Joan Walker Conte, who dreamed of a New York City modeling career in the 1960s and '70s but never got it — because, she believed, of the color of her skin — died Feb. 16 at Plainview Hospital. She was 75.
The cause of death was a heart attack, said a son, Robert V. Conte, of Douglaston, Queens.
Conte got her striking looks from her African-American mother and half African-American, half-Irish father, her son said. Raised in New York City but a resident of East Massapequa for much of her life, she left Amityville schools in eighth grade in the late 1950s to pursue a career as a print model, taking the Babylon line of the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan for Barbizon classes, casting calls and headshots.
She didn’t get work, her son said. Advertising agencies were “looking for either mostly Caucasian models, or occasionally black models marketing black products, but they didn’t have anything in between.”
One promising gig for a catalog selling wigs to black women fell through because her skin was not dark enough, he said. The advertising agency on the job asked her to wear makeup to darken her skin; she refused.
Joan Conte ended her quest the day she turned 35, convinced that it was too late to enter the industry. "She was crying all day," Robert Conte said. Conte recalled that his father, Barney Sofia, laughed it off, but his mother was earnest. "That was the day she gave it up."
In 1983, Joan Conte watched Vanessa Williams become the first black woman to win the Miss America pageant. “She was proud even though she never knew her,” he said. The day was bittersweet. Joan Conte believed Williams had won the prize that could have been hers.
Joan Conte worked as a receptionist at Grumman before she became a mother and ensured that her sons attended private or parochial schools on Long Island. After she and Sofia split, in 1983, she supported her sons working retail jobs, including at Lord & Taylor in the women’s clothing department, a job she loved, he said.
She dressed glamorously to chaperone him and his brothers to Disney cartoons at the Jerry Lewis Theater and to watch their school plays, he said. “People would walk right up to her: Haven’t I seen you in a movie?”
Joan Conte was born July 9, 1943, in Philadelphia to Coretha and Robert Walker. The former Coretha Alderman worked at Grumman; Robert Walker served in the military.
Joan Conte is survived by Robert Conte and two other sons, David and Anthony, and six grandchildren. Sofia died in 2005. Conte was cremated. Her ashes will be deposited in Long Island City, Queens, near the Queensbridge Houses where she spent some of her childhood.
"That was where my mother was the happiest," Robert Conte said. "It had all the different cultures and religions … Nobody cared if you were black, white, Jewish, Protestant. It didn't matter."