Fashion evolves, but true trailblazers transform it. Meet ten black supermodels who did just that. From Naomi Campbell’s iconic Vogue covers to Tyra Banks’ landmark achievements and Winnie Harlow’s advocacy, these women reshaped beauty norms. Their stories are chapters in a narrative of resilience, revolution, and redefined elegance. Discover their powerful journeys.
Table of Contents
- Naomi Campbell: Started young, joined the “Trinity,” made history on Vogue covers, ventured into music and acting, and championed inclusivity in fashion.
- Tyra Banks: Overcame early rejections, first African American on GQ and Sports Illustrated covers, Victoria’s Secret Angel, TV host, author, entrepreneur, and studied at Harvard.
- Iman Abdulmajid: Discovered in Kenya, Yves Saint Laurent’s muse, launched Iman Cosmetics, acted in films and TV, and engaged in philanthropy.
- Beverly Johnson: First Black model on Vogue’s cover, successful model and actress, reality TV involvement, and authored self-care books.
- Winnie Harlow: Overcame bullying due to vitiligo, found fame through ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ and became a spokesperson for vitiligo.
- Jourdan Dunn: Discovered at 16, first Black model for Prada in over a decade, balanced motherhood with modeling, and ventured into TV hosting and designing.
- Alek Wek: Fled war-torn South Sudan, groundbreaking Elle cover, UN Refugee Agency ambassador, and launched a handbag line.
- Veronica Webb: First African-American with major cosmetics contract, successful model, actress, TV host, fashion designer, writer, and community activist.
- Maria Borges: From Angola’s Elite Model Look contest to New York’s fashion elite, first black model to wear natural afro at Victoria’s Secret show, and featured on ELLE’s cover.
- Joan Smalls Rodriguez: Overcame industry challenges, first Latina model for Estée Lauder, top runway appearances, TV roles, YouTube presence, and vocal about Afro-Latina heritage and racial injustice.
Naomi Campbell’s journey in the world of fashion and entertainment started early. At just 8 years old, she appeared in Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” music video, showcasing a flair for the spotlight. Her talents extended to tap dancing, featuring in Culture Club’s music videos in the early 80s. A chance discovery at 15 by Beth Boldt of Synchro Model Agency catapulted her into the modeling scene, leading to her British Elle magazine cover debut just shy of her 16th birthday.
The late 1980s marked a significant upturn in Campbell’s career. She, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista, known collectively as the “Trinity,” became a force in fashion. Campbell’s groundbreaking appearances on the covers of French Vogue in August 1988 and American Vogue’s September 1989 issue were more than just personal triumphs; they were historic breakthroughs in an era marked by racial barriers.
Campbell’s endeavors span beyond the runway. She ventured into music with an R&B album and made various film and television appearances, notably in “The Face.” Her philanthropic work, including her organization Fashion for Relief, highlights her commitment to social causes.
Throughout her career, Campbell navigated racial discrimination, yet her resilience and the support from her peers were instrumental in her journey. Her influence is far-reaching, with over 500 magazine covers and collaborations with top designers like Versace and Chanel. Campbell’s legacy is not confined to the fashion industry; she has been a pivotal figure in advocating for inclusivity and diversity in modeling.
Tyra Banks, starting her modeling journey at 15, swiftly moved past initial rejections, joining Elite Model Management in 1990. Her ascent in the fashion industry is marked by pioneering achievements. She became the first African American woman to grace the covers of GQ and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Her tenure as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, spanning from 1997 to 2005, further cemented her status in the industry. Banks’ debut at Paris Fashion Week was nothing short of impressive, featuring in 25 shows.
Banks’ impact extends into television and film. She debuted on TV with a role in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in 1993 and entered the film industry with “Higher Learning” in 1995. Her most notable television contribution is “America’s Next Top Model,” a show she created, produced, and hosted. “The Tyra Banks Show” further showcased her hosting prowess, earning her two Daytime Emmy Awards. Her hosting skills also brought her to “America’s Got Talent” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
Her creative talents led her to writing, with her novel “Modelland” reaching the top of The New York Times Best Seller list in 2010. Banks’ entrepreneurial ventures include founding Bankable Productions and launching Tyra Beauty. Her academic pursuits took her to Harvard University, where she completed a non-degree extension program in the Owner/President Management course.
Banks’ influence in the industry has been substantial, earning her a place among the world’s most influential people by Time magazine and the title of a Legendary Supermodel by MODELS.com. Her journey reflects not just success in modeling but a vast array of accomplishments across entertainment, business, and education.
