Beauty is not one’s own but rather a reflection of one’s people, one’s country. It is an asset one holds in trust. At that time, a black model appearing in top magazines was rare. I wanted to destroy the myth of white superiority in terms of beauty and sophistication.” Almost immediately British modelling agencies and fashion magazines were making overtures to her. Bagaya signed up with the Peter Lumley Agency – at the time the top agency in London. She started high on the pay scale.
According to her, black models were unusual in those heady days of the 1960s. And so with her new career came a host of influential friends – these included the Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser. A noted enthusiast of African affairs, Fraser was married to the historian/author Lady Antonia Fraser.
It was Fraser who introduced Bagaya to William David Ormsby-Gore (Lord Harlech), a prominent Tory politician and diplomat, who served as British ambassador to the United States during the early to mid-1960s and was close friends with the Kennedy political clan.
During her years in London, she was photographed by David Bailey as the Queen of Sheba for the British edition of Vogue magazine. Patrick Lichfield, a British earl and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, also photographed Bagaya for the American version of Vogue. Bagaya also featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and Queen magazines.
“If I had chosen the path of law, I never would have been exposed to the people I met through modelling,” Bagaya reflected.
Perhaps her most important friendship during this period was with Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, whom Bagaya had met at Covent Garden with Rudolf Nureyev. It was Dame Fonteyn who introduced Bagaya to Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of the then US president, John F. Kennedy. According to Bagaya it was Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech who got her onto the New York fashion scene.
“One morning, Lord Harlech had walked into the Lexington Avenue offices of American Vogue, much to the astonishment of its editor in chief, Diana Vreeland. Harlech’s standing in America was second only to [Winston] Churchill’s… It was Jacqueline who had arranged the interview between Lord Harlech and Diana Vreeland. He told her, ‘America loves beauty and the princess cannot fail,’ remembered Bagaya.
Not long after, Diana Vreeland issued a formal invitation to Bagaya to come to the US and model for Vogue. Vreeland, who “discovered” actress Lauren Bacall in the 1940s, was advisor to Jacqueline Kennedy in matters of style. The money was not the best but the magazine offered the ultimate exposure that any high fashion model on either side of the Atlantic would crave. It was a watershed in Bagaya’s modelling career.
Her first photoshoot with Vogue was with an Italian photographer named Penati, who according to Bagaya was one of the premiere fashion photographers of his day in the USA. Not long after, the Elizabeth of Toro hairstyle, which was born during the Penati photoshoot, became the vogue among the African-American community. Vogue magazine would devote an entire layout to Bagaya in their 1968 summer issue – the first time a black model would be accorded such an honour.
Princess Bagaya eventually signed with the Ford Modelling Agency – the leading agency in America – and did photoshoots with Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look and Ebony magazines. On one occasion, Bill King, a noted English photographer based in New York, photographed Bagaya but neglected to mention to her that she would be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Bagaya would see the magazine at a Fifth Avenue newspaper stall when she went to buy the latest issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
“My heart missed a beat as I stared down at the magazine in my hand and my face stared back up at me. Dumbfoundedly, I handed the vendor some money, and as he handed me change, he said, ‘congratulations!’ Dazed, I headed home. My phone had begun to ring incessantly with friends and colleagues who had seen the issue.”
It was the first time a top fashion magazine had featured a black model on its cover. The Ford Agency advised her to enrol in acting classes and so she did, with the American Place Theatre, and was taught by Wynn Handman, who is credited with the training of many outstanding US actors including Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, and others.
Bagaya eventually went on to act in a number of films, including the female lead in “Bullfrog in the Sun” based on Chinua Achebe’s two books: “Things Fall Apart” and “No Longer at Ease.”
Bagaya, however, is perhaps best remembered for her role in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, a 1984 Columbia Pictures film shot on location in Kenya. It was far from a box office hit (Bagaya herself thought little of the script and says that it was badly written).
“But for me, Sheena expressed a certain truth, a certain reality, namely, that an indigenous culture, a way of life of a people, had suffered an assault at the hands of an alien one,” Bagaya says in her autobiography. “The role of the Shaman, the defender of the indigenous culture in Sheena, had parallels with my own life and what had come to pass for Africa and our people.”