Beverly Johnson’s relevance in 2023 is mighty. This lifelong frontier woman has courageously broken barriers and established new precedents – leading the way in so many vital, ground-breaking arenas. In 1974, she was the first woman of color on the cover of American Vogue. That event cemented her legacy in the history books. This former Honors student (with aspirations to become a lawyer), swimming champion, subsequent businesswoman, activist, philanthropist, and perennial Super Model has also mastered the art of adaptation – swimming off in different directions at critically-timed moments. Beverly Johnson’s life journey is about her successful metamorphosis.
In 2022, she was honored by the United Nations with a Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award – recognizing her extraordinarily powerful work in advocating for women in entrepreneurship. On that day, National Woman’s Entrepreneurial Day was declared as a legal holiday going forward. Also on that day, Beverly – together with Wendy Diamond (of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day Organization) and other awardees rang the bell on Wall Street.
The New York Times named her one of the 20th Century’s 100 Most Influential People in the Fashion Industry. The Global Down Syndrome Foundation presented her with the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award. The Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children presented Beverly with a Leadership Award. During the Clinton era, she was appointed the Ambassador of Goodwill to the Fashion Industry – a role that fought to eliminate sweatshops around the world – where basic human rights are violated. Beverly is also part of Model Alliance which recently got a Bill passed in congress for the people in New York who had been sexually assaulted – to be able to open a case without the timeline constraints of the statute of limitations. The list of Beverly’s achievements is substantial.
We begin our interview with Beverly painting the picture of a butterfly while describing the changing trajectories of her life. A butterfly begins its life journey as a young larva; then it becomes a pupa, and eventually it metamorphosizes into a beautiful adult butterfly. She explains.
“I’ve transitioned through so many stages. I find that when my life is constantly evolving, I look at where I am, what my map looks like, and where I would like to go. I like to chart my course.”
She elucidates further. “That constant state of change includes days when I am enormously daring and audacious, and oftentimes when I step out of my comfort zone into a daring phase, I make several enlightening discoveries. It takes boldness to venture into those unknown places, and it can be exhilarating – and most definitely interesting. Then there are other phases when I am in a very peaceful place – but also intuitive. I have my suspenseful days where I make an intentional effort to move past it to tangible tasks that take me to a better place. I love days that are filled with inspirational gatherings. Just as a butterfly transitions, I embrace the variations in phases.”
Beverly maintains an enormous enthusiasm for life. She tells me about the event she attended the night before our interview.
“Essence Magazine’s Black Women in Hollywood event last night was significant because it was also Essence Magazine’s 50th anniversary. The timing was meaningful because 2024 is going to be my 50th anniversary celebration of being on American Vogue. We grew up together. My first job was Vogue. My second was Glamour Magazine, and my third was Essence Magazine. Just like the life cycle of a butterfly, last night was a full-circle moment for me because they introduced a documentary series (that is due for release in the summer) about Essence’s journey, and at the end of the awards show – which included the presence of heavy-duty talent like Viola Davis – I got up on stage with the CEO of Essence, Caroline Wanga, and while I was standing there, the audience began to applaud, and before I knew it, they were giving me a standing ovation. I surveyed the audience – and what was so uplifting was that there were so many young people standing. I was so moved by that, and my daughter, Anansa, filmed the whole moment. My point here is that I imbibe so much more now than I would have done 10 or 30 years ago. I drink in these pivotal moments much more with a profound appreciation of the moment. It’s a recognition of the magnitude of these special experiences because it displays our profound multi-generational human connectedness.”
Beverly reveals something that few people know about her: she is a text-book introvert.
“Not many people know that I am a nerd,” she explains. “Despite the modeling and fashion industries putting me on stage and on display, by nature I prefer to be offstage. At a young age, I asked my mother why I didn’t have a lot of friends. Her advice to me was that I should smile a lot more. I did just as she said, and for the first time, everybody saw me smiling. I also made a point of surrounding myself with extroverted friends. My boyfriends were always extroverts, so they did all the heavy lifting for me. What I noticed is that they needed that extroverted platform to feel revitalized and energized, whereas I needed to recoil into my cave to charge my introverted battery.”
In 2022, Beverly was honored by the United Nations with a Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award – recognizing her extraordinarily powerful work in advocating for women in entrepreneurship. On that day, National Woman’s Entrepreneurial Day was declared as a legal holiday going forward.
