Joanna Forenan LaSane was Atlantic City’s royalty. She was an intelligent, charming and elegant lady, a role model for us all.
LaSane got her first look at the entertainment world sitting upon her father’s shoulders in the 1940s, watching performers practice at the Paradise Club, an early Northside nightclub. Her conceptions of beauty, style and poise were shaped as a little girl, and by her 20s she was a highly acclaimed world-class model.
I’ll never forget the first time we met. When I was researching for “The Northside,” Redenia Gilliam Mosee told me, “You must meet Joanna Lasane. I know she can help you.” At our first meeting, she listened intently, focused on understanding what I was trying to learn about Atlantic City’s Northside community. Once she saw that we were of the same mind in terms of understanding the rich history that needed to be preserved, she was very helpful and introduced me to people with interesting personal stories. I am deeply indebted for her assistance.
A trailblazer in the social history of both the United States and Atlantic City, LaSane made it all look easy. Yet we know that it wasn’t. She had to overcome many obstacles, the nastiest being America’s original sin, the curse of racism. Fortunately, behind that beautiful smile were some wily ways, steely grit and determination.
LaSane was one of the first people of color to appear in national and international ads of a major corporation, Pepsi-Cola. Giving new meaning to the term “serendipitous,” LaSane’s career received an early boost thanks to the creative mind of another Atlantic City resident, young Charles Wilson, a college student working to become a doctor.
Wilson was about to graduate from Hampton College following his service in World War II, and planned to work and save money for medical school. As luck would have it, he was recruited by a representative from Pepsi-Cola for a program grooming African-American executives to market Pepsi to black communities. Wilson was hired by Pepsi as part of a team of 12 young black men whose job was to crisscross the nation promoting the sale of cola.
Wilson and his colleagues were soon on a mission to educate corporate America on the need to look anew at black people; they worked at ways to not only pitch Pepsi-Cola to black customers but to elevate the image of black people. Prior to their efforts, advertisers depicted blacks in one-dimensional racist stereotypes — think Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima. At the urging of Wilson and his fellow marketing executives, Pepsi began portraying African-Americans as the accomplished middle-class professionals many were becoming. This novel approach included using black models for the first time in a national advertising campaign, among them Atlantic City’s Joanna LaSane.
At the time of being hired by Pepsi, LaSane was an aspiring actress, dancer and model with the talent, charm and looks to excel at all of them. In 1953, following graduation from Atlantic City High School, she attended Montclair College; a year later she was in New York City pursuing her career. Studying voice, dance and acting, she performed in several shows on Broadway. Elegant and poised in appearance, she was equally gracious and beautiful on the inside.
One feature that set her apart from other black women of that era was her hairstyle. It was natural. LaSane’s closely cropped hair created a striking appearance and while attending a cocktail party in Manhattan, she was approached by a freelance photographer searching for young black female models. Within weeks LaSane was featured in Pepsi’s national advertising campaign, then she traveled the country and the world with high-fashion shows sponsored by Ebony magazine. In addition to appearing in Ebony, she graced the pages of Vogue, Redbook, Look and Life, and was the first black model to be featured in a prime-time, national television commercial.
After years of travel, LaSane returned to Atlantic City and settled into teaching dance and giving voice lessons to children on the Northside. Many hundreds of young people were exposed to the arts because of her efforts. Serving as a member of the Atlantic County Cultural and Heritage Commission, and the city’s Arts Commission, LaSane was listed in Who’s Who Among Black Americans, and received numerous honors, including induction into the Atlantic County Women’s Hall of Fame in 1996. She passed away peacefully last month.
Joanna LaSane’s extraordinary life is a legacy of a bygone era. In terms of talent, beauty and a path-breaking career, she has no equal in Atlantic City’s history.
Nelson Johnson is a retired New Jersey Superior Court judge. He is the author of “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City.” Johnson is currently writing a book about legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow.