The story of African Americans in the modeling world is often one of resilience, with a number of black models forging a path for themselves and their communities in an industry that has often stuck to narrow, limited notions of who should be seen and celebrated.
Here are some of the models who parlayed their runway and print success into other forms of gainful creativity. The fashion/modeling industry still has much to account for when it comes to its handling of ethnic diversity, different body types and gender politics, but we nonetheless want to honor those who persevered under daunting conditions to achieve feats of beauty.
Born in London, Naomi Campbell was approached by a scout in the mid-1980s when she was a teenager. Despite noting that she wasn’t booked for certain jobs due to prejudice, she soon landed Vogue covers across the world, including American Vogue for Anna Wintour's first September issue as editor-in-chief.
Linked with fellow supermodels Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista during the ’90s, Campbell has appeared over the decades in a dizzying array of fashion editorials, runway shows (she is an industry standard-bearer of fierce catwalk precision), ad campaigns, and music videos. She has worked with a legion of fashion luminaries, counting Azzedine Alaïa, Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui, Vivienne Westwood, and Donatella Versace, among others, as her mentors and inspiration.
Campbell has faced a number of public difficulties, including guilty pleas to aggravated assault and substance abuse issues. She has also ventured professionally outside of the fashion world, singing and the occasional acting gig. But, as the exception to the rule when looking at the parameters of this list, it is her decades-long work as a model and appearances related to such that have continued to keep her at the forefront of conversations. In 2016 she released the coffee table book Naomi Campbell, commemorating 30 years in the business.
With a modeling career that started in New York, Jamaica native Grace Jones eventually made her way to Paris, where she became the hit of the town. Living with fellow models Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange, she landed magazine covers and become a scandalous part of the city’s nightlife.
Encouraged by model Pat Cleveland, Jones embarked on a singing career. She released her debut album, Portfolio, in 1977. During the 1980s, Jones had an array of tracks that reached the upper echelons of the dance club charts, including “I Need a Man,” “Slave to the Rhythm” and “Pull Up to the Bumper.” Jones, a gay icon whose musical presentations rely on provocatively fantastic, often androgynous stylings, was not content with merely having a recording and modeling career.
She turned to acting and starred in films like Conan the Destroyer, A View to a Kill and Boomerang. Jones has continued to record over the decades and her 2017 documentary, Bloodlight and Bami, interspersed live concert footage with the singer’s return to her Jamaican roots.
Born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1955 to professional, forward-thinking parents, Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid and her family fled to Kenya during her teens. While enrolled at the University of Nairobi, she was approached by photographer Peter Beard, who took photos of her after he agreed to pay a fee that would cover her tuition.
Beard convinced Iman to relocate to New York in 1976 and she signed with Wilhelmina Models. Iman quickly became an international fashion icon, working with the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and Versace. She was popular in print while having a hypnotic, often gliding runway presence. Encouraged as a youth by her mother to know her worth, Iman refused to be paid less than her white counterparts and was said to be involved in the styling of her shoots.
Ending her modeling career in the late ’80s, she did some acting work, a standard path for models, but Iman’s choices were marked by adventure, with roles ranging from a shapeshifter in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to an Egyptian queen in the music video for Michael Jackson's “Remember the Time.” Ever the entrepreneur, Iman later started her own line of cosmetics, the Iman Collection, and authored two books, I Am Iman and The Beauty of Color. She has raised awareness around issues of famine and conflict that have affected her home country while also advocating for diversity on the runway. She was married pop superstar David Bowie in 1992, with the two remaining together until his death in 2016.
Following in the footsteps of earlier black models like Dorothea Towles and Donyale Luna, Naomi Sims was a study in unrelentingly believing in one’s goals. Having a traumatic childhood spending time in foster care, Sims was determined to make it as a model when she arrived in New York.
Having been rejected by agencies due to racism, she approached photographers directly and was eventually photographed by Gosta Peterson for the cover of The New York Times fashion supplement in 1967. She worked with Wilhelmina Cooper to continue to launch her career and soon received a TV campaign. Then in 1968, she became the first black woman to land on the cover of Ladies Home Journal. The model appeared on the cover of Life the following year, landing an array of international magazine jobs, working with various designers and becoming an influencer of dignified, glamorous style.
Believing that her time as a model would be limited, she retired from the business after a few years and later developed a line of wigs as well as a cosmetics brand, authored books and worked as a Right On! magazine columnist with advice for black girls. Amid the accomplishments, Sims struggled with bipolar disorder. The epitome of a trailblazer, she died in 2009.
Born in Martinique, Monique-Antoine “Mounia” Orosemane was Yves Saint Laurent’s premier muse in the 1970s and ’80s and regularly associated with his haute couture brand as a runway model.
She became famous for anchoring his 1978 Porgy and Bess “Broadway Suit” show. “I walked to ‘Summertime’ and really took on the character of Bess. Catherine Deneuve stood up and started clapping. Then everyone stood up and called out ‘Bravo!’” she said to W in 2008.
In 1983, Mounia had another historic moment with her appearance as a feathered bride launching the YSL fragrance Paris at the end of the autumn-winter show. She did a range of print work as well, appearing in or on the cover of magazines like Essence, Ebony, Women’s Wear Daily, Elle International, and French Vogue.
Having at one point established a boutique in her native land, Mounia went on to release several albums as a recording artist and is an acclaimed painter, continuing to produce work with an international reach.
