feature: where are they now? the 39 black models of yale joel’s iconic life magazine editorial

October 20, 2014

On October 17th 1969, the iconic issue of Life Magazine with Naomi Sims as its cover model was published. In this issue was an editorial featuring 39 black models, shot by Yale Joel who also shot the cover. That editorial shot is pictured below, and the text in the image reads as followed: “You see before you what may well be the most persuasive demonstration of successful black power ever assembled. If these 39 models, employed by a new agency called Black Beauty, were all to work an eight-hour day, their combined bill would be $16,000, a handsome fee by any standard and a vast change from even a few years ago. This spectacular breakthrough— part of the new emphasis on black pride and equality— was brought about by advertisers and fashion arbiters who are finding out that black is not only beautiful but good business.” Forty-five years ago, these gorgeous models, represented by Black Beauty Modelling Agency (BBMA), were making waves in fashion from NYC to Pareeee, baby. The significance of the image  is huge. 1969: just one year after Martin Luther King was assassinated. Now I seek to discover where the journeys of these beautiful people led to?

By Desta Haile, AFROPUNK Contributor

This stunning Life Magazine photo snapped by Yale Joel has captivated me for years, these dapper, dazzling cats beaming down at me in all shades of cinnamon, coffee, copper and mahogany. Who are they? What are their stories? What became of them? Where are they now? Besides the majestic Naomi Sims, whose exquisite face graced the cover like some otherworldly goddess, and a couple other featured models, there were no names to go on.

I am not the most organised of people – as my old man (front row, on the right) could have told you— and I’ve inherited his polychronic and relaxed attitude to time, so while I am faaaaar from finished, I have been able to unearth some gems from this afro-fashion sleuthing project that I would like to share. Please forgive and correct any mistakes you find, get in touch, help me fill in the blanks and find all the people… spread the word….and “say it loud…”!

A few months ago, I got in touch with Ms Dianna Freeland, who, with Ms Betty Forray, ran BBMA in her twenties. Together, they gave young Black American people an opportunity to see themselves as beautiful. Betty’s business acumen clicked with Di’s vibrant energy and, in her words, they worked their buns off. Di’s memories generously bubbled down the line into my grateful ears, with the excitement and stress and splendour of the time. Sleep was something saved for the weekends; the weekdays for late nights in the office and early mornings in the clubs.

“Oh yeah! I remember your dad! We used to hang out at Max’s Kansas City, where he worked at! Last I saw of him, he had just gone back to Ethiopia. Wasn’t he engaged to someone in the royal family? But then she died? And he was put in prison, but escaped…? I remember, we were the same sign, your Dad and I…”

Reesom Haile

July 10, 194? Afelba, Eritrea –June 29, 2003 Brussels, Belgium

(Front row, on the right..)

When he was a child, his mother walked to the nearest village, found a young priest and told him: “If you educate my son, I will be your servant for the rest of my life.” Educated by Jesuit priests, he narrowly escaped becoming one himself, got a scholarship to Babson College in Boston and then made his way to NYC. He studied Business and Communications at NYU, wrote about Been-To-Ism (the phenomenon Africans faced after they had been to the States for their education), managed the hip and happening club Max’s Kansas City, dabbled in modelling, kicked it with Grace Jones and Andy Warhol, lived with Jimi Hendrix and may have inspired Patti Smith to name an album Radio Ethiopia. He auditioned for Shaft, didn’t get the role (‘I still had an African accent,’ he explained), felt bummed about it to the point that he bounced to Addis, where, he found out, to his surprise and irritation, they were already busy filming Shaft… in Africa. Haha! But life goes on.

He got his PhD, spoke seven languages, worked for the UN, and married my lovely and amazing mama in 1984. He was a glorious dad, a mean cook and, eventually Eritrea’s Poet Laureate. He was a wild storyteller, so I never quite knew when he was teasing me, testing me or just plain inventing things. A couple years after my Dad passed away, I had the good fortune to meet the singer Richie Havens on tour in Australia, who kindly confirmed a thing or two. I had barely asked him if he remembered this one club and he exclaimed ‘Woah! Girl! How you know about that?! You’re taking me back 40 years or something…. Oh man!…Wait a minute,” he smiled…”your Daddy was the Ethiopian dude!!”

I am too late to ask my Dad about this photo, so, unfortunately, I can’t get his input on it… but like Mr Havens put it when he opened up Woodstock with his improvised song ‘Freedom’ : “I got a telephone in my bosom and I can call him up from my heart…”

Marcia McBroom

August 6, 1947, New York City, U.S.A

(Second row on the left, white top, serious eye-liner…)

Born to a politically-active family originally from Montserrat, who were deep in the civil rights movement, it is no wonder that Ms McBroom has been a history teacher for decades and heads a charity called For Our Children’s Sake. She served on New York’s Committee for UNICEF for sixteen years and is a consultant for New York’s Board of Education.

