Interview with Kam Williams
Beverly Johnson is the first African American supermodel, as well as an actress, author, activist, businesswoman and TV personality. She was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine, and her beautiful face has graced over 500 magazine covers.
Named one of the 20th Century’s most influential people in fashion by the New York Times, Johnson is also the mother of successful plus-size model, Anansa Sims Patterson. Her complex relationship with Anansa is explored in the new docu-series Beverly’s Full House which debuted on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) on March 31st.
Beverly has a niece with Downs Syndrome and is a spokesperson for the Global Downs Syndrome Foundation. The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. also has a portrait of her on display as part of its “The Black List” exhibition, featuring photographs of 50 iconic African Americans.
Recently, Johnson launched a new beauty line — Model Logic by Beverly Johnson — which includes hair care products and Beverly Johnson Ponytails. It is available at Target stores nationwide. For more information on her beauty line, of hair care, skin care, bath and body products, visit please visit www.beverlyjohnson.com.
An avid golfer, Beverly can be found unwinding on the golf course when not working on or off camera. She lives in Rancho Mirage, California with her two collies Flame and Hollywood. Here, she talks about all of the above, plus her recent performance as Brenda in Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds.
Kam Williams: Hi Beverly, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you. We’re the same age, so I’ve followed your entire career right from your meteoric rise.
Beverly Johnson: Thanks, Kam. Where did you grow up?
KW: St. Albans. Have you ever heard of it?
BJ: Are you kidding? I lived with my aunt in St. Albans when I first moved to New York City. Wow! We were neighbors! It’s sad that so many special communities like St. Albans and Baldwin Hills are really disappearing.
KW: Tell me a little about your new TV series, Beverly’s Full House.
BJ: I went up to Oprah and told her I had some shows I wanted to pitch to her. I had no idea she was going to like the reality series. It’s a constructive show about mother and daughter relationships. In addition, the cameras follow me around while I’m building my company. We’re not going to have any buffoonery. You’ve got the wrong family, if that’s what you’re looking for. Oprah has a certain integrity about herself and she knows what image she wants for her network. So, I felt very comfortable working with her. The show has lots of laughs and a few tears, and I do know that people will take a lot away from the show.
KW: When I interviewed Gabrielle Union about Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds recently, she told me how flattered she was to have you play her mother in the film.
BJ: I adore Gabrielle Union. She reminds me of my daughter so much. She’s smart… she’s articulate…she’s nice… she has a really sweet soul… she’s ambitious… I just adore her. I really do. And Tyler Perry is another person I admire. I’m not an actress, but if he calls, you go. Making that movie was a lot of fun.
KW: Tell me a little about your new beauty line, Model Logic.
BJ: I decided to take a leap of faith and go into business for myself. I’m scared to death! But this is the hair care line of my dreams, meaning it uses the formulas that I’ve been chasing for the last ten years. I might not make as much money, but there are no compromises on quality here.
KW: Even if you designed the dream hair care line, you still had to land a distribution deal to be able to reach everybody.
BJ: Yes, that’s where Target comes in. I still have my Korean beauty supply stores, as well as the retail outlets.
KW: Why go into business for yourself instead of just doing a licensing and royalties deal where you lend your name to a product line?
BJ: I decided it’s now or never. There’s so much more purpose behind my getting up in the morning. Business is hard, really hard, but it’s worth it. So, I’m very fortunate to have managed to develop this amazing team of people for this venture.
KW: I see that the Beverly Johnson Ponytails are made of a blend of natural and synthetic fibers.
BJ: Yes, they’ve made advances in synthetic fibers by leaps and bounds. What I use feels so real that you wouldn’t even be able to tell that it wasn’t human hair. You can wash it, and even curl it with a curling iron.
KW: Is it better, then, than 100 percent human hair?
BJ: That depends on what you want. Human hair takes much more attention, as far as holding the style. You have to comb it, straighten it out, and wash and dry it.
KW: What’s your target audience at Target?
BJ: The hair care line is a multicultural line. It’s for African Americans, of course, but it’s also for Latinos and many others because the country is such a melting pot now.
KW: Do you use more East Asian or East Indian human hair?
BJ: [Chuckles] You know something about the hair business, Kam. The majority of the human hair I’m using is from India.
KW: What goes into your cosmetics, extracts, emollients, etcetera?
BJ: They’re all top of the line and designed to fill a big hole in the multicultural community. Because of the nature of my background in modeling, I’m really used to using the best products around. And I just wanted to offer the same sort of high quality products to my customers. I think they deserve it.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: How do you manage to your high level of beauty as you mature?
