28 Days of Black Fashion History: B. Smith
Known to many as a restauranteur, author and celebrity chef, B. Smith (born Barbara Elaine Smith) actually got her start as a fashion model. Her megawatt smile would grace the covers of 15 magazines before moving on to build her lifestyle brand.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Smith saw an advertisement for the John Robert Powers modeling school while in high school. She convinced her father, a Jehovah’s witness, that it was a finishing school, and she saved the tuition money from her babysitting job.
Her modeling started at local department stores, but her big break came in 1969 when she was chosen to model in the Ebony Fashion Fair which traveled to 77 cities across the United States. It was during this time that she shortened her first name to “B.”
She was signed to the Wilhelmina modeling agency 2 years later, appearing on magazine covers and in print ads for products including Oil of Olay and Noxzema. And in 1976 she became the second Black model to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine. She would also become the spokeswoman for several brands including Verizon, Colgate Palmolive Oxy, and McCormick’s Lawry seasonings.
As her modeling career began to wane, Smith turned her sights to developing her own lifestyle brand. She opened her first restaurant in Manhattan in 1986, eventually opening two more in Sag Harbor and Washington, D.C. She also authored 3 books on cooking and entertainment; launched a style magazine; a home products line, a first for any African American woman to be sold at a national retailer; and launched a furniture line for La-Z-Boy.
The cover of B. Smith's cookbook, B. Smith Cooks Southern Style.
The cover of the premiere issue of B. Smith's style magazine, B. Smith Style.
When I first came to know of B. Smith, it was in the 90’s thru her syndicated talk show B. Smith With Style, a show that was also nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award in 2000. At the time, it was the only lifestyle programs hosted by an African American, interviewing a variety of guests including Eartha Kitt and Gladys Knight. Six seasons later, the show could be seen in 22 countries including Japan, Canada, South African and throughout Latin America.
A segment from an episode of B. Smith With Style featuring celebrity guest Gladys Knight.
Smith was eventually diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and chronicles her journey with the disease in her memoir Before I Forget: Love, Hope, Help and Acceptance in Our Fight Against Alzheimer’s.
She passed away at the age of 70 on February 22, 2020. She will be remembered for not only her incredible style and grace but also as a pioneer and legend for women of color in the food industry as well as models who pursue entrepreneurship post-modeling.