While beauty may only be skin deep and it may be subject to fade at any time, some beauties use their looks to gain exposure (and scholarship money), and parlay their temporary limelight into more sustainable business opportunities. These seven black beauty queens broke records, triumphed over stereotypes and upset the status quo, while proving that beauty and brains are not mutually exclusive.
Crowned in 1983 at the age of 20, Vanessa Williams was the first black Miss America, and although she was later stripped of the title due to nude photos taken two years earlier, she is still recognized for her achievement. More than just a beautiful face, Williams attended Syracuse University on a music scholarship, where she was Miss Syracuse and Miss New York. In the Miss America pageant, she won the talent competition and the swimsuit competition, before winning the ultimate prize. In 1989, Williams released her debut album, which contained several number one hits. She has been nominated for 11 Grammy awards, and has starred in several hit movies, including Eraser and Shaft. Williams has also enjoyed a successful TV career, staring in such popular shows as Ugly Betty – for which she garnered three Emmy nominations – and Desperate Housewives, proving that she definitely has “the right stuff.”
Born in 1954, Oprah Winfrey is a billionaire and one of the most famous people in the world. However, while attending Tennessee State University, she was also crowned Miss Black Tennessee at the age of 17. Two years later, she became the first black female news anchor in Nashville. In 1983, the Oprah Winfrey show was born in Chicago. In 1986, the show went into syndication, becoming the highest-rated talk show in history and winning over 40 Emmys. Winfrey also starred in The Color Purple and Beloved, and formed Harpo Productions. In addition, she launched O, the Oprah Magazine, and the OWN TV network. Never selfish with her money, she spent over $40 million on the Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls in South Africa, in addition to the gifts of cars, scholarships, and more given to the public.
Born in 1966 as Marie Halle Berry, this beauty won the title of Ms. Teen America in 1985. The following year, she became Miss Ohio USA, and was runner-up in the Miss USA pageant. The same year, Berry became the first black contestant from the United States in the Miss World pageant, where she placed sixth. In the next few years, Berry starred in several high profile movies including Jungle Fever, Boomerang, and the TV adaptation of Queen: The Story of an American Family. Her performance in 1999’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge led to an Emmy and a Golden Globe. After success in such popular films as X-Men: The Last Stand, and Swordfish, she became the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball. Berry was also the first black Bond girl in the James Bond movie franchise. At $10 million a movie, she is one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses and has lucrative contracts with Revlon and Versace.
Born in 1951, Jayne Kennedy enjoyed a long and successful string of firsts. In 1970, she became the first black Miss Ohio USA. She placed in the top 15 in the Miss USA pageant, but may be remembered more for being one of the first black women to compete in the competition. In 1978, Kennedy became the first black female announcer on CBS’ NFL Today. She was the first woman of any color to anchor a sports desk. In addition to her TV work, Kennedy starred in several movies, including Heart and Soul (with ex-husband Leon Kennedy), and had the third best-selling exercise video (behind Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons). Always the pioneer, she was also the first black woman to secure a contract with Coca-Cola for Diet Coke and Tab soft drinks.
Born in 1981, Ericka Dunlap broke a 68-year old color barrier by becoming the first black Miss Florida in 2004. The same year, she became the seventh black woman to be crowed Miss America. Following her reign, she (and her husband at the time) competed on the 15th season of The Amazing Race. The couple finished in third place. Dunlap explained her motivation for enduring the Emmy-winning-but-grueling reality TV show as such: “I’m intelligent and I’m talented and I’m confident . . . I’m not just pretty. ‘Pretty’ is a matter of painting on a face. At the end of the day, I’m a scholarship winner, I’m not just a beauty queen.”
Wife, mother, author, lawyer, adjunct professor . . . and she has won beauty pageants in three countries. In 2007, Ingram became the first black woman to win the title of Mrs. Indiana. After moving to the United Kingdom with her husband and children, she competed in – and won the title of – Ms. Great Britain. In 2012, Ingram represented Great Britain in the Ms. World International pageant, which was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and won that crown as well. She has authored Christian books for adults and children, and volunteers with several organizations that are committed to improving self-esteem and increasing self-sufficiency among girls and women.
Born in 1370 B.C., Nefertiti was the original black beauty queen. Her name means, “the beautiful one has come.” (Fierce!) At the age of 15, she married Akhenaten, who became Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, King of Egypt. During her husband’s reign, Nefertiti became one of the few queens in history to have shared power with the king. In several relief prints, artists of that day depict her wearing her husband’s crown and killing their enemies during battle. Today, Queen Nefertiti is more famous than her husband, and her statue is one of the most recognizable symbols of ancient Egypt.