“She gave people who were black the opportunity to know that if they applied themselves they could reach certain goals.” -Ophelia DeVore
Helen Williams was one of the few African Americans to model in haute couture during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Alongside other well-known models like Ophelia DeVore and Dorothea Towles Church, she was a part of the first generation of African American models to work in the mainstream fashion world.
Helen’s beauty was unique. Out of the small group of African American models, she was the darkest complected. During this time darker skin was considered second class inside the African American community, and there was a great pressure to be light skinned. This made modeling for Helen difficult. As Williams recalled in the 1982 March issue of Black Enterprise, “I was too dark to be accepted.”
However, through her determination and hard work, Helen’s modeling career reached a higher level than many of her lighter skinned peers.
Born in New Jersey in 1937, Helen began as a stylist for a photo studio. She met many celebrities at the studio, including Lena Horne and Sammy Davis Jr.. With her slim frame and long neck, people at the studio urged her to become a model.
Helen’s time in Paris was unlike any of her other modeling experiences. She walked in haute couture shows and was dressed in the latest designs. Helen worked for many established couture houses, including Jean Desses, Yves Saint Laurent and Dior. The staff at Dior said she was one of the prettiest models they had ever seen.”Over there,” Helen said referring to Paris, “I was La Belle Americaine.”
The work Helen found in the United States was less glamorous. Her jobs were primarily for African American fashion publications like Ebony and Jet. She also starred in ads for Bulova watches and Budweiser which were solely featured in these magazines. The white fashion world was off limits, because her beauty was seen as taboo.
Although the Civil Rights Movement was occurring, the fashion world was still segregated with beauty ideals that looked down on darker skin. Advertisements for skin lighteners were regularly featured in magazines like Ebony and Jet. These advertisements promised viewers that lighter skin gave better lives. Even Helen modeled for a skin lightener.
Despite racism from both inside and outside her community, Helen persevered. She proved that dark skin was beautiful by helping introduce a new type of beauty in the fashion world.