Growing up I didn’t really see many Black women supermodels in fashion magazines. And trust me, I looked.
I would sit for hours at Barnes & Noble‘s searching. After picking out my next hairstyle in the Black Sophisticate’s and/or Hype Hair magazines, I would turn to fashion flipping through the glossy pages of Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire scouring the style sections and couture campaigns.
I studied them because they were my gateway to labels and international fashion houses. Magazines were my masterclass.
No one in my immediate family wore labels like Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, or Gucci. But these publications talked about them like household names and taught me their differences, signature looks, and historical context.
What these magazines didn’t do, however, was show me how I as a Black woman fit into this fashion story. The lack of Black models was painfully evident and often confused me. Frankly, it still does.
While the industry has been making strides toward more diversity and inclusion, I often think about this. Most recently was during the Sergio Hudson runway show during this month’s New York Fashion Week.
Like many others, I was surprised and excited to see supermodel icons Beverly Johnson and Veronica Webb. Not simply because of their fierce walks, inherent command of the runway, and regal presence – yasssss – but because they reminded me of how few and far between Black supermodels still are in the industry.
It’s been 25 years since I fell in love with fashion, and I still don’t always see models that reflect me or my culture. That needs to change. As the nation celebrates Black History Month there is no better opportunity to call this out.
We should also take the time to highlight those supermodels who are our pioneers – walking the runways that so many prejudiced naysayers told them they didn’t belong on, breaking barriers with each long-legged step.
Below is a list of our “super” supermodels who have shaken up the industry and shifted status quo. We applaud them for not only being an inspiration to every little girl who reads fashion magazines but to all generations of fashion lovers, watchers, and creators alike who continue to thank them and cheer them on.
Honorable mentions to this list are the Black supermodels who continue shatter glass ceilings. We cannot have a conversation about modeling in the industry without the current fierce: Jourdan Dunn, Philomena Kwao, Joan Smalls, Liris Crosse, Leomie Anderson, Chanel Iman, Jodi Turner-Smith, Aweng Ade-Chuol, Cynthia Bailey, Duckie Thot, Adut Akech, Maria Borges, and Precious Lee.
1. Naomi Campbell
Born in London, Naomi Campbell started her modeling career at age 15 and has been blazing trails ever since. Known for her walk and undeniable beauty, Naomi has worked with numerous designers from Versace to Isaac Mizarhi to Ralph Lauren. At the age of 18, Naomi was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of French Vogue and she was also the first Black model on the cover of TIME. Also notable is Naomi’s appearance on the cover of the U.S. Vogue’s September issue in 1989 – usually the fashion edition and one of the most popular – Naomi was the first Black model to ever do so.
2. Beverly Johnson
Beverly Johnson gained popularity in the 1970s. She made history as the first Black woman featured on the cover of the U.S. Vogue in 1974 and has revolutionized the industry ever since. According to several sources she has now appeared on nearly 500 magazine covers and continues to speak about injustice and prejudice within the industry. In fact, in her 2015 memoir, The Face That Changed It All, Beverly discusses these issues in addition to others commonly found in the industry such as bulimia, anorexia, and the need to maintain a certain look.
3. Naomi Sims
The late Naomi Sims is remembered as the first Black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968. She was also the first Black model to appear on the cover of Life in 1969. Later she was also on the covers of TIME, Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, and other magazines. Interestingly, Sims is said to have quit modeling in 1973. According to a CNN article, “she was bored and disenchanted with the use of racial quotas in the fashion industry saying, ‘If they use you, it’s because you’re Black.’” Before passing away after a battle with cancer in 2009, Naomi launched a wig line and cosmetics line both targeted toward Black women.
