When most of us think of Beverly Johnson, the word "icon" likely comes to mind — and she knows it (so did Toni Childs).
"If you don't toot your own horn, nobody else will," she tells me over Zoom, as she tucks her signature jet black hair behind her ear.
With over 50 years in the industry, Johnson has more than earned the right to her icon status, plus tax. Still, throughout the course of her career, the goal was never to center herself in any of her historic accomplishments, but rather to break molds and create space for more Black women (and people) to thrive.
That's why as I spoke with the legendary model and businesswoman, one of my first questions was, "Can you take me back in 1974?" Specifically, the moment when she became the first Black woman to grace the cover of American Vogue. The second was to reflect on how much progress she thinks has genuinely been made since then.
"The cover for me was a total surprise, because I was kind of upset that there wasn't anyone else Black on that cover before," she shares. "But I knew what it meant — Vogue was the epitome of beauty. So it was a huge responsibility for a 20-something woman."
And it wasn't one she took lightly — nor did readers when it came to supporting her historic cover.
The issue sold out in no time, destroying the arbitrary idea that Blackness was somehow less beautiful and unmarketable, causing an industry-wide ripple effect. A push (albeit very slow, but a push nonetheless) towards embracing Black American models began shortly after the magazine hit newsstands. Glass ceilings were shattered as a result, and a new road of opportunity was being paved.
"I'm proud of it, and I'm happy that barrier has been broken," Johnson muses. But while she was a pioneer in her own right, the supermodel still makes it clear that it was women like Naomi Sims, who was the first African American model to cover Ladies' Home Journal in November 1968, who were the blueprint for her own career.
As for the progress that's been made from the '70s 'til now, Johnson's not exactly convinced that we are where we need to be in 2020.
"In 1974, we came out of the '60s. So as a young girl, I'm thinking, 'We have overcome,'" she reminisces. "Martin Luther King and all these great civil rights leaders have given their blood, sweat, and literally died for our opportunities to be able to vote and be equal citizens in every way. As a young person, you would think that, but it just wasn't so."
Fast forward to today, it's become quite apparent — especially over the summer — that the parallels between the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter are stark. And according to the businesswoman, so is the response (or lack thereof) from those in power.
"The representation in the pages of the magazines, or the cover of the magazines and the global diversity is wonderful," Johnson says. "But [Black people] aren't participating economically. In these huge industries, if you go into most of them, the board of directors are all white men. We all know that's where strategies and policies begin and they pass them down."
She gets more specific when it comes to fashion and beauty.
"We are so much in love with our hair and our bodies and fashion — it's culturally where we live, where we're from," the icon shares. "And we get it naturally, so we can't stop doing it. But we have to be paid for our contribution."
That's why it was so easy for Johnson to fall in love with Retrouvé, and become its first-ever brand ambassador, seeing as it was the first beauty brand to adopt the Beverly Johnson Rule, which requires companies in fashion, beauty, and media to interview at least two Black professionals for each job opening, starting with the board of directors, C-suites, and all other roles throughout the company.
Plus, of course it doesn't hurt that the brand makes some of Johnson's all-time favorite products, which is high praise coming from a supermodel who admits she's "obsessed" with skincare.
"There's just products everywhere," she laughs as she tells me about her bathroom vanity. "I buy everything — from the $400 a bottle [products] to stuff at CVS. I'm a very curious person."
Among her most beloved Retrouvé products are the Baume Ultime Body Oil, Dermal Defense Hand Cream, and Luminous Cleansing Elixir, all of which can be found in The Beverly Johnson Iconic Collection.
To shop: $260; retrouve.com
"The first product [from Retrouvé] I used was the Baume Ultime Body Oil," says Johnson. "After using so many products, sometimes you put things on and they just disappear, and you're like, 'Uh… ok. I guess this worked?' But this was this beautiful amber oil, this was different. I've always had very soft skin like my mom, but because I'm in a desert and playing golf and aging [laughs], it wasn't as soft as I like it. So I put it on, and it went on like honey. In a couple of minutes it was gone but I still had the shine and [my skin] was soft — but no residue, no sticky stuff."
When it comes to the other products in her Retrouvé collection, what originally got Johnson hooked was the avocado oil founder Jami Morse Heidegger infuses into the formulas; an ingredient the supermodel is all too familiar with.
"In the '70s, I had a skincare and hair specialist — because that's what they said you needed if you wanted to be a model, you had to have perfect skin and perfect hair — and he used to always take avocados and smash them up and do these masks and all sorts of hair things," she remembers. "I was like 18, and was like, 'Umm… ok? If you say that works.' But it was beautiful and I always had great hair [and skin]."
After speaking with Johnson for about half-an-hour about her historic career, her new beauty partnership, and all she's done during her 68 years on earth, I was surprised to hear that she was never keen on celebrating her Vogue cover, one of her biggest, accomplishments, until its 40th anniversary.
"I remember watching an episode of Jeopardy! and they asked, 'Who was the first Black woman on the cover of Vogue?' No one got the question right, and I was like, 'It's me!'" she remembers. "Then I was like, 'That's not right,' because this is really important. So I started to make an effort with every interview I did, with everything I talked about, to make that fact known."
Yet, diminishing our own milestones, no matter how big or small, is a feeling far too many Black women can relate to. And Johnson thinks it's past time to throw that sentiment directly into the garbage, right where it belongs.
"We have been conditioned to not speak up, not to talk about our value, and of course that whole thing about being the angry Black woman," she exclaims. "Everybody else, men, can express that anger and they call that strong, and for us they call that the 'angry Black woman.'"
But enough is enough, and the time for us to be coy about our greatness is over and done. Luckily, we have OGs like Johnson to help lead the charge as we walk into this new era.
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