Beverly Johnson on overcoming racism in Hollywood

Oct 24, 2014 at 5:21 p.m. ET
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On the 40th anniversary of supermodel Beverly Johnson's groundbreaking moment as the first African American to grace the cover of Vogue, the iconic beauty opens up to us about the impact of race in the industry then and now.

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In August of 1974, when Beverly Johnson appeared on the cover of Vogue, the fresh-faced model wasn't aware she was making history.

"Of course it's every model's dream to be on the cover of Vogue magazine," she said, "so basically it was just kind of reaching that pinnacle very early in my career that was a defining moment for me."

She didn't realize it was also a defining moment for the country until journalists began pointing out how impactful her appearance on the cover was.

"When I realized that I was the first woman of color on the cover, it just made that accomplishment that much more real. I realized at that moment — I was 21 or 22 years old — that this was going to be a huge responsibility, and that it was something that I was going to carry for the rest of my life," she said.

That realization, says the supermodel, propelled her to explore her heritage. "It put me on the journey of self-discovery... of who I am, what my African roots are, what this whole thing is about racism and discrimination."

Although Johnson had been exposed to racism at an early age, she was admittedly too young and naïve to truly understand the implications of those experiences at the time.

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"I lived a very sheltered life," she shared. "Of course, I'd been called the n-word riding my bicycle through the wrong neighborhood, but I really wasn't that aware of just the centuries of struggle that my ancestors had."

Still, Johnson asserts, it doesn't offend her when young stars like Raven-Symoné speak about eschewing the label African American, saying, "I think it's freedom of speech. I think it's her opinion of herself and who she wants to be."

Johnson also empathizes with Raven-Symoné in a way, as she knows firsthand how a seemingly simple statement with no agenda can be blown out of proportion.

"I just remember doing this radio show, and they immediately said, 'Well, how does it feel to be the top black model?' And I said, 'Excuse me, I'm really the top model in the nation!'" she said, laughing.

"You know, because I was on the cover of Glamour, Vogue, Italian Vogue. And after that, it was this big hoopla. So I understand how the things that you can say can be taken out of context and that she's merely speaking what she feels — that she wants to be labeled a human being," said Johnson.

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But with there still being such a disparity between African American talent in the spotlight in the '70s and '80s and now, how do we bridge the gap?

According to Johnson, we already are.

"You bridge it one interview at a time, one person at a time," she offered. "What's wonderful about today is that we're seeing and hearing these conversations about race, where only a few years ago it was taboo."

The path to progress, she believes, is paved with acceptance and honesty. "I think that we're a courageous nation," she said, "and we're looking at [racism] head on and going, 'No, this does exist. Now what are we going to do about it?'"