The Story of Lourdes Guerrero, One of the First Black Women with a Recurring Role on National TV

Left, Lourdes Guerrero in the Cover of Jet Magazine. Right, From left to right: Image of Jackie Gleason and some of the performers on his show- Lourdes Guerrero can be seen sitting at the right. Images Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galería Magazine

By: Jhensen Ortiz

From Maria Montez to Lineisy Montero, over the years Dominican women have helped carve out a meaningful space for the next generation of Dominicanas in the modeling and entertainment industry. Montez, who was known as “The Queen of Technicolor,” gained popularity in the 1940s starring in over 28 films in her short-lived career[1]. She was the first Dominicana to enter the U.S. film industry. But few may know that one of the first black women ever to appear as a regular performer on a national television show was a Dominicana — Lourdes “Lulú” Guerrero — who’s career as a model for the iconic lifestyle magazines Ebony and the now digital-only Jet magazine in the mid-1950s and until 1960, made her a key part of Black culture in the United States at a time when these magazines played an important role in connecting different aspects of Black life from politics, entertainment, education, and fashion.

Largely forgotten even in her native Dominican Republic, Guerrero is remembered by a few record collectors and researchers, but it was poet and performance artist Josefina Báez who brought her to my attention. After a few weeks of looking for family members or anyone who might know her that I could reach out to, I was fortunate enough to get a response from a relative to coordinate a visit to meet and interview Mrs. Guerrero Otis at her home for La Galería Magazine. The interview was in Spanish therefore her quotes have been translated. In this article, we take a look back at the life and career of Lourdes Guerrero Otis.

 

Lourdes Guerrero and Her Arrival to the United States

Lourdes Altemía Guerrero was born in what was known then as Ciudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic (today Santo Domingo) on March 7th, in the late 1930’s, to Altagracia Perdomo Vizcaíno and Arcadio Guerrero. Her father was a musician, which she shares is where she got her intuition for music, and her mother was a seamstress for Trujillo’s family. Growing up, she traveled a lot with her family within Santo Domingo. Her aunt was a teacher, and they would accompany her everywhere she went until she was eleven years old, when her mother was offered an opportunity to travel to the United States. In 1948, her parents divorced, and her mother was invited by members of  Trujillo’s family to come to Miami. She decided to take Lourdes and her two brothers Federico Guerrero and Arcadio Guerrero Jr., because she wanted a better life for herself and her children. Lourdes Guerrero (Lourdes Guerrero Otis is her married name) was able to travel to the U.S. with her family at a time when only a privileged few were able to migrate to the United States, because of her mother’s job as a seamstress for the Trujillo family.

“She was always fighting and working all her life to provide for the three of us,” Guerrero Otis told La Galería Magazine.

They traveled on a plane to Puerto Rico and then took another flight to Miami. Lourdes described that her mother also traveled with a friend who was dark-skinned, and during their time in Miami her friend experienced racial discrimination and lack of access to public spaces—this was the norm in the south during the Jim Crow era.

“My mom’s skin was very light so she did not have any problems at that time back in Miami, where racism already exists but she traveled with a friend of hers who was very dark like me and they did not give her almost access to anything” said Guerrero Otis.

As a result, they left to New York City in 1951 and did not return to Santo Domingo. They settled in the Bronx and lived on 750 Beck Street[2].  Despite the family’s inability to speak English in New York City, Lourdes says things went well for them. Lourdes as a teenager attended Morris High School, but did not go to college because she didn’t understand English well and she admitted to not liking to speak English at all at the time. “I could not go to college because my English did not help me, but let me tell you I did not like English at all,” she says.

Since she wasn’t going to school, this leads her to beginning to work at an early age, against her mother’s wishes. She worked with her mother as a seamstress in a factory for a couple of years and then immediately she began modeling.

 

“Tu Deberías ser Modelo”: How Lourdes Became a Model

Her entry into modeling happened on a whim, if you want to call it that, because she didn’t give it any thought, nor did she desire it or even thought of studying it.

“At that time a lot of people told me that I looked like a model and I would say what is a model” she says. People would tell her “Hey you look like a model,” and she had no clue what they were talking about. She said back in Santo Domingo, during the Trujillo Era, there weren’t any models because the commercials were done by the same the show host, so the concept of a “model” was foreign to her. In 1954, at the age of seventeen, she became acquainted with a family friend and representative of the Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency, Lenny Neirn, while working as a seamstress who persuaded her to take up modeling as a career. That same year she enrolled in the agency. She remembered that Ophelia DeVore, the agency’s director, took a liking to her. “The lady treated me very well always and said the same thing… that I had many model qualities,” Guerrero Otis said.

