Models Inc.: after the lights went down on their runway careers, these former fashionistas stepped into the role of business owner.

Author:Gumbs, Alisa
Position:Cover story

"SO MANY GIRLS THINK MODELING IS a party. It's not. If you think it's a party, you're going to have a career for one or two years and then they're looking for the next new thing," says supermodel Tyra Banks, who stayed one step ahead of the cutthroat industry by positioning herself to be done with modeling before it was done with her.

"I was the girl that on every commercial was talking to everybody: the director, the grips, even the line producer. I tried to educate myself as much as possible when I was on set," recalls Banks, who said to herself, "Yeah, I might be walking in my underwear in this Victoria's Secret commercial, but this is not my end, this is just a means to an end." This mindset has paid off for Banks, host and executive producer of America's Next Top Model, the cornerstone of the new CW Network, and The Tyra Banks Show, the freshman talk show that's beating out The Oprah Winfrey Show among women aged 18 to 34.

Banks and other black models proved that they're more than just fabulous figures and flawless faces--they are chief executives of successful businesses. Before Banks were the originators, the breakthrough black models of the 1970s. These women sashayed right through the color barrier, and when the flashbulbs faded, they used their connections and experience to make the successful transition to business ownership.

"As exceptional and unique as [they] were in their fashion careers, they were equally exceptional and unique in their careers as entrepreneurs," says Barbara Summers, author of Black and Beautiful: How Women of Color Changed the Fashion Industry (Amistad; $35). "The most important quality they all had was vision. They saw themselves as more than pretty, anonymous cover girls. They envisioned themselves owning their name, their heritage, and their future."

After thriving in an industry that can be brutal at best, these pioneers bucked the stereotype of the dumb model and replaced it with the picture of a savvy businesswoman. Here's how they did it.

audrey smaltz

  1. Smaltz Inc. dba Ground Crew

    The Behind-the-Scenes Taskmaster

    Smaltz, 69, likes to say she was "born, bred, buttered, jellied, jammed, and honeyed in Harlem." She began her career as a model in 1954, while she was still in high school, and later modeled for Bloomingdale's and Lane Bryant. But it was her position with Ebony magazine as a fashion editor and as the coordinator and commentator of the Ebony Fashion Fair that Smaltz calls the "best job any young woman could have."

    During her stint with Ebony, Smaltz oversaw thousands of Fashion Fair shows. Backstage, she learned firsthand how the shows were put together, and the seeds of her future enterprise were planted. In 1977, she turned 40, decided it was time to hang up her microphone at Fashion Fair, and borrowed a page from her former employer. "I had a mentor, John H. Johnson. I wanted to be like Mr. Johnson and own my own business--call the shots and the buck stops with me," Smaltz says. "He was my inspiration."

    With $60,000 in savings, Smaltz moved back to New York and bought a penthouse apartment that also serves as her office. She established her company, A. Smaltz Inc., in November 1977. Initially, Smaltz wasn't generating much revenue but was blowing through her startup cash at an alarming rate. "It went in two months," she says. With no job to fall back on, Smaltz did what she had to do to keep a positive cash flow. "I hocked all of my diamonds. I was determined to stay in business. And I never borrowed any money. I just hocked all of my hockables."

    Meanwhile, Smaltz continued to coordinate fashion shows for organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus. Her service, the Ground Crew--the name was inspired by a Martin Luther King Jr. speech--provides dressers, pressers, tailors, stylists, and movers ( "Nobody else was doing it. I created something that wasn't even there," Smaltz says, "because the people who had been doing it were friends and family, [and they were providing their services] for free."

    But it would take five years for her fledgling service to get its foot in the door of the Seventh Avenue fashion establishment. "Nobody was waiting for me to be in business. First of all, nobody wants to know about you being in business," she says. "They want to see if you can be in business and stay in business before they give you business." Smaltz's breakthrough came when she helped coordinate a special Calvin Klein show for Bergdorf Goodman in 1986. She began dressing Klein's fall and spring shows, and other well-known clients followed.

    In addition to fashion week shows, the Ground Crew works runway shows for retailers such as Nordstrom and Saks Fifth...

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