Iman Abdulmajid’s journey from Mogadishu to the global fashion stage is a tale of talent meeting opportunity. Her discovery by photographer Peter Beard in Kenya marked the beginning of an illustrious modeling career. Vogue’s 1976 feature of Iman was just the start. She quickly became a favorite muse for designers like Yves Saint Laurent, who saw her as his “dream woman.” Her unique look, defined by her elongated neck, slender physique, and striking skin tone, catapulted her to success.
Iman’s influence in fashion is matched by her business acumen. In 1994, she pioneered a cosmetics line catering to diverse skin tones, a venture inspired by her own experiences with makeup. By 2010, Iman Cosmetics had flourished, demonstrating her entrepreneurial skill.
Beyond modeling and business, Iman’s versatility shines through in film and television. Her roles in “Out of Africa” and “No Way Out” and appearances in “Miami Vice” and “The Cosby Show” reflect her adaptability. Hosting gigs on “Project Runway Canada” and “The Fashion Show” underscore her talent.
Philanthropy is a significant part of Iman’s legacy. Her work with Save the Children and the Children’s Defense Fund showcases her commitment to societal issues, especially women’s rights in Somalia and other developing countries. Her efforts earned her the Fashion Icon Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2010.
Iman’s life is rich beyond her professional achievements. Her marriage to David Bowie and their daughter, Alexandria Zahra Jones, her fluency in multiple languages, and her candid autobiography “I Am Iman” paint a picture of a woman who has navigated the complexities of race, fame, and personal identity with grace.
Beverly Johnson’s ascent in the fashion world is a story of unexpected turns and historic milestones. Initially eyeing a career in law, her path veered towards modeling after a year at Northeastern University. This shift was marked by an early assignment with Glamour magazine, propelling her to leave college and relocate to New York City to advance her career in modeling.
In 1974, Johnson made an unforgettable mark in fashion history. Her appearance on the cover of Vogue’s August issue was a groundbreaking moment, as she became the first Black model to achieve this feat in the magazine’s 80-year history. The following year, she continued breaking barriers by gracing the cover of Elle. Johnson’s career boasts over 500 appearances on fashion magazine covers and her role as a runway model for designers like Halston and Calvin Klein further highlights her impact in the industry.
Johnson’s talents extended beyond modeling. Her foray into acting included roles in films like “The Meteor Man” and “Good Deeds,” and TV shows such as “Law & Order” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” She also appeared in music videos, notably Michael Jackson’s “Liberian Girl” and Bobby Brown’s “On Our Own.”
Her influence in fashion led to roles in reality television, serving as a judge on “She’s Got the Look” and producing and starring in “Beverly’s Full House” on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Additionally, Johnson shared her insights through writing, authoring self-care books like “Beverly Johnson’s Guide to a Life of Health and Beauty.”
Johnson’s personal life, including her marriages to Billy Potter and Danny Sims and her daughter Anansa Sims, complements her professional narrative. Her legacy in fashion is not just about her achievements as a model but also her role in breaking racial barriers and influencing future generations in diverse fields like acting, writing, and television production.
Born in Toronto and raised in a Jamaican family, Harlow faced significant challenges from a young age. Diagnosed with vitiligo at four, she navigated a path fraught with bullying and societal pressures. Her strength and resilience shone through as she shifted schools to escape the torment and grappled with her self-identity.
Harlow’s entry into the fashion world was as unconventional as it was fortuitous. Discovered on Instagram by Tyra Banks, she joined ‘America’s Next Top Model’ as its first Canadian contestant. Despite an initial elimination, she fought her way back into the competition, finishing in 6th place. This exposure was her springboard into the fashion elite, leading to collaborations with high-profile brands like Fendi, Marc Jacobs, and Tommy Hilfiger. Her groundbreaking appearance in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show marked a pivotal moment for models with vitiligo.
But Harlow’s influence extends beyond the runway. As a vitiligo spokesperson, she has used her platform to shift perceptions about the skin condition. Her YouTube video and TEDx talk offer an intimate glimpse into her life with vitiligo, inspiring many. Her advocacy work earned her recognition as a ‘Role Model’ at the Portuguese GQ Men of The Year event.
Harlow’s career has also spanned into music videos and a memorable cameo in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade.” The Canadian Grand Prix incident, where she waved the chequered flag prematurely, added a quirky footnote to her diverse career. Despite the glare of the public eye, which includes speculated romantic links to celebrities like Wiz Khalifa and Lewis Hamilton, Harlow remains grounded, influenced by her mother’s early support.
From the struggles of her youth to her ascent in the fashion world, Harlow embodies the spirit of overcoming obstacles and redefining industry standards. Her journey is a testament to the power of self-acceptance and perseverance.
