Singer/songwriter Bob Dylan will go down in history as an American icon because he combined all the elements of powerful artistry into his music. One of the most skilled raconteurs of our lifetime, he wrote and performed The Times They Are a-Changing in 1964 in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and imminent threats of nuclear warfare. Our parents knew that the human race was a hair’s breadth away from blowing up the world in the 1960s. The lyrics of The Times They Are a-Changing include these words:
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
In partnership with the glass-ceiling-breaking team at IconicFocus Models NYC/LA – with whom the world’s most influential models are signed – I chased after the iconically famous Beverly Johnson for this October November 2020 issue like a submarine on a mission. It was a relentless quest to find the right person who could help all of us make sense of the unprecedented turmoil this year has carried. A submarine was my appropriate chasing machine because Beverly is an elite swimming athlete who participated in the Junior Olympics and in the AAU meets (Amateur Athletic Union). Her qualifying speed just missed the1968 USA tryouts for the USA Olympic swimming team, and her life went in another powerful direction. When a person is as gifted as she is, life presents choices, but it also throws injustices and obstructions her way.
Beverly was a disciplined, studious young girl growing up. Her father worked at a steel plant, and while the cost of living rose steeply, her father’s salary remained stagnant. With a set of excellent academic grades forming her firmly embedded foundation, she went off to university with her sights set on becoming a human rights lawyer.
“We were a law and order family,” Beverly recounts. “But as the cost of living rose, my parents became increasingly crunched for money. My mom would scrape together as many pennies as she could find just so that we could buy milk. It was also a time of turmoil and change. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated; then came the Kennedy assassinations. I had just missed the cut-off tryouts for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for the 100-yard freestyle when I was approached by Glamour Magazine to work as a model for $75 an hour. That was ten times more money than my dad was making. I analyzed my family’s financial circumstances and the cost of college education for my siblings – and there really wasn’t a choice. I had to take up Glamour’s offer. When I received my first $300 pay check, I was staggered at the amount.”
But it wasn’t plain sailing from there. Beverly was told she needed an agent, so she approached Ford Models in New York and was turned away – flatly. “You’re too fat,” they proclaimed. From there she tried Black Beauty Modeling Agency – but they considered her too light.
In 1974, despite the obstructions, she became the first woman of color to be on the cover of American Vogue Magazine. In 1975, she became the first black woman on the cover of French Elle Magazine. Beverly’s accomplishments spoke volumes – both within the context of the beauty and fashion industry – and the world at large. Covers are evocative, highly influential. They are published for perpetuity, and they represent the historical archives of a world at a particular crossroad in time.
“We were a law and order family. But as the cost of living rose, my parents became increasingly crunched for money. My mom would scrape together as many pennies as she could find just so that we could buy milk. It was also a time of turmoil and change.”
Beverly’s crossroad was not as glitzy as it appeared. Her race limited her to significantly lower compensation than her fellow white models. She also noted how slow the industry was to recognize her black sisters as model-worthy. But magazines represent society, and if society purchases their preferences, magazines become enslaved to the whims of their paying public. That preferential platform is inevitably multi-layered. White models attract white production teams. When Beverly went on to grace 500 magazine covers, she’d often ask if the magazine could include people of color in the production team – and she was promptly reprimanded for asking awkward questions.
“Slavery excluded us from the American dream,” she explains. “Even with its abolishment, racism remained in the fabric of our society, and those same conscious and unconscious racial biases exist today. Equality in American society has not happened – not because people are evil. They’re not. The majority of people are good – but because some people hold onto conscious and unconscious biases. I don’t know if wealthy people fear losing their wealth. If they do, I think it’s unfounded. Helping your fellow brothers and sisters out of cycles of poverty doesn’t mean you lose. When you lift people up around you, the whole economy functions more effectively, and everybody wins. Poverty will ultimately cripple an economy when it’s not addressed. This is an abundantly rich universe, and there are plenty of resources for everyone to receive. Creating judicious societies where there is equal opportunity for all means that everybody is incentivized to strive for and attain goals. That’s one way how humankind evolves.”
