Beverly Johnson: 40 Years Later, Her Vogue Cover Is Still Groundbreaking

The fashion icon-turned-businesswoman talked to The Root about the fashion industry’s ongoing diversity problem and how to fix it.

Beverly Johnson; August 1974 issue of American Vogue
Beverly Johnson; August 1974 issue of American Vogue; Vogue

America may have a black president, black billionaires and Beyoncé gracing every magazine cover in 2014, but in the world of high fashion, runways are whiter than ever. Iconic supermodel Beverly Johnson, in an interview with The Root, says that the industry she broke barriers in is actually worse and less receptive today than during the post-civil-rights-movement, “black and proud” 1970s.

“There were more black designers and black models in the ’70s when I was working than today,” Johnson said. “That’s very disturbing. I don’t know the reason. Not that I don’t care, but to me it doesn’t make any difference. It’s not right.”

The industry legend is celebrating a milestone this month: It’s been 40 years since her groundbreaking appearance on the cover of American Vogue. Johnson was the first African-American woman to grace the cover of the fashion bible. Always a business-minded woman, Johnson is currently fronting hair-extension, makeup and handbag lines. She’s also writing a book about her life, set to be published in 2015. There is even some talk about a movie. (Johnson is somewhat partial to Joy Bryant as a young Beverly but is also open to the idea of a fresh-faced newcomer getting the top spot.)

The Root talked to Johnson about her achievement, her concerns about the lack of diversity in fashion and women of color today.

The Root: What do you think about the argument that the people at the top want to look at idealized versions of themselves, but those people at the top are also often white? How do women of color, especially black women, get around that when we’re often not the ones making the decisions about who walks the runway and gets the covers of magazines?

Beverly Johnson: See, that’s why we pass laws against discrimination, because you have to make people do the right thing. That’s why every Fortune 500 company has a diversity-and-inclusion branch.

People don’t get it. They, very innocently, don’t do what is best for the company and more likely hire someone like them that looks like them, which is understandable on the psychology but is not understandable in the way the world works—particularly since people of color, minority, are a big contributor to your business.

That’s why I really don’t go into the reason of it. There’s no rational reason to racism or discrimination or to people just not acting as good human beings. There’s no rational explanation for it. I’d rather go to the solution and stay in the solution.

TR: What is the solution?

BJ: The solution is some kind of mandate. When you don’t see women of color on the runway, we’re on the bottom of the totem pole as far as fashion goes. That injustice is a trickle-down effect, from advertisers to the designers to the stylist to the makeup artist to the fashion editors to the publishing companies. This comes from there. It becomes a platform that we all see. There’s no color throughout the whole industry.