By Guest Contributor Lisa Hix, adapted from Collectors Weekly
Nichelle Gainer knows a thing or two about glamour: She spent most of her career working for magazines like Woman’s Day, GQ, Us Weekly, and InStyle, with a focus on celebrity, fashion, and grooming. But her true passion is fiction, so she decided to write a novel about black beauty pageants in the 1950s, partially inspired by one of her two glamorous aunts, who was a model in the 1950s—the other was an opera singer who rubbed shoulders with the biggest celebrities of her day.
Looking for newspaper articles on her aunt, she discovered a whole world of history that hardly ever bubbles to the surface: stunning, well-dressed African American stars celebrated in the black community, and sometimes even in the mainstream. Gainer put her fiction work aside to focus on these real-life stories.
Eventually, Gainer started a Tumblr and Facebook fan page, both called Vintage Black Glamour, full of gorgeous images that rarely make it into the public consciousness. While her novel went onto the back burner, her web sites drew the attention of a London publisher, Rocket 88. Gainer’s first book, a nonfiction coffee-table tome about women celebrities, Vintage Black Glamour, which will come out this September, can be preordered now.
We spoke with Gainer over the phone, and she explained to us the stories behind the photos she’s found, why glamour is important, and why Vintage Black Glamour will be more than just a collection of pretty pictures.
Collectors Weekly: Can you tell me about your journey researching your aunts?
Nichelle Gainer: The storyline of my novel, which is yet not finished, is partially inspired by my 83-year-old aunt, Mildred Taylor. In the 1950s, she did some small-time modeling walking the runway at little local fashion shows and after-church shows and posing for pictures.
She also competed in what they called “Negro beauty contests.” In those days, black women were not allowed to compete in Miss America, which was the biggest pageant in the U.S. at that time. It was written into Miss America’s bylaws, the infamous Rule No. 7: “Contestant must be in good health and of the white race.” The Miss America organization, to their credit, has worked hard to clear all that racism out since the 1960s, when they first allowed black women to compete in the pageant.
Before then, if black women wanted to be in pageants, they had to go somewhere else. Of course, many of the smaller pageants wouldn’t let black women in, either. Some did, here and there. Black women kind of slipped in. Usually, they were the lighter-skinned black women, and the pageant hosts didn’t realize these women were not white until they said, “By the way, I’m black.” These women broke ground in a lot of ways.
When I first came up with the idea for a novel about the women who competed in the Negro beauty pageants, my aunt mentioned to me that she had appeared a few times in the local newspapers. I thought, “I’ll go through the old newspapers in the library and see if I can find her picture,” not at all expecting that I would find so many other women just like her, doing this local modeling. They were even kind of well-known. They were in the papers all the time—no names that anyone would know today, but they were famous in their own world. Unlike the coverage we received in the mainstream media of the day, in the black newspapers, we were full human beings. That’s why magazines like Ebony and Jet were started, to show births, marriages, deaths, social events, and things like educational achievement in the black community. We relied on these black newspapers and magazines.
In the course of my research, I came across a picture of another aunt, Margaret Tynes, who was an opera singer. And I said, “Wait a minute, I remember her!” I didn’t grow up knowing her, but my family, like a lot of black families, had these big reunions. As a teenager in the ’80s, I attended the Tynes family reunion in Smithfield, Virginia. I don’t know whether Aunt Margaret was there that year. What I remember is that she was certainly prominent in our family-reunion souvenir booklet. It was full of her pictures and reviews, as well as programs from her shows and her performance at Carnegie Hall. But at age 17, who did I care about? Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. I wasn’t into opera at all, so I wasn’t that interested in learning about my aunt at the time.
But when I saw her picture 10-12 years later, I recognized her immediately. I ran out of the library, called my cousin Muriel, and asked, “Isn’t this our cousin or aunt?” By that time, Aunt Margaret had moved back to the U.S. after living in Italy for four years, because her husband had died. She was getting older, so her nephew moved her to a retirement home near his home.
Collectors Weekly: What are your aunts like?
Gainer: My Aunt Mildred, the former model, is like Diahann Carroll, fabulous like that at 83. Aunt Margaret is the same way, even if she’s a little slower now these days. She’s 94 but still stunning. She’s one of those people that if you met her, you would be like, “Who is this lady?” Her star power just comes across. I went to go meet her, and I didn’t know they had such nice retirement homes. The residents were like retired doctors and lawyers, the type of people that demand happy hour, with a full bar. I promise you, you have not lived until you’ve had happy hour with 90-year-olds.
There, I was able to speak with Aunt Margaret. She had donated a lot of her materials to her undergraduate alma mater, North Carolina A&T State in Greensboro, but she also had a lot of materials with her like pictures and poetry. Her father, a minister, had a doctorate, which in those days was rare for a black man, obviously. He was also a mathematician. He taught math, and he also wrote poetry. She still has one of his poems. I thought I would write a book about her called A Diva in the Family. But the more I researched about Aunt Margaret, the more I learned about these other glamorous women. As it would turn out, the introduction to Vintage Black Glamour is called “A Diva in the Family.”