BJ: I get that question a lot. Oprah did this show in which these scientists shared the secrets of the world’s oldest living people, people still functioning past 100 years-old. They found that they exercised everyday, they ate in proportion, that they had a social network of family and friends, and that they had some sort of faith. So, that’s what I’m doing now, very consciously. Instead of working out three times a week, I do something physical, like a one-hour walk everyday.
KW: Bernadette also asks: What is the difference in the modeling world today versus when you were starting out? Do you think it is easier for young women of color to get ahead today, or are the barriers to success still there despite role models such as yourself?
BJ: That’s a very good question. When I went to Fashion Week, I was very disappointed by how few women of color were in those shows. I do speak to the younger girls, and I hear them when they say they’re not getting the big contracts or into the big shows. So, to sum it up, it seems that whenever we take a couple of steps forward, we take a few more backwards.
KW: Children’s author Irene Smalls asks: When you graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, did you imagine your career taking you to such heights?
BJ: I never graduated from Northeastern, but I’ll tell you what the school’s co-op program did for me. My dean gave me permission to model during my work semester, even though I was in the Criminal Justice Department. I don’t know whether I’d ever have become a model if he hadn’t let me do that.
KW: Irene goes on to say: You are wearing many hats: model, actress and entrepreneur. Which one fits you best?
BJ: Business fits me best. The only reason I went into modeling originally was to help out my family, because I knew that money gave you freedom. I tried acting and all of the arts, I even put out a record album, but what I like the most is business, which is where I am now.
KW: Irene was also wondering whether your daughter is working with you on one or all of your many endeavors. I saw the two of you together in the documentary America the Beautiful: The Thin Commandments.
BJ: I never got a chance to see it.
KW: Have Darryl [director Darryl Roberts] send you a copy. It’s a great expose.
BJ: Good idea. I talk to him all the time. My daughter has fulfilled all of my dreams, because she has a BA and MBA in business. She’s both a financial analyst and a plus-size model. She has the best of both worlds because, in modeling, you have to have something to fall back on.
KW: Finally, Irene asks: What is your secret to succeeding for so long in the competitive world of fashion?
BJ: Ninety five percent of being a success is just showing up on time and being there. I don’t know how I knew that when I was younger. You have to stick around for people to remember you.
KW: Harriet Pakula Teweles asks: How much responsibility must fashion models and designers take for the body images they present—inspiring young girls the point of eating disorders?
BJ: There’s 100 percent responsibility for the images that go out, since we can know what happens at the opposite end of the world in three seconds. I most certainly think we are influencing the way women think about themselves.
KW: Harriet How can we begin presenting more realistic and wholesome images?
BJ: By promoting more plus-size models, like my daughter, who decided to embrace and celebrate who she was. She was a size 2 at one time, but she decided she didn’t want to be hungry anymore. I think that’s how you turn it around. Today, more and more designers are recognizing how lucrative that market is.
KW: Is it true that you were once romantically-linked to Chris Noth, the heartthrob who played the infamous Mr. Big on Sex and the City?
BJ: Oh, that was many years ago. I can’t think back that far. But yes, he was an old boyfriend and a great guy.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
BJ: Yes, do you have a website? I do, it’s www.BeverlyJohnson.com. It’s my first website, and I’m having a good time with it.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
BJ: Yes, for a moment. But I try not to stay there, because if you’re afraid, you’re not in faith.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
BJ: [Giggles] This morning.
KW: What is your guiltiest pleasure?
KW: The Kerry Washington question: If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
BJ: A beautiful collie, like my pet Flame.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
BJ: I read a lot, especially now that I have a Kindle. I just read the biography of Steve Jobs.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
BJ: Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
BJ: I don’t like to cook, but I like to eat popcorn with butter and salt.
KW: The Uduak Oduok question: Who is your favorite clothes designer?
BJ: I love Tracy Reese, Nicole Miller and Gucci, but I think my favorite is Tom Ford.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
BJ: I see little, 7 year-old Beverly.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
BJ: Sitting on the front porch of my home in Buffalo in the summer with my mom, my dad, and my brothers and sisters when I was 5.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
BJ: That my mom and family remain healthy and happy.
KW: The Judyth Piazza question: What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
KW: Dante Lee, author of “Black Business Secrets,” asks: What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
BJ: My best business decision was going into business for myself and owning the box my pretty face was on instead of just being the pretty face on the box. And my worst was letting other people run my business.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks: What is your favorite charity?
BJ: The Global Downs Syndrome Foundation.
KW: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
BJ: It taught me that you can rise from the ashes and get over anything.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
BJ: Come on! It was great for me. Just have a Plan B and a Plan C ready.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
BJ: I want to have schools and libraries and other institutions named after me. I tell my daughter that all the time.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Beverly, and best of luck with both the TV show and with your new line of hair care products.
BJ: Well, thank you very much, Kam.