“Oooooh! This is going to be really good!” is what I thought as I prepared to interview Supermodel Beverly Johnson for Ladybrille Woman of the Month, October 2012. I have had the privilege of interviewing numerous personalities in the fashion and entertainment industries but very few of the interview,s over the years, made me as excited as I was to interview Ms. Johnson. Indeed, I discussed my upcoming interview with a few close friends and relatives and solicited input on questions they would ask. One question that really struck me was from a relative who said, “ask her how she manages to stay so relevant even till today.”
The day finally arrived to interview Ms. Johnson. It was a phone interview. I dialed her number and the voice that greeted me was very warm, down to earth, and laid back. She was in the middle of a rather busy schedule with her numerous business projects. Nevertheless, she handled the interview with such ease, you knew that came from years of a woman adept at juggling many roles: fashion model, business woman, mother, actress, author, activist and the list goes on.
While today the world recognizes Supermodel Beverly Johnson (“Johnson”) as a fashion icon, Johnson never knew she would venture into fashion, much less achieve the kind of success she did including being dubbed the “Jackie Robinson” of modeling.
Born into a lower middle class home in Buffalo, New York, where her father was a steelworker and her mother a nurse, Johnson set her sight on being a lawyer. “My parents emphasized education and great work ethic,” she tells me in our exclusive interview. That work ethic would guide and continues to guide her in all of her achievements. Johnson, already a natural competitor and a champion swimmer who almost qualified for the 1968 Olympics in the 100-meter freestyle, was enrolled at North Eastern University, on a full scholarship, to study Criminal Justice as part of plan towards becoming a lawyer, until modeling came knocking.
“For (me), it was something that [I ]really had not planned on because I wanted to become a lawyer. I just knew this was something that was a chance in a lifetime and I took it,” explains the Fashion Icon to me in our exclusive interview.
Even by today standards, it is still a chance in a lifetime. Johnson seized the opportunity and soon after, in 1971, landed an assignment on the cover of Glamour Magazine. This was significant in and of itself. However, what really made history, globally, was when in 1974, she made the cover of American Vogue Magazine, the fashion bible. In so doing, she became the first African-American model to be dubbed a “Supermodel.” In addition, her presence on the cover of American Vogue forever changed the notions of the ideal standard of beauty within and outside the USA. It also opened doors for the likes of Supermodels Iman, Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, Tyra Banks and countless others.
“Did you understand the significance of your presence in the modeling industry at the time you entered the industry?” I ask. “When I decided that I wanted to go into modeling, I did it the way I do anything else. I did it competitively and the way I was raised, (that is) you could always realize your dreams so I did it with that mindset,” she responds.
Johnson also did it with that middle class values she was raised with i.e. the hard work ethics. “When I think back on those years, I think about the fact that I was going to do whatever I could do to rise to the top, to be the best that I could be. And that was very significant for me. I don’t ever remember taking a vacation or holiday, thanksgiving, all those holidays. I was busy shooting editorials for Glamour, Vogue,” she tells me in a voice that displays how resolved she was to claim a place for black models in the fashion industry.
“I was never home for those holidays and I think it took that kind of dedication to take me where I wanted to go. So when I look back on it, I look back at my work ethics and also those opportunities. [W]hen I found out that (my work) was also impacting people all around the world, all of that all came out of that work ethics.”
I ask whether she has seen a shift with the use of more models of color in the industry. “I get from models of color today that they are not afforded a lot of jobs like their other counterparts So I see the same story from when I was there,” she replies. Nevertheless, she points out that black models are making some strides on the international front and also mentions some of the global recognition black models are commanding, albeit not as much as we would like.
“I think we have to make our own way and not depend on others,” she says in a voice that has become more pensive with my questions.
She should know about making your way and not relying on others to do so, especially as a person of color. In the 1980s, Johnson noticed that many of her friends/professionals she worked with in the modeling industry were dying of AIDS. This propelled her to get involved and contribute her time and resources as an AIDS activist to educate the gay and black communities on the disease. She also noticed the sweatshop conditions that garments were made all in the name of fashion. Again, she got involved to lend her advocacy to this injustice.
“When you become informed on what people go through just for a tee shirt or an outfit, you just can’t stand by. The industry needed to address that issue in making sure garments that are made did not involve small children and the working conditions (were and)/are safe,” she informs me.
