Wilhelmina photographed by Edgar de Evia
1 May 1939
|Died||1 March 1980
Greenwich, Connecticut, U.S.
|Height||5 ft 11 in (1.80 m)|
|Hair color||Dark Brown|
Early life and career
Born Gertrude Behmenburg in Culemborg, the Netherlands, she was known professionally simply as "Wilhelmina," or "Willy" to intimates. Wilhelmina grew up in Oldenburg, Germany. She moved with her family to Chicago, Illinois, United States, in 1954. She became one of the most famous models of the 1950s and 1960s. During her career as a model she was on the cover of 255 magazines. She also holds the record for most covers on American Vogue, appearing 27 or 28 times.
According to her obituary in Time magazine:
During her cover-girl days, Wilhelmina boasted that she was "one of the few high-fashion models built like a woman." And she was. With her 5 ft. 11 in., 38-24-36 frame, doe eyes, delicate cheekbones and mane of high-piled dark hair, she epitomized the classical, aristocratic look that she helped to make the style standard of the 1950s and '60s...
In 1965 she married Bruce Cooper, former executive producer of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1967 they founded Wilhelmina Models, which became the other leading model agency alongside Ford Models, years before Elite Model Management and other agencies began.
Cooper's agency played a major role in launching the career of Naomi Sims, credited as the first African-American supermodel. Sims began her modeling career in the mid-1960s but despite a breakthrough appearance in the New York Times fashion supplement in 1967, she found it difficult to get work. Sims approached Cooper and told her that she would send out copies of the Times supplement to agencies and that Cooper would receive a commission on any work Sims received from this. Within a year, Sims was earning US$1000 a week; in 1968 she appeared on the cover of the Ladies' Home Journal and the following year she appeared on the cover of Life magazine.
In popular culture
In American sitcom Ugly Betty, adapted from Colombian telenovela Betty La Fea, the antagonist Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa L. Williams) is named as a tribute to Cooper. Her nickname, Willy, and the fact that she became a successful businesswoman in fashion after being a model were attached directly to the character.
- Cooper, Wilhelmina (February 27, 1972). "How Tough Is It to Become a Top Model and Cover Girl?". Tri City Herald - Family Weekly.
- "Wilhelmina Cooper obituary". TIME. March 17, 1980. Retrieved on August 6, 2008.
- Barbara Cloud (June 4, 2006). "A lovely life taken by smoking". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved on August 6, 2008.
- How Tough Is It to Become A Top Model in Tri City Herald, 1972
- Schwarz, Mark (2008). "Dear Shareholder" (PDF). Wilhelmina International, Inc. Annual Report 2008. Wilhelmina.com: 3.
- London Telegraph - Naomi Sims obituary; accessed 9 August 2009
- Laurie Johnston (March 3, 1980). "Wilhelmina, High-Fashion Model And Agency Owner, Is Dead at 40". New York Times. Retrieved on August 6, 2008.
- "A lovely life taken by smoking", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 juni 2006
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