“The psychology of people is fascinating. In my studies, I’ve learned that social extroverts live longer. If you look at the scientific studies of ‘The Blue Zones’ in the world – where people live the longest – the studies indicate that one of the factors behind longevity is social interconnectedness with communities. A few years ago, I consciously decided – because I love life so much – that I was going to move out of my cocoon and become an extrovert.”
Beverly committed to taking on a much more socially active life. She describes it.
“I am vastly more socially active now than I used to be. It’s a valuable component of longevity, and I am making every effort to evolve into a highly interactive person. On a day-to-day level, I reach out. For instance, when I’m at my daughter’s house, and I see one of her neighbors walking by on the pavement, I call out a cheerful ‘good morning’ to them. What I’ve come to learn is that a simple greeting like that – which comes with genuinely good intentions – elicits a warm response back – and before you know it, you now have a relationship with that person. I find that very fulfilling. If you take that small circle and take the same principle to a larger circle, you become an integral part of a community. That intentional desire to become active and invested in my community has become very important to my well-being and it has truly helped me. I constantly challenge my introverted-ness. I push myself out of my box and my comfort zone and that has resulted in important chains of connection.”
Beverly continues: “When you analyze it, being a fashion model doesn’t require you to be an extrovert (even though people think you are). The second you are off camera, you retreat into a an off-camera cocoon because there’s a team around you who do everything for you. They even carry your passport for you! You don’t have to do anything once the job is done.”
Beverly’s family is immensely important, and she glows when we venture onto her favorite topic. Her only daughter, Anansa Sims, constantly affirms that she has been a great mom to her. Anansa and her husband have six dynamic children whose affectionate name for Beverly is ‘Softa’ – and she relishes the time she spends with them. She’s so invested in them that she signs up for extensive grandma time!
“Right now,” she laughs, “I’m spending a full week taking care of my 6 grandchildren aged 4 – 13. That’s a handful with a ton of moving parts. Each one of them has a totally different personality, and they are strong personalities with lots of strong opinions. I have read everything there is to read about the dynamics of children and grandchildren. This generation has been raised very differently from my generation and I am finding spending time with them an energizing education.”
“Just yesterday,” Beverly explains, “it was my son-in-law, Matt Barnes’ birthday. He had a party and I loved being a part of all the energy and excitement. I love everything about life with my family and am embracing the journey. My intent is to be the emotionally available grandmother to my grandkids that my own grandmother was to me. There are intense moments and things don’t always go well, but that’s life. I say ‘yes’ to all the possibilities.”
We discuss Beverly’s stages of adaptation.
“In the last decade,” she explains, “I was so invested in playing golf that it really became my focus. I had always wanted to play golf since I was a little girl. My father and I would watch our black and white TV – fixated on the wonderful world of golf with commentators whispering during their narration so as not to disturb the players.” Beverly does a comedic enactment of the haloed scene. “I thought it was such a peaceful environment with its whispered voices, lush green lawns, and blue skies, and I promised myself that I would take up the sport one day.”
“On June 3rd, I have a one-woman show, sponsored by Kim Waltrip of the Palm Springs Women in Film, and it will be held at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. It’s called ‘Beverly Johnson Naked.’”
She continues, “At that stage, I was getting plenty of licensing checks in – so I wasn’t completely retired – but I was retired in the sense that I wasn’t shake rattling and rolling in the industry every day. That’s when Brian Maillian (who is now Beverly’s fiancée and the Vice Chairman of a technology company) challenged me and said, “What are you doing? Your golf is great, and you are down to a single digit handicap, but you have other talents. What are you doing with them?’ Here was this dynamic, extroverted man coming into my life and he set a fire underneath me”.
I ask Beverly about the moment when she decided that the sun didn’t need to rise and set on golf. She responds thoughtfully:
“I think I had been waiting for my Oprah ‘a-ha’ moment. I had been on Oprah’s show 12 times, the same number of times that John Travolta had been on it. He and I hold the 12-time record. I was looking for my purpose, but I think my definitive wakeup moment came when a good friend passed away before she reached the age of 60. Oprah’s words about finding your purpose kept drumming in my head during that period. I clearly remember saying to myself, ‘if you have big, audacious plans, you better get on with them. Time is running out. I decided to step out in faith.” That was the beginning of Beverly’s committed social activism.
We tie in that purposeful advent with her recent United Nations 2022 Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award.
