INTERVIEW: Supermodel Beverly Johnson

Friday, February 21, 2014

Every year I look forward to what my favorite department store, Macy's, plans to do for Black History Month. This year they pulled out all the stops with their "Retrospect on African American Style" event featuring Supermodel Beverly Johnson and previous Essence Magazine editor Constance White.  I was fortunate enough to snag interviews with both of them before the event.  Sitting down with Beverly we first chatted about my hair (to receive a compliment from a supermodel on how I look totally made my day!):
 
Beverly Johnson (BJ): I love your hair
Shalanda Turner (ST): Thanks!! I actually wear wigs because I'm growing my hair out natural and this is my protective style.
 
BJ: Well, It's too fabulous
ST: Thanks! (Insert big cheesy grin here!)
 
ST: I'm sure you've been asked this a million times. But how did it feel to be the first African American model on the cover of Vogue soon thereafter the cover of French Elle?
BJ: It's most certainly one of the biggest highlights of my life besides the birth of my daughter. There's just something about being the first that no one can take away from you. No one can come along and say you weren't the first. You're first, it's done and over with. But besides the number, number 1, it's what that meant, and not only to myself as a model, because it's every model's dream to be on the cover of Vogue, but what it meant to women of color. Not only here in America, but around the world--to finally be accepted, acknowledged by mainstream America...by Madison Avenue. For them to say "Yeah, you guys are beautiful", and also to have my daughter and women that grew up with me have someone to look at and say "Wow, I am beautiful." I think it was really impactful.
 
ST: Yes, that has made you such a role model for so many people! Everybody can see that cover and say, "Yes! We can do that." There are so many, in Black History alone, that are firsts. The African Americans that led the way for so many. It's really just amazing the amount of people that have led the way for us, like yourself.  Not that I'll be a model for VOGUE anytime soon, but for those who aspire to do that or anything else they dream they want to do or be. That leads me to ask, how did you landing the cover of VOGUE come about?
BJ: Well, in those days, you never knew you were going to be on the cover until you were on the cover. I had been told that I would never get a VOGUE cover. I didn't really understand at that time because there's something great about being young and naive. When I received the call that I was on the cover of VOGUE Magazine (pauses) I can remember like it was yesterday. I mean really remember! My heart starts to beat faster when I think about it. Running down there and getting that magazine and just seeing that picture, the banner, because in those days they sold the magazines on the newstand. But something that cover did that is not acknowledged is tripled the circulation of VOGUE because now they had a readership that had been excluded for so many years.  I just really feel that I was just doing what I wanted to do and that was to be a model.  The cover came very early on in my career and that also came with a huge responsibility. That was my trigger to find out who I was as an African American in America...because I really didn't know. I was born in Buffalo, NY and lived a sheltered life and that put me on a journey to find out who I was, where I came from, where I was going, and what I would love to see the world look like.
 
ST: As an African American model in the 70s was it still hard to find modeling jobs even after landing those covers?
BJ: Yes. The climate is pretty much the same. That whole industry is in a bubble.  We create our own rules. As a model you would go on a go-see for someone to take a look at you and they'd just criticize you; "Oh, I don't like her hair or this and that" and talk about you in the 3rd person.  One example for being an African American model I experience was an art director had an outline of where the models were going to stand for this particular catalog photoshoot. They had have a red head drawn in, they had a blonde, and they had a brunette and they had a black spot, and they would show us the outline. I'd say "Oh I guess that means I'm standing here right?" They said "Yes, That's where you are." My reaction? Just sign my voucher and give me my check. I was so focused on where I wanted to go that I wouldn't let anything like that prevent me from reaching my goals, but there was a lot of that in the industry at that time.
 
ST: I applaud you! I don't know how I would have reacted in that situation if it was me! I also read that you had your own reality TV show, how was that? Being on TV?
BJ: Well it was really wonderful, it was constructive reality.  It was on the Oprah Winfrey network so you know it was constructive. It was about Mother/Daughter relationships and it was really fascinating. We had all these mothers, daughters and grandmothers tuning in and basically watching themselves. The generational divide. They were taking away different communicative tools and ways of speaking to one another. It was just really, really wonderful and I learned so much, not only about my daughter, but about myself, because I just thought I was perfect. It was a really great show. We have other shows that we're working on. I love wearing alot of different hats and I'm loving everything that I'm doing right now. I'm kind of having a rebirth. It's the 40th anniversary of the VOGUE cover...40 years ago...wow...I'm doing things now that I never thought I'd want to do, or that they took too much energy, or I don't have my MBA. I'm just exhiliarated by everything that's going on and exhiliarated with being afforded to be on this platform for Black History Month with Macy's and with Constance. It's very powerful and not only for the people who are listening but also for myself, it's reaffirming
 
ST: Well you look AMAZING just as gorgeous as ever.
BJ: Haha, thank Richie out there! (Richie was one of the Lancome makeup reps for the event)
 
ST: You've had such a diverse career and you just mentioned the many hats that you wear. You were a model, you've been on TV and now you have yourown businesses, which one hat have you enjoyed the most?
BJ: Well I've enjoyed all of them. It's interesting..whatever you do, you're starting at ground zero. I wish I could have rested on my laurels but you're always starting at the beginning...all the time and you're always reinventing yourself. I think it's the journey, it's the process that's really fun and so I've enjoyed every one. And I'm still a model, once a Supermodel you're always a model and also because I'm a model for my businesses and my products.
 
Oops, definitely! Always a supermodel! 
Thank you Beverly for taking the time to chat with me and share your story with my readers!
 

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