Image Awards Founder Honored

By Maria Morales

At age 98, Toni Vaz is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

Vaz received the Founders Award at a pre-taping of the 52nd NAACP Image Awards on March 24, which is a coincidence because Vaz is the founder of the Image Awards.

“It’s about time,” said Vaz from the Motion Picture & Television Fund ‘s (MPTF) retirement community where she resides in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, California.

Vaz was a stuntwoman and extra working in Hollywood when the NAACP’s Beverly Hills Hollywood Branch was established in 1962 to address racism and discrimination in the entertainment industry. She joined the branch early on.

“They were portraying us as Aunt Jemimas and Stepin Fetchits, and that bothered me,” Vaz said. “We needed to advocate for better treatment and the best way to do that was through the NAACP.”

During a branch meeting in Beverly Hills in April 1967, it was announced that the unit needed to raise funds, and Vaz and other attendees were asked to come up with fundraising ideas. When they met again to discuss their suggestions for fundraisers, Vaz pitched the concept of an awards show.

“I called it the Image Awards because I wanted a better image for the people who worked in the industry,” Vaz said. “I wanted to put this award show together to thank the producers for giving good roles to people of color.”

The branch president liked the idea, Vaz said, but when she made follow-up calls to members and friends to enlist volunteers for an awards show committee, no one volunteered.

However, as the old showbiz saying goes, the show must go on.

Vaz reached out to Black A-listers such as Sammy Davis, Jr., who hosted the first meeting of the NAACP Beverly Hills Hollywood Branch in his home; Sidney Poitier, whom she had worked with on the movie Porgy and Bess; and the late Ivan Dixon, an actor, director and producer of Hogan’s Heroes at the time.

Vaz also wrote letters to secure sponsors for the event and booked the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where the first NAACP Image Awards show was held on August 13, 1967.

“I created the Image Awards,” Vaz said flatly. “No committee was involved in my creating the Image Awards. None whatsoever.”

After the first show, Vaz felt she was pushed out and resigned from the Image Awards and the NAACP.

“I was upset with them when I created the Image Awards and they weren’t giving me credit,” Vaz said. “I was young at the time, and I was the quiet one, so I canceled out.”

But Vaz returned to the Image Awards and the NAACP two years later, on the advice of a friend who encouraged her to stay connected to the NAACP. She has been involved in the production of the Image Awards ever since and has attended every show in person except this year’s which was virtual.

In later years that followed, though, many people claimed to be the founder of the Image Awards. As stories become legend, they are often recounted in ways that stretch or reimagine the truth. Those stories left Vaz out.

“There were too many cooks in the kitchen,” said her great-niece, Cheryl Abbott, who manages Vaz’s business affairs and archives. “There was so much confusion and Aunt Toni doesn’t like drama. It was very hurtful for her.”

Vaz became a legendary stuntwoman in Hollywood, doubling for the likes of Cicely Tyson in the Mission: ImpossibleTV series. Vaz is included in the Historical Dictionary of African-American Television and The A to Z of African-American Television.

Throughout her career, Vaz pushed for equal opportunities for people of color in movies and television. She is proud of the progress African Americans have made in Hollywood.

“I was very lucky,” said Vaz. “Minorities didn’t have big roles then. But now, you can be anything you want to be. You have more minorities working in acting than when I began.”

Vaz is a life member of the NAACP and has remained an active member of the Beverly Hills Hollywood Branch. “The NAACP is much stronger today,” she said. “It’s a great organization and I’m very proud of what they’re doing.”

Abbott credits NAACP President Derrick Johnson for making Vaz’s Founders Award honor possible. President Johnson’s administration reached out to Vaz in 2019, and they had been working with her to officially acknowledge her as the founder of the Image Awards.

“I just wanted to say thank you to President Johnson,” Abbott said. “He is doing the right thing.”

Although COVID-19 restrictions prohibited Vaz from attending the Image Awards in person, she and other residents of the retirement community were able to watch the portion of the Image Awards show where Vaz was honored on March 24 through a private link.

“Aunty, your family and friends love and adore you,” Abbott said in a congratulatory Facebook post. “We’re proud of you and super happy you’re finally being recognized the right way with a tribute, trophy and an acceptance speech. We thank you for keeping the faith.”

Abbott contacted the Motion Picture & Television Fund (MPTF) retirement home, which treated Vaz to a red-carpet pre-show on March 8. Vaz recorded her acceptance speech from the retirement home, and it was broadcast during the Image Awards taping. The MPTF staff also presented her with the coveted Founders Award statue, bringing both validation and closure for Vaz after more than a half century.

“I was going to write a book called Stolen Dreams but I don’t have to write that anymore,” said Vaz. “My dream came true.”