Shayla Simpson is known as the “voice and face” of Ebony Fashion Fair, and provided commentary for the world’s largest traveling fashion show from 1975 to 1991.

Shayla Simpson, Ebony Fashion Fair Commentator. (Photo Credit: Photographer Francesco Scavullo, courtesy of Shayla Simpson)

Simpson, the ultimate bronze goddess, is tall, statuesque, beautiful and charming. Simpson was recently the guest speaker at George Washington University’s Textile Museum in northwest Washington, D.C. The museum’s current exhibit is “Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair,” on display through July 24.

Simpson served as a model, featured commentator, and buyer of the iconic one-of-a-kind couture for the legendary Ebony Fashion Fair shows, which ran from 1958 to 2009. She was originally hired as the eleventh “extra” model and assistant commentator in 1975. When she traveled with the tour to New York in her first month of employment, John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony magazine, told her “you have two weeks to learn the commentary.” Simpson simply said “yes.”   

After July 24, the “Inspiring Beauty” exhibit will make its final stop in Raleigh, N.C. and then be permanently retired. The collection of European and domestic couture has previously been viewed in Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, upstate New York, and Atlanta. The exhibition features almost 70 looks from designers including Yves Saint-Laurent, Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Stephen Burrows and Patrick Kelly. It is presented by the Costume Council of the Chicago History Museum and toured by International Arts and Artists Washington, D.C. Joy Bivins is the curator at the Chicago History Museum, while Camille Ann Brewer is the curator at the GWU Textile Museum.  

Stephen Burrows gown for the Ebony Fashion Fair show

Eunice Walker Johnson, a woman Simpson loved and admired, created the Ebony Fashion Fair show and Fashion Fair Cosmetics. Johnson blazed a trail for women of color and raised more than $55 million for charities throughout the show’s run from 1958 to 2009.  The Continentals Society, Inc. local chapter regularly brought the show to Washington, D.C.

Throughout Simpson’s fast-paced global career, she was involved with seven of the 12 Ebony Empire brands: Ebony Magazine, Jet Magazine, Ebony Fashion Fair, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, Ebony Jet Showcase, Fashion Fair Collections, and Supreme Beauty Products. Simpson worked as a model, commentator and buyer for the Ebony Fashion Fair production that visited almost 200 cities in the United States and other countries across a nine-month tour each year. Simpson traveled regularly to Europe with Mrs. Johnson to attend fashion shows, purchase couture from design houses, and model the wears for the fashion show’s program cover and other Ebony fashion spreads.  

Simpson became known for commentating without note cards in her first year, due to a mishap of a model requiring her to “wing it” and memorize the entire show. Simpson continued to stand out in her pivotal role in the Ebony brands. Simpson chose models, taught make-up application, wrote script and choreographed the shows. As a staple in the Ebony empire, Simpson was the featured model on the Raveen No Lye Relaxer system advertisement, a two-page spread that ran in Ebony Magazine for five years. Simpson was also featured on Jet magazine covers and promoted Fashion Fair cosmetics in commercials.

“Study hard, never take no for an answer,” Simpson said. “Persistence is good, but preparation is better.”

Simpson, a native Washingtonian, began her professional modeling career at Patricia Stevens Career College, where she attended its finishing school at the age of sixteen and graduated from its two year professional modeling program.  Simpson then graduated from high school and attended Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas.  While completing her degree at SMU, Simpson traveled to Spain and studied at the University of Madrid. As a young adult, Simpson traveled to Chicago to meet Ebony founders, Mr. and Mrs. John and Eunice Johnson, where Simpson said she got the job of a lifetime.  The rest is history!  

Simpson is a member of the Fashion Legacy Association for Industry Recognition, a non-profit organization also known as FLAIR that was established in January 2015. FLAIR will pay tribute to Shayla Simpson, a FLAIR alum, on July 22 in Los Angeles along with other alums including Richard Roundtree. All members of FLAIR toured with Ebony Fashion Fair.


Andrea L. “Aunni” Young

Special to the AFRO