The Grace Del Marco Modeling Agency was the only modeling school opened to minorities and African Americans in the United States, and it served as a ground for so-called “Black Beauty for decades[3].

As she developed in the school, even before finishing her training, DeVore was so enthusiastic that she called a couple of representatives from different companies to visit the agency and meet with Guerrero Otis.  Lourdes says she remembers that moment like it was yesterday,

“And what do you think? Before I finished school she was so excited that she called a few representatives of some companies to come and see me and everything and said ‘I will effectively get you a job before the school ends.’”  DeVore told her that she would land her a job before she left the agency.

She reminisces fondly about how close she and DeVore became—eventually, both families got to know each other. The agency gave her the nickname “Lulú” during her time as a student—changing Spanish-sounding names is a practice in the entertainment industry.  In 1955, Lourdes graduated and was well enough prepared for her first modeling job, even while she didn’t yet understand English.

“Look I was ready because the school already advised us of all the things that we will see the lights, positions, cameras and everything,” she said after I asked the question about her first job experience. “I did not even speak much English, so it was hard for me understanding things but I got used to it and as I told you, I was a minor, so they gave me more attention and treated me with more tranquility and more time for everything.”

It was then when her modeling career began, and quickly took off.

Lourdes Guerrero’s Modeling and TV Career Take Off

Her first modeling job was with Jet magazine when she appeared on the cover of the April 14th, 1955 issue:

Lourdes Guerrero Otis in the Cover of Jet Magazine. Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galería Magazine

After that first job, she had much more work coming her way: Jet magazine had her on a cover for a second time on the March 22, 1956 issue:

A few months later, she was on the cover of Lady Beautiful magazine June 1956:

Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galería Magazine

In the fall of 1958, the school recommended 20- year-old Lourdes for an audition to be on The Jackie Gleason Show. It was a half-hour version of the show with comedian Buddy Hackett as a sidekick on CBS-TV, starting Friday, October 3rd, 1958[4]. She was excited about the opportunity to be one of the Billboard Girls on the show; they were responsible for introducing the show to the television audience as it comes on the air[5]. When she arrived at the audition, there were so many models, and out of the 500 contestants only six were needed for the show. Out of so many, only four or five black models were there auditioning. She remembered that first day auditioning, ,

“I call the agency and I tell them ‘I do not think I belong here’…These models had mink coats and me with a little dress, nothing more,” Guerrero Otis remembers.

While she felt uncomfortable, the modeling agency told her to stay. “There were about six hundred girls who went to interview for this job and they needed eight girls… They would call by number” she said. “They would say ‘thank you for coming’ if you weren’t chosen and if you were chosen, you would wait in a room”

When the interviewers called her number, she was trembling. They asked her for her name and she replied “Lourdes no no no…. Lulu Lulu Lulu.” They responded with another question unfazed by her last response “You speak English?” and she replied “very little English” and they said “Do you understand what we’re saying?” and she said “Yes.” Jackie Gleason and the producers of the show sent her to another room to await her fate. She called the school, and told them what happened and they responded shouting, screaming, and celebrating because she had survived the first cuts of the audition.

The next day they invited her again, along with the other models and day by day they eliminated models until they got to the last day. She had to read something they gave her, and she had no idea how she was going to get through it. One of the models helped her. The line they gave her was the worst, at least to her at that moment. When, she went ahead and read the line, she had no idea how to pronounce the word. It was an ingredient in Colgate toothpaste. She remembered that it was something with Chlorophyll, but she couldn’t pronounce the word at all. The model would help her pronounce the word and the producers would laugh, the following line was “Brought to you by”.  Still, after that debacle, and to her amazement, on September 8, 1958, they chose her to be one of the six Billboard girls on the show. The producers of the show and Gleason loved her accent and told her not lose it.

When they announced that Lourdes Guerrero was one of the women chosen to be on the show, many news publications covered the story. Lourdes had set a milestone for being the second black woman chosen to perform on a national television show.

This feat was written about in some publications, in one article they referred to her as a “negro girl” and in the second paragraph described her as a “coffee-colored native of Ciudad Trujillo.” These descriptors were common during the Jim Crow era.

Lourdes Guerrero article on EBONY, December 1958. Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galería Magazine [On April 19th, 2018 we corrected this. The information in this article was inaccurate, it was in fact Amanda Randolph who was the first African-American to appear as a regular on a national television show]

 

She went on to be on the Jackie Gleason show for thirteen weeks—her family was very proud of her. She shared her family’s excitement, “They couldn’t wait to see those shows every Friday night”

Still living in the Bronx with her family, she attended school at night to improve her English. Her appearance on the Jackie Gleason show launched her modeling career to new heights! Lourdes won “Miss Co-Ed” at the Miss Empire State Beauty Pageant held at the Hotel Diplomat on December 12, 1958[6].

