Singer and entertainer Joyce Bryant may not be a household name, but her contributions to the entertainment world are noteworthy just the same. The retired vocalist and vocal coach is regarded by some to be the first dark-skinned sex symbol, earning her the nickname “Black Marilyn Monroe.”
Bryant was born in Oakland, Calif. on October 14, 1928. She was raised primarily in San Francisco in a strict, Seventh-day Adventist household. As a teenager, she landed her first paid singing gig after a a cousin dared her to enter a contest in Los Angeles.
With that first taste for fame, Bryant began doing weekly gigs in New York and touring resort hotels nationwide. As noted by Bryant’s documentary producer and biographer Jim Byers, Bryant had to use more than her four-octave voice to stand out.
When Bryant was set to share the stage with Josephine she painted her hair silver using radiator paint and wore a fitting mermaid dress so the legendary performer wouldn’t upstage her. The look would become her trademark, catapulting her into the “love goddess” category.
In a 2011 interview, Byers said Bryant should be historically regarded as the first dark-skinned woman to earn that distinction.
Despite her growing fame and impending stardom, Bryant became disillusioned with the business and struggled with her faith. She felt guilty performing on Saturdays during her church’s Sabbath,and also felt the racism and segregation of the time starting to wear on her.