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Cicely Tyson

Career Began In Modeling

After graduating from Charles Evans Hughes High School in Manhattan, Tyson landed a job as a secretary for the American Red Cross. The monotony of the work soon frustrated her, however. As she told Louie Robinson of Ebony, the day came when she stood up and shouted to her fellow office workers: "I know that God did not put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life!" Fate intervened a few days later. Tyson, who had always been meticulous about the care of her hair, was asked by her hairdresser to model one of his styles at a fashion show. Her striking presence prompted several onlookers to encourage her to look into a modeling career. Before long she was enrolled in the Barbara Watson Modeling School and was engaged in photo shoots during her lunch breaks from the Red Cross.

It wasn't long before she was able to leave office work behind, for she quickly became one of the top black models in the United States. She earned as much as $65 an hour—a considerable sum during the late 1950s—and graced the covers of mainstream publications such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, as well as those of magazines specifically geared toward a black audience. But for all her success, modeling brought Tyson little satisfaction. "I felt like a machine," she once told a reporter for Time magazine.

Once again fate stepped in to move her along. Tyson was waiting in the offices of Ebony magazine for an appointment with fashion editor Freda DeKnight when she caught the eye of Evelyn Davis, a black character actress. Tyson related the encounter to Ms.: "When I walked by, [Davis] took one look at me and said, 'Lord, what a face!' She said I'd be perfect for a movie then in production called The Spectrum. It was about the problems between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks. I auditioned for the part and I got it. Actually, the film was never released because the money ran out—but here I am."

Tyson's decision to take up acting led to a two-year rift between her and her mother, who considered movies sinful and had always forbidden her children to see them. But with characteristic determination, Tyson ignored all opposition to pursue her chosen goal. She studied at various acting schools, and briefly at New York University, but she had difficulty finding teachers who measured up to her demanding standards. Two who did were Lloyd Richards and Vinnette Carroll. Carroll recalled to Ms.: "There was never any doubt in my mind that Miss Cicely—that's my pet name for her—was going to make it. She had all the qualities needed: an enormous capacity for work (she seemed utterly driven) and for criticism (she was never thrown by it or immobilized). The most noticeable thing about her was her sense of herself. She was her own measuring stick. And she didn't look to the left or the right or talk about how unfair it was for blacks in the arts."

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Theodosius I to David Watmough Biography - David Watmough comments:Cicely Tyson Biography - Career Began In Modeling, Brought Her Talent To The Stage, Showed Audiences The Beauty Of Black Women - Selected works