Gail O’Neill, fashion model and ArtsATL editor-at-large, dies at age 61

Before she entered the field of journalism and moved to Atlanta, she was a supermodel discovered in a New York airport.
Gail O'Neill was a "great journalist who cared about her craft and the people she wrote about. She had a grand curiosity about the world, which was a hallmark of her writing style," says ArtsATL Executive Editor Scott Freeman. Photo: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

Credit: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

Credit: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

Gail O'Neill was a "great journalist who cared about her craft and the people she wrote about. She had a grand curiosity about the world, which was a hallmark of her writing style," says ArtsATL Executive Editor Scott Freeman. Photo: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Gail O’Neill — the international supermodel who moved to Atlanta and became a journalist and worked in print, television and radio — died Oct. 10 at the age of 61. She had courageously fought a serious illness over the past two years.

Word began to spread Thursday afternoon on social media that O’Neill had passed away. Women’s Wear Daily was the first to confirm it through her modeling agency.

O’Neill was an ArtsATL editor-at-large and a contributor at WABE. She was also co-producer with Felipe Barral of the video series “Collective Knowledge,” which presented O’Neil interviewing Atlanta thought leaders.

“This is such a devastating loss,” ArtsATL Executive Editor Scott Freeman said. “Gail was a great journalist who cared about her craft and the people she wrote about. She had a grand curiosity about the world, which was a hallmark of her writing style. She had the ability to take a reader along for the ride on her journey of discovery.”

O’Neill began working with ArtsATL in 2014 and wrote about a wide range of topics, including profiles of visual artists Fahamu Pecou and Shanequa Gay; journalists Valerie Boyd and Cynthia Tucker; and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Azira G. Hill and teenage opera champion Layla Felder. She also helmed the “In Our Own Words” series during the pandemic.

Gail O'Neill gained fame as a supermodel before becoming a journalist. Photo: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

Credit: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Felipe Barral

“Gail was a strong ambassador for ArtsATL in addition to her stellar journalism,” said Freeman. “She also was a dear friend. Sometimes it felt like she held the city of Atlanta in the palm of her hand; whenever we went to an event together, everyone seemed to know her and everyone wanted to be around her. Gail was special: humble, vivacious, caring. She’s one of the most incredible people I’ve ever known.”

O’Neill was born in Westchester, New York, the second of three children of Jamaican immigrants. She considered herself something of an ugly duckling as a child. “By the time I was 11 or 12 years old, I was convinced that my tall, skinny frame was some kind of cosmic joke … with me as the punchline,” she once said.

But she gained international fame as a supermodel. She graduated from Wesleyan University and took a job in marketing and sales for Xerox. A fashion photographer spotted her in a New York airport in 1985; she signed with Click Models and a year later was on the cover of British Vogue.

O’Neill was the face of Avon, Esprit and Diet Coke during her career and also appeared in the 1992 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She was on the cover of countless fashion magazines.

She joined The Black Girls Coalition, founded by Bethann Hardison and Iman, an advocacy group that spoke out about issues that ranged from racism to homelessness. She refused to model for cigarette ads and corporations that had not divested of South African investments.

O’Neill faced challenges as a Black model in the fashion and advertising industries. “She has a perfect, heart-shaped face, flawless skin and a classic cover-girl smile,” Newsweek wrote about her in 1988. “But in the three years she’s been modeling, 26-year-old Gail O’Neill has heard a hundred reasons why she’s all wrong for a job.”

She began her journalism career as a correspondent for NBC’s “The Early Show” and later worked with CNN and HGTV.

Funeral arrangements are private, but a celebration of O’Neill’s life is planned. ArtsATL will publish a full remembrance of O’Neill in the coming days.


ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

icon to expand image

Credit: ArtsATL

MEET OUR PARTNER

ArtsATL (www.artsatl.org), is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. Founded in 2009, ArtsATL’s goal is to help build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.

About the Author