Beverly Johnson; August 1974 issue of American Vogue
beverlyjohnson.com; 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?

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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.

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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.

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.