Culture

The Story Of Dovima, The First American Supermodel

By Victoria DeLoach··  6 min read
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Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, who later changed her name to Dovima, was discovered by a modeling agent and later became the highest-paid model in the industry.

Known as the “Dollar-a-Minute Girl,” she modeled for designers such as Christian Dior and Yves Saint-Laurent. Richard Avedon, a well-known photographer who worked for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and created iconic images of Marilyn Monroe, Brooke Shields, and The Beatles, called her “the most remarkable and unconventional beauty of her time.”

Dorothy was born on December 11, 1927 in New York City as the oldest of two children. Despite being an active child who loved dance and art classes, she was mercilessly teased. As many young girls do, she dreamed of escaping her little world, of becoming a famous ballerina or artist. And in true childlike-faith fashion, she began signing all of her “artwork” with the first two letters of each of her given names, Do-Vi-Ma.

“There is always one child who feels like she doesn’t belong...That’s how I’ve always been.” – Dovima 

Following a severe bout of rheumatic fever (among the myriad of symptoms were those similar to congestive heart failure; the recommended treatment of which was bedrest to prevent further flare ups) around the age of 10, she was largely confined to her home until she was about 17 years old. Although not feared now as it once was, the disease proved fatal for many children in the early 1900s before the discovery of penicillin. During this time, Dorothy was enrolled in an educational program designed to assist the handicapped and homebound.

Becoming Dovima, the “Dollar-a-Minute Girl”

After recovery, she married young. The new couple lived with Dorothy’s parents in their Jackson Heights brick apartment. Her husband was employed at a bank, earning around $30 a week. Dorothy had a variety of jobs, from candy counter girl to assistant artist with an advertising company. She was eventually laid off in 1949.

During that time, she was approached at the Automat by a woman who asked if she’d ever been a model. The woman worked for Vogue Magazine. They offered a job to Dorothy as their regular model had called in sick. Following an afternoon of shooting, she left with a check for $17.50 and a request to return the next day. While posing, the photographer asked her name and she responded simply, “Dovima.” She would become the first model to exclusively use a single name in the industry. When asked to smile, her face spread slightly into a close-mouthed smolder. She disclosed that she had chipped a tooth as a child. And thus was born the template for high fashion modeling: a moody, Mona Lisa-esque expression and eyes that could cut through steel.

Within a year, she was one of the top earners at the Eileen Ford Modeling agency (later known as Ford Modeling and signing the likes of Brooke Shields, Naomi Campbell, and Ashley Graham). The average wage for a high fashion model at that time was around $25 per hour; Dovima earned $30. She was featured in almost every fashion publication of the day, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. It’s estimated that she graced the covers of over 500 magazines.

“I have never thought of myself as a beautiful woman. Even at the height of my career.” – Dovima

One of the most iconic images of Dovima – and in fashion photography in general – was taken by Richard Avedon in Paris in 1955. Prior to this, fashion photography was almost exclusively conducted in studios; Avedon changed that. “Dovima with Elephants” was an on-site still image taken at Cirque d’Hiver and captured a stark contrast of beauty. It was part of a 14-page spread for Harper’s Bazaar. The gown she wore was created by Yves Saint-Laurent, a new 19-year-old designer for Dior. Christian Dior ultimately purchased the original photograph in 2010 for $1.1 million.

As Dovima’s renown and fame grew, so too did the fractures of her personal relationships. Her diaries were fraught with details of verbal and physical abuse. Divorced and remarried, she and her new husband had a daughter, Allison. At this point, she was earning $60-$75 per hour, an unthinkable sum at that time. Her husband took over the management of her finances and schedule. The little family maintained a lavish lifestyle that included a nine-bedroom apartment, restaurant dining every night, and regular trips to Paris for fashion shows. Dovima retired in 1962 at the age of 35.

“I didn’t want to wait till the camera turned cruel.” – Dovima

Life after Modeling

Shortly after Dovima retired, she and her second husband began divorce proceedings. It was then she discovered that due to a series of bad investments – combined with the cost of maintaining such an extravagant lifestyle – she had nothing left. No savings. No retirement. No income.

In an attempt to transition into acting and garner some income, she and her daughter flew to Los Angeles. That act incited a raging court battle as her soon-to-be ex-husband in New York pressed charges for kidnapping and was eventually granted full custody of their daughter. Dovima would never regain custody.

A few small acting roles and failed efforts to transition to a modeling agent diminished her hopes of earning the wages she once did. Even at her lowest, it does not appear as if she ever tried to return to modeling. Faced with poverty and alone in New York City, she followed her parents to Florida where they had retired.

Not a great deal is known about her later years, but she was able to get a job as a hostess at a local restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It was there she met West Hollingsworth. In a 1986 interview with The Orlando Sentinel, she declared, “West was the first man I ever truly loved.” They were together for 11 years before he died. She continued her job as a hostess and became the mascot for the restaurant’s softball team. On May 3, 1990, at the age of 62, Dovima succumbed to liver cancer. She was survived by her mother and only sibling.

Closing Thoughts

Dovima truly changed the trajectory of modeling and fashion photography in America, and quite possibly the world. Although her life doesn’t seem to be the fairytale so often attributed to great income and lofty social circles, perhaps she found what so many strive to achieve – perhaps contentment is a much simpler thing. 

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