Model, actress, educator, activist and producer, star of 1970s film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Ms Mcbroom comes from a tightknit family. Her siblings have also been successful in the creative industries— Lorelei McBroom is a singer and songwriter who has worked with everyone from Nile Rodgers to Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones; Durga McBroom, an actress, was in Flashdance. Marcia McBroom became a famous face in many African countries as a result of a campaign she did for Lux Soap, a symbol for elegance and wealth. This may have, indirectly led to her mum being kidnapped and thrown into a maximum security prison in Nigeria— a nightmare compounded by the fact that neither the U.S nor the Nigerian governments did nada to clarify the situation. Pressure mounted as Lagos gangsters demanded $1.5 million transferred to their London bank account in exchange for her mama’s release. Marcia and her sisters bonded together, moved heaven and earth, and finally made enough noise to save their mum from the firing squad. No joke! This is kind of crazy as I have only researched a handful of people in this pic and this is already the second story of a Nigerian kidnapping! But we’ll talk more about that later oh….

Gloria Hendry

March 3, 1949 Winter Haven, Florida, U.S.A

(Front row, just to the left of the page-fold, dark pink turtle neck)

“It isn’t a matter of black is beautiful as much as it is white is not all that’s beautiful.”

(Bill Cosby)

Hendry, Gloria Hendry…

Cleft chin, chestnut skin, this muscular minx descended from Seminole, Chinese, Creek Indian, Irish and African ancestors. Meet the first African-American Bond girl. If you grew up in apartheid South Africa that may have passed you by, since a lot of Live and Let Die was censored. She has written a book about her life that is definitely not censored. Hendry was a Playboy Bunny, starred in Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and Black Belt Jones. Back to 007 though, I wonder when we will see the first Black Bond? Idris Elba, anyone? Hello, Chiwetel Ejiofor? Selam, Buruk Tekle! Heyyyy… Just saying…

“She was good, man, she was bad!” –

(Quincy, from Black Belt Jones)

Marian Etoile Watson

(Front row, to the left of my dad, big hoop earrings…)

Adopted at two weeks old, Marian Etoile Watson was raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Both of her parents were educators who attended Spelman, Cornell, Brown and the University of Chicago. She was passionate about music, studied it at college and sang her way into the Julliard School of Music in New York and Milan’s Scuola di Musica. What was supposed to be a short stint at a broadcasting job in between musical theatre performances turned into a career of 37 years. She hosted a show called Good Day New York, worked as a film and theatre critic, and along the way interviewed celebrities like Denzel Washington, Wynton Marsalis and Michael Jackson. Apparently she now lives on a ranch in Nashville, Tennessee where she raises horses and is an excellent rifle woman— I read that her dad was a sharp shooter and kept his guns within reach, for when the white supremacist neighbours dropped by.

Norma Jean Darden

November 4, 1939 Newark, New Jersey, USA

(Top row, on the right, yellow top, artistic hand-on-hair pose…)

For real though, a lot of these people can make you feel like an underachiever! Towering inspirations to get off your backside and, in the words of Outkast, “Git up, git out and git something…”

Where to start with Ms Darden? Bonafide black-model-history-on-legs, she was part of the 1973 Versailles show in Paris, a truly pivotal event for American fashion and black people on the international fashion stage. Five American designers went head-to-head with the chicest French couturiers — it could have gotten ugly, if it weren’t for the sublime, statuesque women rocking the U.S designs. By the following year, Beverly Johnson became the first black woman on the cover of Vogue and Givenchy were hiring black models exclusively. To put this in perspective: just last year, Prada hired a black model for the first time in 19 years! Let me now take a moment to chupse*, very LOUDLY, at Prada.

Ms Darden and her associates changed the game right up, and she prettified the pages of Glamour, Mademoiselle and Bazaar magazines. In the 1970s, she and her sister launched a catering business. If you live in NYC, you can visit Spoonbread Inc. and feast on Southern-style family recipes –definitely on my list for my next visit… along with Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster establishment… and he is married to Ethiopian model Maya Haile! I hope to break bread with all of them… or, injera, even better.

Get this now— Ms Darden, as if being a prolific model and owner of a successful catering company that counts Oprah and Bill Cosby among its clients wasn’t enough, went ahead and produced a one-woman show based on her book ‘Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine.’ Can I get an amen?

So there we are, a preliminary visit to the year of space exploration and blaxploitation… How have things changed since then? Enough? Too little? Let’s hear it for black astronauts, and these pioneering models. Big up!

There will be seven more installments on this journey, and, fingers crossed, by U.S Black History Month, February 2015 we’ll have the full story… all the stories!

I’m a firm believer in “if you don’t ask, you don’t get”… so if any fellow South Londoners (Naomi? Kate?) or any Horn of Africa compatriots (Marhaba, Iman!) want to fund some transatlantic travels so I can sit and rap with Betty & Di in person… or if The New Yorker or another nice mag wants to publish the full story… or if Spike Lee wants to fund a documentary… I will be smizing my face off (Hi, Tyra!)…

Check out the magazine & photo, Life size: