Setting an industry precedent, supermodel Beverly Johnson made history by breaking color barriers in August 1974 to become the first African-American to grace the coveted cover of Vogue magazine. ESSENCE.com celebrates the 35th anniversary and chats with the ageless Black beauty about her industry staying power and what it takes to be a top model.
As told to Qianna Smith
“I was very fortunate I worked at Glamour, Vogue and ESSENCE magazines before I even had an agent. I had a part time job because editorial work just does not pay as I pursued modeling to be my full-time career,” shares Johnson, who has graced more than 500 magazine covers.
Defying all odds, Johnson was told by her first agent that it would be impossible for her to secure a Vogue cover, so she changed agencies.
“Vogue is the fashion bible, and I believe it’s almost every model’s dream to be on the cover," says Johnson, pictured here in the 70’s modeling a Halston gown.
“I had already been on six or seven Glamour magazine covers, but it was not until I got the Vogue cover did my career go to a different level,” says Johnson.
Johnson describes the moment she found out she was Vogue’s August 1974 cover girl. “You don’t actually know you have a cover until it’s on the newsstands. I got a call early in the morning from Wilhelmina Cooper and she said, ‘You made it! You’re on the cover!’ and I remember being just so thrilled. I never had been so excited in my entire life except, of course, for the birth of my daughter.”
“When I came into the industry Naomi Sims was the greatest model Black or White. I remember meeting her at a Halston fashion show and she was so gracious to me. Then there was Joyce Walker, who was making a name for herself at Seventeen magazine,” says Johnson on the women who inspired her career.
“The Vogue cover, all the covers (over 500) and editorials, plus being able to stay in the industry long enough for people to know who I am, not only by my face, but also by my name. I can look back and say I really did it.”
Johnson originally wanted to be a lawyer and took night classes at Brooklyn College majoring in political science. “I didn’t really know where modeling was going to go, so I did some acting, television hosting; I’ve written books. Like Naomi Sims, I ventured into the wig industry and that’s how I got into business. In the back of my mind I knew I could be an entrepreneur.”
Wondering how to make it as model? “I would tell the ESSENCE.com reader or anyone the same thing I told my daughter (Anasa, left), have something to fall back on, meaning get an education. Educate yourself while you are pursuing modeling because it’s a short-lived career. I’m not the norm, and you’re going to need something after the cameras stop clicking.”
“I love Chanel Iman (pictured left). I love her look, the fusion of the Asian and Black. I had a chance to meet her on the ‘Tyra Banks Show,’ and I’m a big fan,” says Johnson on who’s the hottest fresh-faced “it” girl.
“Without Naomi Sims there would be no me. She is responsible for my career. What she accomplished is so momentous and it makes this 35th anniversary on the cover of Vogue even more significant to me,” expresses Johnson.