28 Days of Black Fashion History: Helen Williams
Helen Williams is the first African American model to cross over into mainstream media.
A pioneer in the world of modeling, Helen Williams-Jackson is credited with paving the way for African American fashion models, particularly dark-skinned models, to be featured in major publications and advertising as well as high fashion catwalks, both domestic and international.
Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, Helen was always excited about fashion. Her introduction into the industry came as a stylist in a photography studio in New York. It’s been said that entertainers Lena Horne and Sammy Davis, Jr., who both spotted her while taking press shots at the studio, urged her to begin modeling. But it was a photographer named Eric Nepo who actually convinced her to get in front of the camera.
At 17, she began her career working for Ebony, Jet and TAN magazines and became very recognizable. However, when she began looking for an agency, she was dismissed by most for not only being a non-white model but also “too dark to be accepted.” She eventually signed with Grace DelMarco, an African American modeling agency owned by Ophelia Devore. It was Ophelia who urged Helen to move to Paris where her career blossomed.
In Paris, Helen had a much more positive experience. The French had a different viewpoint of Black beauty. There, Helen modeled for high fashion design houses such as Christian Dior and Jean Dessès. She was called ‘La Belle Americaine’, and it’s been said that by the end of her tenure, she’d had three marriage proposals.
Ebony magazine, September, 1960. Johnson Publishing Company.
Upon her return to the states, Helen found that opportunities were still quite limited for African American models, but as we like to say today, “Nevertheless, she persisted.” She took her case to the press, and white journalists Dorothy Kilgallen and Earl Wilson helped bring more attention to the fashion industry’s exclusion of Black fashion models. The attention helped Helen to book ads for brands such as Budweiser and Loom Togs, advertisements that crossed over into mainstream media such as The New York Times, Life and Redbook.
Helen Williams in an advertisement for Budweiser.
Helen Williams in an advertisement for Bulova jewelry.
Helen retired from modeling in 1970, but she didn’t leave the fashion industry. She went back to styling and worked for such household names as JC Penney and Sears. She also started a company, H & H Fashions, with friend and photographer, Henry Castro. She later married Norm Jackson in 1977, and they eventually moved back to her hometown in Riverton. She retired from styling in 2012 at the age of 76 and now spends much of her time sewing, painting and gardening.
She has received numerous awards for her contributions to the fashion industry, but the groundwork she help lay for present-day African American models will outlast and far outweigh the accolades. Helen Williams helped kick down doors to usher in more diversity in beauty, allowing brown and dark-skinned girls to see themselves and know that they are as beautiful as their white and light-skinned sisters.