Wilhelmina Cooper

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Wilhelmina Cooper
Wilhelmina Cooper in a photograph by Edgar de Evia.jpg
Wilhelmina photographed by Edgar de Evia
Born Gertrude Behmenburg
(1939-05-01)1 May 1939
Culemborg, Netherlands
Died 1 March 1980(1980-03-01) (aged 40)
Greenwich, Connecticut, U.S.
Modeling information
Height 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m)[1]
Hair color Dark Brown
Eye color Brown

Wilhelmina Cooper (1 May 1939 – 1 March 1980) was a Dutch model who began with Ford Models and, at the peak of her success, founded her own agency, Wilhelmina Models, in New York City in 1967.[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Born Gertrude Behmenburg[3] in Culemborg, the Netherlands, she was known professionally simply as "Wilhelmina," or "Willy" to intimates. Wilhelmina grew up in Oldenburg, Germany.[4] She moved with her family to Chicago, Illinois, United States, in 1954. She became one of the most famous models of the 1950s and 1960s. During her career as a model she was on the cover of 255 magazines.[3] She also holds the record for most covers on American Vogue, appearing 27[5] or 28 times.[1]

According to her obituary in Time magazine:

During her cover-girl days, Wilhelmina boasted that she was "one of the few high-fashion models built like a woman." And she was. With her 5 ft. 11 in., 38-24-36 frame, doe eyes, delicate cheekbones and mane of high-piled dark hair, she epitomized the classical, aristocratic look that she helped to make the style standard of the 1950s and '60s...[2]

In 1965 she married Bruce Cooper, former executive producer of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. In 1967 they founded Wilhelmina Models, which became the other leading model agency alongside Ford Models, years before Elite Model Management and other agencies began.

Cooper's agency played a major role in launching the career of Naomi Sims, credited as the first African-American supermodel. Sims began her modeling career in the mid-1960s but despite a breakthrough appearance in the New York Times fashion supplement in 1967, she found it difficult to get work. Sims approached Cooper and told her that she would send out copies of the Times supplement to agencies and that Cooper would receive a commission on any work Sims received from this. Within a year, Sims was earning US$1000 a week; in 1968 she appeared on the cover of the Ladies' Home Journal and the following year she appeared on the cover of Life magazine.[6]


On 1 March 1980, Cooper died of lung cancer at the age of 40 in Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich, Connecticut.[7][8]

In popular culture[edit]

Cooper was portrayed by Faye Dunaway in the 1998 movie Gia, which tells the story of Gia Carangi, a model who was discovered by Cooper and later died of AIDS.

In American sitcom Ugly Betty, adapted from Colombian telenovela Betty La Fea, the antagonist Wilhelmina Slater (Vanessa L. Williams) is named as a tribute to Cooper. Her nickname, Willy, and the fact that she became a successful businesswoman in fashion after being a model were attached directly to the character.


  1. ^ a b Cooper, Wilhelmina (February 27, 1972). "How Tough Is It to Become a Top Model and Cover Girl?". Tri City Herald - Family Weekly. 
  2. ^ a b "Wilhelmina Cooper obituary". TIME. March 17, 1980.  Retrieved on August 6, 2008.
  3. ^ a b Barbara Cloud (June 4, 2006). "A lovely life taken by smoking". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Retrieved on August 6, 2008.
  4. ^ How Tough Is It to Become A Top Model in Tri City Herald, 1972
  5. ^ Schwarz, Mark (2008). "Dear Shareholder" (PDF). Wilhelmina International, Inc. Annual Report 2008. Wilhelmina.com: 3. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-02-11. 
  6. ^ London Telegraph - Naomi Sims obituary; accessed 9 August 2009
  7. ^ Laurie Johnston (March 3, 1980). "Wilhelmina, High-Fashion Model And Agency Owner, Is Dead at 40". New York Times.  Retrieved on August 6, 2008.
  8. ^ "A lovely life taken by smoking", Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 4 juni 2006

External links[edit]