Magazine article New African

Fashion Models before Naomi. (the Arts)

Magazine article New African

Fashion Models before Naomi. (the Arts)

Article excerpt

From all the media hype, you would be justified in thinking that Naomi Campbell was the first black model -- on the catwalk or in commercials. Not so, writes good old Clayton Goodwin who did see quite a few before Naomi.

British newspapers and television are particularly reluctant to acknowledge the rich tradition of Caribbean and African heritage models that have gone before, even though the majority of these young ladies are very much alive in their midst and looking as beautiful as they were in their heyday.

A couple of months ago, the Weekly Gleaner newspaper published a feature on Beverley Heath in their occasional series, "Where are they now?", and were almost bowled over by the public response of fond rememberance of the model.

Beverley Heath, Rema Nelson, Dorothy Ottey, Pauline Peart ... these are names that are evocative of a generation of pulchritude. I have been privileged to meet all four within the last few weeks -- that is one of the perks of the reporter's job -- and can testify to their youth, vitality and a complete lack of the perceived Campbell temperament.

Rema Nelson, then a teenager, was a pioneer of the "swinging" 1960s. She is remembered best as being the Camera-bunny at the Playboy Club on Park Lane, London. Yet Rema was always active in magazine commercials, television walk-on parts and beauty contests. When she ceased being a Bunny-girl, Ms Nelson worked for a time as a catwalk model in Dusseldorf, Germany, where she shared accommodation for a time with Miss Heath, then at the start of her career.

While there, Rema was converted to born-again Christianity, walked off the catwalk and out of modelling, and attended theology college in California. She is still in America -- with her home in Florida but based temporarily in Cincinnati - where she works as an air hostess (returning from time to rime in the course of her work to catch up with her former colleagues in London).

You will have noticed that I used the term "Caribbean" models, and not "African". Yet, surely, there were models from continental Africa. After all, you would have seen their photographs in advertisements in magazines circulated in West Africa.

Well, nothing is always quite what it seems to be. Although these publications were circulated, and sometimes published and printed in Africa, the commercials were nearly always made by London-based modelling agencies.

There just weren't any Nigerian or Ghanaian models available at that time. The photographers got round the problem by persuading Jamaicans, such as Rema and Beverley, to claim to be part-Nigerian. When their "authenticity" was tested by introducing Yoruba into the conversation -- and it was always Yoruba -- they were to reply that, although one parent was Nigerian and spoke that language, they had been brought up by the other parent who spoke only English at home.

Everybody involved claims (with considerable justice) that the end justified the means. If no "African" models had come forward, the relevant advertisers would have withdrawn their financial support of not only those magazines but that entire sector of publishing would have ceased to exist. But even then in Toplife, Happy Home, etc, the continental African content of the models displayed was as negligible as to be non-existent.

Nevertheless, although black models were present in increasing numbers in small-time fashion and commercials in special-interest publications, they were ignored generally by the national press. Consequently they were employed primarily in the smaller parts of television series and films, such as Dr Who, the Draculla horror stories, comedy Man About The House and the Carry On series, and -- as in the case of Venecia Day (voted the sexiest girl in Britain by readers of the News of the World newspaper), Lucienne Camille (known also as Sylvia Bayo) and Sylvana Henriques in "exotic" magazies and camera-shoots. …

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