There have been more iconic Coca-Cola pitchmen than Mary Alexander. Bill Cosby, unfortunately, comes to mind. So do Kobe Bryant, Paula Abdul and Selena Gomez. But Alexander occupies a special spot in the soda's history: In 1955, while a junior at Atlanta's Clark College, Alexander landed a gig as Coke's first black female model.
"During the '50s and coming forward, you did not see a lot of African-Americans modeling for any company," she says in a video on Coke's corporate website.
The opportunity fell in her lap when her housemother told her Coca-Cola was looking for African-American models for a new campaign. The youngest of 10 children from Ballplay, Alabama, Alexander (née Cowser) went up against 75 women, she says, and wasn't sure she'd get the job. Once she did, she wasn't sure she wanted to tell her father.
"Well, maybe I'll show him the check that I received," she says of her first $600 payment, more money than she had ever seen before. Her father agreed to let her continue if the money she earned went toward tuition.
Before long, she'd be in ads that ran in newspapers and magazines, on billboards and in the New York City subway system. It was, she says, one of the first times African-Americans saw themselves and their families portrayed as everyday people in ads—as American as apple pie, as American as Coca-Cola.
After earning a degree in education, Alexander, a granddaughter of slaves, would become her school district's first black female teacher and first black female principal. Ultimately she'd be the first female African-American director of vocational education for the state of Michigan. But she's not one to tout her past glories. Her husband, she says, likes to brag: "We were married three years before I realized I was married to a Coca-Cola model!"