Dori Wilson, Chicago publicist who helped promote stars and was one herself, dead at 77
The former fashion model, a favorite subject of famed photographer Victor Skrebneski, died in her sleep after returning home from a friend’s funeral, her assistant said.
Chicago publicist Dori Wilson, who moved through charity balls and cultural affairs with the style and assurance of the fashion model she’d once been, died Monday at 77.
She’d attended a friend’s funeral hours earlier. After returning to her home on Marine Drive, Ms. Wilson decided to take a rest, and she never woke up, according to her assistant Melinda Guerra.
Born in Winona, Mississippi, she came to Chicago when she was 7 and grew into a barrier-breaking Black model and favorite subject of famed photographer Victor Skrebneski. Ms. Wilson appeared in ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes, among other products.
She became a fixture on Chicago’s social scene and a savvy connector of people from coast to coast.
Ms. Wilson started collecting her enviable list of contacts while working as an executive secretary for Compton Advertising. She moved on to the Foote, Cone & Belding agency, where she was a casting and fashion director and helped produce TV commercials. She also hosted the WMAQ-TV show “Memorandum.”
In 1981, she used her contacts to form Dori Wilson Public Relations.
“I was very aggressive,” she told Start TV. “If someone didn’t call me back, then I would be on the phone and calling them back. I was never the type to sit back and wait, and I really had no fear.
“When I opened my own business, [I] was judged by my color,” she said in the interview. “But again I didn’t let it stop me. I just kept at it.”
She promoted the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Academy for the Arts. She handled publicity for famed hairstylist Vidal Sassoon. Other clients included Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls, the DuSable Museum of African American History, Marshall Field’s and various government agencies. Her work was “instrumental” in establishing the Chicago International Film Festival, founder Michael Kutza said.
Oprah Winfrey hired her to help with the Chicago premiere of “The Color Purple.”
Ms. Wilson’s agency also promoted the David Schwimmer-directed production of Lookingglass Theatre Company’s “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession.”
Ms. Wilson’s connections meant she always had good stories to tell. Like the one about the time she walked down Michigan Avenue and bumped into Eunice Johnson, first lady of the legendary Ebony-Jet publishing empire founded by her husband John Johnson. As Ms. Wilson told it, when she expressed surprise at seeing her out strolling, Johnson said, “Girl, I need my exercise. My Rolls is following me.”
Linda Johnson Rice, the Johnsons’ daughter, said Tuesday: “Dori personified the beauty, strength and giving heart of a trailblazing Black woman . . . She could rally support for a charity with just a phone call. A true champion for causes she believed.”
Young Dori attended Shakespeare grade school and Hyde Park Academy High School.
“Dori sometimes spoke of being the daughter of a mother who worked for wealthy families on the North Shore and then growing up to socialize with some of those people as a peer,” said Chaz Ebert, widow of Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert.
As a girl, she found inspiration in the runway panache of model Terri Springer, “this dark-skinned African American model being embraced,” Ms. Wilson told Ebony magazine in 2016. “She was on the cover of magazines and very visible at the Ebony Fashion Fairs. So I followed her. I watched her [through] the years as she grew. And then we got [model] Naomi Sims.
“You’d look at spreads featuring Naomi Sims, and she would be in all these white accessories that played up her dark skin . . . If I ever saw Naomi Sims on the front cover, I’d buy the magazine. She made us all feel like it was possible to be a successful dark-skinned African American model at that time.”
“Dori had an eye for flair, the way she threw a scarf, the way she mixed [clothing] colors,” said Jackie Holsten of the Holsten Human Capital Development agency, another client.
She enjoyed dining at RL and Gibsons, and she loved her pet Chihuahuas, named Taco and Belle.
Friends said her kindness matched her confidence. When fashion designer Jermikko Shoshanna was holding down multiple jobs while attending the School of the Art Institute, “The other kids in my class were being given gifts by their parents or whomever after our annual fashion show, or flowers, and there was no one doing that for me. So, for my graduation, Dori went to Ultimo and got me a beautiful bracelet,” Shoshanna said. “She gave it to me in front of everybody else so they would know I had somebody giving me something. I remember crying that day.”
Ms. Wilson’s survivors include her brother William Thomas Wilson Sr. and her nephew Travis, whom she raised, Guerra said.