Jourdan Dunn’s journey in the fashion world began unexpectedly at 16 in Hammersmith Primark, leading to her signing with Storm Model Management. Her rapid ascent is marked by significant milestones, like her 2008 Prada show appearance, a notable event as she was the first Black model in over ten years to do so. This moment wasn’t just a personal triumph; it signaled a shift in the industry’s inclusivity narrative.
Dunn’s portfolio showcases her versatility, gracing numerous magazine covers and strutting for designers like Jean Paul Gaultier. Remarkably, she continued her modeling career during her pregnancy and quickly resumed post-birth, driven by her new role as a mother. This decision wasn’t just about career continuity; it was a statement on professional resilience and redefining motherhood in high fashion.
Confronting and vocalizing the challenges of racial discrimination in fashion, Dunn’s experiences highlight the industry’s need for change. Her efforts extend beyond modeling; she’s a television host and designer, with her foray into kidswear and collaboration with Missguided marking successful entrepreneurial ventures. These steps are more than business moves; they represent the broadening of her influence in the fashion world.
Dunn’s contribution to fashion is multi-faceted. Her recognitions, like the “Model of the Year” at the British Fashion Awards, aren’t just accolades but acknowledgments of her role in reshaping the fashion scene. Her story reflects persistence, adaptability, and the breaking of barriers, making her more than a model – a catalyst for industry evolution.
Born in Wau, South Sudan in 1977, her early life was marked by adversity. Fleeing a war-torn country and losing her father in the process, Wek’s family eventually found sanctuary in London. This shift from a life embroiled in conflict to one in an entirely different cultural terrain laid the foundation for her remarkable journey.
Wek’s entry into modeling was as unexpected as it was impactful. At 19, a chance encounter at a party led to her discovery by Model 1 agency. This serendipitous moment in 1995 set Wek on a path to challenge and redefine fashion norms. Moving to New York and signing with Ford Models, she quickly made a name for herself, walking for Ralph Lauren in an unprecedentedly short time frame.
In 1997, Wek achieved a groundbreaking milestone. Gracing the cover of “Elle” magazine, she became the first African woman to do so. This was more than a personal triumph; it was a pivotal moment that broadened the beauty standards in fashion. Her influence was profound and far-reaching, inspiring individuals such as Lupita Nyong’o and countless others.
Wek’s contributions extend beyond the catwalk. Her philanthropic work includes supporting various charities and representing the UN Refugee Agency. She also ventured into design, creating “Wek 1933” handbags, a tribute to her father and her roots, available in select Selfridges stores.
Her 2007 autobiography, “Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel”, offers an in-depth look at her life. Wek’s story is a powerful testament to resilience, humanitarianism, and the redefinition of beauty standards in the fashion industry.
From Detroit, Michigan, Webb’s ascension to fame began unexpectedly. Initially pursuing design studies in New York City, her career trajectory shifted when a makeup artist noticed her potential in a boutique. This encounter steered her towards modeling, a field where she would make significant strides.
Webb’s most notable accomplishment came as she became the first African-American woman to sign a major cosmetics contract. This groundbreaking deal with Revlon marked a pivotal moment in the fashion industry, setting a precedent for future generations. Her influence extended to the covers of top-tier magazines, including Vogue, Essence, and Elle, and the runways for luxury brands like Victoria’s Secret and Chanel.
However, Webb’s impact was not confined to modeling alone. She carved out a successful career in both film and television, showcasing her versatility. Her role as a co-host on “Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style” and her appearance in the film “Malcolm X” are testaments to her multifarious talents. Webb also channeled her creativity into the launch of her fashion line, Royalton, in 2013, further solidifying her role as a fashion innovator.
Apart from her endeavors in fashion and entertainment, Webb has a profound presence in writing. Her essay collection, “Veronica Webb Sight: Adventures In The Big City,” along with contributions to esteemed publications, highlights her prowess as a writer. Her engagement with diverse platforms like Paper Magazine, The New York Times, and Esquire showcases her ability to connect with varied audiences through her writing.
Webb’s commitment to community and health is evident in her role with the Eucerin Skin First Council and her involvement with the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Couture Council. These positions reflect her dedication to promoting well-being and education in fashion. As a Google Digital Entrepreneur Ambassador and editor-at-large for Google Accelerate, she has also embraced the digital evolution, blending her fashion expertise with the tech world.
Residing in New York City with her husband Chris Del Gatto and their two children, Webb’s life story is a testament to the power of resilience and adaptability. Her journey from a young design student to an icon in the fashion industry illustrates the limitless possibilities that arise from embracing opportunities and transcending boundaries.