On January 10th 1959, Lourdes’ continued success was evident when she became the face of Grace Del Marco Agency and was the featured model in many of newspapers ads of The New York Age for the entire year[7].

In March, she was one of four Grace Del Marco models to accompany Devore to Bermuda to perform a series of fashion-musicals[8]. Award-winning film, television and stage actress Cicely Tyson was on the trip with Lourdes—Tyson at the time was another multi-talented fashion model of the Grace Del Marco agency.

Launching a Music Career: Lourdes Records With Mercury Records

While Lourdes modeling career was kicking off, she was also finding time to sing. The Grace Del Marco agency organized and hosted a singing contest and Lourdes participated in the contest. Lourdes had already been singing Spanish ballads on WPOW in New York and had plans of singing in nightclubs as well [9]. DeVore enjoyed her singing and told her that she would introducer her to a producer from Mercury Records. Devore organized a modeling cocktail party, and invited other black models and a pianist to the event. In attendance was Clyde L. Otis the producer from Mercury Records that Devore had mentioned to Lourdes, but he was more than just any other producer: Otis had been promoted to Mercury’s Eastern Regional A&R executive[10]. Clyde Otis was too a pioneer, considered one of the first African-American men to hold such a position at a major record label at the time, and when he heard Lourdes sing accompanied by a piano that night, he was mesmerized.

“It was not a very long romance because my mother did not let me out alone” Guerrero Otis says, “She was the chaperone all the time and Clyde was uncomfortable with this but he took it because he had to take it.”

Otis liked Lourdes and her voice. He made an appointment for a voice test at his office. Lourdes arrived with her mother and Clyde proceeded with asking her on a date to the theater.  Around this time, Lourdes also competed and won the Miss Five Borough contest on June 6, 1959, at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in New York City and earned a two-week vacation to Mexico[11] .

Lourdes crowned Miss Five Borough. Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galería Magazine.

When Clyde began pursuing a relationship with Lourdes in 1959, his intentions were met with some restraint not from Lourdes, but from the traditional duenna (or dueña) system of dating[12]. Under this system, Clyde had to participate in a courtship not just with Lourdes, but with her family as well. Clyde mentioned that the courtship with the family lasted from May through July and during that time he spent time earning the trust of her family[13] .

In November of 1959, Clyde decided to record an album with Lourdes in New York City, coordinating all details of the production. Lourdes personally selected the song material, each of which was done in Spanish.  In the studio, she was accompanied by an orchestra. The songs were arranged by Belford Hendricks and conducted by Fred Norman[14]. Each song was recorded live; with the whole band playing in sync with her.

This event marked the launch of her singing career, with Clyde Otis being the main enactor. Her album Sweet and Spanish-Lourdes Sings American Favorites in Spanish was well received, even U.S. Spanish-language daily publications like La Prensa raved about it:

Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galeria Magazine

With this record, Guerrero set another milestone. She was one of the few artists who recorded a Latin pop album on a major label known for its jazz, blues, and country music recordings at the time.

Lourdes Guerrero Becomes Lourdes Guerrero Otis

During the entire process of recording the album, Clyde Otis and Lourdes Guerrero kept on seeing each other. By January of 1960, the so-called courtship with Lourdes had finally come to an end, and the family had accepted him[15]. A few months later in May of 1960, Lourdes and Clyde walked down the aisle of a New York Church.

 

After the wedding, Lourdes was featured again on the cover of the June 1960 issue of Ebony magazine, including a lengthy article on the so-called “chaperone system” mentioned earlier:

No Estoy Reminiscing”: Lourdes’ Life Shifts  

The following year, Lourdes had stopped modeling and singing, to raise her newborn son Clyde Laverne Jr, born in February of 1961 at New York Hospital[16]. They had their first daughter Ana Iza Otis in 1962 and their second son Isidro in 1964.

She was invited to perform in the Dominican Republic on the program “Canciones del Recuerdo” on February of 1965 on channel 4 Dominican Radio Television (RTVD) alongside pianist and composer Bullumba Landestoy interpreting romantic ballads[17]. Five years later, she was invited by the National Association of Musicians, Singers, Dancers, Announcers, and Actors of the Dominican Republic known as (AMUCABA) to do presentations for Dominican Radio Television. Also to be one of the twenty-seven judges for the third annual Dominican song festival held at Palacio de Bellas Artes in Santo Domingo, on November 26, 27 and 28 of 1970[18].

