While doing research on my previous posts for Black History Month, which included looking for African fashion models in the 1960s, I stumbled upon an image of Princess Elizabeth of Toro. When I dug deeper, I soon realised that she has led a full and active life both before and after being in front of the camera and on the catwalk.
The Princess really was born into royalty, and already had a successful career in law by the time she entered the modelling scene.
This post will talk about this fascinating figure whose life could so easily be a novel in itself!
A woman of many firsts
Princess Elizabeth Christobel Edith Bagaaya Akiiki of Toro was born in 1936 in the Kingdom of Toro. This was and still is located in the south-west of Uganda.
After spending the bulk of her education privately schooled in Uganda, she was sent to Sherbourn School for Girls in Dorset. She was the sole black student there.
A year later, the Princess was accepted into Gorton College, part of the University of Cambridge, to study law, politics and history. She was only the third African woman in the institution’s history to be accepted, as well as the first woman from Uganda.
In 1965, three years after graduating from Cambridge with a law degree, the Princess became the first woman from East Africa to be admitted into the English legal profession as a barrister. By this time, she had been given the title and office of Batebe (Princess Royal) after the death of her father Rukidi III of Toro.
Life in front of the camera
Princess Elizabeth had returned to Uganda and become the first woman to be called to the country’s bar in 1966 by the time her modelling career began. Princess Margaret (sister to Queen Elizabeth II) invited her to come to London to model in a charity fashion catwalk show. This was a fortuitous event, given the dangerous political climate of the time.
This resulted in the Batebe’s new career taking off. She was photographed by David Bailey and Patrick (later Lord) Lichfield for magazines such as Vogue in the UK and US. She was also signed up to The Peter Lumley Agency in London – the top modelling agency in the city.
Princess Elizabeth was friends with the ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, who introduced her to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. She then arranged a meeting between Diana Vreeland, editor of American Vogue, and the British ambassador to the US Lord Harlech.
As a result, Vreeland invited the Batebe to New York to model for Vogue. This resulted in the first ever photoshoot for the magazine that featured a black model, in the summer 1969 edition.
Princess Elizabeth then signed to the Ford Model Agency in New York, and became the first black woman to appear on the front cover of the November 1969 edition of Harper’s Bazaar. She didn’t even know she’d be on the cover until she walked past the newsagents and saw the magazine!
Despite the success she enjoyed as a model in the UK and the US, the Princess saw modelling as only a means to an end. The real purpose of it for her was to promote black culture and to give an image of black women as elegant and beautiful.
Work after modelling
The Princess returned to Uganda in 1971. She took the lead role in the film Things Fall Apart, which was filmed entirely in Nigeria. The film, also called Bullfrog in the Sun, was based upon two books written by the eminent Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.
In 1974, she was briefly appointed as Uganda’s minister for foreign affairs by the self-declared president General Idi Amin. In 1975, she fled the dictator’s brutal regime for London (via Kenya and Venice) and remained in exile until the country’s first democratic elections in 1979.
Princess Elizabeth, along with her future husband Prince Wilberforce Nyabongo, returned to London in 1980 where they married the year after.
In 1986, the Batebe was appointed as ambassador to the United States, a post she held until 1988. After her husband was killed in a plane crash that year, she began to devote more of her time to charity work and the guardianship of the current Toro monarch Rukidi IV, who is also her nephew.
She also found time to write and publish her autobiography in 1988 – Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess.
The Princess is now Uganda’s High Commissioner to Nigeria, thus continuing her role as an international diplomat.
WOW!! Princess Elizabeth of Toro is such a fascinating person to find out more about! With careers in law and international relations both before and after modelling, she has so much more substance than the stereotypical ‘dolly bird’ model you’d expect to find in the 1960s.
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