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.
Born Wilhelmina Behmenburg in Culemborg, the Netherlands, she was known professionally simply as “Wilhelmina,” or “Willy” to intimates. Wilhelmina grew up in Oldenburg, Germany. She moved with her family to Chicago, USA, 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. For a long time she also held the record for most covers on American Vogue, appearing 27 or 28 times.
She was one of the most recognizable models of her time and she was considered the last star of the couture era in modeling.
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.
On 1 March 1980, Cooper died of lung cancer at the age of 40 in Greenwich Hospital.
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…
Cooper’s daughter, Melissa, told Michael Gross (author of “Model: the Ugly Business of Being Beautiful”) she believes her mother chose to kill herself with cigarettes instead of facing, and fixing, her horribly imperfect life, suffering as an abused wife of an alcoholic husband.
Cooper was portrayed by Faye Dunaway (who won a Golden Globe for her performance) 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, 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.
Gia is a 1998 biographical film about the tragic life and times of one of America’s first supermodels, Gia Marie Carangi. The film stars Angelina Jolie as Gia and Faye Dunaway as Wilhelmina Cooper.
Gia Carangi is a Philadelphia native who moves to New York City to become a fashion model and immediately catches the attention of powerful agent Wilhelmina Cooper. Gia’s attitude and beauty help her rise quickly to the forefront of the modeling industry, but her persistent loneliness after the death of Wilhelmina drives her to experiment with mood-altering drugs like cocaine. She becomes entangled in a passionate affair with Linda, a make-up artist. Their love affair first starts when both pose nude and make love to each other after a photo shoot. However, after a while Linda begins to worry about Gia’s drug use and gives her an ultimatum; Gia chooses the drugs. Failed attempts at reconciliation with Linda and with her mother, Kathleen, drive Gia to begin abusing heroin. Although she is eventually able to break her drug habit after much effort, she has already contracted HIV from a needle containing infected blood.