Toni Vaz is a visionary pioneer whose ability to forge a path not yet created, much less traveled, led her to challenge the stereotypical images of African Americans in Hollywood by becoming one of the founders and creators of the NAACP Image Awards.
As a child of a strict Caribbean upbringing, Vaz, whose mother and father immigrated from Barbados to the United States before she was born, was encouraged to have limited boundaries and stay close to home. Yet through her parents’ own migration story, they unconsciously and instinctively gifted Vaz with a fearless, adventurous spirit that led this single, Black woman to move across the country from New York City to Los Angeles during the 1950s.
Not long after her arrival in Hollywood, Vaz began working as an extra on movie sets and with no formal training, she eventually found herself performing daring stunts. Throughout her career, she appeared in more than fifty TV and film projects, including the television series Tarzan and movies such as The Singing Nun, Porgy and Bess, Mission: Impossible, where she was the stunt double for Cecily Tyson.
These parts gained her membership into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) Union, and she’s an honorary member of the Black Stuntmen’s Association. She was a member of the Screen Extra Guild (SEG), which controlled the extras at the studios from 1950s to 1990, and she served on the Screen Extra Guild Minorities Committee.
Despite the strides Vaz made, she found herself portraying certain types of roles that pigeonholed her career. She has stated that “in those days, the jobs black people got were playing maids, hookers and Aunt Jemimas.” These caricatured depictions troubled Vaz, but instead of succumbing to Hollywood’s limiting lens, she fought against it. She became empowered and sought to counteract and combat the racist images.
As a member of the NAACP’s newly-formed Hollywood branch, based in Beverly Hills, Vaz crystalized the idea of creating an event that would elevate the image of Black artists working in Hollywood. Vaz said, “We can play attorneys and doctors too. So, I thought, why don’t we change that image?”
With this single question that focused on ‘change,’ the Image Awards was born. Vaz has stated that “the Image Awards were initially created to honor and thank various high-powered members in the entertainment business, including white producers, for allowing black people to be portrayed in more positive roles; as well as to honor black people for their acting achievements.”
Since that time, this celebration of Black talent has grown from a small dinner gathering to a nationally televised live special that uplifts and celebrates the outstanding achievements and performances of people of color in film, television, music and literature. The Image Awards also recognizes and honors individuals or groups who promote social justice through their creative endeavors.
Throughout her life, Vaz visited over visit fifty countries as a solo traveler – often going places where the natives had never seen a Black person. She also spent countless hours working in various communities, helping to improve the lives of people from all walks of life. In February 2006, while living in Las Vegas, Nevada, she received an award presented by then-Mayor Oscar Goodman and other representatives of the City of Las Vegas in acknowledgment of her outstanding achievements.
From her time growing up in New York City to her travels across the world, Toni Vaz caught a glimpse of the fullness of the Black experience, and by far, her most significant accomplishment has been creating the Image Awards in recognition of the expansive, beautiful Black culture. This single, yet monumental endeavor helped to change the narrative of African Americans throughout the entertainment industry, and her vision will be both honored and celebrated for many generations to come.