Her Story: Hellen Williams

Helen Williams helped break down racial barriers in modeling when she became the first African-American woman to crossover into mainstream advertising. Born in New Jersey in 1937, Williams grew up loving fashion. She was discovered while working in a photography studio at the age of 17 by Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne, who took her under their wing. 

She began modeling for Jet and Ebony, African American Fashion and lifestyle magazines. While trying to extend her career with other companies and modeling houses, she faced a wall of discrimination because she had dark skin. Williams decided to move to France in 1960 because Paris was a little more open-minded about skin color. She found much success in Paris France and began working for Christian Dior as well as other high fashion designer houses. 

Upon returning to the United States she realized nothing had changed. Williams decided to take her fight against discrimination head-on. She used the press to expose the world to the ignorant racism being perpetuated in the fashion industry. With hard work and persistence, she was able to open America’s eyes.

After years of campaigning Williams finally broke the race barrier and landed modeling jobs for several major American brands. We salute this talented, beautiful, smart, and incredibly tenacious woman for blazing a trail and lighting the way for others.

About The Author


Mother, Photographer, Wisecracker.... not necessarily in that order.

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