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; Vogue

TR: Being a trailblazer often means there aren’t many people you can go to for advice. What advice did you wish you could have had along your journey as a fashion model and icon? What advice have you given others who have chosen your path?

BJ: There’s something to be said [for] being young and naive because I was very resilient, and for some odd reason all of the critiquing that happens to you in the modeling industry, a lot of people can’t take it, but for me, I was so focused that nothing stuck. There was something to be said about being young … I wouldn’t want it any other way because [my career has] been so good to me. By all means, it’s an amazing career.

[Modeling is] very lucrative. You travel all over the world. If it’s your dream and your desire, most certainly go for it. One thing I would advise is getting your education. It’s really imperative for young women to continue their education, get their B.A. or MBA, because you’ve got something no one can take away from you. There’s something about being in control of your own destiny that I find imperative. Having an education will do that for you.

TR: Often, when I see better representations of women of color in fashion magazines, the women are typically actresses and singers, established celebrities, not models. What do you think of that trend?

BJ: The whole industry is changing. It’s going to digital now. Magazines might be a thing of the past in 10 years. The whole idea, the celebrity movement, you can’t do anything about a revolution but wait it out. You can’t stop it. The celebrity and the actress, this is their time for the magazine cover.

I know a number of designers, and they’re not happy with it because they can’t present their clothes the way they’d like to. An actress is not a model. But they have to join the revolution.

TR: Your daughter is a plus-size model. What do you think of the plus-size versus standard-size issue where certain design houses have little to no interest in creating clothing for a woman larger than a size 10? Just as whiteness is often equated with luxury, so is thinness. Yet there are a lot of women who aren’t size 0s who have money.

BJ: Actually, that’s really changing, and I think that when I was in the business—modeling in the business—there were designers who said they would never design for a plus-size girl: “She’s just going to have to lose weight to wear my clothes.” [But the average size for] American women is a size 12. Finally designers are realizing in the economic sense that it makes no sense to ignore that market. Calvin Klein, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren are all doing huge campaigns with plus-size models.

The plus-size division is the most lucrative division in modeling agencies. It has a long way to go, but I think that we are really on top of the images we put out there that are influencing the youth to live up to this waif image that they will never be able to attain.