If you were black and female and grew up in the '70s, you were used to looking at pretty white women on the covers of major fashion and beauty magazines. If you wanted to borrow their look, you had to adapt. Ebony helped, with its Fashion Fair cavalcade of models — but they were fantasy ideals: lots of polish, no funk. Ebony was your mother's magazine.
When you saw Essence, you knew that magazine wasn't speaking to your mother, it was speaking to you. (Yeah, you, with your kohl liner, huge earrings and skirts up to there.) From the very first issue.
Which brings us to Barbara Cheeseborough, the magazine's first cover girl. She died at age 67 a few weeks ago in California.
Ask any black girl who was in college back then, and chances are she can tell you what that first cover looked like — some people still have it squirreled away somewhere, after all these decades. "Iconic" is an overused word, but that's what the first Essence cover was for millions of us — iconic.
That's because Barbara was black and beautiful, and not in a mainstream-approved way. She was not maybe-black or exotic-looking black — she was identifiably black and undeniably beautiful. Her skin was brown. Her cheekbones were high. Her lips were full. And she wore what a lot of young black women were wearing back in the day (and that their daughters or granddaughters are wearing now) — an Afro. Although she'd graced the runways in Paris, Milan and New York, Barbara looked like someone you might bump into at the grocery store: recognizably gorgeous. Essence's editor-in-chief, Vanessa K. Bush, emailed to say Barbara was "influential in demystifying cultural barriers in the fashion industry."
She wasn't the first black woman on the cover of a mainstream American women's magazine: The perennially elegant Naomi Sims did that two years before, when Ladies' Home Journal (of all places) put her on its cover 45 years ago this month. And there would be a few after her — most notably Beverly Johnson in Vogue, then others, including Louise Vyent, Iman and Naomi Campbell.
But Barbara Cheeseborough was the first to show an Afrocentric beauty standard when millions of young women were casting about for a kind of beauty they could identify with and replicate. And for that, we'll always owe her a debt of gratitude. Requiescat in pace.