Wilhelmina Cooper (née Behmenburg) (May 1, 1939, Culemborg, Gelderland – March 1, 1980) was a 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. She moved with her family to Chicago, Illinois, 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. She also holds the record for most covers on American Vogue, appearing 27 or 28 times.
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.” So 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…
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 $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.
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.
She continued to guide the agency into the late 1970s until her death from lung cancer at the age of 40 in Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich, Connecticut.
She was a resident of New York City and Cos Cob, Connecticut.