“That award was definitely a defining moment in my life,” she says appreciatively, “and it all came from that moment when I decided that I had found my purpose. I recognized that the clock was ticking and LIVING with purpose – in all its aspects – was essential to my fulfilment. I began to say ‘yes’ to a lot of invitations and there were no more golfing excuses. I never thought of myself as a social activist, but in the last few years, a lot has happened in the world, and I decided to consolidate my recognizable face with a voice. Each time a crisis looms, I become as educated and informed on the topic as possible, and I share what is on my heart. This has moved me out of a one-dimensional mode, and that multi-dimensional stance has fulfilled me. Adding my voice has been fulfilling and rewarding.”
We discuss Beverly’s upcoming schedule. It’s vast.
“I’m doing a little bit of everything from business ventures to writing, and on June 3rd, I have a one-woman show, sponsored by Kim Waltrip of the Palm Springs Women in Film, and it will be held at the Palm Springs Cultural Center. It’s called ‘Beverly Johnson Naked’ – naked in a metaphorical sense, of course. I take audiences on a journey through my life, and I’m very excited about it. This all got started when I did a play with Joshua Ravetch back in the 90s. We co-wrote a one-woman show together and it was moving and funny. Once again, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, and it stretches me in a healthy way.”
We go into more depth on taking risks in life, and Beverly refers to her champion swimming days – when she was trying out for the Olympics.
“I think I learned a great deal from my swimming days,” she confirms. “In sport, you learn to face losses, and sometimes you lose far more than you win. When you are really living in life, you must take risks and step out in courage. Swimming is about being alone in the water. That’s the place where I was at home and at peace. Golf is similar. It’s like a church setting. All of these activities are about discipline, dedication, perseverance, bravery – and coming to terms with loss. You build resilience and learn how to move on from disappointments.”
Beverly dives through life with immense optimism. We analyze the premise of being optimistic, and it springboards from the understanding that most human beings are good. The bad apples in society are few.
“I’m so encouraged,” she says, “by the enormous strides we’ve made in the last few years. There have been critical changes towards greater human rights. There’s the strength of the 2017 #Me Too movement. Sexual predators are behind bars. (Bill Cosby sexually assaulted Beverly decades ago, and in 2014, she came forward to support Cosby’s other victims.) Lines have been drawn about what is appropriate behavior. There is now zero tolerance for sexual assault. That’s an incredible achievement. There have been huge strides made with the LGBT community. I hope to see women play greater roles in leadership and I’m looking forward to supporting Barbara Lee in congress. Diverse representation creates equality.”
“I love everything about life with my family and am embracing the journey. My intent is to be the emotionally available grandmother to my grandkids that my own grandmother was to me. There are intense moments and things don’t always go well, but that’s life. I say ‘yes’ to all the possibilities.”
Beverly has enjoyed an almost 40-year friendship with Clive Davis, a legend in the music industry. She describes him as ‘The Man with the Golden Ears’, and goes on to say, “I am always so thrilled that Clive invites me to just hang out with him – whether it’s at his Grammy party that he throws every year or somewhere else. Clive has massive empathy genes, and he does so much for charitable organizations, including MusiCares – which supports musicians in dire straits. Clive wants to see the best in people. Dionne Warwick, whom Clive Davis has worked with for decades, is exactly the same. She’s a supremely talented woman with a generous heart, and it’s been a privilege to have the opportunity to get to know her on a personal level. That’s when you really see the depth in the person.”
Dionne rallied top musicians throughout the world in support of AIDS at a time when stigmas and prejudices dominated. Her 1988 That’s What Friends are For concert was about Dionne standing on principle – reaching out a helping hand to all her brothers and sisters who were suffering. She said, “I don’t care if you are black, white, striped or indifferent. You are my brothers and sisters.”
We segue to the topic of beauty since many people want to know how Beverly has aged so incredibly well. I coax her into sharing her secrets.
“I like to use the words ‘pro aging’ rather than ‘anti aging’. It’s a more positive viewpoint. I think that beauty and pro aging is enhanced by being socially active. Philanthropic work keeps you in touch with the universe, and it keeps you interesting and interested. I’m proud to say that I’ve become a tech savvy girl who sits here on my ipad and gets out there – be it on social media or other platforms. I have a great sense of discovery with everything and that includes the world of beauty.”
“When it comes to skincare, I can’t say enough about the skincare line Retrouvé. I’m not on their payroll and I’m not an official representative of the company, so everything I say is from a personal experience perspective. I have tried so many products on the market, but I have to say that Retrouvé is always the gold standard when it comes to my skincare. Their product is highly researched, and the best up-to-date ingredients are used.”