Collectors Weekly: What inspired you to post the old pictures you found online?
Gainer: As the Internet came to be more accessible, useful, and professional-looking, I started fashion and beauty blogs while freelancing, as a way to keep my name out there, keep my foot in that world, and possibly get another magazine job. I wanted to do a book called Vintage Black Glamour, but I saw an opportunity when Facebook fan pages and Tumblr came about. I said to myself, “You know what, I can do a Vintage Black Glamour online.” On other Tumblrs, people were just showing the same old pictures of “black history.” Those images of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the podium are iconic, and they’re an important part of our history, but there’s so much more. And it’s right in front of our faces.
Today, a lot of the pictures that I spent hours looking at in libraries are available online. Many are in the Getty and Corbis archives. Sometimes I thought I had pictures of black celebrities that no one had seen in decades, maybe from old issues of Ebony or Jet, but didn’t realize that Getty and Corbis had them. So they’re accessible, and a lot of the time, they don’t have the same value placed on pictures of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, or Grace Kelly. I said, “You know what, I’m going to put these on a blog. I know there are other people out that would be fascinated to see other, less-well-known photos of our history.”
For example, if people know about Josephine Baker, they think of her in the banana skirt. And every interview someone does with me, I run that banana skirt into the wall. There’s nothing wrong with it. I enjoy the banana skirt, and I also love Eartha Kitt as Catwoman. But there’s so much more to these women. And if you only have a stereotype of a person, you put them into a box. Whenever I post Eartha Kitt pictures, there’s always someone who will comment, “Marrrcus!” quoting from Boomerang. And haha, yes, that’s funny, but don’t limit her. It bothers me.
Eartha Kitt put up her own money for her career. Stars now, we look at them every week on TMZ, Facebook, and Twitter, and laugh about how they’re so rich and have all this stuff. In the early days of Hollywood, black stars like Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr., had to put their own funds into their films. They had to write racist Southern theater owners and say, “Excuse me, this film is okay for your audience to see.” You have to respect the full person, what they did, and what they went through. It wasn’t just a matter of, “Oh, they can’t go through the front door. They can’t eat in this restaurant.” There were all these minor micro-aggressions, countless indignities they went through. For example, if your film is not shown in Southern theaters, you’re not getting the same money as the other stars. There was a whole lot of that.
Collectors Weekly: So the website led to the book?
Gainer: Around 2005 to ’07, I pitched the Vintage Black Glamour idea to a few book agents, and they always came back with the same thing: No one’s going to want to do this because coffee-table books are too expensive to produce, and no one knows these people, that kind of thing. But Rocket 88 noticed my Tumblr page. They actually contacted me via Twitter. I never would have expected a small publisher in London to pick up my work, but they do a great job. I’m really lucky. The agents I pitched are going to be proven wrong.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you go to find the photos for Vintage Black Glamour?
Gainer: I get them from old magazines and newspapers, as well as Getty and Corbis. And a lot of libraries have their digital archives online, like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is part of the New York Public Library system, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. I may find great photos from somebody else at Tumblr, and I will repost those, as long as it has the photographer’s name or the source. I make sure I credit it. That’s been helpful for me as we’ve been preparing the book because we need those credits. You have to pay fees for every picture, obviously, so you have to know where it’s from. When I first started Vintage Black Glamour, I posted scans or photocopies from my own photo collection from libraries. If I had the photocopy or a book, I would just scan the picture and put that up.
Collectors Weekly: How important were Ebony and Jet as resources?
Gainer: Ebony was started in 1945, and Jet in 1951. John H. Johnson founded both. “Ebony” was inspired by “Life” magazine, because there was no equivalent that showed black people just doing everyday things, whether they were celebrities, black society people, or athletes. Black people were not included in the typical newspapers unless they were superstars like Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday. Even then, they were not written about in feature articles. Mainstream publications wouldn’t put black people on the cover of a magazine. Today, Beyoncé or whomever will be in the paper like anyone else. But in those days, that was not the case.
Ebony and Jet are the most popular black magazines, the ones that everyone knows. But there were also other magazines like Our World and Sepia. There were black newspapers, which I used for researching my novel. Every now and then, if the picture is clear, I can use pictures from the old black newspapers, and I have—from the Pittsburgh Courier, from the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, the Los Angeles Journal, and Negro Digest.
I need to have that many sources to get perspective, because you can’t always trust celebrity magazines, especially the ones that were reverential. Today, if you’re reading Us Weekly, they’re going to have lawyers vetting it. Back in the old days, celebrities could say whatever they wanted. Even if it was in Ebony in 1957, I’ve got to fact-check—maybe this person said that they’re 32 but they were actually 42 at the time.
Collectors Weekly: You’ve also got people on your site who contributed not just to entertainment, but also to the civil-rights movement and literature.
