Beverly Johnson could change fashion. She’s already done it once
The first African-American supermodel who appeared on the covers of ELLE France and Vogue US, Beverly Johnson speaks frankly about the racism she has confronted throughout her entire career, about how she wants to contribute to its remedial, and opens up her fabulous California residence for an exclusive photo session.
By: Doris Sangeorzan
Photo: Gabriela Oltean & Eric Soboleski
Styling: Gabriela Oltean & Doris Sangeorzan
Make-up: Barbara Lamelza
I remember calling my mother from a pay phone, collect, and screaming on the phone and saying “I did it, I did it, I did it!” And my mother asked, “What did you do?” And I told her “I’m on the cover of Vogue Magazine! That was huge!
We did a lot of nice editorials in the US, but the ELLE France always did something with a little twist, so it was just a very popular magazine. It was shot there, in France, by Patrick Demarchelier, who’s French, and the picture was really pretty.
I really think I want to respond to the systemic racism in the fashion, beauty and media industries, but I don’t just want to list off a number of complaints. There’s got to be something that one can do.
After she made history as the first African-American woman to grace the cover of the American edition of Vogue magazine, in 1974, and, a year later, the cover of ELLE France, events that propelled her straight to the top of the profession and launched a career that led to *The New York Times naming her one of the 20th century’s most influential people in fashion, Beverly Johnson finds herself, once again, at the center of media attention, both because of her opinions on the omnipresence of racism in the fashion industry, and of the solutions she proposes, first and foremost by instituting a rule that bears her name.
THE BEVERLY JOHNSON RULE
In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman in the US, an event filmed and then televised all over the world, that triggered a wave of protests in which millions of people took part, under the slogan *Black Lives Matter, Beverly told me that she received numerous phone calls from white friends and acquaintances, curious to find out if racism is a real problem, and how it has impacted her career.
I connect with her via Zoom, I in New York, she in Rancho Mirage, a California community where Beverly lives with her fiancé. She looks natural and impeccable, is smiling, and comes across as very warm and open. She puts me at ease by making small talk regarding the situation in New York during the pandemic.
Although in her memoir, *The Face That Changed It All (2015), Beverly writes broadly about the inequities suffered due to racism, which she has faced, and of which she has been conscious her whole life, her public answer to the historic moment and to the global discussion on racism created by the crime against Floyd came in the context of the letter sent, in June 2020, by Anna Wintour, the legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue US, to Condé Nast employees. In the memo, Wintour wrote that she is aware that Black editors, writers, photographers and other categories of creative people have not been included or promoted enough, that the magazine published images and articles which have been hurtful to African-American people, and that she takes full responsibility for all those mistakes.
„She was basically admitting that she had kind of overlooked some people, and didn’t really realize the unconscious bias that she had. Which I admire her for doing.” Beverly tells me. „So, when news about that lettter came out, I felt compelled to address it. I turned to my fiancé Brian and I said: ‘You know, I really think I want to respond to the systemic racism in the fashion, beauty and media industries, but I don’t just want to list off a number of complaints. There’s got to be something that one can do.’ So he was thinking, and he said ‘well, you know, there was the Rooney Rule in football.’ Do you know what the Rooney Rule is?” I tell her I have no idea. „No, exactly. That’s what I said too. The Rooney rule was created by Dan Rooney, who was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was an American football team. And, of course, all the football team owners were white men, while the majority of the football players are black men. And he [Dan Rooney] said that was unfair, and that, at least when there was an opening for a coaching position, they should interview at least two black coaches. Twenty years later, there are black coaches, there are black people who work in the front office, there are black people who work in the back office, and the football industry, they still have their problems, but they became more diverse because this one white owner, Dan Rooney, proposed this to all of the other owners. Because those owners are the boards of directors, they make the decisions for the NFL. So he [her fiancé, Brian] said: ‘What if you could get the big companies, like Condé Nast [which publishes Vogue US], Hearst Corporation [which publishes ELLE US and Harper’s Bazaar US, among many other well-known publications and media brands famous all over the world] , to make a rule that they would interview at least two African-American people for any open position, but particularly for those positions open in the board of directors, in the C-suites, at the executive levels, all the way to make-up artists and hairdressers- they have to interview two black people. And I said ‘yes, that sounds great, we’re not telling them to hire someone, we’re just telling them to interview someone- as in, open yourself up, open your mind up.’ And Brian said, ‘you know, you should call it The Beverly Johnson Rule.’ And I responded, ‘wow, wait a minute, why do we have to call it The Beverly Johnson Rule?’ And my fiancé told me: ‘Well, you better claim it, or somebody else will.’ So I thought…’ok…’. You don’t know me…I’m an introvert, so I am not really the type of person that steps out there into the limelight, although my work is in the limelight,’” Beverly answers candidly.
