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 phone contacts while working as an executive secretary for Compton Advertising. She moved on to the Foote, Cone & Belding agency, where she worked as a casting and fashion director and helped produce TV commercials. She also hosted the WMAQ-TV show “Memorandum.”
If Ms. Wilson didn’t have the cell phone number for a celebrity or CEO, she usually knew someone who did. In 1981, she used her contacts to form Dori Wilson Public Relations.
“I was very aggressive,” she once 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. I never set out to break barriers. I just set out to do what I had to do.”
She helped promote the Chicago Film Festival, 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, Tiffany & Co., A.C. Nielsen and various government agencies.
Oprah Winfrey hired her to help produce the Chicago premiere of “The Color Purple” to benefit the Youth Guidance social service organization.
Her agency also promoted the David Schwimmer-directed production of “Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession,” which premiered in 2003 at Lookingglass Theatre Company.
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.”
Young Dori attended Shakespeare grade school and Hyde Park Academy High School.
Growing up, 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.
“I just thought she was just the most beautiful, gazelle-looking person. She got such notoriety, and she handled her life with dignity and grace. She loved her dark skin. You’d look at spreads featuring Naomi Sims, and she would be in all these white accessories that played up her dark skin. All of this was still new to the fashion industry. 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.”
Ms. Wilson never lost her fashion sense.
“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 social service agency, who was a client.
She loved to go out and eat at RL and Gibsons, and she loved her pet Chihuahuas, named Taco and Belle.
Friends said her kindness equaled 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. “And 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.