MICHEL MARTIN, host:
And finally, we want to take a moment to remember a woman who taught the world to recognize that beauty comes in every color. Naomi Sims, the first black model to appear on the cover of a major women's magazine, died this past weekend.
Sims' appearance on cover of the Ladies Home Journal in 1968 was a crowning achievement for those seeking to expand our country's definition of beauty. She went on to grace the covers of Life, Cosmopolitan and Essence magazines. But she had a dynamic career off-camera as well. Sims became an entrepreneur, creating a line of wigs for African-American women, fragrances, and cosmetics. She also authored several books about health and beauty.
With us to talk about Naomi Sims and her legacy is Washington Post Fashion writer Robin Givhan. She joins us from the offices of the Washington Post. Also with us is another pioneer, the host and author Beverly Johnson. She was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue, and she joins us from California.
Ladies, welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. BEVERLY JOHNSON (Model): Hello.
Ms. ROBIN GIVHAN (Washington Post): My pleasure.
MARTIN: And first, Beverly Johnson, I know this is a sad time for you, so our condolences. Could you just tell us - what was Naomi Sims like?
Ms. JOHNSON: My heart is full. My heart has been full the moment I heard the news that she had passed. Naomi Sims is my hero. She was an absolutely extraordinary, beautiful woman, and so gracious to me in coming into the business. She was the most fabulous model of them all, and I quote Audrey Small on that.
She was absolutely extraordinary in her look, in her coloring, which was perfection, in her body, but also she was really bright, very sophisticated, very gracious, and I mirrored her career. I mirrored her career. She taught me what the steps - I have a wig and hair extension line. I have beauty cosmetics. I've written books. You know, tremendous woman.
MARTIN: Robin, what impact did it have when Naomi Sims appeared on the cover of Ladies Home Journal? Just set the - just give us a context of that, why that was such a big deal.
Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I mean I think it was a big deal because up until that time we really had a very limited view of what could be considered beautiful. And what I think is interesting is that it was Ladies Home Journal that she appeared on. It was a magazine that spoke to sort of that vast middle range of women, the sort all-American woman as opposed to a magazine that was a bit more either esoteric or rarified or was limited solely to fashion. So I think that was what was most powerful about that cover, the fact that it was meant to be a very, it was a very mainstream cover.
MARTIN: And Beverly, talk to me about - I'm not sure that people outside the business realize just how the feedback in your field can be quite direct. I think people perhaps get a taste of that now because they see there's some television programs that kind of go a little bit through the process of auditioning. But in reading interviews with Naomi Sims, she talked about the fact that people would tell her to her face, well, you're just too dark. We just can't use you. Do things like that still happen to you?
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes. Well, they don't happen now, you know, but in the beginning and throughout my career, you - she was rejected by every modeling agency and I was rejected by every modeling agency. Either you're too dark, you're too fat, you're too short, we have someone that looks like you. Yes, the modeling industry is a very blunt, I'll say, Industry, so you know, there weren't any words spared when they were critiquing you on what they wanted, and that would include you're too dark or we're really just not looking for anyone that looks like you.
MARTIN: Robin, the designer Halston was quoted as saying that Naomi was the first. She was an ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers. What's he talking about?
Ms. GIVHAN: Well, I think Beverly's being very diplomatic in describing the way that the fashion industry critiques models. But yeah, I mean I think when Halston said something like that, it really meant that she was allowing, she was sort of giving the industry permission in many ways to use black models, because the fashion industry, for all of its describing itself as being about creativity and newness does tend to also be a bit of an industry of lemmings, and it does need someone bold and someone with a great reputation to kind of lead the way.
So it was really designers like Halston and like Yves Saint Laurent in Paris who championed the use of black models and he saw in them something that added to their collection, as opposed to, as many designers used to say, being a distraction in their collection.
MARTIN: Beverly, could you help us a little bit more? Describe from your perspective (unintelligible) what is it that made her so fabulous?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I'll tell you an incident that happened. First of all, I met her at the Halston show, and I mean, you know, I was a little girl in the corner putting on her makeup. She came over to me, she just said how beautiful I was, how beautiful my pictures were, and how she thought I was going to go a long way in the industry. That stuck with me for the rest of my life.
But the other incident I just want to recall is, I remember walking down 57th Street on 5th Avenue, and you know, I'm in my jeans, you know, going to my go-sees with my blisters on my feet. But anyways, here's walking Naomi Sims all in white with a white cape, and she used to do her face with this kind of red foundation, and her hair is all pulled back. She literally stopped traffic. People came out of stores.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JOHNSON: Tiffany's and Bergdorf's, they literally came out of the store to watch her walk by. I mean she stopped traffic. I mean - and she's just, I can't go on to tell you just how extraordinary looking, tall and graceful - and walking on the runway, oh my god, she glided. I thought she had ice skates on. She's unbelievable.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: You know, the other thing you mentioned, Beverly, is that she gave you a template for your career. She was quoted as saying, she told The New York Times in 1969 that there's nothing sadder than an old broke model and there are so many models who have nothing at the end of their career. And she made sure that that was not going to happen to her.
So by the time you came along, did it make it easier for you when you saw what she was able to put together, all - sort of the various business ventures that she was able to put in place? Did that make it easier for you to think of those opportunities for yourself?
Ms. JOHNSON: Absolutely. I had a role model. I remember sitting on the plane looking at the Life magazine cover. First time I've ever been on an airplane with my sister coming to New York. I mean she absolutely - I absolutely mirrored her career in the way of pulling my hair back, in the way of - I mean she was very sophisticated, and you know, she had some qualities that I would never be able to duplicate, but she most certainly was - not only for black models but for models, she was at her time the biggest model period.
We get into the black, white, you know, and really put it into categories, and not to diminish if you're the top black model, but she was the top model of her time.
MARTIN: And Beverly, just very briefly if you would, is it surprising to you that she was as generous as she was? The fact that she went out of her way to praise you, to support you, to be kind of a mentor to you, was that surprising?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it wasn't surprising at the time. I mean - but as I, you know, started into that industry I realize that that was totally a rarity. And you know, you know, you're met with a lot of, you know, opposition and, you know, the competition is, you know, so high and, you know, people aren't as welcoming as she was. She was just a - and I tell you that I took that and with each woman, model that came after me, the Imans, the Naomi Campbells, the Tyra Banks, I tried to give that same, you know, spirit of, hey, I'm for you, this is great, you know, there's enough room for everybody here.
MARTIN: And to that point, Robin, a final question to you. What is the situation for black models today? I mean, we all know the names Naomi, Beverly, Tyra, but is there another generation of African-American models or black models coming to the fore?
Ms. GIVHAN: I mean I actually have a lot of optimism for the sort of careers of black models at the moment because there has been such a push within the industry to get them out there, get them into more high profile shows, more high profile advertising campaigns. And absolutely, there is a generation of women like Jourdan Dunn and Leah Kabette(ph), who are coming along, who I absolutely think have the potential to have the kinds of careers of their predecessors.
MARTIN: Pulitzer Prize-winner Robin Givhan writes about fashion and culture for the Washington Post and she joined us from her office in Washington. We were also joined by model, author and entrepreneur Beverly Johnson. She was the first black woman to grace the cover of Vogue magazine in 1974. We understand that she will make reappearance in the magazine this fall, and perhaps she'll back and talk to us about that, and she joined us from her home in California.
Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you.
Ms. GIVHAN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.