Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Naomi Sims - A Personal View

(I originally wrote this essay in August 2009, when Naomi Sims died, after having commented briefly on the news on this blog.  This piece was included on my now-defunct essay blog, and  I republish it here three years to the day after her death.  Disclaimer: This was written before I learned of her struggle with bipolar disorder.)
I’m too young to remember when there were no high-profile black fashion models, so I can’t offer much of a perspective on how Naomi Sims revolutionized modeling and challenged standards of feminine beauty as the first black supermodel; several commentators are better qualified to do that. I can, however, describe the effect she had on me.

Ms. Sims had already quit modeling by the late seventies, the time I first became aware of the opposite sex. Her astonishing portfolio, however, remained very much available, and so she was one of the first models to get my attention. Like other boys, I had silly crushes on famous models, but to a white suburban male teenager like myself, Naomi Sims was a revelation. Her warm, bright countenance captivated me; her deep black eyes and her rich, dark brown complexion conveyed an astonishing, undeniable beauty. When she pulled her hair back, her face assumed a pure, unencumbered exoticism that has rarely, if ever, been equaled by fashion models of any race. Ms. Sims displayed in her expressions the spirit of a woman who carried herself with dignity. I derived from her beauty an appreciation for an elegance that was hers exclusively, as well as an ability to see beyond skin color even as I saw her own. I didn’t give much thought to the fact that she was a black woman. I was too distracted by how gorgeous she was to notice.

Ms. Sims also became famous for her walk in fashion shows, in which she moved her limbs and torso in a controlled, seductive style that one fashion writer compared to the movements of a dancer. I never had to imagine what that was like; she gave the same impression when she stood still in a picture. Indeed, in her most legendary photos, she could convey the same incredible combination of grace, class, and sexiness that turned many a head on the catwalk. I was drawn to both the sweetness she'd exhibited on the cover of Life magazine in 1969 (the picture above was used), and to the self-confidence in her pose within the same issue. I could only sigh as I peered at a Francesco Scavullo picture (below) in which Ms. Sims, dressed in an orange outfit against a matching background, spoke volumes as she looked back at me with a radiant smile that displayed as much brightness as the lighting. She was the finest example of the model as actress, demonstrating a range of moods, yet Ms. Sims always seemed to project herself; the woman you saw in the picture was the same woman you encountered off-camera. Naomi Sims was her own greatest role.

She continued that role in her second career. Dissatisfied with the superficiality of modeling, Naomi Sims started her own company making beauty products for black women, and she wrote several books on health and beauty for that same audience. Again, she impressed me and commanded my attention. She'd already proved she was more than just another pretty face in providing substance to her style; now she proved there was life beyond modeling that played on her strengths and her talents as a style expert and as a businesswoman. She made herself look more beautiful by demonstrating the steely substance behind her glamorous exterior. Looking at her from afar, I couldn’t help but be impressed, and I admired her immensely.
I know how Naomi Sims battled racism and sexism in industries that, even diplomatically speaking, could only be described as cutthroat, emerging unscathed. I was therefore shocked and saddened at the news that this incredible woman died of breast cancer. Despite her success at fighting adversity all of her life, this disease proved to be the one obstacle she could not overcome. I think of her the same way that I might think of a long-lost girlfriend from college, a woman who came along with so much beauty and personality and made life much more enjoyable. Yet, just like that hypothetical college girlfriend, she never knew just how much of an impression she left on me and how much she shaped my perspective on so many things. Naomi Sims’s legacy stems from a modeling career that lasted a mere five years, but it went far beyond the world of fashion. And for me, it went beyond appreciating the beauty of women whose skin color happened to be different from mine. She helped me see beauty in all women, inside and out.

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