When Supermodel Beverly Johnson Changed History

When Supermodel Beverly Johnson Changed History

Why you should care

Because looking good — good enough to be seen by millions — speaks volumes about what we value, and that value wields a great kind of power.

When we talk about models today, discussion mostly centers around three things: their BMI, how homogeneous-slash-Eurocentric their representation of beauty is and how they’ve been replaced by celebrities on magazine covers.

But there was a time when models both stimulated and reflected far-reaching social change, a period when they got out of bed for less than $10,000 a day and were darn happy doing it. One of the most notable? Beverly Johnson, the former high school swimmer from Buffalo, New York. She abandoned her studies at Boston’s Northeastern University (she hoped, she said, to become a lawyer), and like young women before her, headed for the bright lights of the big city.

The move catapulted her to quick success and international fame.

It was like being the Jackie Robinson of modeling.

 

Forty years ago this past August, Johnson became the first Black woman to land on the cover of American Vogue (back when that was an even bigger deal than it is today, but don’t tell Kimye).

The distinction opened the door for the first of many covers for Black models in the ’70s and ’80s; and for Johnson, it was the first of about 500 covers and counting. Johnson represented a new ideal of all-American beauty with her dark skin, open face, high cheek bones, full and sensual lips, and innocent yet womanly smile. Furthermore, her ascent was proof and encouragement that the work of the civil rights movement was making a difference even in the removed worlds of high fashion and media.

A Vogue cover girl often became an “it” girl — in demand in work and play — and 22-year-old Johnson took her Vogue ticket right to the party. Oh, the mid-’70s! It was an age of effervescent style. People danced the night away in slinky dresses and glamorous jumpsuits, disco balls whirred, celebrities flocked to Studio 54. Bell-bottom pants and platform shoes were in; hippie style infused with African, Indian and Rastafarian touches lived alongside the disco looks. An adorable band of brothers, called The Jackson 5, were a sensation and still had the same noses they were born with. Barriers were falling; The Flip Wilson Show was the second-most watched TV program nationwide.

BW of African American with glasses at podium with 2 mics

African-American educator and U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm gives the victory sign, circa 1968.

Source Pictorial Parade/Getty

But the frothiness was tinged with fierceness from the ’60s. It found expression in passionate Afrocentric pride and angry demonstrations demanding racial and sexual equality. Enigmatic Shirley Chisholm, for instance, was running for office, the first African-American to do so for a major party. And Angela Davis, once on the FBI’s most wanted list, had been cleared of all charges. It was a time of profound change.

Johnson’s cover, like so many other strides made for equality during the period, may never have happened without Americans’ nationwide civil activism.

Johnson was working regularly — she would become one of the era’s highest-paid models — when she was called to a shoot with photographer Francesco Scavullo for Vogue’s pages. The magazine itself was undergoing enormous shifts fueled in part by women’s mass move into the workplace — and a need for clothes that reflected this. The queen-like, eccentric Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief, had been replaced by Grace Mirabella, a humble woman who seemed to embrace the social democratization afoot and talked of taking the train home to New Jersey after a long day at work.

Yet the 5-foot-9-inch Johnson had no idea she would be on the cover. In those days, shoots or “sittings” were ordered, and a model rarely knew if it might make a cover — heck, often the editors didn’t know themselves until they saw the results. (Contrast that with today, where celebrities won’t show up if they aren’t guaranteed a cover.)

But when pragmatic Mirabella, surely aware of the calls for inclusiveness and a need to modernize the esteemed Condé Nast title, made her choice of Johnson, she was obviously aware of some important precedents. Johnson had already graced sister publication Glamour’s cover at least twice. And three years before Johnson peered out from Vogue wearing a blue turtleneck and rust-colored scarf, model Darine Stern had appeared on Playboy in a beautiful Afro and not much else. In the ’60s, legendary Naomi Sims had gotten the cover of Life magazine, and an illustration of African-American model Donyale Luna (born Peggy Freeman) had appeared on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue’s archrival.

Which means Vogue was overdue for Johnson. It was, nonetheless, a bold stroke. Much like the recent controversial Kimye cover, it reflected the tenor of the times, but unlike that imagery, it was to be a cover that would have lasting significance. “It was,” Johnson recalled this week, “like being the Jackie Robinson of modeling.”

This OZY encore was originally published May 20, 2014.

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