WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Surrealist Salvador Dali once made a painting directly on her bare back, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
Celebrity photographer Richard Avedon took a portrait of her that hangs above her fireplace.
She was among the first black women, possibly the first, to walk the runways and model in the showrooms of New York’s fine hotels and department stores in the 1960s.
She attained single-name status, often referred to as simply Mozella.
Now, she lives in a tidy rancher with rose bushes in the front yard on Polo Road, and she started out, she said, as “a little girl with red clay between my toes.”
Mozella Roberts Holder, nee Hairston, was born on a farm in Stokes County 80 years ago, delivered by a midwife and Worth Fulp, her great grandfather and a former slave.
“It was called Pine Hall, but all that was there was a depot,” Holder said.
She lived with Fulp until she was 6, when her mother, Jamima Hairston, brought her to live in Winston-Salem for a year and then to Pittsburgh where they lived when Holder was growing up.
When she was 19, she married an entertainer 30 years her senior, Henry Roberts, and moved to New York. They separated in 1959, and she was left with two small children, so she took the first job she could find — working in the rug department of Gimbel’s department store. She didn’t like it much.
On a lunch break in 1960, Holder walked over to B. Altman on Fifth Avenue to pick up a blouse that she had placed on lay-away. She noticed a sign that read, “Fashion Show at 1 p.m. Free.” She had to see it. On an impulse, she found a pay phone and called in sick, went up the escalator and took a seat on the front row of the show.
“Each girl was just absolutely fantastic as she paraded up and down her work area,” Holder said, delight on her face. “They were all dressed beautifully, in different designers’ clothing, and I thought, ‘Oh boy, with those eyelashes, I can do that.’”
Instead of picking up her $15 blouse, she flew out of the store to buy false eyelashes and some makeup.
“The girls were all beautiful,” she said. “They all had these long eyelashes, lots of makeup. They just looked gorgeous. … I had $10. The eyelashes were $3.50, and I went next door to Woolworth’s and bought ‘nut brown’ powder. In those days we were known as colored or Negro, and nut brown was the only color they had for colored women.
“It was way too dark for me. It turned me a bright orange,” she said with a laugh. The clerk at Woolworths’ sold her a makeup base, mascara and eyebrow pencil.
Although she had gone to cosmetology school and did women’s hair in her home for extra money, Holder had never worn makeup — just a little lipstick occasionally and a dot of lipstick rubbed into her cheeks as rouge.
Back at her apartment, she experimented with the makeup — putting it on and taking it off — until she got the effect that she wanted.
When she knocked on her neighbor’s door, they didn’t recognize her.
“I said, ‘It’s me. It’s me.’ They said, ‘Girl, the way you look, I wouldn’t have known you,’” Holder said. “They said, ‘You can do anything you want to do.’
“That weekend, I bought The New York Times and went through it. It was just filled with modeling openings for Seventh Avenue. I decided that Monday morning I was going to go find a job.”
Encouraged by her friends and armed with determination, natural charm and beauty, Holder started going from door to door on Seventh Avenue, the center of the garment and fashion industry in New York.
“I was told no, no, no, no, no, no, everywhere I went, but my attitude was: For every no there is a yes, and one day you’re going to pay a lot of money to use me.”
After about two weeks, she ventured to Broadway where she found her first job, as a fitting model for Maidenform swimwear. She stayed there for a few months before moving to another swimwear designer, Tom Brigance.
“I stayed with him a while, but I was doing shows on the side.” A fitting model provides the perfect body for the designer to make the clothes on. Then, they make the design in different sizes.
Holder said that she was 26 or 27 at the time, but everybody assumed that she was 17. She was 5 feet 8 inches, slender and light-skinned.
She made $40 an hour when she did her first shows, the same as the other models; $150 a week to work as a fitting model at Arnold Scaasi, totaling about $25,000 in her first year. Three years later, she had moved from the Bronx to an apartment mid-town Manhattan, and was making from $50 to $125 an hour. “We kept increasing,” she said, declining to say the most that she ever made.
Barbara Summers devoted more than two pages to Holder in her 1998 book, “Skin Deep: Inside the World of Black Fashion Models.”
Speaking by phone from her home in New York, Summers said that some models worked the runways for designer showcases and showrooms in big department stores, and others did photography work. Holder was almost exclusively a showroom and runway model.
At first, Holder did her own bookings, posing as an agent, until Gillis MacGill, a former model and the owner of Mannequin, spotted her in a show at the Plaza Hotel and recruited her. By that time, Holder had done shows for Lord & Taylor, Peck & Peck and others.