“Having an excellent dermatologist is also very important. Dr. Wendy E. Roberts, the youth booster in Rancho Mirage, uses cutting edge technology and I’m a huge proponent of taking full advantage of all the new innovations from technological advancements. I want to live in the now! Botox and line fillers administered by the right professional are a game changer. There are so many options available to us that enhance a youthful appearance. The key is to start young so that you don’t end up playing catchup. Preventative treatment is better than addressing it too late.”
“Rose Morris, my Pilates instructor, has also changed my life for the better. As we age, we lose our balance and Pilates addresses that by strengthening our core. Two years ago, I was asked to walk the runway again at New York Fashion week, and I literally only had a few weeks to get my body into fighting fit form. Pilates creates long, lean muscles. I also explained to Rose that I was going to be wearing 7-inch heels at New York Fashion week. Walking in them requires incredible balance and solidity. Beyond the runway, I have two massive 65-pound Goldendoodles, Macbeth (who is black) and Macduff (who is white), and when they pull me along, it takes tremendous stamina. Strengthening my balance became a priority. Pilates also works the flexibility in my feet. Once we worked on my feet, calves, core, I saw my posture transforming. Most importantly, I learned how to walk with relative ease in 7-inch heels. So, between Retrouvé products and Dr Wendy Roberts, my skin is kept youthful, and Rose Morris is keeping my body strong. I have a great team around me.”
When it comes to eating, Beverly candidly admits that throughout her modeling career, she had an unhealthy relationship with food. It was an occupational hazard and food was the enemy. That changed recently when she met Anath Garber, and the two of them are working on a book about food. Beverly has two important gurus in her life. One is neuropsychologist, Dr. Joseph Mcclendon, who is an expert on the psychology of success in business. The other is Anath Garber, who is a psychologist and an expert on food disorders. Beverly explains: “My unhealthy relationship with food from my modeling days has all changed thanks to the techniques that I have mastered.”
“I like to use the words ‘pro aging’ rather than ‘anti aging’. It’s a more positive viewpoint. I think that beauty and pro aging is enhanced by being socially active. Philanthropic work keeps you in touch with the universe, and it keeps you interesting and interested.”
Beverly had just attended the Palm Springs Film Festival and she couldn’t say enough good things about Viola Davis’ movie The Woman King. “Another movie I loved,” she says, “is Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous – a beautiful love story about a handsome, homeless man who falls in love with a caregiver of the elderly. It was so moving and empowering.”
Beverly’s sister’s daughter, Natalie, has Down syndrome and Beverly devotes much of her time and efforts to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. Beverly explains how every November, her niece, Natalie, proudly talks about the ‘Be Beautiful Be Yourself’ Fashion Show in which all the children with Down syndrome participate.
Beverly continues, “The Down Syndrome Foundation is making such great strides in research. They now know that the 21rd chromosome defect, which causes Down Syndrome, has a correlation to Alzheimer’s Disease.”
Beverly’s philanthropic work is extensive:
She’s on the board of the Barbara Sinatra Foundation and explains: “We did an animated cartoon for small kids and older kids and in different languages. Teachers show it in their classrooms and through it, we are equipping children with the knowledge they need to avoid being victims of abuse.”
Another charity that Beverly is passionate about is The City of Hope’s Dine-In for Health Justice event, which supports marginalized people. “Black people are genetically predisposed to heart conditions, diabetes, childbirth deaths and Alzheimer’s”, Beverly stresses. “This is a powerful way to address those concerns.”
Beverly is quick to emphasize that there are so many ways that each one of us can spread compassion and empathy.
“There are so many small and significant ways that we can all make the world a better place. Being altruistic in your everyday life changes the world incrementally. Daily acts of kindness go a long way. Greeting people is uplifting. It might be the store clerk whom you make feel valuable by treating that person kindly and upholding their dignity. Americans are a nation that generously lend a hand to people who are struggling. It is as simple as walking by someone who could do with a smile. You become so fulfilled when you reach out. It makes you whole, healthy, happy.”
On the morning of going to press, I texted Beverly at 8:00 am to find out what her simple, most comforting morning pleasure was that day. Her response spoke volumes about the good place that she is in.
“I’m lying in our bed on a midnight blue silk pillowcase (wonderful for the health of one’s hair and face) next to my love, Brian. We are contentedly going through our individual text messages, and quietly discussing our Saturday errands that we have decided to do together.”
That domestic picture on a cold Saturday morning was rich in its appreciation of the value of love, connectedness, and the simple things that fill up our hearts. It was also a strong representation of the enriching home base that fills up Beverly’s tank so that she can use her powerful platform to spread empathy, compassion, and love wherever she goes. The butterfly has left the cocoon – and she’s FLYING.