Once a supermodel, always a supermodel. After an illustrious four-decade- long career in the fashion industry, supermodel Beverly Johnson will graciously check anyone who might misstate her title. And with a smile.
For the unknowing, Beverly Johnson is a trailblazer. She made history in 1974 as the first Black woman featured on the cover of American Vogue. She’s bestowed the fashion industry with her grace, elegance and charm, and with each and every magazine cover redefined the mainstream notion of beauty. Through her career, Johnson showed the world that women of color are worthy of supermodel status. And with nearly 500 magazine covers under her belt, she’s certainly entitled to check those who don’t comprehend what it means to be of legend.
But all that glitters isn’t gold. Johnson experienced several rough patches in her life, including struggles with addiction and eating disorders. With great resolve, she’s continued on her journey, realizing that every misstep was essential to her greater life experience. Released this month, The Face That Changed It All is an open account of her darker days and the reemerging light.
EBONY.com sat down with Beverly Johnson—a woman to whom creators of the term “giving face” may very well owe restitution—to discuss her new memoir, forgiving Bill Cosby and how she defines success.
EBONY: You’ve mentioned a bit of reluctance as to whether or not you would tell the story of your account with Bill Cosby in your memoir.
Beverly Johnson: Well, it was not reluctance. It was a very difficult decision. I had to tell my daughter who Bill Cosby—the man that we went to the taping with, went to his house and met his children—really was, and what he did. She was devastated. I said, “What would you think if I were to tell my story?” “Don’t do that, Mom. Please don’t do it,” [she said]. Everyone said, “Don’t do it.” I was still wrestling with it. Black lives matter; he’s the pillar of the Black community—although he did a lot of damage in it, too. I just prayed on it.
Then I had a mentor, a woman who is a billionaire and Black. I called her at two o’clock in the morning and told her what I was wrestling with. I’d already written the article. It was just a matter of telling them to [publish it]. She said, “You stand in your truth. You open your mouth and speak.” And that’s when I did it.
EBONY: That was definitely an act of courage and bravery. You’ve recently, on Good Morning America, forgiven Bill Cosby. What did it take for you to get to a place of forgiveness?
BJ: It’s really interesting that everyone’s picking up on that, because I forgave him a long time ago. I’m a person whose moral compass is not to harbor any grievances. And the only way that you can get rid of that is through forgiveness. And without forgiveness, you can’t move on. You have to forgive, otherwise you are stuck. So that happened a long time ago, but I think it was another layer that I needed to shed. And that was to reveal that story, to stand with those women and count my blessings. By the grace of God, I wasn’t raped, but I might not have been sitting with you right now if I had been. We all know how that traumatizes, and the damage that that does to a human being.
EBONY: So, you would say that telling your story was a part of the healing process?
BJ: I didn’t know it at the time. I realized, after I heard these stories that were very similar to mine, and I was lucky enough because of whatever those survival instincts that kicked in at that very moment, that I needed to [share my story]. To say, “thank you.”
EBONY: Thirty years after this horrible experience, you’ve decided to serve on the board of the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children. Why did you make this decision?
BJ: I had been playing in the Frank Sinatra Celebrity tournament, which is the big fundraiser for the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children. One time after the tournament, they said, “Why don’t you come down to the center?” I had started to live in the dessert, so I said, “I’ll come down.”
They showed me the rape clinic, where the police bring the children after they are raped. The youngest was six weeks old. I was shaking by the time that I left the center. I said, “If there’s something I can do, I’d like to do it.” And I teach a self-esteem class. I teach kids from seven years old to about 13. You know what I tell them? I tell them about my failures. I tell them about losing custody of my daughter. All of a sudden, they look me in the eye. Before they come in with their heads down; they don’t even make eye contact.
I tell them the funny stories of the models trying to knock me off of the runway. They are laughing and giggling. I get them. Then we do a fashion show. I get them walking and strutting, and we have fun. Not only is it a fashion show, but we also talk about who they are and what they wish for. I’ll ask an 11-year-old girl to give me one of three wishes, and she’ll say, “That my mother believes me.” Heartbreaking. I would imagine it’s stemmed from some of the altercations in my life with abuse. I always tell them that I get more out of this than they do.
EBONY: In your memoir, you discuss issues that are very common among models—bulimia, anorexia, etc. How do you suggest the industry reconcile between the models that are trying to maintain this perfect weight and the agents who will tell models at 125 pounds that they are too fat? Where is the balance?
BJ: I think that we are trying to put out the correct images now. In my day, nobody wanted to look like a skinny model. You don’t get the boyfriends being flat-chested and 103 pounds. What boy are you going to get? You’re a bone. Now, because of the world that we live in and the Internet, these images come out. [Kids] don’t want to just be inspired by you, they want to emulate you. They want to look like you. That’s dangerous.
Now, we’re aware of body image; we know how to stay thin [healthfully]. You can still be trim and eat well; exercise. We didn’t drink water because we thought that was fattening. We didn’t exercise because that’s muscle, that’s weight. We were fat and bone.
We didn’t know about drugs back then, but they were everywhere. It was an elitist drug, it wasn’t addictive, it was this, it was that. Now we know more. We didn’t know anything about cigarettes. Then there was no label—YOU’LL GET CANCER—on the packs of cigarettes. But we know better now. That was the era.
EBONY: You’re on the top of the world in the ’70s and you’ve just done your Vogue cover. How would you, at that point in your life, define success?
BJ: For me, that was success. Being on the cover of Vogue magazine was the Super Bowl in my industry. I am not a former model. I was a supermodel. It’s like the president: once a president, always the president. Once a supermodel, always a supermodel. And that was the lottery. That was what everyone strived for. So, I had arrived.
Then, when I found out I was the first woman of color on the cover, it was a whole new ball game. I was like, “What? This is a serious thing. And I don’t really know much about my history, where I came from and what this race thing is.” I grew up somewhat sheltered. That was another journey I went on: to find out who I am, where I came from, what’s this race thing about, and really become more conscious of how I can make a difference in the world.