Model agents told her she’d never make it, hairdressers refused to touch her hair and Kodak didn’t even make film that could cope with her skin tone, but somehow 40 years ago Beverly Johnson became the first black woman on the cover of American Vogue.
“You mean there’s never been a woman of colour on the cover of Vogue magazine? Are you kidding me? We’re in the 1970s.”
When Beverly Johnson found out that she’d made the August 1974 cover of the fashion bible she was ecstatic – but also outraged to discover she was breaking a racial taboo for the first time.
At 21, she’d only been modelling for a couple of years and didn’t know that her goal – to be on Vogue’s front cover – would put her in the history books.
When the picture hit the newsstands – with Johnson, her hair swept back, wearing an unseasonably warm angora cardigan and Bulgari diamond loop earrings – she started getting calls from newspapers and magazines from all over the world.
“That’s when I knew it was a big deal, when people told me it was a big deal,” she says.
“I was interviewed by people from Africa and from Europe. They were saying, ‘It’s about time that America woke up!’ It was just life-changing.”
Johnson grew up in an all-white neighbourhood in Buffalo, upstate New York, largely unaware of the racial tensions elsewhere.
Her mother, an African American from Louisiana, and her father, a Native American, never spoke about race.
“We just learned that all people were good and alike and didn’t really know about those kind of biases that exist in the world,” she says.
Her first experience of racism came as a young girl when she and a friend rode their bicycles through a different neighbourhood on the border with Canada.
“They started calling us the N-word and throwing bottles at us. We were just stunned,” she remembers.
That was the early 1960s. A decade of protests by African Americans had led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 outlawing discrimination on grounds of race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.
Johnson’s family worried that Martin Luther King was “stirring up trouble”, but Johnson – who entered her teens in 1965 – remembers being mesmerised when she saw him on television herself.
She planned to become a lawyer and went to Northeastern University in Boston to study political science. While there, her friends persuaded her to take up modelling to pay for her studies.
She began to get freelance photo-shoots for Glamour, a magazine bought mainly by young white women, but she still found it difficult to get an agent.
“Everyone turned me down. The Eileen Ford model agency said I was too heavy. Then three days later, they called me back and said, ‘Oh you lost so much weight!’ but I hadn’t lost a pound.”
Johnson says this was her first lesson in how the modelling business works – “A lot of BS.”
Eileen Ford took her on after realising that she was getting lots of assignments for Glamour magazine, but warned her: “You’re never going to be on the cover of Vogue. You’re doing all this other work for Glamour and you should count your lucky stars.”
This did not put her off – she just dumped Eileen Ford.
SOURCE: Claire Bowes
BBC World Service