Helen Williams: Enchanté

Beauty is beauty. It is not a rigid concept that dictates that you HAVE to be anything. Regardless of this, western society has been (and to certain extend still is) rather tyrannical in promoting one version of female beauty. So historically speaking, imagine such rigidity combined with racism. Can only imagine how any non Caucasian women were supposed to find a place when all you see are white women, no one who looks vaguely like you. In America, the first mainstream black model was the ravishing Helen Williams.

Born East Rivington, New Jersey in 1937. Williams spent her early childhood perusing her passion for fashion, by way of sewing and creating her own clothes. By the time she reached her teens, Williams was studying dancing and drama. With her long neck, large eyes and bewitching smile; Williams caught the eye of Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. For a teenager to catch the attention of two huge stars is  remarkable, but when those stars both implore said teen to turn to modelling. You strike your best pose.

After modelling for African American specialist magazines, Ebony and Jet. Williams was still boxed by prejudice, so she did what Josephine Baker did before her. She left for Paris in 1960. Without the bigotry of mainstream US, Williams saw her apprecition rise. Even Christian Dior fell under her spell, affectionately known as ‘La Belle Americain’. Williams was making $7,500 a year (only working part time), a very healthy salary for so little work.

Back in American; after such a victorious campaign. Must have been a sombre experience. One modelling agency even went as far as to tell Williams they had ‘one black model already thank you’. Classy. Most women would have walked away and sink after such rejection. Not Williams, maybe because she had the validation from France that she was capable of being a success. Outraged, Williams turned to Dorothy Kilgallon and Earl Wilson, two influential journalists to take up her cause. Following an exposé article, showcasing the less than subtle racism in the modelling world. Williams managed to secure deals with Budweiser, Loom Togs and Modess.

As to what happened to Williams after her profitable career is a mystery. I am not even sure if Williams is still alive. What is certain is the legacy she left for the likes of Iman, Naomi Campbell, Alek Wek and other black models to prosper in fashion. True, that black models are still a minority. Progress is still to be achieved. But thanks to Helen Williams, darker skinned models have a better chance to being judge on their merits rather than just their ancestry.

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