The first black person to ever appear in modelling industry, and open doors for African American fashion models particularly those with dark complexion tones, was Helen Williams.
She was then recognized as a pioneer in modelling industry, and it’s because of her that nowadays we can see dark-skinned models appearing in important periodicals, advertisements and high-end catwalks both domestically and internationally.
Helen was born on New Jersey in 1937 and was passionate about fashion. she got her start in the field as a stylist in a New York photographic studio, entertainers Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. allegedly encouraged her to start modeling after spotting her while taking press pictures at the studio. But the person who actually persuaded her to pose for the camera was a photographer by the name of Eric Nepo.
In a time and place when conventional beauty and fashion barred non-white models, she was the first to break down racial barriers and was successful in her career. She also overcame colorism in the African American modelling industry where models had to have light skin tones.
At the beginning of her career, Helen only collaborated with the Ebony and Jet publications. But because of the prejudice she encountered in the united states, she moved to France in 1960. She was successful as a model for renowned fashion houses Christian Dior and Jean Desses.
She received three marriage proposals from her French fans during her stay there, one of them reportedly kissed her feet and said “I worship the earth you walk on mademoiselle.”
After Paris, Helen moved back to United states where racial stigma was particularly severe for African American women with deeper skin tones. She was often told “NO” when she looked for modelling agencies.
Racial barriers broken
After being turned down, she decided to go to the press. Two white journalists wrote about her course, eventually drawing attention to the exclusion of black models from the modelling and fashion industries.
Suddenly, doors started opening up and Helen started receiving jobs. She was hired for a range of projects and racial barriers have been destroyed by Helen. At a ceremony held at the fashion institute of technology in New York city in 2004, Helen was presented with the Trailblazer award by the fashion and Arts Exchange organization.
It took some time but ultimately more avenues in the world of fashion opened for women of color thanks to this new acceptance. Supermodels like Naomi Campbell were born thanks Helen’s legacy.