Her answer came in June of last year, shortly after the content of the letter sent by Anna Wintour was revealed in different media sources. It was in an op-ed, which Beverly published in *The Washington Post. In the essay, she recounts that, when she appeared on the cover of Vogue US, in August 1974, Ruth Whitney, the then editor-in-chief of Glamour US, the first publication on whose cover Beverly appeared, told her that she had broken all barriers. But, Beverly continues in the same article, 47 years later, in a conversation about racism which has become global, stories and examples of discrimination abound, including at Vogue and within the company that publishes it. In the same editorial, Beverly proposed The Beverly Johnson Rule to the Condé Nast company, and invited the executive directors of other media trusts, and of fashion and beauty companies, to sign up the initiative.
“I took this big leap of faith to do that,” Beverly tells me, “and that’s how The Beverly Johnson Rule came about. And I presented it to Conde Nast, and I spoke with Anna Wintour, and we are in conversations. I am also in conversations with a new black woman whom they hired as the head of diversity at Condé Nast, so they were very receptive to this conversation, and it’s ongoing.”
BEVERLY PAVES THE WAY
In order to better understand the position and influence she holds today, I ask Beverly to tell me about some of the defining moments of her career. How was that month, August 1974, when her face was on the cover of Vogue US, sold at newsstands all over New York, where she was living at the time? “Oh, yes, I remember it like it was yesterday. I was a competitive swimmer in school and won a lot of medals and trophies and things like that, I had always been one of those girls who had to be the best at everything, but I must say that being on the cover of American Vogue was probably the most exciting moment, besides the birth of my baby girl Anansa, I have never been that excited in my life. Never. I was just genuinely excited.”
She tells me how, back then, models went to magazine photo shoots without knowing beforehand that those shoots could turn into cover images. This was also the case when Beverly got Vogue US cover. She recounts in detail how much she wanted to appear in Vogue, and how much she fought with her New York agents to at least give her a chance to appear in that publication. In her book, Beverly says that she left the famous Eileen Ford’s agency and signed with Wilhelmina agency, founded and run by a former model, because the latter promised her FFthat she would try to get her a Vogue cover.
The opportunity came in the form of a photo shoot for the inside of the magazine, during which Beverly was photographed by Francesco Scavullo, and the stylist was Frances Stein, the publication’s fashion director at the time, another legendary fashion figure, who died a few weeks ago.
A few months after that photo shoot, Wilhelmina herself called Beverly to tell her that she was on the cover. “I answered ‘Oh, yeah, really? The cover of what?’ And she said: ‘The cover of Vogue magazine!’ And I went ‘Really?’ and then I said ‘When? Where?’ And she said: ‘It’s on the newsstands!’ So, she waited until it was on the newsstands to make that call to me. It was early in the morning and, you know, in New York, there used to be a newsstand on every corner, and I remember running down there and looking at it and thinking it was pretty too, because that’s another thing, you never knew if the picture was going to be pretty or not-so-pretty, particularly back in those days, when people were just learning how to photograph black models. So, I remember calling my mother from a pay phone, collect, and screaming on the phone and saying, ‘I did it, I did it, I did it!’ And my mother asked, ‘What did you do?’ And I told her ‘I’m on the cover of Vogue magazine!’ That was huge! Huuuuge!
I was so excited that I remember going to sleep that night, and waking up an hour later, turning the lights on and looking at the Vogue cover and thinking, ‘Yep, I made it!’ and turning the lights back off, going back to sleep and I just kept turning the lights back on and making sure that it did really happen.”
I ask her to tell me about the experience of being the first black female model to also appear on the cover of ELLE France magazine, an event about which I have not found too many details in her book or in other media pieces about her.
“So, ELLE was my favorite magazine, right? And I think that, for a lot of people in the industry at that time, ELLE was the magazine,” Beverly tells me.
When I ask her why, she answers: “because it’s French, and they were very progressive in the way of their editorials. We did a lot of nice editorials [in the US], but they always did something with a little twist, so it was just a very popular magazine. When I did that cover I worked there, in France, with Patrick Demarchelier, who’s French…I mean, African-American people used to move to France to be liberated, to be able to do their art, like Josephine Baker, Grace Jones, they moved to Paris because skin color didn’t really make a big difference in Paris in those days, so that definitely didn’t cross my mind that I was the first black person on the cover of ELLE France, but people told me ‘No, actually you are, you are!’ And I didn’t even find that out that year, I found out years later. And ELLE was a very revered fashion magazine, even more so than Vogue Paris. Also, back then, in 1975, ELLE France was the only edition of ELLE, not even ELLE US existed at the time. So I imagine that, in France, ELLE magazine was very prominent, because it was very popular among young people.”
