Model and actress Toukie Smith is a living fashion legend. She rose from poverty to become a well-known fashion model and muse, lost her brother publicly, and even dated a famous movie star.
Born to a working-class family in the South, Toukie was six years younger than her brother, Willie. Although lacking monetary funds and mother who was a secret alcoholic, their struggle was made up with love. Toukie and Willie had a strong relationship, they would dress in sheets and make clothing. “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 lunch bags. 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.” Toukie described a going-out outfit of her mothers to Barbara Summers, which consisted 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 line gained popularity and he became a big name in fashion, 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 awarded Bloomingdale’s favorite model in 1978. She worked for many of the top designers in the 1970s, including Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. She also became the first Black fashion model to have a mannequin created in her likeness.
Toukie knew modeling wouldn’t last after supermodel Naomi Sims gave her advice to use modeling as a “stepping stone.” She wanted to be “more than a product,” so she became an actress, but she only attained a limited amount of roles.
Toukie lost her brother Willie in 1987, who passed away from an AIDS-related illness. Before his early death, he was an established designer created clothing for everyday people. Willie was, and still is, one of the few Black men to be celebrated in fashion.
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 in two sons. Toukie also has spoken about the history and impact of Black models in fashion. Hopefully, her next step will be a book. She has great stories to tell.