Beverly Johnson is known as “the Jackie Robinson of modeling.” As the first African-American model on the cover of Vogue, she blazed a trail for all models of color. Since then, she has worked steadily as a film and TV actress and started a successful business. Now, she’s launching a line of hair products designed specifically for black women. She talked to TheGloss about why the modeling industry still lags behind in diversity, being the mom of a proud plus-size model, and what she thinks of the up-and-coming black models.
What made you decide to create your own line of hair products for women of color?
When I first started modeling, I was fortunate to have a mentor who was a hairdresser. He used to experiment on me with different products – he’d take an avocado and grind it up and put it on my head. I have been “in the kitchen,” so to speak. I’ve always wanted to have a line of haircare of my own. [Black women] have a love affair with hair, and I do too. Bread, milk, butter, hair. Besides my wigs I am into the health of my hair. My hair took a beating while I was modeling: you have teasing and hairspray and hot rollers. I had a lot of damage to my hair, I am obsessed with being healthy.
Your daughter Anansa is a model as well. What advice did you give her?
She is now one of the top plus size models. She used to be a straight model, but she quit because she didn’t want people telling her how to look. She got an MBA, and now she’s a plus size model, showing real women. She’s done modeling for Curvaceous, Cookie Johnson’s [Magic Johnson’s wife] line of jeans, also Ashley Stuart. She works a lot. She was also involved in Plus Size Fashion Week.
She is the kind of woman who does things her way. I give her advice… she will send pictures from a shoot, and I might say “put on softer eyes.” She is very fashion forward – she gives advice to me. She was my guinea pig for my products. We worked closely together. She wears her hair natural, so she will give you testimony about my products. Everything is restorative, there’s nothing in them just for style’s sake that will ruin your hair – they all prevent breakage and damage. She tries all the products and is into conditioning. Because some women straighten and color their hair – I do – it is so important to do restoratives. The biggest sellers from my line are the conditioning pomade and anti-breakage serum, and I am really proud of that.
Anansa is modeling in a very different world from the one you worked in. What was it like for you, trying to break into the modeling industry in the ’70s?
That impact [being on the cover of Vogue] was tremendous. As I look back on it now, it was a big deal in the industry, but in America we had not been recognized as beautiful. I think each culture needs to represent its own kind of beauty. In the US, the acceptance of an African-American girl on a fashion magazine cover was our way of saying yes, we are beautiful and we are part of the mainstream. I made a decision to be respectful about having that pivotal moment. I hope I represent myself in a way that all the black models who came after me will open their doors too.
Speaking of young black models, are there any you particularly like? Do you have a favorite model who is working now?
I like Jessica White. I love her. My favorite model is Chanel Iman. I got to meet a lot of the girls when I was on an episode of Tyra. They’re concerned about contracts and stuff like that. Chanel reminds me of my daughter.
There has been some talk (including some here on this very site) about black models being competitive with each other, particularly Naomi Campbell. Have you ever witnessed competition like this firsthand?
Oh yes, tons of competition. I did mediating between Tyra and Naomi because it was so silly. So I am glad the young women are not doing that.
Though it’s been decades since your landmark Vogue cover, women of color still remain underrepresented in the modeling industry. Why do you think that is?
It is very disturbing. I think [fashion] is one of the only entertainment industries that have not ‘gotten’ that we live in a diverse world, where there needs to be diversity in representation. I get asked that question a lot. I think there is a bubble in the fashion industry. We operate in our own world, and we need to get out and look around. The world is too small to operate that way.
You’ve also done quite a bit of acting. Is that your new passion?
When I first started in the ’70s, I studied acting. I think it’s great, but it just got to be where I had to make a choice: business, or acting. Because I am in the beauty business and the fashion business, it keeps me around. I’m anxious to find out about trends, the latest colors, the latest hairstyles, the latest hair tools.By doing the haircare line and the hair extension line, I am right there in the bubble once again. I am looking forward to introducing more products.
I love that you’re so interested in golf – despite Tiger Woods, golf is seen as kind of an old white man’s game. How did you get interested in it?
When I was a little girl, I watched golf with my dad on TV. The quiet commentary… so relaxing. I was a competitive swimmer when I was young, so I’ve always been an athlete. I said, when I get big I am going to play golf. Ten years ago I started. Now I live on a golf course. I play every day. Lots of business is done there. You need to be there for a four hour round with the guys.
Now my daughter does it. It is a physical game, mental, emotional, spiritual, complete.