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A tall, striking, confident, chiseled, brown-skinned beauty, she has forever changed how America defines beautiful.

No, I am not speaking of our lovely First Lady, Michelle Obama. I am speaking of Naomi Sims.

Sims, who died on Aug. 1 of cancer at age 61, was one of the first black supermodels. Her appearance on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968 broke the color barrier at mainstream women’s magazines, and she went on to grace the covers of Cosmopolitan, Essence and Life. While she was not the only successful black model from that era (there were others, among them Donyale Luna), she was the first dark-skinned model to enjoy such a measure of mainstream success. (Time Magazine)

Born in Oxford, Miss., in 1948, Sims endured a troubled childhood in Pittsburgh that included time spent in foster care. (She later credited her unhappy childhood with fueling her drive and determination.) She arrived in New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966 and decided to try modeling to support herself. After most agencies turned her down, proclaiming her skin color “too dark,” she forged out on her own, landing a photo spread with the New York Times by contacting a photographer directly. At a time when “black is beautiful” became a rallying cry for many black people, she helped illustrate this mantra for people of all skin colors. (See TIME’s special report “Fashion’s New Attitude.”)

Though it still remains somewhat of a taboo to discuss, the skin-color barrier has historically been just as daunting for people of color as the racial barrier. A 2004 study showing that light-skinned immigrants in the U.S. earn more money on average than darker-skinned immigrants confirmed what many African Americans have privately known for years: that there are benefits simply for being a minority who is fairer. Traditionally, “beauty barriers” have almost exclusively been broken by lighter-skinned blacks — from the earliest black sex symbols such as Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge to the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams. This is why Sims was such a revelation: a beautiful black woman who was — from her skin tone to her hair texture — truly and quintessentially black. She opened the runway door for others, including role model Michelle Obama and the other supermodel Naomi — Campbell — to catwalk through. (See pictures of Michelle Obama’s style evolution.)

In doing so, Sims made it possible for brown girls everywhere to embrace their inner black beauty. We all know that junior high can be rough, but just imagine being a nearly 6-ft.-tall girl with both braces and glasses growing up in a place like Texas, where fellow Texan Farrah Fawcett, with her silky blond hair, sparkling blue eyes and golden tan, remains the standard of beauty.

I do not have blond hair, nor blue eyes, and I’ve never relied on the sun to keep my God-given tan intact. But thankfully, I was fortunate to have a mother who made me — braces, glasses and all — feel beautiful, even when most boys and magazines around me did not. She introduced me to countless black beauties who did not look like Farrah, but who too were beautiful.

One of them was Naomi Sims.

Keli Goff is an author, a political commentator and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. She is a featured essayist in The Speech: Race and Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” (Bloomsbury, August 2009)

Read TIME’s 1969 article “Black Look in Beauty.”

Read TIME’s 1970 article “Black Cosmetics.”

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