5. Helen Williams the First African American Fashion Model


Too Black to Model: “I was pushy and positive”

The Tragic Mulatto stereotype, along with beauty being linked to fair, light, white skin, African American women were “too dark” to model. Since the 1900s advertisements, beauty products, books, movies, all promoted that women who were beautiful had white skin. Helen Williams was the first African American to model, and to represent that being black was just as beautiful as being white. Helen was born in New Jersey, in 1937. When she was seven years old, she started to sew her own clothing, and soon became obsessed with fashion. When she was seventeen she was a stylist at a New York photography studio, when she was working there Sammy Davis Jr, and Lena Horne noticed her beauty and encouraged her to take up modeling. At the beginning of her career, since she was African American she worked only with African American magazines such as Ebony and Jet. Even though she was working exclusively with African American magazines, she still was “too dark” they wanted light African American women. Helen Williams stated, “I was too dark to be accepted.” Because it was hard to have a modeling career in the United States because of her skin color, Helen moved to Paris in the 1960s. The French loved black beauty, and Helen became successful in France. She modeled for famous fashion designers such as Jean Desses, and Christian Dior. She made about 7,500 a year, had three marriage proposals, and had an admirer say, “I worship the ground you walk on. Mademoiselle.” When Williams returned to America little had changed with their attitudes towards black models. She tried to get modeling jobs and was rejected, she was not going to be defeated and took her story to the press. Two white journalist took a special interest in Helen, they were Dorothy Kilgallen, and Earl Wilson. The journalists brought attention to the exclusion of African American women in modeling, advertisements, and beauty products. Helen Williams soon became hired for different ad companies such as Budweiser, Modess, and Loom Tags. She was among the very first African American women to model for alcohol, cigarettes, and cosmetics. These advertisments were aimed at the black middle class in the late 60s. She continued to be featured in The New York Times, Redbook, and Life. Helen Williams was persistent in pursuing her modeling career, and fought against stereotypes of African American women. She changed how American society viewed beauty, for decades they had linked beauty of women to the whiteness of their skin, Helen Williams changed this.

helen-williams-ad1  photo-feb-07-5-45-31-pm






Was created by John H. Johnson, in Chicago Illinois by Johnson Publishing Company in November 1945. Ebony mirror Life Magazine, and was created to celebrate African American life, and displayed the achievements of African Americans. The magazine had three purposed,to portray black life, to break stereotypes of black people, and to overcome racial issues. Ebony featured stories on Martin Luther King Jr, Emancipation proclamation,  and the civil rights movement. The magazine also encouraged African Americans to overcome racial limitations, to seek for success, and take pride in their race. “Ebony provided a much needed national forum for blacks. Its contents centered on black history, entertainment, business, health, personalities, occupations, and sports. By highlighting the accomplishments of black Americans, the magazine offered its readers new measurements of black success. It has earned a strong national reputation for its celebration of black identity and culture. Ebony continues to inspire an appreciation of the black heritage and commemorates and encourages African American contributions to American society.”


jetWas also created by John H. Johnson in 1951 in Chicago Illinois by Johnson Publishing Company. It featured similar stories as Ebony did on the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, The Montgomery Bus Boycott, Emmett Till’s murder. Emmett Till’s murder brought Jet popularity. Jet covered sporting events, politics, popular television, and anything about African Americans. The Jet had a whole section titled, “The Week’s Best Photos”, these photos included celebrities, and other prominent members of society. They also had “Beauty Of the Week”, which featured a black women wearing a bathing suit. It soon became the most popular section in Jet magazine.


“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 she [Williams] 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.” Ben Argundade 










Finkelman, Paul. Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.


One thought on “5. Helen Williams the First African American Fashion Model

  1. It seems that significant progress has been made since the days of Helen Williams; I see African American models on advertisements and store windows everywhere! It would be interesting to find out if Helen Williams received similar pay to her white cohort for the same modeling jobs.


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