NAACP Image Awards at 50: Creator Reveals Origins and Her Fight for Recognition

AP Photo; Leon Bennett/FilmMagic
Quincy Jones with his Image Award in 1986 (Inset: Vaz).

Toni Vaz, who is 97 and plans to attend the March 30 show, opens up about why she launched the event, which this year honors Jay-Z, Maxine Waters and Tom Joyner, and the state of diversity in entertainment.

The 50th NAACP Image Awards on March 30, hosted by Anthony Anderson and airing live on TV One, will pay tribute to plenty of top talent in entertainment, including this year's honorees, Jay-Z, Maxine Waters and Tom Joyner. But there is one person who deserves to celebrate that night more than most: Toni Vaz.

Vaz, 97, is the creator of the event, which celebrates the accomplishments of people of color in media and entertainment and honors those who promote social justice through their work.

With roots in the British West Indies and Panama, Vaz moved from New York to Los Angeles in the '50s to work as an actress and a stuntwoman. She appeared in more than 50 film and TV projects (including movies like The Singing Nun and Porgy and Bess and the Mission: Impossible and Tarzan TV series) over the years, often as an extra or performing stunts. However, she found herself pigeonholed into certain types of roles.

"In those days, the jobs black people got were playing maids, hookers, Aunt Jemimas," she says. "That upset me." She joined the NAACP's new Hollywood branch, based in Beverly Hills, and came up with idea of creating an event that would elevate the image of black artists working in Hollywood: "We can play attorneys and doctors. So I thought, why don't we change that image?"

The inaugural NAACP Image Awards was held Feb. 4, 1967, in the International Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton. For the event, Vaz, who also at one time ran her own modeling agency for women of color, recruited "Immie Girls," models to work at the show. "And all the Immie Girls had different nationalities, and they were dressed in their outfits. The mayor came. It was amazing," says Vaz.

But for decades, Vaz says she didn't get the recognition she deserved for creating the star-studded event. In conflicting reports, various names were credited for it, including Maggie Hathaway and even Sammy Davis Jr. Vaz spent years trying to right that wrong. In her room at the Motion Picture & Television Fund retirement community in Woodland Hills, where she's lived for the past year, Vaz has piles of letters she's sent to the NAACP, stars and other organizations about her omission from the event's history. "I had a list of all of the people I used to write certified letters to, and nobody would ever answer me," she says. "Never."

But that was rectified in 2000, when she received her own Image Award statuette in a special tribute, and she since has been fully credited for her efforts. She also was a guest at the 50th Image Awards nominees luncheon March 9 at the Loews Hollywood, where she received a standing ovation.

"Every time I used to see that show, for years, it used to bother me inside," she says. "But I feel good. I feel good now."

At the 50th event at the Dolby Theatre (it was skipped in 1973 and 1995), Vaz will be in the audience — celebrating how far the industry has come and how far it still has to go.

"I see a lot of changes, but only just recently," she says of diversity in entertainment. "Recently, I saw a young black actress on TV, and she was talking about what I felt in the '50s — here she is, dark-skinned and still not getting the roles she should be getting. I thought that was good — I was quiet, I didn't know what to say. I'd like to meet her."

This story first appeared in the March 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.