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Model Moment: Beverly Johnson

The Modelpreneur on celebrating the 40th anniversary of her VOGUE cover and black models on the runway then and now.

It’s the 40th Anniversary of super model and pioneer Beverly Johnson’s American VOGUE cover. We took a trip down memory lane with Johnson to discuss the iconic cover, black models then and now, and how she’s continuing to build the Beverly Johnson brand.

ESSENCE.com: What was the climate like for black women when you first entered the industry?

BEVERLY JOHNSON: I was a teenager, the 70s was a great time. Coming out of the 60s and the Civil Rights, the 70s in New York City, as a kid, for me it felt like the world was your oyster. It was buzzing. I just remember so many black models, not only women but men, I’ve never seen men that gorgeous in my life. There was actually a black modeling agency called “Black Beauty” in the 70s. Needless to say all of the agencies turned me down, but at the time I was already freelancing for Glamour, VOGUE and ESSENCE Magazines, and eventually I ended up going with FORD. But it was just a very vibrant time, also in the way of Black designers like Willie Smith, It was just a happening, happening time and Pat Cleveland on the runway scene.

ESSENCE.com: You walked the runway for quite a few major designers, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and more. Was there a great presence of black models on the runway then?

JOHNSON: Not really, there were your token models on the runway with the Valentino’s and the Saint Laurent’s, and Pat Cleveland and Naomi Sims, but the thing was we had black designers, so you would have shows that were maybe 6-7 black models in a show. Even with Naomi Sims, Pat Cleveland and then there was me, they were so powerful on the runway as performers, so it was hands and heads above everybody else, so it was all about them. They opened the show, they closed the show. They were the show.

The photography division and the runway were two totally separate entities. The modeling agencies like FORD, they didn’t even have a runway division. For me it was fascinating because that’s where all of the designers were, so that’s why I wanted to learn about the whole business. I was this kind of curious type. Needless to say, I didn’t go over big with the runway girls because they were like ‘Hey, you’re this new girl on the block. Big star with this Glamour magazine, why are you coming over here trying to get a part of ours?’ The thing that I found most fascinating was that these girls were just so amazing, just talented.

ESSENCE.com: So, even if there were one or two black models on the runway, they were showstopping?   

JOHNSON: Exactly. It was real theater, they brought real theater to those venues. Even for me as a model peeking behind those curtains, it was really something to witness.

ESSENCE.com: Was there more camaraderie then competitiveness?

JOHNSON: I think there was camaraderie. I remember Pat Evans and Peggy Dillard and Sheila Johnson, we kind of all knew each other and gave a lot of respect to one another, although we were competitors. I really think that there was a mutual respect that we had for one another.

ESSENCE.com: Just to fast forward a bit to today’s runway. Do you feel the presence of black models on the runway has changes?

JOHNSON: When I finally had the opportunity to actually participate in fashion week as a spectator front row––first of all it’s a different show, a different kind of walking, kind of uniform, clone-type feeling but it’s still one of the best fashion week’s with the greatest designers in the world. But it was very troubling that there weren’t that very many women of color on the runway. And it just got to be each year I would attend and it would be less and less, to the point where almost four years ago and there weren’t any. I’m looking in the audience and it was such a multi-cultural audience, and everybody’s there and every nationality is represented, but on the runway I was like ‘Are people witnessing what I’m witnessing?’ I was getting more angry as each model kept coming out like, ‘No, no they’ve got to put one black girl in,’ and it never happened. And that’s when we veterans Naomi and Iman and Bethann Hardison we all got together and was like ‘Are you seeing what we’re seeing?’ It’s like we couldn’t even believe it. I didn’t go last year, but I understand they started using one or two models. But it was just really unacceptable.

ESSENCE.com: What do you think is the issue?

JOHNSON: I feel that, being a person that has been doing a lot of speaking engagements with JP Morgan Chase Women’s Symposium and how everyone in the Fortune 500 Companies are talking about diversity and inclusion, I felt that, just in my observation, the fashion industry being an elitist industry on an island somewhere; they really were not conducive of following what the world was doing in terms of diversity and inclusion. That’s about the only answer I can give to that. A disconnect, ignorance, very cavalier, elitist attitude that’s unacceptable.

ESSENCE.com: On a more celebratory note, you’re celebrating the 40th anniversary of being the first Black woman to ever grace the cover of American VOGUE. How does it feel?

JOHNSON: A friend of mine had said two years ago that we should do something about the VOGUE cover, it’s going to be the 40th anniversary and I was like ‘Wow, that’s a lot, 40 –– that’s a long time ago.’ But the climate of where the fashion industry was and talking to a lot of different models going through some of the same issues we had in the 70s but even moreso with the exclusion of women of color on the runway, I felt that it was really appropriate to remind people that things are supposed to get better and we are now going backwards. It’s great to really reflect back on a time that unbeknownst to myself I was in a certain position that I became this person that was lead on this path, I feel that the 40th anniversary of this cover is more significant today then it even was then.

ESSENCE.com: What effect did it have on your career?

JOHNSON: It was a defining moment for me. I think it’s a defining moment period for a model to be on the cover of VOGUE, even today. And I think that after I found out that I was the first woman of color, I remember being very angry. I couldn’t believe it. It was the 70s and all of the blood, sweat and tears we went through in the 60s, things are supposed to be different. I think what happened is I grew up really fast because of that cover, because I realized the responsibility that was going to come along with that. It was kind of scary and it wasn’t everything that I thought it was going to be, because it was this whole huge controversy being a trailblazer for this 21-year-old, it was really heavy. It didn’t take the celebratory nature out of it, but it really weighed a lot on the significance of it and what that was going to mean from that day forever.

ESSENCE.com: This has opened the door to so many opportunities for you. How did you transition from modeling to building the Beverly Johnson brand?

JOHNSON: I stayed around in the industry a long time because that’s the only way you can do anything, you have to really put the time in. I just didn’t feel like the 4 or 5-year career would have any impact, because people tend to forget. I had an eyerwear line in Sear’s optical throughout the country and for fourteen years I had Beverly Johnson Wig and Hair extension company, which was the fourth largest in the nation. We were right at the tipping point of wigs and hair extensions being accepted in the mainstream as an accessory and embodying our culture and our love affair with hair. I couldn’t’ figure out why my wigs and extensions were only sold by Korean beauty supply stores in black neighborhoods. I just wanted to go into business for myself, I wanted to sell my product to black beauty supply stores and whomever I wanted to sell to. I also wanted an uncompromised product, I felt like I wanted to do something different.

Business is a very different animal, very challenging but it’s really exhilarating. It’s a slow process and it’s not for the faint of heart. I’m having a rebirth here and it’s really great. We have an online store, and it’s so great to get feedback. I finished my memoir with Simon & Schuster, and we’re talking about the film rights which should be fun.

We’re also introducing a make-up line, a very natural make-up line, minerals. It’s just so incredible, expanding the clip ons and wigs and a lot of awesome stuff.

ESSENCE.com: What advice do you give the models coming up?

JOHNSON: I of course encourage them to do it if they have the desire to, you really have to have the desire, you can’t give somebody desire. And if they have basically what it takes to be a successful model, I encourage them. I also encourage them to finish their education and really take those steps in having something to fall back on. It’s something no one can take away from you, you have all of the control of your destiny. The same advice I gave to my daughter. I think it’s a difficult profession. The chances of being a successful working model is like making an NBA basketball team, very difficult. I think even more difficult than that is to sustain a career, it takes more than just being pretty.