It’s hard to imagine what the modeling industry would have been like without Pat Evans. Blazing an anomalous trail in a staunchly conventional industry, Evans was the first model to subvert that convention by atrophying one of the most prized signifiers of beauty and femininity: her hair. “Me and Grace Jones were ahead of our time,” she says with an air of certitude that can only come from that of an undisputed iconoclast. With over two decades in the modeling industry under her belt, it’s safe to say that Evans has seen and done it all. Her resume is impeccable: she has graced the pages of top magazines, ripped the runways at the world’s biggest fashion capitals donning haute couture from the most celebrated designers of our time, and was a stylist and make-up artist for icons such as Diahann Carroll, Cicely Tyson, Aretha Franklin, and Isaac Hayes. Respect her swag.
But after a moment of clarity, she decided to leave it all behind for a more peaceful and purposeful life on the bucolic ancestral lands of her forefathers. From the runway to the reservation, her magnificent story is one of a fastidious and free-spirited fashionista who eventually found peace in the resonant beauty of traditional Native American life. Though she has been pegged as African-American throughout the course of her career, many are surprised to learn that the Sugar Hill, New York City native’s background is actually comprised of both Nanticoke Lenni Lenape and Cherokee Native American. Her high cheekbones, expressive doe-like eyes, and rich brown skin evoke the imagery of ancestry steeped in African kingdoms of antiquity. Her statuesque physique set her miles apart from her peers. Yet and still, her initial forays into modeling were met with a less than stellar reception.
“When I first started modeling, nobody wanted me,” she admits. “I had long hair and they were into very dark skin and Afros at the time. They said, ‘You’re not black enough.’ They threw so much in my face.” Like a page torn from the script of Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary film Good Hair, Evans’ debacle with her tresses began during her time as a dancer with legendary Nigerian percussionist Olutunji. “When I went to dance with Olutunji, I was about 16 or 17. He cut all my hair off. That was the first time. It wasn’t bald, but he took it down to a quarter of an inch.” To conform to his staunch Afrocentric aesthetic, the percussionist presented a short-haired Evans to his audiences during live performances. Years later, was discovered while sitting in New York City’s Washington Square Park during the spring of 1969.
“This guy said, ‘You should be a model.’ He told me to come with him to meet the photographer for Seventeen magazine named George Barkington,” she recalls of the fairy tale like episode. Yet even with her striking beauty and the endorsement of the successful test shoot with Barkington under her arm, she was met with uncanny impedance. “I went to a black agency called Black Beauty and they said, ‘No, we don’t want you. You’re not black enough.’” Oddly enough, Evans found acceptance at an agency with quite a contrast to Black Beauty’s modus operandi. “Then I went to Stewart Models, which was a top white agency. Twiggy was signed to them, so I thought there was no way I would get in there. But they took me the same day. Aside from Twiggy, I was the highest paid model at the agency. From there, my career just took off.”
From then on, it was nothing but catwalks and clotheshorses for the burgeoning supermodel. But the industry came with heaping serving of idiosyncrasies, which soon began to grate against Evans’ well-tempered sense of self. Amidst the whirlwind of vanity that was her world, the hair issue had again begun to rear its ugly head. “I began to call them hair worshippers,” she says of the modeling industry’s obsession. “It’s all about the hair. Since I was a child, people were talking about good hair, bad hair, this hair, that hair. People with kinky hair were straightening it and making it blonde to look like white women. I think it’s the hair factor that messes up everybody.” While these thoughts incessantly volleyed back and forth in her head, Evans mustered the strength to do the unthinkable: “I thought one day, what if there wasn’t any hair at all? So I went home and shaved all my hair.”