A LIFE IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY
I tell her that it’s not the first time I hear from African-American models that Paris was more progressive, and that in Europe, in general, magazines were more open to models who were not white. I also ask her about an experience that she describes in her memoir, about a beauty contest organized by the Ford agency in Italy, in which Beverly took place at the beginning of her career, because another prominent African-American model represented by the same agency, Naomi Sims, could not participate in it. Beverly was so appreciated by the Italians, that the local public wanted her to win, but the founder of the agency, Eileen Ford, had already decided that a black model could not win, so Beverly came in second place. “That was SO interesting…the contest was in Capri…This was in the 70s, during my first few months in NY, and I was there that summer, I was signed with Eileen Ford, and I was just hanging around the agency, I was always hanging around the agency, because I was fascinated with the whole modeling industry…,” Beverly recounts. “And I heard people in the agency talk about Naomi Sims, another black model, that they couldn’t find her, and she was supposed to go on a trip in Capri, where Eileen Ford organized this modeling competition every year. So, I was just hanging out in the agency office and kind of being like ‘Hey, I am here!’ And I think the prize was a work contract of $100,000 dollars. But they really had to get me to work to pay off that $100,000. Otherwise, they would have to give me the money without me having to work to make that money,” Beverly explains. “So I am just thinking and realizing that now…and maybe that’s why I got that big boost in money jobs, because, before, I always wanted to do editorial, the reason being that I thought it was better for your career if people saw you in magazines, that way they would recognize you on the street, so I would always say ‘yes’ to editorial work, and the agents/bookers would always get mad, because I wasn’t making money- the editorial work was paid $75/day, where I could be doing a job for $75/hour.”
Since she has brought money into our conversation, I ask her how she managed to get paid just as much as white models, after she found out that she was paid less, something she talks about in her book, as well as in her recent editorial from The Washington Post..
„Yes, there’s definitely a discrepancy. Viola Davis, the actress, talks about it, that it’s in every echelon of discrimination against women, against members of the LGBTQ community, against other minority people, against all of us who are ‘others’, that still exists. In terms of my career, I don’t remember exactly how I learnt about this, but there were all these modeling trips, and during those trips I would hear other models saying how they were going to the Hamptons, and how they had a house here, and a house there, and I was saying to myself, ‘Wow, they must be making a lot of money”. And they were friends, because I was the only black model on every shoot I went on, always, we are talking about 40 years of being the only one, and I would ask them ‘How much are you making for this?’ and the answer would be ‘Oh, we don’t talk about money.’ And then there would be another day, another shoot, and I would ask another model ‘How much are you making for this?’ And the model said: ‘Oh, I am making $3500 a day. Why? How much are you making?’ And I said, ‘I am making $1000 a day.’ And she said, ‘Wait a minute, I have been suntanning for two days, not even working, and you are working for so much less than I am making.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I will have to talk to the agency about it.’ And she said: ‘I’m going to have to talk to the agency about it too.’ So, when I made a phone call to the agency, she, my white colleague, got on the phone and she told them, ‘I don’t understand this, and it’s not fair’, so she rallied for me, and that really made the difference, because they heard her. And that has happened to me a number of times. I tell this to the young ladies, to not make a move when it could hurt you. You have to wait until you have leverage, and then you can talk about it. And it’s always better if you have more people on your team, because there is power in numbers. So, that’s how I did it. And then I became the leader, so we were getting $75/hour. And after a while, I got all the big models and I told them, ‘I think we should get $100/hour, because we have been making $75/hour for the last two years now.’ I was 18, 20 years old, I had no idea what I was talking about. But the big models joined me and, sure enough, we got $100/hour from Eileen Ford. So, I have always been kind of a leader like that.”
Beverly’s memoir ends with her departure from New York, and her relocation to Los Angeles, where she felt at the moment that she had more access to film roles and to other opportunities in the entertainment industry. She got her first role in 1979, in the *Ashanti movie, along Michael Caine and Omar Sharif. The same year, she launched a musical album. Back then, she was married to music producer Danny Sims, the father of her daughter, Anansa. Her move to Los Angeles was partially motivated by the divorce from her husband, as well as by the desire for new beginnings on all fronts. In Los Angeles, many other film and TV roles followed, plus a reality show called Beverly’s Full House, which was broadcast on Oprah Winfrey’s Network (OWN).
