Graceful, stylish, and poised, Cicely Tyson was an actress like no other. The Emmy and Tony award-winning actress who passed away yesterday at the age of 96 was a legend in her field pioneering a path for Black women in Hollywood. Black icons like Iman, Naomi Campbell, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tyra Banks, and Viola Davis have poured their hearts onto their platforms reflecting on Tyson’s legendary career that has held a long-lasting influence on them and their career paths. “Cicely decided early on in her career her work as an actor would be more than a job. She used her career to illuminate the humanity of Black people” wrote Winfrey in a Tweet.
Born East Harlem, New York to immigrant parents, after graduating from high school, Tyson started out as a secretary for the American Red Cross while attending New York University. After being fortuitously discovered by a fashion editor at Ebony magazine in the 1950s, she made the bold decision to become a model. Tyson became the icon of the Black is Beautiful movement with covers of Ebony, Essence, and Jet magazine, making the natural Afro hairstyle a key standard of beauty. Later, Tyson’s face was found in big name fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar with many readers citing her as the first Black woman they had seen on the cover of a fashion magazine.
In the early 1960’s, the star began her acting career in theater. In 1960, she starred in her first performance in The Blacks at the St. Mark’s Playhouse. By 1963, she had landed a role in her first Broadway production of the Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright. Future icons Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones acted aside Tyson in the play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. By the middle of the era, Tyson had moved her work from the stage to the screen with guest star roles on The Bill Cosby Show, The Nurses, and I Spy.
Tyson’s career in television began to soar, first with her role on the 1963 drama East Side/West Side, as the first Black woman to hold a starring role. On the verge of the next decade, the actress had her first big break when she starred in Sounder, a film about sharecroppers in the Great Depression based on William H. Armstrong’s novel by the same name. Her heart-wrenching performance earned her an Oscar-nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role as the character, Rebecca who faces imprisonment for the crime of stealing food for her children.
She won her first Emmy in 1974, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a film about a 110-year-old woman, Pauline Kael who tells her life story over nine decades from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, based on Ernest J. Gaines’ novel by the same name. The American actress broke stereotypes of what it means to be a Black woman rejecting subordinate roles that were offered to her and other Black actors. Her roles included women of strength, respect, and courage like former slaves, civil rights icons, mothers, and other deeply complex female characters. Tyson viewed her career as a powerful movement leading representation of Black actors in Hollywood, encouraging other Black actors to refuse immoral roles. Throughout Tyson’s film career, she won three Emmys out of 15 nominations. In 2013, she won her first Tony as the lead actress on “The Trip to Bountiful,” during her Broadway revival. She was the first actress to receive a Tony at 88 years old. In 2018, the actress received an Honorary Oscar, leaving her film career with over 100 films, television, and stage roles.
Aside from her impressive film career, the actress was involved in charity work with organizations such as Urban Gateways, the American Film Institute, and Human Family Institute in her contributions to the arts. She served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF from 1985 to 1986. Tyson’s long career culminated in the ultimate seal of approval- a Medal of Freedom that President Barack Obama awarded her in 2016. With many stories to tell, the actress released her latest memoir this past Tuesday. Titled Just As I Am: A Memoir, Tyson reveals her journey, from her Caribbean roots to her rocky marriage to Jazz legend Miles Davis, the autobiography details Tyson’s life in truth. “It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside” said Tyson.
Beyond her work in acting, modeling, and philanthropy, Tyson’s modeling days instilled a passion for fashion in the film maven always showing out in over-the-top looks. She had a few favorites, fur, feathers, vibrant colors, and of course, flowers (roses, to be exact), but her stylish flair always came through, whether it was playing a character or parading a jaw-dropping red carpet look. Click through the gallery as we remember Tyson both by her extraordinary career and fashion moments.END
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