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Beverly Johnson

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Black Models: 35+ Years Since Vogue

Posted: 02/29/2012 5:17 pm

Black History Month is always a time I celebrate my heritage and rejoice in discovering individuals whose contribution to our culture can never be overstated. When I hear my name on these Black History Month specials, even after 40 years, it still surprises me -- it still surprises me to see my name in history books, and my life and work chronicled and celebrated. It is an honor.

A lot of times making history, especially for African Americans, includes breaking barriers. I never set out to make history by becoming the first African American on the cover of Vogue, but I knew as a young black model there were going to be a lot of barriers I'd have to break not only to make it -- but to just be seen.

It was only when the August 1974 Vogue cover came out that I realized that there hadn't been a black model on the cover yet, that I was the first -- at that moment I realized I had made history. At that moment, a major responsibility was thrust upon my shoulders and I knew I was forever to be the guardian of that place in history. I dedicated myself to live a life of significance to honor it. I set out to achieve more -- to make sure that no model that came behind me had to struggle like I did, or be subjected to the rejection I had faced just because of the color of my skin.

That cover and its contribution is the cornerstone to my career, and I couldn't be more grateful. It enabled me to work with some of the most talented people in all parts of the industry and entertainment, meet some of the most captivating personalities of our time, and, most importantly, help change the perception of beauty in America. I am so proud of those who followed in my footsteps -- however, I'd like to see more.

There is a disparity in the modeling industry that bothers me when it comes to black and white. When I am at fashion shows, sitting in the front row, I notice how few models of color there are on the runway. Similarly, when I read through fashion magazines, there are few black models used in editorial spreads and ad campaigns. Getting an editorial spread is a massive moment for an emerging model; it's usually what brings her to the attention of the brands that provide the ever important contract that will put her face on products and in advertisements which will allow her to continue living her dream. I'd like to see more spreads featuring black models. I'd like to see more black contestants on model challenge shows. And, I'd like to see more black models in major campaigns.

I am blessed to be in a position to meet these young women who are just looking for a shot. Because these shots are fewer and farther apart, sadly, many drop out of the industry -- the odds are against every model, but when you're a young black model and you only see one black model in a magazine, or one in a show of 20 girls, or one in a group shot for a brand -- it's disheartening. Not to mention, the sacred ground for all models -- the cover. The cover has always been a hard get for any model, especially black models, and it's getting harder.

Models are talented and some even gifted in the way they present clothing designs and products to the world. That is what I did best and what they do best. I do think actresses are great and I truly admire their performances in movies and television but there is something to be said about a high fashion model wearing the designs of Alexander McQueen on a runway, or in photographs in a magazine -- it's almost like bearing witness to the manifestation of perfection.

As Black History month draws to a close, we should remember it is not only a month of reflection, but a time to re -address our priorities to find ways to further our contributions to society -- to see where we can improve our presence in order to help those who follow in our footsteps so they can break some barriers of their own.

 

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