Ophelia DeVore did not plan on becoming a modeling pioneer, especially when the modeling business itself was so new and uncertain. The South Carolina-born beauty arrived in New York to further her education and began modeling after being encouraged by friends who were impressed with her photographs. “I had a background in dancing, piano and all the other things in the arts that parents gave you to make you a lady.” She enrolled in the Vogue School of Modeling (not affiliated with the magazine) and took classes on modeling and charm, unaware that the school did not know that she was Black. It was only when she witnessed the bewilderment of school officials at the arrival of another Black model with café au lait skin that she realized the school didn’t know that they already had a Black model. “I didn’t know that they didn’t know. I thought they knew what I was.”
According to Ms. DeVore, her own brief modeling career mainly consisted of working with EBONY magazine. “I didn’t go for modeling jobs, I just happened to be recommended by people at EBONY magazine, some of the salespeople who were my friends.” Her friends also saw something else in DeVore — the potential to use modeling as a way of showing a positive image of Black people in a media landscape that insisted upon dealing in garish stereotypes. This appealed to DeVore who always had an eye on improving the image of Black people in the media and, in 1946, DeVore and four friends began the Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency. “Grace” signaled elegance and style, “Marco” was an acronym formed by the names of its founders: “M” from Marie Mayo, “A” from Albert Murphy, “R” from Rupert Callendar, “C” from Charles Mayo and “O” from Ophelia DeVore, and “Del” is from the Spanish word for by. Many of DeVore’s models had great success, but the most successful was Helen Williams, who was easily one of the most photographed Black models of the 1950s and 1960s. Williams appeared in advertisements for brands like Kodak and Bulova. At the height of her career, she made $35 an hour, unprecedented for a Black model in those days. The charm school component of Grace Del Marco began in 1948 with lessons in etiquette, speech, drama, ballet, modeling and “Positive Mental Attitude.” A teenaged Carol Diane Johnson, who would later become Diahann Carroll, passed through the school as she modeling for EBONY and competed in beauty contests and Cicely Tyson, while doing a bit of modeling herself, trained models and actors at the school.
Successful Black models and entertainers, whether they know it or not, have benefitted from the fearlessness of Ophelia DeVore. She was never hesitant to speak out about unfair treatment or unfair pay of her models – or her business. She once sued LIFE magazine for “rewriting” the history of Blacks in the modeling business after a 1971 article on the boom of Black models in the industry only cited white-owned agencies, many of whom lured their Black models from Grace Del Marco and other Black agencies. Ms. DeVore told JET in 1971 that they intentionally highlighted the white agencies “who have not devoted the years of struggle and sacrifice to train, develop, guide and direct Black models for business contacts like I have been doing for 25 years.” Those twenty-five years turned to fifty-plus years in business, where she expanded into a cosmetics line and ownership of a newspaper for several decades. "I didn't model a long time because that wasn't my mission to be a model. My mission was to have us presented in a way that was not stereotyped."
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