Courtesy of Lourdes Guerrero Otis for La Galería Magazine

More recently, Lourdes was commemorated in a 2015 exhibition 89DAMES by Canadian visual artist Samille Janelle aka Stylo Starr. The exhibition explored the beauty of Black women of the so called glamorous era of the 1950s and 1960s[19].

Lulu Guerrero Toner transfer on paper collage, and lace. ©2014 [20]

“No estoy reminiscing como dicen los americanos,” she says when speaking about her life shifting from being career-oriented to family-oriented, “if anything I was reassured and what’s done is done.” Today, Lourdes Guerrero Otis lives in a beautiful home in New Jersey.

While her modeling career was short lived, she was one of the top black models in the country from the mid to late 1950s. Lourdes Guerrero Otis was part of a generation that made a profound impact in shifting the world’s perception of beauty to begin to include black women, whose beauty had been ignored. Recently, young Dominicanas like Amara La Negra, Cardi B, are making headlines in the entertainment industry and embracing their blackness and the skin they’re in. Meanwhile, models like the previously mentioned Lineysy Montero and Ysaunny Brito are taking over magazine covers. However, the racist struggles that black models and entertainers face continue—Montero and Amara la Negra have been outspoken about the discrimination they have been subjected to. As we continue unpacking and understating what it means to see all kinds of representation and diversity in the entertainment industry, the story of Lourdes Guerrero Otis needs to be uplifted. She is a trailblazing woman who should be celebrated as an inspiration for many Afro-Latinas and black women today who are challenging and breaking through the entertainment’s industry exclusionary policies, to reverse the erasure that has existed for far too long.

Lourdes Guerrero in her home in New Jersey. March 2018. Photo by Amanda Alcantara for La Galería Magazine

 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Lourdes Guerrero Otis was the first black woman to become a recurring performer on national television. It was in fact Amanda Randolph who starred in The Laytons in 1948. 


About the author: Jhensen Ortiz is a Librarian at the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute. He is a believer in bridging generations together.


Sources:

[1]Maria Montez.” IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/name/nm0599688/.

[2] “Negro Girl among six chosen for “Jackie Gleason” TV Show”. The Pittsburg Courier [Pittsburgh, PA], 20, Sept. 1958, p. 24.

[3] Fox, Margalit. “Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell, 92, Dies; Redefined Beauty.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 13 Mar. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/nyregion/ophelia-devore-mitchell-91-dies-redefined-beauty.html.

[4]The Jackie Gleason Show.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jackie_Gleason_Show.

[5]  “Negro Girl among six chosen for “Jackie Gleason” TV Show”. The Pittsburg Courier [Pittsburgh, PA], 20, Sept. 1958, p. 24.

[6]“Congratulations”. The New York Age [New York, NY], 27, Dec. 1958, p. 22.

[7]The New York Age [New York, NY], 10, Jan. 1959, p. 10.

[8]The New York Age [New York, NY], 28, Mar. 1959, p. 9.

[9]“Negro Girl among six chosen for “Jackie Gleason” TV Show”. The Pittsburg Courier [Pittsburgh, PA], 20, Sept. 1958, p. 24.

[10]The Clyde Otis Music Group, tcomg.com/history.html.

[11]“A Real Lulu”. The Pittsburgh Courier [Pittsburgh, PA], 15, Aug. 1959, p. 2.

[12]“Are American Dating Customs Dangerous?” Ebony, June 1960, p. 141

[13]“Are American Dating Customs Dangerous?” Ebony, June 1960, p. 141

[14]  www.jazzdisco.org/mercury-records/discography-1959/#591100.

[15]“Are American Dating Customs Dangerous?” Ebony magazine, June 1960, p.146.

[16]“This Week’s Census” Jet Magazine, 16. Feb. 1961, p. 29

[17]“Noti-Canales” Revista Ahora,  6. Mar. 1965, p. 26

[18]Maffei, Evangelina. “Festivales De La Canción Popular.” 1970 – 3er. FESTIVAL DE LA CANCIÓN DOMINICANA – República Dominicana, 16 Oct. 2011, festivalescancionpopular.blogspot.com/2011/10/1970-3er-festival-de-la-cancion.html.

[19]Warner, Deborah. “Issue 40: October 8 – October 15, 2015.” View Magazine, 8 Oct. 2015, viewmag.com/issue/issue-40-october-8-october-15-2015/.

[20]Starr, Stylo. Lulu Guerrero. Digital image. 89DAMES. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2018.

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