Starlets, Unsung: 7 Stories Of Lesser Known Black Women
We all know of talented women who have graced the stage and the studio and became great legends in the process. Women such as Dorothy Dandridge, Diana Ross, Etta James and Lena Horne have all been indexed in our minds and talented, untouchable women who made their mark because of their talent, beauty and charisma. And for each of those women, we know that there is a great number of women who found their home in entertainment, but didn’t emerge as a household name. It’s about time that we pay tribute to some of these women.
The Grammy-nominated songstress, Syreeta was discovered by Brian Holland, and did a great deal of collaborations with dozens of famous artists and producers, including her title producer and ex-husband, Stevie Wonder. She also sang background for the Supremes, Diana Ross, Deniece Williams and Minnie Riperton. Always having an active hand in the success of others’ songs and albums, the artist never acquired the following that some of her colleagues did. During the summer of 2004, following a two year struggle with congestive heart failure, she died from complications related to cancer.
Oct. 1971, Playboy Magazine published its first magazine with an African American woman featured on the cover. That black woman was Chicago-native Darine Stern, born November 1947. She was featured in the nude, sitting in a chair which presented the Playboy logo. The iconic photo was shot by photographer Richard Fegley, and directed by Playboy’s art designer Len Willis.
While some may argue that there is no particular honor in being photographed nude, there is honor in being a pioneer…and show casing black beauty as being equivalent in every way to white beauty. Stern went on to become an esteemed model, and was represented by Ford Models, L.A. Models and Models of Chicago. The model and playmate, unfortunately, lost her battle against breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 46.
Paris Dupree, a legend in the Harlem ballroom industry, helped launch a subculture of fervently creative Latino, African American, gay and transgender individuals who performed at an annual drag show competitions. The ballroom scene consisted of five founding house mothers, Dupree founding and mothering the House of Dupree in mid-1970’s. Dupree’s annual ball, entitled Paris is Burning inspired the title of the 1990 Jennie Livingston documentary based on the New York drag ball scene. Dupree recently passed away in August of this year.
Once named one of 100 most influential African-Americans by Ebony Magazine, Erica Kennedy was an author, blogger, singer, fashion journalist and news correspondent –contributing to half dozen publications. Her biggest claim to fame was her novel Bling, which became a New York Times bestseller. She was also the best friend of model Kimora Lee Simmons. Kennedy’s second novel Feminista was published, with less success, by St. Martin Press in 2009. Earlier this summer, unfortunately, Kennedy was found dead in her home –and the cause of her death is currently unknown.
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Kingston, Jamaica-born actress, Madge Sinclair pursued acting in New York after role as a teacher in her homeland. Years after being in the states, she appeared on the acclaimed miniseries Roots which earned her an Emmy nomination. She also appeared in Coming to America, The Lion King, Me and the Boys and Star Trek. On Star Trek, she appear as the first female starship captain to ever appear on the series. In 1995, Madge died of leukemia and was buried in Jamaica.
Nina Mae McKinney
The Vintage Vixen Nina Mae McKinney, known as the “The Black Garbo,” debuted on Broadway, dancing in a chorus line for the musical Blackbirds of 1928. It was there that she was discovered by MGM film director King Vidor. Smitten with McKinney, he cast her as one of the lead in his 1929 film, Hallelujah, making her the first African American woman to attain a main role in a mainstream movie. The fame that she achieved with Halleljah helped her to secure a five-year contract with MGM studios, establishing her as the first African American, ever, to secure a contract with a major studio. After appearing in a number of Hollywood movies, including a few with all Black castings, she left for Europe because of racism. She performed in Paris and England, and later retired to Greece after the war. During the spring of 1967 McKinney suffered a fatal heart attack.
Still alive and well, (unlike everyone else on this list) Cree Summer makes her dent on the entertainment world with her voice. Best known as Freddie from the late 80’s sitcom A Different World, Cree has spent a number of years singing, and erecting dozens upon dozens of animated characters with her raspy yet lulling voice. She has done voice over work for over one-hundred animated movies, video games and television series, including: Animaniacs, Marvel Super Hero Squad, Final Fantasy X, Ben 10, Hellboy: Blood and Iron, Celebrity Death Match and Pinky and the Brain.
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