was thought to be the only black model that made her entire income in the profession at that time. She died at age 83 in New York City.

This post has been updated from an earlier version

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