“She asked me what I was, and, of course, I always said I was colored or Negro, at the time. Gillis wanted me to say that I was Polynesian, and I said, ‘Oh, no,’ and I thank God for that. I did not realize that what I was doing was going to be an asset for me for the rest of my life. I said, ‘No, I want to be Negro. I want to be colored. I want to be what I am,’” she said.
MacGill was Jewish, and all the girls who worked for her were Jewish, and they had all changed their names. All of the models were supposed to be Irish or Italian, Holder said. Holder modeled under the name Mozella Roberts.
MacGill told Holder that if she insisted on saying that she was black, stores and designers wouldn’t work with her. But MacGill hired Holder on a six-month probation deal. Holder was confident that if MacGill sent her on assignments that she would be hired on the strength of her looks and her personality. She was — and still is — friendly and funny.
“She had it all,” Summers said. “She was willing to work hard. She was gracious and charming, not threatening or challenging to people. I think she had a good working combination of looks, personality and determination.”
Beverly Valdez is typically credited with being the first black woman to model in New York, but Holder said that she was working for Bill Blass two years before that.
Because of her light skin, Holder often worked for people who didn’t realize that she was black until she’d been working for them for a while, and by then, they just took it in stride because she was doing a good job. Many of them became her best clients. She never tried to pass and never denied her race.
When other models were straight-faced and fierce, she was bubbly, vivacious and could really sell the clothes.
“Because I was different, I had to be better. There were no limitations. I felt that my possibilities were great,” Holder said.
It wasn’t all fun and games, and she sometimes had to endure haughty looks and snubs from other models and initial rejection from authorities in the industry.
Designer Chuck Howard of Townley clothing saw her in a show, introduced himself and said he wanted her to do his shows. Adolph Klein, Howard’s boss, who owned Townley, refused. He said he didn’t want “that colored girl that everybody was talking about” wearing his clothes. Howard hired her anyway, and by the time Klein figured out that she was “that colored girl,” she had charmed him, too.
“She came through at a very important time and made her mark,” Summers said. “She came along at a good time, with the Kennedy administration, and new, young ideas changing the business. You see a lot of models come along at the right time, and whether they know it or not, they intuitively take advantage of it.”
In the course of her 11-year modeling career, Holder worked in every hotel and department-store showroom on Seventh Avenue: The Pierre, The Sherry-Netherland, Orbach’s, Macy’s, Gimbel’s —where she had once sold rugs — to name a few; and for all the big designers: Yves St. Laurent, Emilio Pucci, Oleg Cassini, Oscar de la Renta. She even modeled on “The Today Show,” and was on hand for Barbara Walters’ first on-air fashion show.
“I worked for everybody who was anybody,” Holder said. “I had a wonderful career.”
And she traveled widely. “I loved Germany because it was so clean,” she said. “Sleeping on down and covered in down.
“I also loved Italy and Scandinavia. I learned something everywhere I went. I enjoyed traveling and getting to know their customs. I never worried about people cheating me. I always felt safe.”
She met her last husband, Bertram Holder, an anesthesiologist, in 1971, and quit the modeling business. She worked with him, and they had three children together. They lived and worked in Brooklyn and had a summer home on Long Island until their divorce.
Summers and Holder met in the 1980s, when Summers was working on her book and Holder’s modeling career was behind her.
“When I met her, her lifestyle had changed dramatically,” Summers said. “She was living on Long Island. She’s always very proud to say that she supported herself and her family through modeling. For a black woman to support herself through modeling was a big accomplishment. … She didn’t feel constrained, and that has a lot to do with financial independence.”
Holder moved to Winston-Salem in 1994 to care for her daughter, Janine, who had cerebral palsy. The two were constant companions until Janine Holder died at 40 in 2012. Holder’s other children are all over the country: Rick Roberts, 59, is in Pennsylvania; Sharon Roberts, 54, is in Virginia; Bertram S. Holder, 41, is in Charlotte, and his twin, Mozella Howard, is in Graham.
Holder has COPD, but the personality that served her so well during her modeling career is still evident in her energy and zest for life.
“I’ve always felt that there were two things that I did really, really well,” she said. “Being a model and being a mother.”
When she looks back at her life, she is amazed at how far she has come. Holder said that her strong faith has supported her through all the ups and downs.
“I always felt that God had his hand on my shoulder.”