Born in Los Angeles, California, Tyra Banks epitomizes the transformation from model to mogul, signing to Elite in 1990 as a teen. Having become the hit of the Paris runway world with designers like Chanel, Christian Dior and Claude Montana, she landed major beauty campaigns and graced the cover of publications like Sports Illustrated (the first black model to do so), Elle and Essence.
Banks delved into acting for a bit with roles in the sitcom Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the John Singleton film Higher Learning and the romance Love & Basketball before fully taking the reigns of her career with platforms that had huge impacts on pop culture. The reality competition show America’s Next Top Model launched in 2003, with Banks serving as creator/executive producer.
Her daytime talk show, The Tyra Banks Show, debuted in 2005 and ran for several seasons, winning Outstanding Talk Show Daytime Emmys in 2008 and 2009. Having also authored books and continued to work as a host on America’s Got Talent, Banks has become a multimedia behemoth.
The story of how the Cotonou, Benin-born Djimon Hounsou came to fame is well told. Struggling early in his career, the future actor had no place to live in Paris. He met a photographer who referred him to designer Thierry Mugler, and thus a successful modeling career began.
Upon moving to the U.S., Hounsou would become known for his appearance in videos like “Straight Up” by Paula Abdul and the iconic “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” by Janet Jackson. Meaty acting jobs soon called to the performer, with the role of Cinque in 1997’s Amistad earning Hounsou an NAACP Image Award and a Golden Globe nomination. He continued to choose parts that garnered major attention, including co-starring with Russell Crowe in Gladiator.
He also earned two Academy Award nominations: one for his role in 2002’s In America and the other for his portrayal of a besieged fisherman in 2006’s Blood Diamonds. The actor has continued to appear in big and small-screen projects alike, and, unbeknownst to many, was the voice of T’Challa, the Black Panther, in a 2010 animated TV series.
A runway supermodel for the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Isaac Mizrahi, Todd Oldham, and Dorethée Bis, Veronica Webb made history in 1992 as the first African American model to land an exclusive contract with a major cosmetics brand, Revlon.
Webb explored acting a bit with roles in the Spike Lee films Jungle Fever and Malcolm X and established a career as a writer. “My earliest compulsion for writing had to come from not wanting to disappear,” she said in a 1994 interview with The New York Times. “It came from going through school and feeling totally invisible.” She’s penned articles for Details, Interview and Panorama, among other publications, was a Paper Magazine columnist and released a book of essays, Sight: Adventures in the Big City, in 1998.
She has contributed to other books as well, including Heart Soul Detroit: Conversations on the Motor City, reflecting on her native town. With a big focus on health and self-care, she has continued her writing via her lifestyle blog Webb on the Fly.
An Oakland, California, native, Shemar Moore lived abroad for a time during his childhood before returning to the states. A competitive baseball player, he turned to modeling to earn income while in school at Santa Clara University. Moore’s work had a decidedly commercial bent, doing runway for the Gap and appearing in the pages of International Male and GQ. And he was the beau of Toni Braxton in the 1995 music video “How Many Ways,” with the two dating in real life as well.
While guest-starring in several TV comedies, Moore hit the big screen in the 1997 African American rom-com Hav Plenty, with more film work to follow along with a stint as Soul Train host. He portrayed the character Malcolm Winters on The Young and the Restless, winning a Daytime Emmy and a slew of NAACP Image Awards for the role. He then starred on Criminal Minds and, starting in 2017, has worked as the lead character on S.W.A.T.
Born in Vienna, Austria, to a German mother and Ghanaian father, Boris Kodjoe was raised in Germany, became a young tennis champion and developed fluency in several languages. He earned a sports scholarship to Virginia Commonwealth University, graduating in 1996, and worked as a model under the Ford agency, doing runway work, appearing in magazines and landing campaigns with Chaps, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis.
As with other models, Kodjoe saw acting as a natural extension of his modeling work, making early screen appearances on small screen projects like The Steve Harvey Show and Soul Food, where he would meet future spouse Nicole Ari Parker. Kodjoe has worked steadily since then, with recurring roles on TV series that include Undercovers and Code Black and making his Broadway debut in the 2008 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
A farm-raised native of Puerto Rico, Joan Smalls started to pursue a modeling career in her home region, though she lost beauty pageants because of judgments based on her skin color and height. Confident in her vision for herself, Smalls signed with Elite and later IMG to eventually become one of the most sought after models in the world, doing runway work for designers like Tom Ford and Louis Vuitton. She landed a spokeswoman contract for Estée Lauder and appeared in a range of international publications.
A magna cum laude college graduate, Smalls represents the generation of models who are expected to have major social media followings as part of their brand. As of early 2019, she has almost three million Instagram followers. She has also been vocal about racism in the industry. "When I see a runway with all the same models that are just cloned, I’m like, 'Is that your beauty? Is that your world?'," she said at a 2016 Business of Fashion VOICES summit. “It’s very one-sided and bland. Brands have to be more open-minded when they choose their cast. They hold a responsibility to represent consumers.”
Smalls has started to take on acting work, having appeared as an assassin in 2017’s John Wick: Chapter 2 and part of the ensemble cast of the Netflix rom-com Set It Up the following year. She also helms her own swimsuit and lingerie collection for a range of body types/sizes with the Walmart line Smart and Sexy.