Supermodel and icon Beverly Johnson is now among those who’ve shared stories, during today’s climate of racial unrest, of experiencing racism in their respective walks of life. Johnson, the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue and who some consider the first Black supermodel.
As she celebrates the 50th anniversary of her iconic cover, she continues to open up about her experiences and the racism she endured as she did in a recent interview with “Page Six.” Johnson said, “As a model, there were different kinds of things that would happen to me because I was Black.”
She explained an incident she often discusses, which involves a pool being drained after she took a swim due to the color of her brown skin. While attending a party for famed modeling agent Eileen Ford’s 90th birthday in 2012, Johnson recalled, “All the models were there, and the very rich people, and one girl said to me, ‘Remember when they drained the pool?’ When you got in the pool at the so-and-so hotel?”
“So you get a lot of that. People draining pools,” she added. “It was racist.”
In a written essay for People, Johnson further explained what happened in the 1980s during the pool incident in detail.
“What you have to realize is that I was the only Black girl on every shoot,” Johnson wrote in the July 2000 article. “Once in the 1970s, we were at a five-star hotel. I got into the pool. And all of a sudden, the editor came out and made everybody get out. They drained the pool. Twenty years later, one of the models told me it was because of me. But I had blocked it out. In order to survive, I would make myself not react. Like Teflon.”
Her words come at a time when industries in the United States and other parts of the world have been forced to re-examine their past treatment of Black people. It all follows the death of George Floyd at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer on May 25, as well as the deaths of others to include Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Southwest Georgia.
#OTD 1974, Beverly Johnson overcame prejudice & #racism, made fashion history when she became 1st #AfricanAmerican model to appear on the cover of @VogueMagazine. #SaturdayMorning #history https://t.co/vO8N1ZLYrl pic.twitter.com/oJ2KfFlxtg— Jerry Mitchell (@JMitchellNews) August 1, 2020
For Johnson, the pool incident was far from the first time she was on the receiving end of racism. She first experienced it at age 12 or 13, she said, when riding her bike in a white neighborhood where people threw soda bottles at her.
Johnson, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, wrote about other ways that she was discriminated against as a model. She said there were no cosmetic campaigns for Black models in her day, and after asking the founder of a “well-known” cosmetics company if she could be in their campaign she was told that their brand was for “white and blonde.”
Johnson also addressed what many Black women in entertainment and modeling have revealed in the past: That there weren’t any Black makeup artists or hairstylists to take care of her at work. So just like those other Black women did, Johnson had to do her own beauty preparation because the people hired had no idea how to properly work on her.
Today, Johnson is 67 and has four grandchildren. Last week, she announced on Instagram that she’s engaged to financier Brian Maillian. The two currently live together in Rancho Mirage, California.
But growing older, nor having a successful relationship has kept Johnson from experiencing racism in recent months, which she also detailed in her article.
“I was stopped by police in West Hollywood for two hours a few months ago,” wrote Johnson. “I was in my white Mercedes-Benz. They asked me whose car I was driving. They said they stopped me because I was texting in the car. I had stopped at the light to text my daughter to tell her I was on my way home. I was terrified.”
Johnson’s People article makes for the second time that she’s written about racism in recent months.
She penned an op-ed piece on racism for the Washington Post in June, after Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour apologized in an internal email for not doing enough to highlight Black voices at the publication. Wintour also said that she was sorry for approving articles and photos in Vogue that have been “hurtful” or intolerant.”
In her People article, Johnson wrote about the various fashion brands that are championing Black Lives Matter; she expressed that she wants to see if their actions will match the support they’ve given.
“We’re in a business that is supposed to be beautiful, but underneath there is an ugly systematic racism where the industry takes Black culture and trends for their own, pirating our culture, without giving anything back,” wrote Johnson. “All these brands are saying Black Lives Matter, let me see how many Black lives matter. How many Black people have you employed?”