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Celebrating Black History Month: Helen Williams

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This Black History Month, we are highlighting influential figures in fashion and medicine. Learn more about Helen Williams, the first mainstream African-American super model. 


Helen Williams was the first African American female fashion model to break into the mainstream fashion industry, starring in several major advertising campaigns.

Born in East Riverton, New Jersey in 1937, Helen took an interest in fashion at a very young age. While working as a stylist at a New York photography studio, she was discovered by entertainers Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr. who were astonished by her beauty and encouraged her to get into the modeling business. From that day on, she began her journey to the top starting in Paris and working her way back to the United States.

Williams’ unique look consisted of wearing bouffant wigs which, paired with her long neck, gave her an exotic appeal. She worked exclusively for magazines like Ebony and Jet, however, she continued to face a great deal of discrimination. Other women in the industry tended to be of European descent or “light skinned” and she was considered “too dark to be accepted”. Fortunately, the French had a different view of black beauty, which is why Williams relocated to Paris.

In Paris, Williams found success modeling for designers such as Christian Dior and Jean Desses. She returned to America after one year with the hopes that her popularity in Paris would be duplicated America. After struggling to find a job, she decided to get the press involved. Though it didn’t happen over night, Williams became a hot commodity. She was booked for ads such as Budweiser, Loon Togs and Modes which allowed her to cross over into the mainstream press for the first time ever.

Helen paved the way for African American women in fashion by breaking down racial barriers, teaching models of all ages, ethnicities and genders that persistence is key.


Too Black For America: 1950’s Beauty Helen Williams – The First African American Fashion Model.

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