BEVERLY TODAY, BETWEEN INNOVATION AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Beverly Johnson continues her modeling career, and today, at 68 years old, she is a successful influencer, an ambassador for different brands, and she has her own company in Los Angeles. “I’m really in a very fortunate position where, first of all, I never lost interest in the business. My sister, when I was talking about retiring, I remember, you know, she has a Ph.D and is a therapist, and I would tell her, ‘When I am going to retire, I am going to be able to eat whatever I want to eat,’ and she answered, ‘Hmm, just because you retire, you don’t still want to look good after you retire? I don’t understand, you still want to take care of yourself, you still want to look good, whether you are modeling or not.’ And I thought, ‘Damn, she has a point.’
So, my vanity and my curiosity has never left me since I made the decision to go into this business, and I decided to reorient myself towards entrepreneurship.”
For example, during the pandemic, her fiancé suggested that she try the Hallstein water (https://www.hallsteinwater.com/), the purest in the world, which comes from the Austrian Alps, a brand for which she has become an ambassador. „During the pandemic, everyone put on a few pounds, and I am no exception. But it’s soon going to end, so we have to get ready. And what I usually do for my regime when I try to lose weight, I drink a gallon of water first thing in the morning. And it’s really hard to get down a gallon of water, first thing in the morning, and then you have to stay home for a couple of hours because you have to be near the bathroom, but that’s what you have to do when you go on a diet, because most of the time you are not hungry, you are thirsty, most of the time you are not tired, you are thirsty. So water plays a big role in keeping your body fit. And this water is so good, you enjoy drinking it. I ended up drinking 4 bottles of Hallstein water throughout the day, and it was a pleasure. And not only is the water a pleasure, but I see what it does to my body, and I understand because they have the science behind it: penetrating the cell, while all the other waters that they say are pure are not pure, they have some kind of chemical, some kind of treatment in every kind of water that you buy, besides is also being in a plastic bottle. So, this is my next project and goal- everybody buying Hallstein water. The other thing is that there’s not an unlimited source of this water- they can only do X amount of Hallstein water a year, because it comes from the Alps, down through the limestone, with all the process it goes through for 8 years to be able to bottle this water. It comes straight from the water source into this glass bottle.”
Another project of Beverly’s is connected to Thesis Couture. Through it, Dolly Singh, who has worked for SpaceX, the company founded by Elon Musk, tries to reimagine high heels, in order for them to be comfortable. When Singh worked for SpaceX, she was responsible for recruiting new personnel, and she had to walk for hours through a huge cement building, in high heels. One day, she went to an engineer, put a shoe on his desk, and asked him if he could understand why that shoe was causing her so much pain. The engineer disassembled the shoe and explained to Singh that she was in pain because, traditionally, the shoe supports itself on a thin metal and cardboard structure which, in reality, represents a very weak prop for the foot, because the entire weight of the woman supports itself on her feet, and that’s why it hurts. Singh asked the engineer if he could create a shoe that better sustains her foot, and he answered that he could definitely do that, so he recreated the stiletto.
Besides these projects, there is also her involvement in the beauty brand Retrouvé, created by Jami Heidegger, the heiress of the Kiehl’s brand, known for its concentrated formulas, and in Carole Shashona’s jewelry line. I had noticed Beverly’s gorgeous images for the beauty brand Retrouvé, and I ask her what it was like to work in the industry in the 70s and the 80s, in terms of collaborating with makeup artists and hairstylists:
“I don’t think that’s as big of a concern as it was then, when there were no black makeup artists, and very few black makeup lines, when we were still making our own stuff and teaching the hairdressers how to do our hair and we would tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid, it won’t bite you.’ [She laughs] Today, we don’t really have that problem. It’s so interesting how things have come along, where there are a number of black hairdressers and makeup artists, and there are a number of huge brands, like L’Oréal and Unilever, that are paying attention to demographics, include black people in their campaigns. And all the major magazines, they have black people on the outside, but we want to be a part of the industry, to be in decision-making positions. And it’s great that, on the outside, these brands and publications reflect diversity, the different people that we run into, of all races and nationalities. But now we want to be present and a part of where the money is being made, we want to be able to share in the economics of those industries, and that can only be done by a diverse board of directors. It’s the only way we can get a fair shot at the hiring process in those industries.” And that’s where The Beverly Johnson Rule could lead.