Gainer: Yeah, because I feel like that’s glamorous, too. I feel like Vintage Black Glamour expands the definition of glamour, and that was always my intention. For example, I put Judge Jane Bolin on my site. She’s very popular, the first black woman appointed to a bench in New York State. She was on the bench until she was 70, the mandatory retirement age. People would say she’s attractive, but she wasn’t a movie star or even glamorous dresser. However, the nature of a black woman judge in the 1930s or ’40s is glamorous to me.
To me, glamour is when you’re able to operate in the world with a certain level of dignity. So that applies whether they’re leaders in civil rights, literature, or art. I’m so excited Lorraine Hansberry’s in my book, next to Maya Angelou. Look at Althea Gibson, the tennis player, who was photographed by Carl Van Vechten in the 1950s. No one thinks “glamour” when they look at Althea Gibson, but she had her dignity. Take Esther Rolle, who played Florida Evans on Good Times: No one thinks of her as glamorous, either, but then again, her photo is the most popular picture that I ever posted on Vintage Black Glamour.
Collectors Weekly: Can you talk more about how these celebrities were breaking through race barriers?
Gainer: The focus of my book is 1900 to 1980, but I touch on artists and performers in the late 19th century, when black people were portrayed as Pickaninnys eating watermelon, Sambos, or Aunt Jemimas. The black artists at the time did what had to be done to contradict the man-made images that dehumanized us. Ada Overton Walker performed with Williams and Walker. She was married to George Walker, and his partner, Bert Williams, was a famous performer. They were black and performed in blackface, because that’s how they could get jobs. When they were in blackface, people didn’t know that they were black. But in many ways, they were subverting the narrative. They were like, “Okay, you’ll think this is stereotypical, until you get to the punchline.”
The Whitman sisters were black sisters in the late 1890s who looked white because they were biracial. But they would whiten their faces even more before they went onstage. Then, say, a black performer would appear onstage, and the audience would be uncomfortable until it was revealed that the sisters were black, too. That was another way of subverting the stereotypes in that blackface narrative.
Yes, they were trying to humanize black people, but also, as human beings, they just wanted to express themselves as artists. If they were painters, they wanted to paint. If they were dancers, they wanted to dance. They were fighting for the right to be themselves and to do what they do.
In the early 1900s, Ada Overton Walker, who was a dancer and singer, produced her shows. When her husband got sick, she played the male role in his place. She also spoke to the media, black media and white media, about her art. Just like now, if you’re a black person, the media’s going to ask you about race, even if you don’t want to talk about it. If you’re Ada Overton Walker in 1904 giving an interview, the paper is going to ask you, “What do you think about the Negro problem? Does your success mean that it’s getting better for the Negro?” They were forced to answer these questions whether they wanted to or not.
Paul Robeson—a brilliant scholar, athlete, actor, and singer—struggled to get a decent role as an actor, because people only saw a stereotype when they saw him. He had to say, “Well, no, this script is unacceptable. This is not what a black male would say in this instance. This song is unacceptable. This is not how black people speak. I’m sitting here with you in this room. You can see that I’m a black person and I don’t speak in ’des and ’dos.”
Some early performers, of course, had a political bent to them, and wanted to talk about racism. But even if it was not their nature, they had to stand up to discrimination, for the sake of their careers. They broke barriers through how they carried themselves, how they spoke to the media, and what their performances represented.
Walker would be complimented for her Salome performances. Salome was a craze in those days, and mostly white dancers would portray Salome in way that was considered very sexy and risqué at the time. But Ada Overton Walker didn’t do the risqué thing because black women already had this reputation as overtly sexual. A lot of her reviews commented on how dignified and modest her performance was. I don’t know if she would’ve done it that way as a free artist. But she purposely said, “You know what, I’m going to portray it in this way because I recognize that it’s not just about me. If I do the risqué version, I’m not going to be reviewed like these white dancers are reviewed. Instead, all black women will be labeled as sexy whores like Salome.”
Collectors Weekly: Clearly, it’s more than pretty people in pretty clothes.
Gainer: Exactly. I love pretty clothes. But I’ve had some people say, “Why do they have to be glamorous?” Those people don’t take glamour seriously, to them it’s not important. I said to them, “Fashion is a multimillion-dollar business. You can be glamorous and stylish, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have substance. There’s nothing wrong with being interested in fashion and beauty.”
A lot of people think of vintage black pictures as either civil-rights photos or black ladies at church, or maybe sharecroppers picking in the cotton fields and sweating from the hard work. That’s fine. Those are our pictures. But that shouldn’t be the only image of us. It’s nice to see a black woman who is not sweating in the field, but glistening from all this bling, like Josephine Baker, dripping in diamonds. Sometimes you want to see that. Why not? It’s easy to take glamour for granted. You can be a white woman, and you can care less about Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich, and that’s fine. But you know what? Black women haven’t had the same option.