It’s been 40 years since fashion icon Beverly Johnson became the first African-American model to grace the cover of American Vogue, and while a lot has changed since then for black models in the business, she says it’s not nearly enough.
During a recent panel discussion for Fashion Week in New York City, Johnson said she told designers, “If you don’t have any models of color walking the runway, don’t invite me.” The original supermodel is not alone in speaking out on the issue. Many of the world’s most famous black models, including Iman and Naomi Campbell, have also criticized the fashion industry for the lack of color on the catwalk.
At 61 years old, Johnson has long since moved on from just being a model to becoming a minimogul. She has a wig and hair line, a cosmetics company and many other ventures, including a short-lived reality show, Beverly’s Full House, which appeared for one season on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Still, fashion remains her passion, and in honor of Black History Month, Johnson is touring the country with Macy’s to promote black style. She spoke with The Root while being honored at the Color of Beauty Awards.
The Root: Forty years ago, you were the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue—that was August 1974. Have we made 40 years of progress since then when it comes to black models?
Beverly Johnson: Of course there has been progress, and one of the things I see that I did not see 40 years ago is the diversity. We have models like Joan Smalls from the Bahamas, Alek Wek and Iman from Africa, this multicultural modeling community that we didn’t have back then. But one of the things that we’ve regressed at—and it’s very disturbing—is that there are no models of color on the runways with big designers. With women of color in the industry and people of color that buy their products, I feel it’s not very bright of them to discriminate in 2014. It’s disturbing.
BJ: I’ve spoken out and done interviews, including CNN. One of the things I’ve suggested is getting the actresses—white and black—that dominate these magazine covers on board. Ask them to speak out on our behalf. They are big liberals and humanitarians and could really put pressure on designers. Models have tried, but someone from the outside with a lot of leverage with designers would be able to say, “Wake up, snap out of it.”
TR: How did you turn your modeling career into cash?
BJ: The reason why I got into the industry was because of cash. I lost my summer job making $28 a week, and these girls from school said you could make $75 an hour modeling. I never grew up wanting to be a model and never even looked at a fashion magazine before, but it was because of the money that I thought, “Hey, I’ll give it a try.” One thing I did know is that you had to show up and stick around, because people have short memories.
I knew at the time a modeling career was five to six years, so I started preparing for that transition into whatever would be next for me. Author, show host, producer—I did a lot of things while modeling because I did not know what I was going to transition into. Then I decided I’m not leaving until they kick me out: It’s too much money—I’m going kicking and screaming.
I think the longevity that I had in my career really made me a staple. I also continue to toot my own horn, including being the first African American to grace the cover of Vogue.
TR: Many models turn to acting, singing or fashion, and while you dabbled in all of those things, in the end it was business that you excelled in. How does a woman survive running her own business, and what advice do you give?
BJ: Business is very difficult. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of licensing and been married to a lot of men in business. I actually met a man that builds businesses, and with my dream and his abilities, we have managed to really do the beauty business and the empire that I’ve always dreamt of.
This was a giant leap of faith for me to discontinue some very lucrative licensing deals with wig and hair-extension companies and to really step out there on my own. I know that a lot of women are in business for themselves today and they can relate to what I am saying—how very, very difficult it is.
One of the pieces of advice I can give is to constantly try to create value in your businesses. I consider myself or my business like a Christmas tree, and we keep adding ornaments. We added a PR company. We added an Indian strategic partner for the hair business. We continue to add ornaments to this Christmas tree.
It’s a very slow, arduous process, but it’s exhilarating, and it’s worth every minute of it. Also, surround yourself with people who know what you don’t. It’s never enough to have passion. You have to look at your business in its entirety, and if you don’t have different pieces of the puzzle, go out and find them in others.
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.