These words from Beverly impacted me particularly positively:
“We are in such a valuable, unique position right now. George Floyd was killed on camera – in a way that had never been seen before. It illustrated the danger that has beset the lives of African Americans for centuries. The explosion happened with the confluence of the Corona Virus and its economic destruction. When George Floyd said, ‘I can’t breathe’, he was calling out to his deceased mother, and the ‘I can’t breathe’ represented what black people are going through. It was a lights-on moment for a lot of whites. They started to really listen, and this meant that for the first time, we could forge forward and create meaningful change. We have to listen in order to understand. Listening and hearing another person’s point of view makes us better humans. We have a duty to ourselves as a human race to make tomorrow better than it was yesterday; to advocate for change that creates fairer platforms where dreams and goals can flourish.”
“I had just missed the cut-off tryouts for the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for the 100-yard freestyle when I was approached by Glamour Magazine to work as a model for $75 an hour. That was ten times more money than my dad was making.”
Thus, given Beverly’s perspective, she proposes the “Beverly Johnson Rule” (the “Rule”) for Condé Nast, similar to the Rooney Rule in the NFL that mandates diverse candidates must be interviewed for any open coaching and front office position. This Rule would require at least two black professionals to be meaningfully interviewed, specifically relevant for Board of Directorships, C-Suite Executives, Senior Executives, top editorial positions, and other professional roles. Beverly is also inviting CEOs of companies in the fashion, beauty, and media industries to join her by pledging to adopt this Rule.
RETROUVÉ is an exceptional skincare line in the USA, and its visionary CEO, Jami Heidegger, was the first large company to take the pledge.
“Beverly is such a sparkling, bold, brilliant gem,” Jami Heidegger said passionately. “Beyond being such a celebrated icon in modeling, fashion and beauty, she is a multi-talented powerhouse of a woman who has achieved so much. After becoming a history-making black model, she went on to smash the glass ceiling for all black models globally. Her activism has changed the world. She has stood up throughout her extensive career for justice and equality. She’s now adding her important initiative with The Beverly Johnson Rule that will effect lasting and systemic change in the highest echelons of corporate leadership. She is guiding us through profound cultural transformation, and I applaud and revere her leadership efforts. RETROUVÉ is proud and honored to be a part of that change.”
Beverly’s extensive career is multi-faceted because she’s channeled her gifts expeditiously. Her 2015 memoir, The Face That Changed It All, is a New York Times best seller, and it is currently in the production phase of an eight-episode mini series with Warner Bros. and Apple’s Streaming Network, Apple TV+.
“The ‘Me Too’ movement”, Beverly explains, “was the first tangible reckoning we had of people demanding significant change. It was a paradigm shift, and it was a defining moment in my life. Bill Cosby had drugged me decades ago, and when girls he had raped reported him, they weren’t believed. I knew that I had to speak up in 2014. I found my voice, and I committed to hold Bill Cosby accountable for sexual harassment and assault.”
“People used to say to me, ‘wait till you are a grandmother’. They were so right. I remember the great relationship I had with my maternal grandmother. She was so emotionally available to me.”
As Beverly and I chatted, what transpired was an appreciation of her authenticity; a reckoning of how grounded she is. Her family comes clearly first. Her only child, Anansa, is now a beautiful grown-up mother with four children of her own. Beverly lights up when she talks about her grandchildren. After doing the reality show, Beverly’s Full House on the Oprah Winfrey Network, she recounts how her relationship with her daughter grew after the show.
“People used to say to me, ‘wait till you are a grandmother’. They were so right. I remember the great relationship I had with my maternal grandmother. She was so emotionally available to me. Parenthood is tough because of the weight of responsibility, the physical and financial demands on one’s time and resources, and the sheer velocity of the role. There is no such thing as a perfect parent; the most stable parents aren’t perfect. Grandparenthood, in my opinion, is the reward for being a parent. We have more time to devote to our grandchildren in this very rewarding role.”
Beverly also prepares her grandchildren for life.