It wasn’t long before she began to second-guess her bold decision, choosing to wear wigs on go-sees for modeling jobs. But an accidental slip on a visit to revered designer Stephen Burrows’ showroom would reveal her secret, inevitably shifting her career from first to fifth gear. “I was a size two and he had this tiny little dress that no one could wear but me,” she says. “But when I was taking it off, the wig I had on came off. He said, ‘You’re bald! Wow, that’s great!’” A fascinated Burrows convinced Evans to walk his runway bald, despite her initial reservations. “I said, ‘My agency would fire me if I take this wig off.’ But I did it. It was like an overnight sensation; I was in every newspaper the next day and every magazine.” Work offers from European designers and agencies began pouring in. African-American athletes soon followed suit. “Basketball players started copying me, like Slick Watson,” she notes. “Then everybody started shaving their heads. We couldn’t believe how many people shaved their heads.”
At the same time, Evans began posing for a series of album covers for various artists; including a provocative series for 1970s funk group Ohio Players. Depicting scenes of ménage trios, S&M, and bondage, the covers became more of a hot topic than the music they housed. “I didn’t expect anything to come out of the Ohio Players,” she admits. “Because I did Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.” However, her local church was not amused. “I got a letter from them saying that I was an embarrassment to them. So when I found out what S&M was about, I was trying to hide those albums from everybody in my family! I remember riding the bus past Sam Goody and they plastered their whole front window with posters of the Pain album cover.” Luckily for Evans, the embarrassment eventually segued into less risqué job opportunities. “When I was doing the Ohio Players album covers, the photographer liked my make up so much that he asked me to do make up for album covers for other artists that he shot.” From there, she began a second career as a make up artist to such celebrities as Leonard Nimoy, Melba Moore, Angela Bofil, and the late Gil Scott-Heron.
Even though she was riding high with a foot in both worlds, Evans would soon suffer a blow that her modeling career would never recover from. In 1974, Essence magazine published a truthful, yet wildly controversial article penned by Evans, effectively ending the lucrative career of one of the industry’s most innovative models. Entitled “Bring It Down Front: The Name Of The Game Is…,” Evans’ opinion-based piece told the tale of a modeling and advertising industry that upheld incongruent standards of beauty and promulgated reproachable race-based conspicuous consumption tactics. “What I said in the article is why is it that Black people only get print jobs for liquor, hair, and cigarette ads,” she says. “They didn’t get the big ads like Palmolive and make up. Because they put these ads up in our neighborhoods, people wanted to emulate the models. So people smoked more and drank more.” Yet for all her brazen truth, all Evans got was a brutally cold shoulder. “Nobody wanted to hire me. When truth is ugly, only a lie is beautiful. I exposed the industry for not creating enough jobs for people of color.”
Within the course of a decade, Evans had gone from one of the most sought after models to a shadow of a memory. Yet with the spirit of evolution on her side, she continued to utilize her make up skills on various television shows and movie sets as well as her innate stylist skills in the entertainment industry with a list of clients that included Nona Hendryx and Isaac Hayes. Intent on giving the modeling industry a reality check and an idealist template, Evans opened her own agency in 1980 called Pat Evans Models. “I decided I was going to show them how an agency was supposed to be run. When I opened my agency, I was the first to bring in Asians and Hispanics. I even had models from Hawaii. We were a top minority agency in New York.” Over the decades, Evans has had much time to reflect on her tenure in the industry. She has pondered the ripple effect she and other trendsetting figures have had on popular culture – including Grace Jones and the innovation of the flat top. “No one gives her credit for that. She did that.”
It’s clear that Evans is a survivor. She has undauntedly rode the successive nefarious waves hurled at her in the industry that all the drama from the collected seasons of Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model franchise couldn’t hold a candle to. Yet it never ceases to amaze her that nearly four decades after she sheared her locks, the hair saga still continues. “Why can’t people just be who they are? Everyone’s trying to fit the image of someone else. Don’t change to look like somebody else. I hate to see Iman and Tyra Banks with blonde hair. All that weave. I know it’s supposed to be fashion, but why can’t people just be beautiful to themselves? It started out with colored contact lenses. You came to this earth beautiful. But people just keep trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.”