Maria Borges, born in Luanda, Angola, embarked on her modeling journey in 2010, quickly becoming a prominent figure in the fashion industry. Her early life, shaped by the challenges of the Angolan Civil War and being raised by her siblings, laid the foundation for her resilient character.
Her breakthrough moment came after a strong performance in the Angolan edition of the Elite Model Look contest. This success propelled her to move to New York, a decision that catalyzed her career. During her debut at New York Fashion Week, Borges made an impressive impact, booking a record 17 shows. Her unique aura and talent caught the attention of Givenchy’s then-creative director Riccardo Tisci, marking the start of a significant professional relationship and mentorship.
Borges’s portfolio is impressive, featuring collaborations with renowned designers like Oscar de la Renta and Versace. Her appearances in high-profile campaigns for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and L’Oréal further cemented her status in the industry. Notably, Borges broke barriers in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, where she was the first black model to showcase her natural afro hair, a powerful statement in an industry often criticized for its lack of diversity.
Her achievements extend beyond the runway. Borges graced the cover of ELLE’s American edition in 2017, the first African woman to do so in two decades. This milestone is a testament to her influence and the changing tides in the fashion world. Off the runway, Borges dedicates herself to community projects in Angola, using her success to uplift others. Fluent in Portuguese and English, her linguistic skills reflect her adaptability and global appeal.
As a mother and a symbol of hope for the African continent, Maria Borges continues to inspire and lead in the fashion industry. Her journey from Angola to the global stage is not just a story of success but a narrative of perseverance, empowerment, and change.
Joan Smalls Rodriguez
Born to a multicultural family in Hatillo, Puerto Rico, Smalls combined her academic pursuits in psychology with her passion for modeling, a decision that led her to New York City at 19. Her early career was not without its struggles, marked by an industry that often lacked inclusivity.
A pivotal moment came in 2010 with her casting by Givenchy, catapulting her into the limelight and marking the beginning of an illustrious modeling career. The following year, Smalls broke new ground as the first Latina model for Estée Lauder, a significant stride in diversifying the fashion industry. Her runway presence expanded rapidly, featuring in over 400 shows for high-profile designers like Chanel and Ralph Lauren.
Smalls’ influence extended beyond the runway. In 2012, her contributions to fashion were recognized when she was named “Model of the Year” at the Style Awards. By 2015, she ranked sixth among the world’s highest-paid supermodels. Her versatility shone through her television appearances, from mentoring in “Model Squad” to guest-judging on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Her YouTube channel further showcases her persona, offering insights into her world of beauty, fashion, and personal experiences.
A vocal advocate for her Afro-Latina heritage, Smalls has been a prominent voice against racial injustice in the fashion industry. Her commitment to social causes is evident through her involvement with organizations like Project Sunshine and the “Jeans for Refugees” campaign.
Embracing motherhood through IVF, Smalls has been candid about her experiences, challenging societal perceptions surrounding fertility treatments. Despite her global acclaim, she maintains a strong connection to her Puerto Rican roots, embodying the essence of a modern supermodel who transcends the conventional boundaries of the fashion industry.
The Fashion Industry & Diversity
Recent trends reveal a gradual shift in the fashion industry’s approach to diversity. In the U.S., Black models make up 16.7% of fashion models and 17.1% of runway models as of 2024. These numbers, while indicative of progress, mask the broader context of racial representation in fashion. For instance, during the Spring/Summer 2021 season, models of color constituted 41.3% of all models. However, this statistic encompasses all ethnic groups, not exclusively Black models.
Analyzing fashion show dynamics offers further insights. The 2019 New York Fashion Week marked a milestone in diversity, with minority models comprising 48% of those walking the runway. Yet, this achievement contrasts with a study covering 2013 to 2018, which found a significant underrepresentation of non-white models at these events.
Financial disparities also paint a complex picture. The average income for Black fashion models stands at $138,382, but this figure varies widely based on experience, modeling type, and specific engagements.
Consumer perspectives add another layer to the discussion. A 2021 survey highlighted a notable dissatisfaction among Black consumers regarding industry diversity, influencing their brand loyalties. Additionally, the representation of African American leaders in top fashion companies was below 1% in 2021.
These statistics and trends underscore the ongoing conversation about diversity in the fashion industry. They highlight progress in some areas while underscoring persistent challenges in others.
The Bottom Line
These ten black supermodels, including icons like Naomi Campbell and Winnie Harlow, have redefined fashion. Their careers go beyond modeling; they’ve broken barriers and set new standards for beauty and inclusivity. Each represents a unique blend of resilience, achievement, and advocacy, significantly impacting the fashion industry and inspiring change towards greater diversity and representation.