When it comes to timeless beauty, supermodel Beverly Johnson trumps many of the fashion world’s muses. Thrity-five years ago, Johnson became the first African-American model to grace the 1974 cover of Vogue. The Buffalo, New York, native’s historical precedent inspired and encouraged many young Black girls and women to embrace their beauty. Nowadays, the mother, activist and entrepreneur keeps heads turning with her fiercely versatile wig collection and personal essay in the anthology “Family Affair.” ESSENCE.com caught up with Johnson to discuss when she first became aware of her duty as a Black woman, her remedy to stop feeling unpretty, and he First Lady’s impact on the fashion world.
ESSENCE.COM: You recently contributed to the book “Family Affair” to discuss your personal journey. How was it journaling your experience?
BEVERLY JOHNSON: I just reread the chapter that I wrote because often you say a lot of things in interviews but it’s just different. When you see your words in print you’re able to reflect on things and for me, it transported me back to that time. It allowed me to revisit the 1970’s and the emotions I had during that moment; it’s like I was still tthat same little girl from Buffalo, New York.
ESSENCE.COM: Memories live forever, especially when you’ve accomplished so much. Speaking of which, this year commemorates the thirty-fifth anniversary of you becoming the first Black woman to grace Vogue’s 1974 cover. How do you feel
JOHNSON: Growing up in New York and not knowing much or having experienced the south, the city always gave that air of progressiveness. And when you’re working in the fashion world you’re in a sort of bubble. I was sort of removed from what was going on in the world and gracing the cover of Vogue busted that bubble for me and I landed me on my feet. I was walking on cloud nine in my own little world only concerned about being a great model, which meant getting that Vogue cover. When you’re 17 it’s all about you. I was thinking about what it meant to be a Black woman because I simply wasn’t aware. I remember being shocked and wondering why I was only the “first” in 1974. Are you kidding me? It really put me on this journey to define who I am and where I came from and getting my grandmother and mother to share their stories with me. I became really aware of representing Black women proudly.
ESSENCE.COM: We love you for that! We want to know does Beverly Johnson ever have an Ugly Day?
JOHNSON: (Laughs). Are you kidding me? Yes! I swear I was just feeling that way today. I was like, Oh you’re a mess and this side of your wig is not right (laughs). Everything just felt wrong and then I had to snap myself out of it and jot down a gratitude list. So that’s how I make myself feel better I express my gratitude and then I go help someone or volunteer somewhere because it’s not just about me. Giving back always makes me feel better.
ESSENCE.COM: We have to remember that beauty secret. How do you think having a fashionable First Lady will influence the world of fashion and its representation of Black women?
JOHNSON: It’s not only her sense of style, but because she’s bright and powerful. Even if she weren’t the First Lady she would be a powerful figure and role model and she would touch lives just because that’s who she is. The First Lady’s presence has impacted folks the way it impacted them when I got that cover. It was the first time that world set that standard of beauty by indirectly saying Black is indeed beautiful and that’s what the First Lady is doing. Not that we need the reassurance, but I think that it’s a sense of growing compassion and acknowledging the beauty of other cultures and how chic, stylish and powerful Black women are.
ESSENCE.COM: Yes, Black women are fabulous! When you think about lasting impressions of you as a model, what are you presently building?
JOHNSON: When I’m dead and gone and my children are dead and gone, what I’ve done so far in my career and life is an archive. I don’t want to be out of fashion and out of date. I am thoughtful of who I am and where I came from and the legacy that I’m leaving. That’s what I want my legacy to be—timeless and classic beauty inside and out.
To learn more about Beverly Johnson, check out “Family Affair” edited by Gil Roberston.