Obituary: Naomi Ruth Sims / Pittsburgh native was one of the first black supermodels
March 30, 1948 - Aug. 1, 2009
August 5, 2009 4:00 AM
Model Naomi Sims in New York in May 1970.
By Eric Wilson The New York Times
Long before black models like Veronica Webb and Iman became household names in the fashion industry, there was a long-legged beauty by the name of Naomi Sims who stunned audiences with her good looks, carriage and grace. And she just happened to be from Pittsburgh.
Ms. Sims' appearance as the first black model on the cover of Ladies' Home Journal in November 1968 was a consummate moment of the Black is Beautiful movement. But she was also an astute businesswoman. After retiring at the height of her career in 1973, she went on to design successful collections of wigs and cosmetics for black women, and authored several books on modeling, health and beauty.
"She was a pioneer," said former Post-Gazette fashion editor LaMont Jones. "Without her, there would be no Tyra Banks or Naomi Campbell or Beverly Johnson. She showed us beauty comes in so many shades."
Ms. Sims died Saturday at age 61 in Newark, N.J. The cause of death was cancer, said her son, Bob Findlay.
Ms. Sims often said childhood insecurities and a painful upbringing in Pittsburgh's East End had inspired her to strive to become "somebody really important" at a time when cultural perceptions of black Americans were being challenged by the civil rights movement.
When Ms. Sims arrived in New York on a scholarship to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966, there was very little interest in fashion for black models and only a handful who had been successful. Still, Ms. Sims, with her heart-shaped face and long limbs (she was 5 feet, 10 inches tall by age 13), was encouraged by classmates and counselors to give it a try. Every agency she approached turned her down.
Undeterred, Ms. Sims decided to approach photographers herself. Gosta Peterson, a photographer for The New York Times, agreed to photograph her for the cover of its August 1967 fashion supplement, then called Fashions of The Times.
The agencies were still not interested, so Ms. Sims, showing a dash of enterprise that would later define her career, told Wilhelmina Cooper, a former model who was starting her own agency, that she would send out copies of the magazine to advertising agencies with Ms. Cooper's number attached. Ms. Cooper could have a commission if anyone called back.
Within a year, Ms. Sims was earning $1,000 a week and had been hired for a national television campaign for AT&T wearing fashions by Bill Blass. She was suddenly in high demand, modeling for top designers like Halston, and standing at the vanguard of a fashion movement for black models that would give rise to runway stars of the 1970s, including Pat Cleveland and Beverly Johnson.
But Ms. Sims, in interviews, often said she held the industry in low regard "because people have the idea that models are stupid."
After five years, she gave up modeling and started a wig-making business with styles designed for black women. It eventually expanded into a multimillion-dollar beauty empire.
Naomi Ruth Sims was born on March 30, 1948, in Oxford, Miss., the third of three daughters of John and Elizabeth Sims. Her father was a porter. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born, and all she knew of her father, she told Ladies' Home Journal, was "that my mother told me he was an absolute bum."
The family moved to East Liberty, where her mother became ill and Ms. Sims was placed at age 9 in foster care with Alfred and Mary Lou Talbott. She followed her sister, Betty, to New York after graduating in 1966 from Westinghouse High School. She was inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1996.
Though Ms. Sims returned to her alma mater several times to encourage students to follow their dreams, her high school days weren't always happy. In "How to Be a Top Model," one of five books she would end up penning, she recalls being laughed at because of the way she dressed. Because of her conviction to wear a different outfit to school every day, classmates also called her "hoity toity."
Her 1973 marriage to Michael Findlay, the Manhattan art dealer, ended in divorce in 1991. Besides their son, Bob, who lives in Seattle, she is survived by Betty Sims, who lives in Manhattan, and a granddaughter. Doris Sims, her oldest sister, died in 2008.
Despite her "It Girl" status, Ms. Sims never let celebrity go to her head. Early in her marriage she taught remedial reading in New York City and also raised money for various causes, including a home for girls in Atlanta. In 1972, she turned down the title role in the movie "Cleopatra Jones" because, she said, she was offended by its racist portrayal of black people.
"She was always someone with style and grace," said Mr. Jones. "She was always a lady."
In 1973, Ms. Sims decided to start her own business. Most commercially available wigs were designed for Caucasian hair, so she began experimenting with her own designs that looked like straightened black hair. Within five years, her designs, produced by the Metropa Company, had annual sales of $5 million. She also began writing books, as well as an advice column for teenage girls in Right On! magazine.
"I want to share all that I have learned," she told The Pittsburgh Press in 1974. "Actually, our color is an accessory which needs to be developed to its fullest potential."
In the early 1980s, Ms. Sims expanded her business to include a prestige fragrance, beauty salons, skin care products and cosmetics. Her goal, she told the Post-Gazette in 1992, when she was in town to promote the line at J.C. Penney stores in Century III and Monroeville malls, was to help black women be the best that they could be.
Ms. Sims often attributed her success to using her race as an advantage.
"It's 'in' to use me," she said early on, "and maybe some people do it when they don't really like me. But even if they are prejudiced, they have to be tactful if they want a good picture."
Post-Gazette staff writer Gretchen McKay contributed to this story.