Born Zara Mohamed Abdulmajid, Iman’s modeling career started to take off in the 1970s. She has been seen in several magazines and on several catwalks, and has been described as a muse Gianni Versace, Thierry Mugler, Calvin Klein, and Donna Karan, among others. Iman also broke beauty barriers in 1994 launching Iman cosmetics after years of having to mix her own foundation formulas for runway shows and modeling shoots. Iman’s line catered toward Black women and darker skin tones and was a top-selling brand in the early to mid-2000s.https://69f564bebac54abbc9835dd69808ae31.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
5. Beverly Peele
Hailing from California, Beverly Peele started modeling at the age of 12. She told Elle she landed her first Versace campaign at only 12 and a half. Her first magazine cover was with Mademoiselle in 1989 (age 14) and according to BET some called her “Baby Naomi.” Peele has also been on the covers of Vogue, Elle and Cosmopolitan. Throughout Peele’s career, she worked with several designers such as Betsey Johnson Prada, Dior, Comme des Garcon and John Galliano. More recently, Peele was featured on Lifetime’s Growing Up Supermodel with her daughter Cairo.
6. Grace Jones
Jamaican-born Grace Jones moved to to New York at the young age 13 when she started her modeling career. Known for her bold personality and gorgeous skin, Jones is one of the most recognizable faces in fashion and one of the first Black models to own the androgynous look. Jones has worked with brands from Yves St. Laurent to Kenzo and has appeared on the covers of Elle and Vogue.
7. Veronica Webb
Veronica Webb was the first Black model to sign a contract with Revlon in 1990 and, as stated on her website, “her famous fun exuberant runway strut has delighted designers such as Zendaya X Tommy Hilfiger, Nicole Miller, Azzedine Alaïa, Versace, Chanel, Yeezy x Kanye West, Isaac Mizrahi and more.” More recently, fashion and beauty lovers have learned more about the beauty supermodel. She has penned several fashion, lifestyle, and beauty articles and recently appeared bare faced on Instagram opening up about her skin condition called melasma. Veronica continues to use her platform to challenge conventional standards of beauty and celebrates what natural and unique within us all.
8. Tyra Banks
Most are most familiar with Tyra Banks’ hit television reality show America’s Next Top Model, but she gained her industry credentials much before that. Banks was one of the first Black supermodels to walk for international fashion houses like Chanel, Giorgio Armani, Oscar de la Renta, Givenchy, Christian Dior, and Donna Karan, and was Victoria Secret’s first Black angel. She was an angel from 1997 to 2005. Tyra was also the first Black woman to be featured on the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Today, Tyra continues to evolve and command attention. Most recently, Tyra hosted Dancing with the Stars and gave us a look, honey, each night.
9. Winnie Harlow
Canandian born Chantelle Whitney Brown-Young, at young age of 27, Winnie Harlow is one of the most recognizable faces in fashion and voices speaking up against the standard. Winnie first came on the scene in 2014 as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model. While she didn’t win the show, Winnie’s personal struggle with vitiligo, vulnerability on camera, and fierce slay ignited her career. Winnie has appeared in several magazines including Vogue, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Ebony and modelled for international brands like Fendi, Nike, Puma, and MAC.
10. Alek Wek
Born in South Sudan, Alek Wek began her fashion career 1995. Just two years later at the age of 20, Wek was the first Black model to appear on the cover of Elle. She also won the MTV Model of the Year award that same year. Since then, Wek has walked for several international brands such as Moschino, Marc Jacobs and Fendi. While we love Wek for her style and beauty, her courage is just as notable. A member of the Dinka ethnic group in South Sudan, Wek fled to Britain to escape the civil war and often uses her current platform to talk about the unrest in her country and injustice across the industry and world.
11. Halima Aden
Halima Aden’s path to modeling is different from others. We first learned about her in 2016 when she was a semifinalist in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant making headlines as the first contestant to participate wearing a hijab. After signing with IMG models, Halima’s career took off. She worked with several well-known brands and fashion houses and was the first Muslim model to wear the head covering and a burkini in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. While Aden has quit modeling, she continues to raise awareness about discrimination in the industry and now works with UNICEF. “There needs to be diversity in the makeup crew, hair (and) stylists,” Aden told BBC. “It’s not just about having a diverse catwalk. It’s also about the people behind the scenes.”