Shailah Edmonds’ Fleeting Fame
The lack of Black models and contributors in fashion is glaring, however, this lack was even
more glaring and even more accepted just years ago. But, in Paris during the 1970s and 1980s,
there was a futuristic fascination with Black models at the request of the huge collaboration
between Europe and the United States, known as the Battle of Versailles. During this time,
Paris, the noted best place for fashion out of anywhere around, was interested in creating the
most new-and-now, and thus, sought out Black Models. Shailah Edmonds, amongst other
notable Black models of the period served the purpose of diversifying Parisian runways.
Edmonds’ legacy, however, remains largely unknown, as she lives her life now as a cabaret
singer in New York city. It was not that they had the best jobs, it is not that they got the best
campaigns, it is not that they were paid the most: it was that they were wanted because they
were Black. Edmonds was part of Paris’ efforts to diversify not for diversity’s sake, but for
commodity’s sake. And in a time where fashion is attempting to properly diversify, one of its
pioneers, Edmonds, seems to go unknown.
Edmonds, born Barbara Lyons in Portland, Oregon in 1948, fled her own home after becoming
a teenage mother. She married a professional basketballer, had a son with him, and took his
last name, Edmonds. Upon divorcing her husband, she moved to Washington D.C. to become
a telephone operator, where she was approached by former model, Ruth Turner, on account of
her model-like look and stature.
A former saleswoman on Fifth Avenue, Turner was now running a sort of a model school out of
her apartment, where she taught many other aspiring Black models, and then Edmonds, how to
walk the walk of a true woman of the runway. Turner recalls that Edmonds just had it, and even
if she was not planning on being a model, that Edmonds should be one.
Turner entered Edmonds in a modeling contest, following changing her alias from Barbara to
Shailah Edmonds. So it was: the brand-new model Shailah Edmonds won the modeling
contest, and began booking “gigs,” which proved to be ridiculous and lame in comparison to
Edmonds’ talent and look. Jerry Ford ended up hiring Edmonds for Ford Modeling Agency, but
not without Ford crossing the line with Edmonds in order to “make her a star.” Edmonds, like
many Black models at the time were not wanted, and if they were wanted, it was not for
situations worth their time or their talent: no one took them seriously; but somehow,
simultaneously, there were “too many Black models” at many agencies.
Edmonds was tired: tired of taking odd jobs and tired of not being wanted and not being seen for
what she was: a professional model. As she took a job selling perfume at Bloomingdales, she
figured she would just give up on her runway dreams. But, when a photographer came into her
store, and told her to hit Paris, everything changed for Edmonds: Paris was newly “into” Black
models, and this photographer telling Edmonds this fact would be the career, and life launch,
After buying a one-way ticket to Paris, and settling into her apartment in the 6th, she was
booked for shows almost immediately. Thierry Mugler, Pierre Balmain and Claude Montana, to
begin with, and next season, the iconic Yves Saint Laurent requested Edmonds to do a fitting.
A nervous Edmonds was welcomed by Laurent’s endearing receptionists, and silently
encouraged by Laurent’s demure yet kind demeanor. After her fitting, Edmonds was hired.
The scene for Black models in Paris became known around the world, and soon, models from
all over America and even the Carribean flocked to make a name for themselves where they
were appreciated. Edmonds noted that while these women were not chummy on runway, they
all became friends by essentially being in the same place at the same time; that is, after parties,
bars, restaurants; the list of misadventures went on. These women supported each other;
although Paris wanted Black models, they had no clue how to style them, as models had
generally been white before that: these models shopped and styled each other after ridiculing
the stylists who put white model make up on them.
During that time, European models were losing their work and their jobs to Edmonds and her
colleagues. But, while their fame was thriving in Paris, the Italians figured out that none of the
Black models really had visas, and ended up sending authorities to their shows, sabotaging
both their shows and their identities as models in Europe. Still though, when Edmonds returned
back to New York a top model in Europe, she was treated differently; albeit less for her looks
and talent, and more for the commodity she held in Europe: they wanted to bring that
commodity to the US. But like in Europe, the novelty of Edmond’s aesthetic wore off, and US
runways turned more to “the girl next door look,” which was almost always a white girl.
Edmonds was dropped by her agencies, and seemed to be back where she began: working odd
fashion-adjacent jobs and wondering if that was the end of her career.
Edmonds is now one of the most famous Tina Turner and Diana Ross impersonators in New
York City, these personas taken on in the wake of a seeming identity crisis of her own as her
model world came tumbling down, she tells her story in cabaret fashion every night; often to her
long-time model friends from back in her day in the audience. She retired from working in 1995.
The truth of the matter though, is this was, and is how Black models were, and are treated now:
as a commodity and a “look” not as people with talent in the modeling and fashion agency.
Diversity in fashion, or rather, the lack thereof, is being examined now more than ever. We
often look back on the lack of diversity in a world we know so well, but never do we look back on
the elements of diversity that were ignored, and pushed at for the wrong reason, see: Edmond’s
and the other Black models in Paris during the 1970s. These models, like Edmonds’ stories are
largely unknown and ignored, but need to be unearthed and brought to the world’s attention in
the wake of a time of racial change. Shailah Edmonds left a legacy and a path for Black models
that has been largely covered in the weeds of the whitewashing of the fashion world. By: Emily Goldberg