Beverly Johnson's 1974 Pose For 'Vogue' Redefined Beauty
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, Detroit's past may have been all about the car, but one fashion designer says its future is all about couture. Fashion in Detroit. A two-day fashion show kicks off tomorrow, and we get a preview.
But first, it's time for our Wisdom Watch. That's the part of the program where we talk to people who've made a difference through their work, people who have wisdom to share.
Today: her face made history. When Beverly Johnson appeared on the cover of Vogue back in 1974, she was the first African-American woman to land that cover. She became one of the most recognizable African-Americans in the world.
Now, Beverly Johnson is a businesswoman, an author, host of her own reality TV show, and a mom. We called Beverly Johnson to get her thoughts on her historic moment and the state of the industry for black models today. She is back in Vogue, this month, for an article recognizing her achievement. Beverly welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Ms. BEVERLY JOHNSON (Former Supermodel): Oh, thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Why is Vogue the Big Kahuna? Why was that the big one?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, Vogue is the fashion Bible, and it's every model's dream to be on that cover. And once you've been on that cover, you have arrived as a fashion model.
MARTIN: And as I understand it, back then, you wouldn't - you know, covers now are kind of negotiated like, you know, diplomatic treaties, but as I understand it back then, you wouldn't know you had the cover until it was already shot -that they would take a bunch of pictures and then you would just find out.
Ms. JOHNSON: Absolutely. Today we have the celebrities/actresses on our covers. But before, you never knew whether you were going to be on the cover or not. The photograph was taken within the shoot, and you didn't know until it was actually on the news stand.
MARTIN: Did you campaign for the cover? Can you do that? I mean, can you put your hand up and say I really would like to do that?
Ms. JOHNSON: No, you can't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JOHNSON: But it was something I wanted to do, and it was something that I had discussed with an agent at that time who said it was impossible, and then I went to another agency, and it was with the great, late Wilhelmina of the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency that went to bat for me to get me that cover.
And I remember the morning when Wilhelmina called me and told me that I got it, you know, and I said got what? She said: You're on the cover, the cover of Vogue. I mean, it was - I mean, it most certainly was a thrilling - I get excited right now - a thrilling highlight of my life.
MARTIN: Well, what did you do? Did you run out and get one? What did you do?
Ms. JOHNSON: First of all, I put the phone down, and I threw my jeans on, and I ran down to the corner news stand, you know, and there it was, the banner of covers. And you know, everybody was waiting in line, you know, with their bagel and coffee, you know, getting the newspaper, and I'm like hurry up, hurry up, hurry. You know, I want to get the magazine.
And then I had the magazine in my hand. I asked the guy for the Vogue magazine. He gave it to me, and I was like - and it was a pretty picture, you know? You never know if it's going to be a pretty picture or not.
MARTIN: It is pretty. It is pretty. I'm looking at it. It's very pretty.
Ms. JOHNSON: And then, of course, I didn't bring my money, and he wasn't having it, you know, and I was like this is me. I'm showing everybody, and they're like yeah, right.
MARTIN: Really? Why? They didn't recognize you? Why, because you had no makeup on, or...?
Ms. JOHNSON: They just didn't believe it because, you know, models were, like a real big deal, I guess, back then. They were like yeah, if you were a model, you would be able to afford the magazine now, wouldn't you?
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: So you have to leave it? He wouldn't let you have it?
Ms. JOHNSON: I had to leave it, and I had to run all the way back to my apartment, and I got the money. I ran all the way back, and I remember calling my mother collect on the pay phone - this is how long ago this was, okay - and sharing the news with my mom. And actually my mom's here for this interview, right now, visiting me from Florida. And we just screamed and cried, and it was just really great.
MARTIN: Oh, that's great. Well, hi, mom. Tell her I said hi. Thank you for joining us. How did it change your life?
Ms. JOHNSON: What happened with that cover was, when I realized that I was the first African-American to be on the cover, and all these interviews from right around the world came in, it became such a big deal, and it was very exciting. I'll tell you what what was very challenging for me was that I really finally came to realize that I really needed to know about my heritage, you know, where I came from and where I was going as far as a black woman in America. And I realized that this was a huge responsibility that was placed on my shoulders as a way of really breaking the color barrier in the fashion industry.
MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you, I know it was a big deal to you professionally, but did you think at the time it would be a big deal, the big deal that it was culturally?
Ms. JOHNSON: No. Absolutely not. I don't know if I knew there was a - there had never been a black woman on the cover, but I - when I did realize that I was the first, I kind of got angry. I was like, why is that? This is the '70s. We've done so much, you know, the Martin Luther King era in the '60s and why did it take so long? And my awareness became so intense in the way of really wanting to represent black women.
MARTIN: Any idea why they picked you?
Ms. JOHNSON: Have no idea. I received a letter from Ruth Whitney, who was the editor-in-chief at Glamour magazine and she wrote me - and I had been on the cover of Glamour magazine many times. But she had wrote me this letter saying that they didn't know - they used to send out questionnaires. Normally if they tried to put in a black model or woman, they would get these hate mails from the South - particularly from the South, and it was the first time where the women on the questionnaires would actually say they would want to be me. And it's something that, gee, I don't know why. You know, she was asking me. I said, I don't know, I didn't do anything but smile and the photographer did the rest. But it's just one of those things that, you know, is unexplainable.
MARTIN: You know, and maybe it escaped your attention, but it probably didn't, that your cover was August...
Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.
MARTIN: ...which is the thinnest book of the year.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes.
MARTIN: Do you think that was intentional?
Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, of course. And you know what? Another thing is that after that August 1974 cover, they - Vogue magazine tripled in circulation.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah. Because now they not only had, you know, the white readership, now they had a whole other readership that joined in.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with model, author, reality show host Beverly Johnson. We're talking about her historic Vogue magazine cover in 1974. She was the first African-American woman to grace the cover of Vogue.
You just mentioned that some of these magazines would literally get hate mail when they had an African-American on the cover, like Glamour, the editor told you. Did you ever experience any of that while you were working, people not want to do your hair or not wanting to do your face, or not wanting to dress you or work with you? Did any of that ever happen while you were doing your job?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, there was definitely, you know, racism, you know, in that industry. There was a time when there weren't any black makeup artists or hairdressers. So to have these white hairstylists at the time try to do your hair was kind of comical because they didn't have a clue. And when I was working, my white peer would be getting more money for the same job that I was doing.
Ms. JOHNSON: Oh yeah.
MARTIN: How'd you figure that out?
Ms. JOHNSON: Well, she told me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JOHNSON: She told me what she was getting. And I, you know, really went into the agency and I really just, you know, at this particular time I had already had the Vogue cover and I could say certain things that I couldn't say when I was first starting out, and the favorite nation was instituted into the modeling world...
MARTIN: What does that mean?
Ms. JOHNSON: ...meaning that what she got paid I had to be paid the same thing.
MARTIN: What do you make of the status of black models in the industry now?
MARTIN: Well, right now it's a kind of sad story. It's a sad and an old story. But what I love seeing in the past was that we were finally seeing all these different types of, you know, women - color and, you know, models from Africa, Brazil, I mean just all over the world, and that was just really wonderful to see. And then to go back to the state where you would see fashion shows where there weren't any black models, it's a little disturbing. And you know, I do speak to the young models that are working today and they do have a problem with it, and I don't know what to say about that.
I know that Bethann Hardison and Iman and myself and there's a group of us we call the Black Girl Coalition, you know, we do press conferences and just making everybody out there in the industry aware of really what's going on. And besides that, it's almost like it was like a trend not to have black models in the show, and we were just trying to say that, you know, we're not a trend. You know, we're here to stay.
MARTIN: You also went on - oh, I wanted to ask you - about the whole body weight thing - speaking of which, in Europe they're talking about instituting some minimum standards for weight because at points people had become alarmed about how thin some of the models are becoming, to a degree that some people feel it's unhealthy. And I just - do you have an opinion about that? Is there anything you can do to promote a healthier look? And one of the - again, I'm looking at the picture from 1974 and you're thin, no doubt about it, but you don't look scary thin.
Ms. JOHNSON: Right. Right. No, it was after that I became scary thin. But, you know, it's part of the job. You know, you're a model and you're supposed to be thin. And what I realize now is that because of the media and because of the Internet and because we can know what's happening in the - on the other side of the world in an instant, that our images do have an impact particularly on young women. And so we do have to have some sense of responsibility to those women that are viewing us and trying to emulate us. But clothes look good on, you know, rail thin models and I don't see that going anywhere.
MARTIN: How was - your daughter was in the business for a while too.
Ms. JOHNSON: Yes. And that what's changed, which is so wonderful, is the plus size division, a young lady like my daughter, who has embraced her body and curves and is doing fabulously well as a plus size model. I think that that really goes to show that women are particularly conscious of having those very healthy body images. And that division is doing really well, I must say.
MARTIN: And you're completely objective about this because this is your daughter.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. JOHNSON: She's so wonderful.
MARTIN: She is. She is.
Ms. JOHNSON: I mean just for her to do that.
Ms. JOHNSON: I mean I don't know. I mean to be the daughter of a supermodel and she modeled for a while and she was, you know, rail thin and she said, you know, Ma, I just don't like it. First of all, I'm hungry, you know, and I just fainted, you know? So I'm going back to school because I'm not going to let anybody tell me how I should look ever again. And I said, wow. It took me 40 years old before I thought like she thought at 18, so I'm just really proud of her.
MARTIN: Well, a lot of people are very proud of you too.
Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you.
MARTIN: What, I know mentioned you've got a lot of irons in the fire. I think most recently many people will note that you've got this reality series called "She's Got the Look" and you're seeking out modeling talent over the age of 35 and...
Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.
MARTIN: ...what's that about? Tell me a little bit about it.
Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, that's really sensational. It's like "America's Next Top Model" but for women over the age of 35. And when I got word of that show, I said, hmm, that's a good idea. Who knew it was going to be big as it was? I mean we - I mean the women are just fantastic and they look great and they have all this experience. They were - maybe had the potential to model but they chose to raise a family or have a career other than modeling and it gives women a second chance to go into the business and become a model. That division of women over the age of 35 is also another niche division that is really doing very well.
MARTIN: Well, we always like to end these conversations by asking if you have some wisdom to share.
Ms. JOHNSON: Whoa. I've got so much wisdom to share. I would say that I always look at some of the contestants on the show of "She's Got the Look" - and there's some beautiful women that come through and we go right around the United States casting. And every once in a while - well, more than once in a while - you'll get those women that are just drop dead gorgeous, but they really don't have the ambition and really what it takes to make a supermodel.
So my word of wisdom for women out there that want to go into that profession would be to go for it if you really have the desire, because no one can give you desire. That's just something that you have to have.
MARTIN: Beverly Johnson is a model, author and reality show host. She joined us from our studios in Culver City, California. Beverly Johnson, thank you so much for speaking with us and congratulations again.
Ms. JOHNSON: Thank you. Thanks.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.