Naomi Sims died of breast cancer on August 1, 2009, aged 61, in Newark, New Jersey. She was born in Oxford, Mississippi, the youngest of three daughters. She was ostracized by her community because of her color and height. But one day those features would help her break down barriers in the fashion world. In 1968 she was the first black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal. A year later she also appeared on the cover of the October 17, 1969 issue of Life magazine. By 1972, a movie studio offered her the title role in the movie Cleopatra Jones, but when Sims read the script, she was appalled by the racist portrayal of Blacks in the movie and turned it down. (The role went to the model Tamara Dobson.) From the NY Times Obituary:
Ms. Sims is sometimes referred to as the first black supermodel. “Naomi was the first,” the designer Halston told The New York Times in 1974. “She was the great ambassador for all black people. She broke down all the social barriers.”
Ms. Sims often said childhood insecurities and a painful upbringing — living in foster homes, towering over her classmates and living in a largely poor white neighborhood in Pittsburgh — had inspired her to strive to become “somebody really important” at a time when cultural perceptions of black Americans were being challenged by the civil rights movement and a renewed stress on racial pride.