Carmen Collins’ face could be seen almost everywhere in Chicago in the 1970s.
Her sleek and polished beauty was the highlight of high-fashion magazine spreads for clothing, makeup and hair-care products. She appeared in Mademoiselle and waved to the crowds from a float in the 1975 Bud Billiken Parade.
Like other often-booked models, Ms. Collins had the ability to metamorphose. She could tone down her elegance for ads for things like groceries or telephones.
Ms. Collins, 69, who had lung cancer, died Oct. 21 at Avondale Estates nursing care in Elgin, according to her son Christopher.
She was a student at Harlan High School when she decided modeling would be her ticket to make money and see the world.
“That’s what she wanted to do even before we graduated,” her friend Alice Germane said.
Young Carmen was inspired by Beverly Johnson, the first Black model on the cover of Vogue, in 1974.
The year before, Ms. Collins registered with the Shirley Hamilton agency on Michigan Avenue. At the height of her career, she made $150 an hour, said Lynne Hamilton, co-owner of the agency.
“She was so professional and glamorous,” Hamilton said, “and very nice.”
Ms. Collins knew modeling was risky as a long-term career. So she built a career in real estate, becoming managing broker and supervising agents at her Schaumburg business, which she named Star Track Enterprise Realty after her favorite TV show, “Star Trek.”
“She specialized in people that were typically told, ‘You won’t get a home,’ ” said her son Jonathan.
“She would send them to loan offices or different programs being sponsored by the city that would allow them to straighten up their credit or accumulate enough money for a down payment,” said Germane, who followed her into real estate.
“It was mainly to support her kids and to help other people,” her son Aric said of her move into real estate.
“Where most realtors were interested in getting the biggest commission, she was excited about helping people get their first home,” said her brother Juan R. Leon, pastor of Lansing’s Mount Zion Center, who said he decided to devote his life to service because of his sister’s advice to spread good in the world.
Her friend Betty Garcia said Ms. Collins mentored her and other women in real estate. “If I can do it, you can do it,” she told Garcia, who works for Keller Williams Momentum Real Estate in Palatine.
She was born Carmen Leon, the daughter of Dolores and Raphael Leon. Growing up, she loved roller-skating in the gym at St. Sabina’s and at Art’s roller rink in Harvey. Germane said they’d circle the floor to the music of The Temptations, the Four Tops and James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Before school, they’d meet for 50-cent tea-and-toast breakfasts at the Hasty Tasty on 95th Street.
She sewed beautiful clothes, including her prom dress.
Ms. Collins started with hand modeling, graduating to ads for Fashion Fair cosmetics, Jewel Food Stores, Greyhound buses and Illinois Bell. She appeared in clothing catalogs and on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” relatives said.
Often, she was styled and shot by her brother-in-law, renowned photographer Ernest Collins.
“When he got done with you,” Ms. Collins once said, “you looked like the most beautiful person in the world.”
In 1978, Ms. Collins decided to move her family to the northwest suburbs. They lived in Palatine and Hoffman Estates.
“She wanted to get out of the city,” her brother said, “for the sake of her boys.”
“She thought the schools would be better, safety, finances,” her son Christopher Collins said.
“She just wanted us to be happy and follow our dreams and to succeed,” her son Jonathan Collins said.
“We were the only Black kids around,” Christopher Collins said. “We heard the N-word.”
Jonathan Collins remembers “snowballs, [but] with chunks of ice, thrown at us at the bus stop.”
He said: “She sat us down and gave us an hour-long talk about defending yourself. She told us, ‘Stand up for yourself, and these kids will leave you alone.’ We went back feeling way more confident.”
Later, when they were adults, she’d say: “You gotta have a PMA — a positive mental attitude. Know what I mean, Jelly Bean?”
In addition to “Star Trek,” Ms. Collins loved sci-fi and alien movies like “Galaxy Quest,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Blob” and “Mars Attacks!”
Services have been held. In addition to her mother, sons and brother, Ms. Collins is survived by 13 grandchildren and her stepfather Curtis Smith.
“She would always say to me, ‘I just want you to be happy. I want you to be proud. Do your best,’ ” Aric Collins said. “She believed in us, and she believed in herself.”