“When my grandkids come for sleep-overs, they have to make their own bed when they wake up in the morning. No excuses. That’s the pledge. I love having them here. One of my biggest accomplishments is teaching my 8-year-old, 7-year-old and 6-year-old grandkids how to swim. It is so deeply satisfying.”
What follows are a few humor-filled anecdotes of how Beverly’s family has helped her to maintain a sensible perspective on life. She tells this story:
“I’ll never forget when I was in New York working for Glamour Magazine. My siblings were quick to put me in my place with these words: ‘they chose you? Did you tell them that you have better-looking brothers and sisters at home?’”
“My family views me as mom and grandma, not some super model. My grandkids call me ‘Softa’ because they say I’m both soft and tough. They are quietly proud of my accomplishments, and occasionally, one of them will surprise me with that admission. I had taken my grandson to a doctor’s appointment recently, and he greeted the physician politely by saying, ‘Excuse me. I want to introduce you to Beverly Johnson, the super model’. I was floored!”
Beverly gives back to society generously. She is on the board of directors for the Barbara Sinatra Center for Abused Children, and her dedication is illustrated way beyond the boardroom. She resurrects the spirits of children who have been sexually, physically and emotionally abused – by teaching them a new language – self-esteem. Her classes are a vital component of the children’s healing. She is also the International Ambassador for The Global Down Syndrome Foundation. Her own sister had a child with Down Syndrome, and that experience gave Beverly first-hand information about the challenges that Down Syndrome children face.
“The ‘Beverly Johnson Rule’ would require at least two black professionals to be meaningfully interviewed, specifically relevant for Board of Directorships, C-Suite Executives, Senior Executives, top editorial positions, and other professional roles.”
There is limitless conversational territory with Beverly. She’s a close friend of musical recording giant, Clive Davis, whom she credits with being a visionary genius – capable of finding rare musical talent, and launching it for the world to appreciate. She goes on to enthuse about the role of art in society, saying,
“As I stepped away from academics to begin modeling, I recognized how crucial the fashion industry is in the art arena. The lens of an artist transgresses racial and cultural restrictions. Art has no boundaries and penetrates people’s souls – eliciting their humanity. That’s the beauty and power of it. There is so much that can be done through art. It unites the world and reminds us all of our human bonds. There is so much power in humanity, and spiritual power is limitlessly available to us, if we tap into it.”
Our conversation veers in so many interesting directions. We talk about Alicia Keys hosting the Grammy Awards on January 26, 2020, the day Kobe and Gianna Bryant were killed in a tragic helicopter accident. Alicia Keys’ words to a shocked audience were so remarkably penetrating because they were filled with so much love and compassion. “This is the house that Kobe built”, she said at the Staples Center event, and she lifted the grief-stricken audience and viewers all over the world in an unimaginably beautiful way. It illustrated how much the palliative power of one person’s humanity can change a hurting world.
We conclude our invigorating chat with these uplifting words from Beverly. “Let’s harness the power of this time. Let’s listen to each other speak, and really hear what the other person is saying. Most importantly, let’s open our hearts to each other in a way that will change our perceptions or prejudices. No one is trying to steal anything away from anybody. Let’s become better versions of ourselves.”
Beverly Johnson – the iconically famous Modelpreneur because she’s so effectively combined fashion modeling with entrepreneurship – is in a particularly special phase of her life. She’s surrounded by the love of a close family, and she’s engaged to be married to Financier, Brian Maillian, about whom she says, “Finding the love of my life at this point in my life has been amazing.” An especially beautiful component of Brian’s and Beverly’s union is that, having lost her own mom, Beverly considers Brian’s 90-year-old mom to be her mom.
Beverly doesn’t claim to be a political or social expert. But when you combine her intelligence, life experience, and observational skills, there’s a solid reckoning of a beautiful woman who has accrued a wealth of wisdom. Let’s commit to taking a Beverly Johnson type of pledge so that we can emerge from a challenging 2020 – wiser, more compassionate people. Love, understanding and empathy have enormous healing power.