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Helen Williams made history in the 1950s when she became the first dark-skinned Black fashion model to cross over into mainstream.
But it wasn’t America that embraced the New Jersey native, as the dominant society considered her “too dark.” Williams would rise to fame while working in Paris, paving the way for other dark-skinned models.
According to face2faceafrica.com, during her studies as a dancer, Williams caught the attention of Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr,, who encouraged her to take up fashion modeling.
But her dark skin would prove to be her greatest challenge
“I was too dark to be accepted,” Williams once recalled of trying to launch a career. She decided a move to Paris could see her blossom in the world of fashion… and her gamble paid off.
In France, Black models were landing gigs with big fashion designers like Christian Dior and Jean Dessès.
“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 kissed her feet and murmured, ‘I worship the ground you walk on, mademoiselle’,” writes arogundade.com.
When she returned to America, she found the fashion scene was still practicing discrimination. So with the help of some of her influential peers working in media, the plight of Black models in the country was given mainstream attention.
Eventually, the situation improved, especially for Williams, and she got booked for ads for major brands such as Loom Togs, Modess, and Budweiser. Her rate also shot up to $100 an hour.
As more black models became more visible, cosmetic companies began doing a lot of research aimed at developing products for African-American women.
Retiring from modeling in 1970, Williams continued her career in fashion as a stylist.
Check out the clip below to dive deeper into her history: