Jany Remponeau Tomba: The Untold Story of One of the World’s First Black Supermodels
In the 1960s, the 1970s, black models shined, and very, very few shined as lustrously as Jany Remponeau Tomba, who became one of the USA’s very first black supermodels. Her modeling career spanned three decades, with her face appearing on the cover of American Girl, Woman’s Day, Mademoiselle, Essence, not to mention groundbreaking ads for Coke, Maxi, Johnson and Johnson products, Clairol, and other famous brands. Tomba’s journey as a model started with her arrival as a young immigrant in New York in the mid-1960s.
A stunningly beautiful girl, she had a dimpled smile, shapely legs, high cheek bones, and a remarkable face that could have given any onlooker the impression that she she had had angels in her parental lineage. Not too long after Tomba’s arrival in the United States, she caught the eye of a photographer who asked permission to take her photo. Tomba refused outright.
Her next encounter with the fashion world would occur not long after—this time she was approached by a woman who told the young Tomba that she was from the publishing conglomerate Conde Nast. The woman was at the time the beauty editor at Glamour magazine, and Tomba, blessed with good sense accepted her invitation into the upscale offices of magazine. From there, Tomba was groomed; sent to a beauty shop for a hair makeover, and assigned to a fashion photographer, and thus begun her ascent in the world of high fashion. The little girl from Port-au-Prince, who had originally had her mind set on a medical career, signed to Ford, one of Fashion Land’s most prestigious modeling agencies then and now. She was in high demand everywhere, strutted her stuff at casting auditions, dimpled for photographers, and landed in the pages of the fashion world’s most popular magazines, including Time.
She shared her reminisces about her modeling career and her life after.
What kind of childhood did you have? I was born in Haiti of a family where my father was an artist. We lived in Port-au-Prince in a neighborhood which then seemed country. At that time there might have been no more than ten houses around. Today, it is sadly an overbuilt and crowded commercial strip. When on a recent visit I drove by the old house among the small houses squeezing her in, she stood freshly painted, behind tall brick walls. I was happy to see the trees were still there and almost could feel the spirit of my grandmother who lived with us. I had a wonderful childhood filled with joy, artistic activities and mango trees. I love to climb the trees where I found my solitude. I was the fourth child of a family of 6. My mother helped my father run his studio where I was fortunate to meet many prominent artists. I enjoyed the gallery openings, the production of carnival floats, and Christmas time was also a time of involvement as all the kids hand painted Christmas cards. During the summer my Father took us fishing. Although my family was Catholic we and extended members also visited yearly the wonderful waterfall of Saut d’Eau. It was a day of joy and the spiritual element was palpable even though I did not understand any of it then. I went to Catholic school which I did not like because the nuns were oppressive. Later on I went to a boy girl school where I blossomed as an adolescent. In 1965, my family left the native land and settled in New York City.
Why did they choose the USA as opposed to France, since France was usually the destination of the professional class? Usually in migration patterns people follow the earlier migrants. People go where there is connection and opportunities. In my case my Father had moved to New York in 1964 so the rest of the family joined him. My Father had traveled a lot. Before that, he had studied at Hampton Institute in the South and he had worked in Ghana and had been to New York where he had family and friends. Although he had been to France, we did not have family there. Many families had moved to many places at that time. I would say my parents chose to leave. I was not asked where I wanted to go. We packed and left. The situation in Haiti at that time was very oppressive and not conducive to the growth of young individuals.
As one of the first black supermodels of the world, what obstacles did you find yourself facing? It was 1969. The Black Power movement had just settled and the African-American consumers were being courted. There was a need to satisfy the Black consumer. However it was not an easy transition. To see a Black girl next to the White girls was to be a challenge. It was okay to show a Black model but often she would not be photographed single. It was rare to have a cover. It was customary to photograph a Black girl with a Blonde and a Brunette. Some photographers then told me they had a difficult time to light the three together so I was perfect with my tan look not too dark not too light. Plus I had the bright energetic smile that made people feel comfortable or should I say not feel threatened? It was not long after the Civil Right movement.
You’ve discussed modeling in the 1960s, but what did it feel like to be a new immigrant in the mid-1960s…the transition from Haiti to New York? As difficult as it was to leave my homeland I welcomed the new adventure. I did miss my grandmother and my friends, but I loved being in New York. It was a very cold day in March. It had been snowing and the ground was covered. Everything was new. I was so young and as long as I had my family I felt secure. We lived in upper Manhattan in a very nice building and I loved the elevator! I was fascinated by the constant lights in the city. I remember thinking there are no trees, the streets seemed so sterile! I missed the crawling lizards. The transition was pretty smooth and in the summer I discovered Central Park, Coney Island and the Museums and Greenwich Village, where an abundance of art made up for my green land.
A lot of wisdom comes with time. What do you wish you had known when you first started out as a model? What I wish I had known then as young starting model? I am glad I had not known so much that I do today. My path was guided by intuition and a result of my upbringing. I was confident without arrogance, and had I known what I know today I mean my political placement in that industry I would have been hindered because the fashion industry likes the girls to be young of mind and body. I did not analyze the why and the how of modeling; it just happened to me as if I had been chosen. The only effort on my part was to show up on time ready and respectful. I think my natural comfort with myself helped sell my image.
What were some of the best moments of your modeling career? I learned very early on to enjoy all my assignments. The best moment was, when I went on a go-see at Mademoiselle Magazine and in the waiting room were several other young Black models; an editor came out and loudly announced to me that I was their January 1970 cover girl. Another great moment was when I got a call for a national commercial for Coca-Cola and I had gone the week before to an audition for another product which I did not land but the same director chose me for the “Have a Coke and a smile commercial” [campaign], which ran during superbowl. There were many good moments like going on trips to the Caribbean in the middle of the winter. Working with the great Irving Penn or landing an Essence spread with the famous photographer Francesco Scavullo. Most of those moments had to do with prestige, landing a good campaign because after all it is a very competitive business. It is a business that can build your self-esteem or take it away over night!
What do you feel is the biggest misconception about models? Modeling has a lot to do with identity and I was lucky to have kept my roots. Unlike the information in the media where girls are shown behind the scene hanging out together this profession can be very isolating. Girls stick together excluding others ; models come from different social backgrounds, many from small towns, so at times clans are formed: the models and the photographers gathered at night. The only things we had in common were the clients and the desire to reach the top.
So many models from the 1970s and 1980s ended up getting wasted and getting burnt at an early age. I don’t know that many models in the 1970s-1980s got burned or wasted. Of course people rejoice in the fall of perfection. I am not saying that models are perfect, but during the day we sell the image of perfection and some might have partied too much and got burned. It was a time past the Woodstock era and the time of free sexuality, the pre-AIDS era and it was the disco time. People partied like in many other industries, the difference was that at a models’ party, a club would be filled with beautiful people and the promoters excluded others waiting behind the velvet rope! Having a strong self-esteem, clear eyes, a healthy skin and showing up on time was what helped to maintain and lengthen one’s career.
For each model, there is an ending point. What was your life like after modeling? My career lasted from 1969 till 1998 when I landed my last cover for an Essencepublication with my then teen daughter. While I was modeling I continued to show up for casting calls and I busied myself doing small parts and extra work in movies around New York City. I was always busy.
What are you up to these days? In 1988—still at the top of my career—I started to attend art school in NYC, the Sculpture Center and also to paint. So while modeling I was doing art and exhibiting my work. My identity was shifting from Cover girl to Artist. I remember when I first showed my sculpture at the gallery my family attended and I felt I had come full circle reminiscing on my Father’s gallery openings back in Haiti. So it was not an abrupt cut off of my activities. A few years later I stopped modeling, went back to school and graduated at Hunter College where I became a special correspondent for The Word their online newspaper. I took classes at CUNY Grad Center, where I researched early Haitian Kreyòl linguistic and published a paper in the Linguistic American Society.
My heart has always been with my roots. I recently returned from a trip to my native land and this visit reinforces my love for Haiti. Today I am busy being a caring mother and daughter my dad is now 95 years old and my daughter and her husband gifted the family with two children. I continue doing my artwork, I think of ways I can involve myself in the reconstruction of the image of Haiti, pride of Haiti is in the main focus of my thoughts. I attend lectures and cultural events related to Haiti around New York City and network and have fun. My life is where it should be with much more to come.
You’re involved in activities involving Haiti. Have you done anything in particular to keep your culture vibrant in your children? My Father Geo Remponeau is a legendary Haitian artist, so it was quite easy for me to keep my daughter in an environment that recalls Haiti. My parents spoke Kreyòl in the home and Haitian music was often part of the background in our home. We went to visit Haitian friends we stayed close to my parents and siblings. I took my child when she was quite young to visit Haiti. I have only one daughter and I made sure she ate Haitian food, learned Kreyòl and participated in family gathering so that she would be aware of her roots. When she married I gave her the present of a root dance performance by the fabulous Haitian dancer Mikerline, her dancers and her drummers. Today to my daughter’s three year old child I teach words of Kreyòl, and when we part, he says: “Mwen renmen-w”!
What would you say has been your greatest regret?
I have learned to live and accept my life as my destiny had it written. I continue to show up and do the right thing: love of my brothers and sisters. Compassion is the key to happiness. I have no regrets.