The fashion industry has a history of inclusivity and diversity issues, which are unfortunately still prevalent today. Although progress is slowly but surely being made to ensure that people of color, and specifically Black people, are represented in all areas of the industry including modeling, someone usually (and unfairly) has to pave the way for others. The following Black supermodels have had many firsts between them (first Black model to open a runway show, first Black model to appear on a magazine cover, first Black model to land a major cosmetics contract—the list goes on), and they’ve all also dominated countless catwalks and campaigns and deserve major recognition.
Of course, you’d have to be living under an actual rock not to know some of the iconic women listed below (*hint hint* Naomi and Tyra), but there are also some rising supermodels that have made names for themselves in an impressively short amount of time. Below, 28 Black supermodels that have changed—and are continuing to change—the fashion and modeling industries.
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Tyra Mail! Before she was the iconic America’s Next Top Model judge, she was a supermodel herself as she walked in shows from Christian Lacroix to Victoria’s Secret. She was the first Black model to sign a contract with the latter brand, and was an Angel from 1997 to 2005.
A supermodel with one of the most prolific fashion careers, Naomi’s first experience in the limelight was actually at 7 years old when she was in the Bob Marley music video “Is This Love?” But being in the industry as long as she has can come with some controversy, and she’s currently under some scrutiny for her alleged ties to Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.
The English model has modeled in campaigns for Fenty and Pat McGrath, and has walked in shows for designers like Tom Ford, Moschino, Marc Jacobs, and Victoria’s Secret. She also has her own blog and fashion brand called LAPP, for Leomie Anderson The Project The Purpose, where articles are published from a diverse community of writers about style, politics, and more.
A semi-finalist in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, she was the first contestant to participate wearing a hijab. Since her participation, she received widespread attention and was signed to IMG models. She also become the first Muslim model to wear the head covering and a burkini in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
Though she is mixed-race, the model has said that she feels “more connected to Black culture and the Black experience,” in an interview with Allure. Her mom is Black, and her dad is both Chilean and Swiss. Notably, she appeared on the cover of Vogue Arabia alongside Ashley Graham, and is a runway expert (seen here at Alexander McQueen).
She was the first Black model to wear her natural hair down the Victoria’s Secret runway in 2015. (Took them long enough!) The Angolan model also inked a deal with L’Oréal Paris to become its new face in 2017, and she continues to kill it on the catwalk, seen walking here at a Christian Siriano show.
The French fashion model was the first Black model to walk exclusively for Calvin Klein, according to an interview with Into the Gloss, and she’s walked impressive shows like Elie Saab, Chanel, Givenchy, and more.
The Somali model was a muse for so many designers: Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Canvin Klein, Donna Karan—need I continue? She’s also a philanthropist and has fundraised for important causes like AIDS research, helping refugees, and other humanitarian efforts.
Not just an iconic model, Grace Jones does it all: She’s a singer, songwriter, actress, and record producer. She knows how to turn a runway walk into a straight-up performance. Her dances and moves bring so much energy to the crowd, which was apparent at the 2019 Tommy Hilfiger x Zendaya show.
Pat Cleveland was a trailblazer in the fashion industry in the ’60s and ’70s and continues to be today. Last year—at 68 years old!—she walked in the Hellessy show pictured here in this amazing red get-up.
Naomi Sims was the first Black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968 as well as the 1969 issue of Life, and her career took off afterwards. She also started her own wig and hairpiece business, which then expanded into cosmetics and skincare before she passed away from cancer in August 2009.
Beverly Peele modeled for countless magazines including Mademoiselle, Elle, Vogue as well as, yours truly, Cosmopolitan.
Alek Wek was the first Black model on the cover of Elle in 1997, and won MTV ‘Model of the Year’ award that same year. Born in South Sudan, she fled to Britain to escape civil war, and has since walked high-profile runways like this Lanvin show. But she’s vocal about discrimination and diversity in the modeling industry, and has also done a TED Talk about her experience growing up in Sudan.
Gail O’Neill was a prominent model during the 1980s and ’90s, during which she modeled for glossies like Sports Illustrated and Vogue, and also companies like Nordstrom and J. Crew. Since her modeling days, she’s focused on her journalism career and has worked for CNN, HGTV, and CBS.
Ajok Madel is new to the modeling world but has already made a name for herself by booking runway shows for Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford and Dries van Noten. She’s South Sudanese, but grew up in Australia.
Winnie Harlow was a contestant on America’s Next Top Model back in 2014, and although she didn’t win that cycle, her modeling career has exploded. In her audition, she said she was bullied in school for her vitiligo, but she has been at the forefront of changing the beauty standards of the modeling industry.
Veronica Webb was the first Black model to sign a contract with Revlon in 1990. She was also a muse of Azzedine Alaia, and had a close friendship with the designer. “I have sweaters I’ve been wearing for 30 years now from Alaia,” she said in an interview. “My husband gave me a white shearling jacket which was one of Azzedine’s favorite pieces from his final collection before he passed away in 2017.”
Duckie made her runway debut at the Yeezy spring/summer 2017 show. Imagine that being your first gig?! She’s appeared in major campaigns for Moschino and Oscar de la Renta, but got her start on Australia’s Next Top Model, when she finished as one of the top three contestants on the show.
Jasmine Tookes is best known for her work as a Victoria’s Secret Angel, but she has also walked runways for Vera Wang, Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, and many more.
Adut Akech was exclusively cast by Saint Laurent in 2017 and has since has since walked for brands including Dior, Givenchy, Versace, and Miu Miu (seen here). In December 2019, she won the “Model of the Year” award at the British Fashion Awards in London. As a refugee of South Sudan before she moved to Australia, she also works with the United Nations to help support refugees worldwide.
Lana Ogilvie was the first Black model to be given a contract with CoverGirl cosmetics and modeled in magazines like the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan (hi!), and more. In the ’90s, she was part of The Black Girl’s Coalition, pushing for more diversity on the runways and in print. Now, she has her own eponymous skincare line.
The English model was discovered while she was “mucking about” (her words, not mine) in a Primark store in 2006, and a year later she was walking international runways. She was the first Black model to walk a Prada runway in over a decade in 2008, and has continued to dominate fashion shows and campaigns from Burberry to Brandon Maxwell.
Debra Shaw was one of the most widely-known models in the ’90s and modeled for Alexander McQueen, Thierry Mugler, Giorgio Armani. She’s still in action today at 43 years old and walked in so. Many. Fashion. Shows this past February and March (pictured here at Rag & Bone).
Slick Woods has walked down countless runways ranging from Marc Jacobs to Savage x Fenty (she was pregnant in the latter brand’s 2018 show and went into labor right after!). You might also recognize her signature gap-tooth smile, seen here on the LaQuan Smith runway.
Cynthia Bailey worked as a runway model in Paris and Milan for a year, then she returned to NYC and appeared in magazines including Vogue, Elle and Essence. If you’re a fan of reality television (aka ME), you might recognize her from Real Housewives of Atlanta.
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