THE MORE THINGS CHANGE: On the eve of the 40th anniversary of becoming the first African-American woman to land a Vogue cover, Beverly Johnson remembers it like it was yesterday. After Eileen Ford told her she would never get a Vogue cover, Johnson exited the agency on good terms to give Wilhelmina Models a try. Having posed for a Vogue beauty shoot, Johnson received a call from Wilhelmina Cooper telling her she was actually the August 1974 cover girl.
This story first appeared in the July 29, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I was in my first New York apartment on the East Side — mattress on the floor, candles. I threw on my jeans and ran to the newsstand. All these people were rushing to work trying to buy their papers so I had to wait. Of course, I didn’t have any money on me. I told the guy that it was me on the cover and he kind of rolled his eyes like, ‘Oh lady please, if you were on the cover you would have enough money to buy the magazine,’” she laughed. “I had to go to the phone booth — a phone booth? The girls [in my office] are looking at me like, ‘What’s that?’ — to call my mother collect in Buffalo. We were both screaming [with excitement], but I’m not sure my mother knew what I was talking about.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and Johnson said there aren’t as many African-American models, hair stylists and makeup artists working to the degree they once were and there is a lack of women of color on certain runways during fashion week. “Sometimes we live in this very elitist bubble called the fashion industry” and despite Fortune 500 companies having diversity programs “we have become really oblivious to what’s going on in the world,” Johnson said. “I like to think that is the reason.”
She, along with Bethann Hardison, Iman and Naomi Campbell, will be paying close attention to the number of models of color on the runways in New York this fall. In the meantime, she is working on a biography for Simon & Schuster, shopping around a docu-series, “Beverly Inc.,” selling her signature hair extensions online, branching out into handbags and mineral-based makeup and planning for her wedding next year to investment banker Brian Maillian. A 10 handicap golfer, Johnson was honored with the True Original Golf award at the Original Tee Golf Classic this weekend.