19 Black Women Who Broke Beauty Boundaries & Made History

Photo: Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
The beauty industry has made a lot of progress over the years thanks to the tireless work of women of color. Doors flew open when Madam C.J. Walker invented her hair-care line for curls over a century ago. Endless styling possibilities emerged after Lyda Newman introduced a more efficient, synthetic hair brush in 1898 and Theora Stephens patented the modern-day curling iron in 1980. Old-school mindsets shifted when, in 1974, Beverly Johnson graced the cover of American Vogue. More recently, young girls were inspired when Lupita Nyong’o was named Lancôme’s very first Black beauty ambassador.

While there is still a long way to go toward accommodating women with darker complexions and offering products for those with textured hair, many mainstream brands, like Bobbi Brown, L'Oréal Paris, and Revlon, have done an outstanding job of acknowledging women of color as key consumers.

This level of progress leads us to reflect on a select group of Black women responsible for major advances in beauty over the years, including many of the firsts that have helped push the industry forward. Now more than ever, it's time to celebrate female accomplishment and push for greater change. Ahead, see 19 game changers in the hair, makeup, and modeling worlds.
1 of 20
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
Madam C.J. Walker
Hair loss sparked Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) to develop a line of hair-care products just for African-American women in the early 1900s — and her entrepreneurial efforts led her to become the first female self-made millionaire in America. But her legacy doesn’t stop there: In March 2016, Sephora launched Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture, a line of hair-care inspired by the pioneer.
2 of 20
Photo: Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
Naomi Sims
After appearing on the November cover of Ladies’ Home Journal the year before, Sims made headlines when she graced the cover of LIFE magazine in 1969 — the first Black model to do so. Later, she went on to launch her own beauty empire, including a line of wigs, cosmetics and hair essentials for women of color.
3 of 20
Photo: Francesco Scavullo/Condé Nast/Getty Images.
Beverly Johnson
American Vogue made history with its August 1974 cover featuring
Beverly Johnson, who was the first Black woman to hold the honor. Johnson told NPR of the moment: "I realized that this was a huge responsibility that was placed on my shoulders as a way of really breaking the color barrier in the fashion industry.”
4 of 20
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images.
Tracey Norman
Tracey “Africa” Norman was the first Black transgender model to land a major cosmetics campaign. In the mid-1970s, she snagged a contract with hair color brand Clairol. Norman didn't disclose that she was transgender at the time out of fear it might damage her career. Decades later, in 2016, she teamed up with Clairol once again for a campaign to promote its Nice 'n Easy line, which celebrates the power of hair color and being unique. This time around, there weren’t any secrets about her gender identity.
5 of 20
Photo: Courtesy; Design: Isabella DiMarzio.
Lisa Price
In 1993, Lisa Price began developing hair and skin products out of her Brooklyn kitchen alongside her mother Carol. The now wildly popular brand, Carol's Daughter, caters especially to women with natural, curly textures. And it was acquired by L'Oréal in 2014.
6 of 20
Photo: Desiree Navarro/FilmMagic.
Pat McGrath
If Vogue names you the most influential makeup artist in the world, you’re definitely a force to reckoned with. Pat McGrath has not only handled makeup for leading advertising campaigns and editorial projects, she’s helped set trends with her creative work backstage at top fashion shows. McGrath, who is the global creative design director at Procter & Gamble, finally decided to give the masses a taste of her world with the launch of her own makeup line, Pat McGrath Labs, in early 2016.
7 of 20
Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images.
Janelle “Penny” Commissiong
This Trinidadian beauty was crowned Miss Universe in 1977 and became the focus of headlines around the globe for being the first Black woman to hold the coveted title.
8 of 20
Photo: Ron Galella/WireImage; Design: Isabella DiMarzio.
Grace Jones
Jones, who became popular in the '80s and was signed to the Wilhelmina modeling agency at 18 years old, has graced the covers of notable fashion titles ranging from ELLE to Vogue. But beyond the fashion world, she has enjoyed a successful singing and acting career — all while sporting an androgynous look that serves as proof that beauty comes in all forms.
9 of 20
Photo: Woodgate/ANL/REX/Shutterstock.
Donyale Luna
Fashion model Donyale Luna, who was discovered by renowned photographer David McCabe, was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of British Vogue in March 1966.
10 of 20
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage.
Lupita Nyong’o
Lupita Nyong’o took home her first Oscar in 2014 for her outstanding performance as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. That same year, she was named Lancôme’s first Black beauty ambassador. And she's been inspiring us on every red carpet ever since, thanks to her willingness to take bold, colorful beauty risks.
11 of 20
Photo: Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images.
Vanessa Williams
September 17, 1983 marks the day when then 20-year-old Vanessa Williams snagged the Miss America crown, breaking a record as the first African-American woman to win the competition. Although she was forced to relinquish her crown soon after, Williams moved on to find great success in the entertainment business as an actress and singer.
12 of 20
Photo: Courtesy; Design: Isabella DiMarzio.
Balanda Atis
Growing up, chemist Balanda Atis saw her friends and family members struggle to find makeup that matched their darker skin tones. So, while working for L'Oréal in 2013, Atis took on a side project developing products for the brand that catered to those underrepresented consumers.

Today, Atis heads up the Women of Color Lab, which includes a team of scientists who have created more than 30 new shades across L'Oréal's many brands.
13 of 20
Photo: Desiree Navarro/WireImage.
Just as she’s done with fashion, Iman has made her presence known in the world of beauty. IMAN Cosmetics, which launched in 1994 and is available at mass retailers, was one of the very first makeup lines to cater to women with deeper complexions.
14 of 20
Photo: Monica Schipper/FilmMagic
Alek Wek
In November 1997, Alek Wek became the first-ever African model to appear on the cover of American ELLE. While she’s strutted down many runways, she’s also redefined Western standards of beauty and inspired women around the world with her gorgeous, deep skin tone. Wek has also participated in campaigns for beauty brands, including NARS.
15 of 20
Photo: Getty; Design: Isabella DiMarzio.
Patrice Grell Yursik
As the founder of the popular blog Afrobella, Trinidadian-born Yursik was one of the first natural hair bloggers on the scene. She's been featured in countless publications and advertising campaigns, and in 2011, she partnered with MAC to create her own Lipglass, which sold out in a week. Today, she remains an expert on all things beauty and Black culture and maintains a large following on social media.
16 of 20
Photo: Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic.
Tyra Banks
A triple threat, Tyra Banks broke barriers when she became the first Black woman to land the covers of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, GQ, and the Victoria’s Secret catalog. The former supermodel and TV personality, who has found success with her hit reality series
America’s Next Top Model, also made her mark in the beauty world; in 2014, the California native launched Tyra Beauty, which includes makeup and skin care.
17 of 20
Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images.
Veronica Webb
Detroit-native Veronica Webb made strides in the industry when, in 1992, she was announced as the first Black model to sign a contract with a major cosmetics brand, Revlon.
18 of 20
Photo: Rune Hellestad/Corbis/Getty Images.
Naomi Campbell
There’s no discussion of making beauty history without supermodel Naomi Campbell. Campbell is the first Black model to grace the cover of Time magazine, as well as Russian and French Vogue. Over the years, the London-born fashion icon has been very vocal about the need for more diversity in modeling.
19 of 20
Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images; Design: Isabella DiMarzio.
Winnie Harlow
Former America’s Next Top Model contestant Winnie Harlow has used her platform on the successful reality series to raise awareness about vitiligo. The Canadian model says she was once teased for her rare skin condition, but has come out on top with an outstanding portfolio that includes work with brands like Dove, Diesel, and Swarovski.
20 of 20
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!