In August of 1974, Beverly Johnson was the first African-American to grace the cover of Vogue. While she became a massive star in the world of glossy magazines and high-profile parties, her personal life would collapse under the weight of addiction, loss, and the unrelenting standards of a cutthroat industry. As COURTNEY FORTUNE finds, Beverly would emerge as an icon, role model, and an author whose new book, The Face That Changed It All recently made it on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Beverly Johnson is a very busy woman. When I finally catch up with her I can hear the chaos of her everyday life blaring in the background. She’s running errands, wrangling her two dogs, and recovering from last night’s “Ladies That Lead” gala in West Los Angeles. She has also just returned from another book tour for her new memoir, The Face That Changed It All, which recently made the New York Times Best-Seller List.
Having grown up shy and bookish in her hometown of Buffalo, New York, becoming a supermodel and busting beauty standards wasn’t exactly on the radar for Johnson. Her natural style and dynamic presence would garner attention, and during a summer break from studying law at Northeastern University she got the opportunity to interview with Conde Nast editor Alex-ander Liberman. He booked her immediately, pulling her into the wild world of professional modeling—and from the moment she stepped in front of the camera she had one goal in mind: to make the cover of Vogue.
Her life became a flurry of high-profile shoots with fashion’s famous photographers, and appearances on the pages of Vogue, Glamour and Essence Magazine. Beverly was quickly becoming an ‘it’ girl, but strict standards of conventional beauty held her back from what she really wanted. Even her first agent, the notorious Eileen Ford, who once claimed Beverly (then 5’-9” and 125 pounds) was “too fat,” didn’t believe she could make the Vogue cover. That’s when she left to join Wilhelmina Models and would receive the infamous call that not only launched her into stardom, but made her an icon in the world of fashion and beauty.
In August 1974, before covers exclusively featured celebrity faces, it was the job of the models to sell the issue. Models never knew they had made the cover until it hit newsstands, which as grueling as that sounds, definitely made for a better story. So obvious or not, I had to ask, “What was it like to get that call?” She describes throwing on clothes and running full-tilt to the nearest kiosk, where she waited in line, and upon realizing she didn’t have enough change, was turned away. “I knew being on the cover of Vogue was where I needed to be in my career, but I wasn’t aware of the impact it would have,” she says. “I became an overnight role model, which was something I was not prepared for.”
A fresh-faced Beverly Johnson became the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of the landmark fashion magazine, an instant symbol of change and precedence for young black models everywhere. “It was a journey of my self-discovery about race. It was a gift.” In her book she describes how her cover could be found on the shelves of every grocery store and every newsstand—and she wanted the world to know that she wasn’t just a “top black model,” she was a top model.
Beverly was a rising star, transforming from girl to icon at lightning speed. There were endless nights of hard partying and star-studded events with friends like Jackie Kennedy, Halston and Andy Warhol, and stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Keith Richards. She traveled to exotic locations and walked the walk of the celebrity lifestyle. But with all that came the fabled pitfalls of fast fame. In her memoir, she calls out the industry as a “toxic mix of deceit, manipulation, abuse and backstabbing,” which her collection of experiences can attest to. She was thrust into a world of cutthroat competition, lawless wealth, partying, drug addiction and severe weight management. “I was emotionally stunted in a world that’s all about outside beauty. All of a sudden, as a young girl you have all this money, but you’re naïve, so you make outlandish choices. This life had its own set of rules.”
To starve herself to a desired 103 pounds, Beverly would drink black coffee and Champagne and began using cocaine. Drugs were everywhere, accessible and encouraged, and she soon became a full-blown addict. Then in 1983, she suffered a near overdose. She had hit her rock bottom—broke, out of work, and battling her ex-husband, Danny Sims, over the custody of their daughter, Anansa.
Her book chronicles these true-life experiences with attentive detail—though she’s careful not to preach. “I’m standing my ground in my truth,” she says. “I wanted to tell my story and create an experience for someone, rather than construct some kind of message. This is the real story about my life.” She eventually got help, got her daughter back, and gained new perspective on her life. She was also ready to talk about her secrets.
Beverly was in the news this year for revealing that she
was drugged by actor/comedian Bill Cosby in his home. At first the chapter describing her experience had been pulled from the book for legal liability, but as more and more women began to emerge, she was given the opportunity to speak out. “Women have been trying to tell their story,” she says. “But people just didn’t want to hear it.” This, she says, is why it was important to talk about it.
Beverly Johnson has now entered a new season of her career. She has launched a lifestyle brand, is on tour with her book, and has a possible mini-series in the works. But most important, she’s found happiness in her struggle and redemption—and in her many roles, which include top model, businesswoman, daughter, mother and grandma.
It wasn’t easy to relive the trials that defined the rise and fall (and rise again) of this pioneering supermodel, but she is now finding strength in her past. Beverly’s story will continue to ignite and inspire those who aim to defy expectations in the fashion world and beyond. “I’m smarter than I’ve ever been, stronger than I ever thought, and having the best time of my life.”
Art Director: Stephen Kamifuji
Photographer: Tracey Morris / TraceyMorris.com
Stylist: Santa Bevacqua / santabevacqua.foliodrop.com
Makeup Artist: Uzo for NARS Cosmetics / Tracey Mattingly
Hair Stylist: Johnny Stuntz / CrosbyCarterMgmt.com
Manicure: Allison Burns / CrosbyCarterMgmt.com
Assistant Stylist: Hazel Pepper
Makeup Assistant: Rebecca Abraham
Videographer: Darren Stone