In the 1990s, Johnson authored two books “Beverly Johnson’s Guide to Health and Beauty” and “True Beauty: Secrets of Radiant Beauty for Women of Every Age and Color.” Johnson had struggled with health issues (fibroids) and felt the need to share and educate women through her experiences. “My own experience with fibroids and realizing that it is more prevalent in the African-American community, they don’t know why, (pushed me to share),” she says.
Not stopping with all she accomplished and very passionate about giving back to her community from a business angle, Johnson put her money where her mouth was and took charge of her brand name to help build a sustainable business that benefited the black community.
“I had been branding my name in the beauty industry for a while. I (was) loaning my name and likeness (but) was (surprised) that when black customers went to black beauty salons to purchase my hair, it was nowhere to be found except in the Korean stores,” says Johnson. “That was the Koreans making sure that the money stayed in the Korean community,” she adds.
Frustrated that those she wanted to access her hair products were unable to, she began to manufacture and distribute her hair products herself. “I had a great relationship with a hair company. I learnt so much about the hair industry and I wanted to and felt the time was right for me to go on my own and to be able to sell to black beauty supply stores,” she explains. “I wanted to bring the money back into the black beauty supply stores, into the black neighborhoods and help us grow our communities.”
She did exactly that. The Beverly Johnson Hair care products is now sold in black salons and beauty supply stores as well as select Target stores nationwide.
In 2011, already the first “Modelpreneur” with the launch of the Beverly Johnson Hair Collection, Johnson unveiled a new e-commerce site, www.beverlyjohnson.com, which features a luxurious line of hair care, bath and body and skin care products. In February of 2012, she introduced ‘Model Logic’ hair care line and the Beverly Johnson Drawstring Ponytails retailed at select TARGET stores nationwide. This summer with a focus to empower women while giving back to her community, she collaborated with Frederick’s of Hollywood to retail her luxurious lifestyle brand.
“It is a good relationship and I feel very good,” she tells me about the Frederick’s of Hollywood’s deal. “I have an amazing team of people that I have been very fortunate.”
Of course I had to come back to that question that struck me as a strong question to ask that I mentioned in my introduction. How has Johnson managed to stay relevant? She laughs. “I don’t know,” she replies. “Everything is by design and is authentic with me and is something I am trying to do while I am on this earth.”
We talk about living a purpose driven life and how, for her, spirituality is just as much a part of the equation as other aspects of her that has yielded so much success. I then ask her if she has plans to expand into Africa. She tells me she does but is focused on building on what she has here in the USA, first. “Right now we are just trying to build what we have now in the USA. Demand has quadrupled. As our company continues to grow, we will be looking at Ghana, Nigeria (and other countries in Africa).”
I have two final questions for her. “How do you stay grounded? How do you make sure you don’t let all of your success get to your head,” I inquire chuckling.
She pauses. She takes a deep breath. “Well, I have been out here since I was 17yrs old and I have had success at a very young age and so I kind of grew up in it. So I don’t let it affect my life or who I am,” she says.
I have enjoyed my time with her but know it is time to wrap things up so I can prepare to take the rich knowledge she has dispensed, in our interview, to the Ladybrille audience. I ask my final question, one I know many of our successful accomplished brilliant (Ladybrille) women want to know.
“For a woman this accomplished, beautiful and brilliant, what about relationships? How do you (balance it all) and also attract the right person, a healthy relationship into your life?” I ask as I release my final question to the iconic Supermodel.
“What I find out for myself was that I had a lot of success in my career and business life, but I wasn’t so successful in my personal life,” she explains in a reflective voice. “What I realized is that I needed to do more work on that. I think most people think that that kind of thing comes naturally to you. You have to put the focus and work on it. I put in the work and I have finally attracted the kind of person that I have always wanted. But, I had to be that myself, the kind of person that would attract that.”
It was really fun interviewing this dynamic and successful woman as our Ladybrille Woman of the Month for October 2012.
Please visit BeverlyJohnson.com for more information including where to purchase her hair products.
We wish Ms. Johnson continued success in all of her endeavors and thank her for the opportunity.
-Interview by Uduak Oduok
A running feature for 12 years on Ladybrille.com, The ‘Ladybrille Woman of the Month’ celebrates women in business and leadership, who empower themselves and others through their contributions and actions in their local and international communities. In 2014, the feature expanded to include a podcast show. If you would like to nominate a woman to be celebrated, please email [email protected].