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Exhibit honors groundbreaking Black model with Pittsburgh roots

A woman in a black-brimmed hat looks over her shoulder and up.
Gösta Peterson
Courtesy Estate of Gösta Peterson
Naomi Sims as seen in The New York Times, Fashions of the Times, Aug. 27, 1967.

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Decades ago, Kilolo Luckett found a keepsake of her mother’s. It was the Oct. 17, 1969, issue of LIFE magazine, whose cover featured the head and bare shoulders of a beautiful Black woman.

It was then common for Black folks to memorialize the still-rare instances when Black people made a splash in white media. But Luckett said this glossy magazine held particularly deep meaning for her mother: That LIFE model was a contemporary of her mom’s who shared her (and Luckett’s) home state of Mississippi. And Naomi Sims would become pretty important to her daughter, too, not least because of a Pittsburgh connection.

“Naomi Sims: (Super) Model Citizen” is the new exhibit at ALMA | LEWIS, the art space Luckett, a writer and art historian, operates in Point Breeze North. The show, featuring photographic prints, original copies of magazines and more, grew out of Luckett’s abiding interest in the groundbreaking model turned author and businesswoman. It’s also linked to her long-term goal to write Sims’ biography.

One advantage to undertaking that project in Pittsburgh (where Luckett has lived since graduating from Pitt) is that Sims largely grew up here. After coming north as a child with her mother and sisters, she lived in Lincoln-Lemington and graduated from Westinghouse High School in 1966. Luckett’s interview subjects have included the late John Brewer, a local author and historian of Black Pittsburgh who was Sims’ Westinghouse schoolmate.

Like Andy Warhol a generation earlier, Sims quickly left Pittsburgh for New York City, on a scholarship to the Fashion Institute of Technology. To earn money, she tried modeling but said she was sometimes told her skin was too dark.

Her trajectory changed in August 1967, when she appeared on the cover of the New York Times fashion supplement. Soon she was getting steady work through the famed Wilhelmina Models agency, including a TV ad for AT&T. Big firsts followed. In late 1968, Sims became the first Black model to grace the cover of a mainstream U.S. women’s magazine, the Ladies’ Home Journal. That LIFE cover — another milestone for a Black model — followed less than a year later.

Sims also supported and mentored many Black models, including Beverly Johnson, who in 1974 became the first Black model on the cover of the U.S. Vogue.

The New York Times later called Sims’ Ladies’ Home Journal appearance “a consummate moment for the Black is Beautiful movement.”

All that alone earned Sims her place in history.

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But not long after she joined Warhol himself on the December 1972 cover of Interview — intriguingly, his sole cover appearance in his own magazine during his lifetime — Sims quit modeling.

Still in her mid-20s, she got into the beauty business, launching what became a multimillion-dollar enterprise selling wigs, makeup and perfume to Black women. She also turned author, publishing four books including “All About Health and Beauty for the Black Woman” (1976) and “How to Be a Top Model” (1979).

“I was blown away by the depth of her life and her life experiences,” Luckett said. “What model was writing books about how to be a top model?”

Luckett’s archival digging demonstrates Sims did all her own research and writing. She called Sims “one of the first supermodels to expand beyond the catwalk and the editorial [side] of fashion.” Naomi “really laid that foundation” for models to expand their careers this way, said Luckett, a blueprint followed in later decades by the likes of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington.

Sims died of cancer in 2009. This past March would have been her 75th birthday. To Luckett, it seemed a fitting time to honor Sims in a gallery a few minutes’ drive from where she spent her teen years.

ALMA | LEWIS is located on the second floor of the building at 6901 Lynn Way. It’s open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday through Fridays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. the first Saturday of each month, and by appointment. The exhibit runs through Feb. 24.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: