1950s beauty Helen Williams was the first Black female fashion model to break into the mainstream. But it was the French, rather than the Americans, who embraced her.
There were others before her, but none that crossed over into the mainstream. In 1950s America Helen Williams became the first Black female model to do just that. Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, she was obsessed with clothes from an early age, and began sewing her own garments at the age of seven. As a teenager she studied dance, drama and art before getting a job as a stylist at a New York photography studio. While there she was spotted on separate occasions by Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr, who happened to be in the studio doing press shots. Struck by her beauty, they urged her to take up fashion modelling. She was 17.
With her trademark bouffant wig, sculpted eyebrows and long, giraffe-like neck, Williams worked exclusively for Black magazines such as Ebony and Jet. These early years were tough, as not only did beauty’s apartheid system exclude all non-white models from mainstream fashion, but within the Black modelling scene itself, the girls were required to be light-skinned, just like the Black chorus girls of the 1920s. “I was too dark to be accepted,” Williams recalled.
But that was America. The French, by contrast, held a very different view of Black beauty, and by 1960 Williams had moved to Paris. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she said proudly. She modelled in the famous ateliers of designers Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. By the end of her tenure she was making a staggering $7,500 a year working part-time, and she’d received three marriage proposals from French admirers, one of whom kissed her feet and murmured, “I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle.”
After Paris, Williams returned to America, where things had not changed at all for dark-skinned Black Models models. While searching for a new agent in New York City, she once waited two hours in the reception of one agency, only to be told that they had “one Black model already, thanks.” But Williams never-say-die attitude meant that she would not take no for an answer. “I was pushy and positive,” she said. Undeterred at being rejected, the young beauty took her case to the press. Influential white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson took up her cause, drawing attention to beauty’s continuing exclusion of Black models. This opened things up for Williams, who was then booked for a flurry of ads for brands such as Budweiser, Loom Togs 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. Fashion’s lily-white membrane had finally been breached.
It was a pivotal moment in Black beauty history, as Williams’s success broke the tradition for only using light-skinned models. “Elitists in our group would laugh at somebody if they were totally Black,” said model-turned-agent Ophelia DeVore. “And when Helen came along she was very self-conscious because she was dark. She gave people who were Black the opportunity to know that if they applied themselves they could reach certain goals.” Williams was the first beauty to break the four hundred year chain that had branded dark skin as ugly. The same dark skin that was rendered second-class during slavery, that the minstrels once ridiculed, and that had relegated Hollywood’s actors to roles as servants and clowns, was suddenly beautiful.”