In 1973 a show I starred in accidentally made fashion history. It was called The Battle of Versailles and was promoted as a “battle” between five French designers — Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy — and five American designers — Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass and Anne Klein — to raise money for the restoration of the palace. Princess Grace of Monaco, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker were all in the audience. But it was so much more than just glitz and glamour: it became legendary for the number of Black models used. Out of the 36 models who walked for America, I was one of the 10 models of color. For everyone, this was groundbreaking.
I look back on that moment now, and it was just worlds away from what I had known. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, fashion was a word that really didn’t mean anything to me. I lived with my mother and grandmother until I was 12, where I was raised as a “latch kid” — when you are given the key to the house at the age of seven and you can take care of yourself after school until your parents get back. After, I went to live with my dad, who was an intellectual, holy man practicing Islam.