Helen Williams : Making Black Beauty History

Helen Williams : Making Black Beauty History

Helen Williams began her obsession with fashion at the early age, of seven. She would cut pictures from magazines and adorn her own, hand-sewn couture. At age 17, Helen was working in New York as a stylist. On different occasions she had met Lena Horne & Sammy Davis Jr. who were taken by her beauty and advised her to try modeling. Helen was aware this was 1954, America where racial tension was high. Even though by most standards, Helen is pretty, light-skinned, she was considered “too dark”, to cross into mainstream. She worked exclusively for African-American publications such as “Jet” & “Ebony” but, never gave up trying to be on the cover of Vogue or on the stage with white models, with whom she was equally, or more elegant, than. Helen’s eloquent poise, giraffe-like neck, sculpted brows, and perky bouffant was comparable to Jackie Kennedy, but racist America wasn’t buying. In 1960, Helen grew tired of the fashion scene, apartheid and moved to, Paris. The French seemed to know beauty, when they saw it. “Over there I was ‘La Belle Americaine,’” she said proudly. Helen modeled for Dior and Jean Dessès, along with other models, regardless of their skin, shade. Her salary was a hefty $7,500/year, only working part-time. Williams was ready to return to the U.S. with new-found confidence in herself, but America hadn’t changed. While in New York City, Helen sat in the lobby of a modeling agent, for over two hours. When she inquired when she was to be seen, the receptionist dismissed her saying, “We already have a black model”. Rude, right? Weaker women would have went home, crying and gave up. Helen Williams was not taking “no”, for an answer. Politically, influential journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson took up her cause, exposing the blatant racism in the fashion world, and “beauty’s continuing exclusion of black models”. These articles opened up the world to Helen and other struggling darker-skinned, beauties. Soon Helen’s schedule was booked for ads, including Budweiser, Loom Toggs, and Modess, all promoting Helen’s obvious, genetic gifts! The New York Times, Life, and Redbook featured articles and shots of, Williams. She is considered to be the first African-American model to cross into mainstream, fashion who wasn’t light-skinned…”a pivotal point in black beauty history” -(Life magazine). Ophelia DeVore, who was once a model, now agent said it best: “. “Elitists in our group would laugh at somebody if they were totally black and when Williams came along, she was self-conscious because she was dark. She gave people who were black the opportunity to know that if they applied themselves they could reach certain goals. Williams was the first beauty to break the four hundred year chain that had branded dark skin as ugly. The same dark skin that was rendered second-class during slavery, that the minstrels once ridiculed, and that had relegated Hollywood’s actors to roles as servants and clowns, was suddenly beautiful.” Helen’s never-give-up, attitude was historic and hopefully, can influence other people to stick with whatever goals, they have..no matter your adversary!


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