Model and actress Toukie Smith is a living fashion legend. She has risen from poverty to become a well-known fashion model and muse, lose her brother publicly and date a famous movie star. Although not as recognizable as names like Beverly Johnson or Pat Cleveland, Toukie was a rare figure in the modeling world.
Born to a working poor family in the South, Toukie was six years younger than her brother, Willie. Although lacking monetary funds and a secret alcoholic mother, their struggle was made up with love. Toukie and Willie had a strong relationship, they would dress themselves in sheets and make clothing out of it. “It wasn’t about how much you paid for what you got. It was how you made it work,” Toukie said to Barbara Summers in the book Skin Deep: The Story of Black Models In America and Abroad.
Toukie and Willie’s mother also added to their design sensibilities by sketching on their lunchbags. Toukie remembers her parents glamour when attending cabarets and jazz concerts. “My parents didn’t have money to buy the most expensive clothes, but baby, those clothes worked, and they were glamorous and wonderful.” To Barbara Summers, Toukie described a going-out outfit of her mothers. Consisting of a blue chiffon dress, blue bugle beads, dyed sapphire blue shoes, blue sprayed hair and blue sapphires stones in her earrings, Toukie’s mother sounded fabulous.
Lasting into his adulthood, Willie was calm and introverted. Toukie was his opposite. “I was a wild child, real wild. All this energy. I had all this curiosity, and I still have it.” As Willie’s fashion line gained popularity, Toukie also found work as a model. Although they were very close, they never pulled favors for the other’s career.
Toukie got the chance of a lifetime when she was offered the chance to model in Japan. There she had a signature look: bald and no eyebrows. Toukie met Japanese designer Issey Miyake, who offered her a modeling contract if she lost 20 lbs. “Honey, it was hard because I love to eat and cook,” says the 5’8″ model. She lost the weight and was eventually signed with Wilhelmina. Her career took off and was singled out by Bloomingdale’s as its favorite model in 1978. She worked for many of the top designers in the 1970s, including Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. Toukie is the first African American model to have a mannequin created in her likeness.
She had a fuller figure, model wise, with large breasts and hips and a thin waist. Wilhelmina once encouraged her to stay true to herself, “Never forget that no matter how rough it is, be who you are.”Toukie knew modeling wouldn’t last, due to advice given to her by Naomi Sims to use modeling as a “stepping stone.” She wanted to be “more than a product.” This inspired Toukie to become an actress, but she only attained limited roles.
In 1987, Toukie lost her brother Willie. An established designer who was known for designing for everyday people, Willie passed away from an aids related illness. Willie is one of the few African American men to be celebrated in fashion, remembered for his great designs and young death.
After Willie’s death, Toukie continued her acting career. Recently, Toukie has appeared in the news for her relationship with Robert De Niro, which resulted into two sons. Toukie also has spoken about the history and impact of African American models in fashion. Hopefully her next step will be a book. She has great stories to tell.