Model and Former Soap Opera Star Renauld White Dies at 80

Trailblazing model Renauld White, who led the way for greater diversity in magazines and on designers’ runways, died June 26 at the age of 80.

White was under hospice care at Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan at the time of his death, according to his friend Jeffrey Banks, the fashion designer. The cause of death was not immediately known.

White’s funeral will be held on July 12 at 11 a.m. at the Whigham Funeral Home in his hometown of Newark, N.J.

Throughout his career, White called for greater representation in the fashion industry. In November 1979, White became the second Black model to appear on the cover of GQ. Contrary to other media reports, the first Black model to have had that honor was Urs Althaus in November 1977. And 10 years earlier the musician Sammy Davis Jr. had become the first Black man to land a cover on the Conde Nast-owned men’s magazine.

White helped forge greater diversity on designer runways by modeling for leading ones like Bill Blass in 1969, as well as shows for Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan. White also was said to have done work for Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Charles de Castelbajac, Versace, Armani and Cerutti. White came out of retirement in 2023 to appear in an ad campaign for Dolce & Gabbana that was shot by Steven Meisel.

Banks said Saturday that White “was a groundbreaker. There were very few Black models at the time. He really broke barriers. When they had a party for him in Newark for his 50-year anniversary in the fashion industry, he was very proud of the progress and how he opened the doors for other people.”

White, who was said to have attended Rutgers University for a stint, started modeling in the 1960s. Banks remembered how as a teenager he had seen a 1969 Look magazine feature about the fashion designer Stephen Burrows that included a photograph of White, Pat Cleveland and a few others. Two years later, while working for Ralph Lauren as his second assistant, Banks first met White at a fitting. The model had been booked for a fashion show that Lauren was staging at the 21 Club.

White came of age along with models Denis LaMarsh, Rob Yoh,  Kalani Durdan, Bob Clement, Joe McDonald and Bob Menna. Recalling how White was a pioneer for other models, Banks said others like Charles Williamson and Althaus benefited. In addition to breaking down barriers in the industry, White took pride in his lengthy career, which extended “way beyond” when many people would have stopped modeling, Banks said.

Model Renauld White poses in a leather coat during Conrad Bell's men's fall 1978 outwear collection fashion show in New York City.

Model Renauld White poses in a leather coat during Conrad Bell’s men’s fall 1978 outwear collection fashion show in New York City.

Nick Machalaba/DNR

In a 2011 interview, White said that he had called on agents at Wilhemina models to allow more people of color the chance to compete in the industry. He said, “I wanted to bring about change. I really confronted the Establishment about why there were not more Black male images. At first, I thought I was going to get thrown in jail and beaten up because of my approach. But then they realized that they were wrong and that they were behind society and behind the times, and that they had to listen to me.”

In that interview, White said that he was offered a modeling contract because they thought that he would fail. But he proved himself eventually – modeling in campaigns for Black Tie cologne, Macy’s, Vitalis, and Arrows Shirts.  Throughout his life, White was fastidious about staying physically fit and maintaining his appearance during his entire career. White, who had a black belt in karate, worked out every day – frequenting the YMCA near his Upper West Side apartment and also toning up with at-home exercise equipment. Aside from his dark hair turning a little salt and pepper, White showed no signs of his age and used to appear in ads with models who were half his age, according to Banks.

Another pioneering model, Bethann Hardison, described White as “a great male model of the late Seventies and Eighties.” Having met White, who was a friend of her cousin Rodney, in the late Sixties, Hardison recalled Saturday, “We all used to dance at the Latin club the Palladium on Broadway in our late teens and early 20s.  He was a nice and charming guy.”

As an early successful Black male model, White was protective of his legacy, Hardison said. “He worked for all the men’s designer brands, doing lots of advertising, catalogues, editorials and landing a beautiful GQ cover as well [in 1979].”

Some soap opera fans know White from his two-year run on CBS’ “The Guiding Light” in the mid-Eighties. Knowing that models only have a limited shelf life, White’s goal was to always transition into acting, according to Banks. He did performances at the La MaMa Experimental Theater in downtown Manhattan, and in other plays. The musician Aretha Franklin would occasionally call White to escort her to events in New York City, Banks said.

David Neeman of the Loyalty Foundation, an organization that helps underserved communities, described White, a former advisory board member, as “an extraordinary man, so kind, so patient, so thoughtful and a tremendous mentor.”

Neeman “vividly remembered” the story White told children in the Open Minds Mentorship Program in 2019 about “bursting into Wilhelmina, demanding to be seen, then getting an appointment the next day and how being booked changed his life,” Neeman said. “He is an absolute legend and pioneer and not just in fashion.”

White once said in an interview that he talked to as many young people as he could, encouraging them to follow their dreams and to aspire to greater things beyond modeling. “Modeling is only a bridge. What are you going to do after modeling is over?” White said, “I had a 30-plus year career. They don’t make those anymore. I encourage them to do amazing things. Take the money, go to school, open up a business, be an entrepreneur, and be self-reliant.”

“He was the perfect gentleman. He was kind and he was helpful. I think that’s why his death has been such a shock to people, because he was such a good person,” said Banks.

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