The first Black woman to be on the cover of Vogue and a look at racism in the fashion industry today
In 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue. It took eight decades for the publication to put a Black woman on the cover, an event that was supposed to spark immense change in the fashion industry. However, over four decades later, racism in the fashion and beauty industry is still very much alive.
On June 16th, 2020 in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, Johnson published an op-ed to the Washington Post titled, “I was the first black model on the cover of Vogue. The fashion industry still isn’t fixing its racism,” in which she speaks of her experience and the flaws she has observed from her time in the industry.
Second only to the birth of her daughter, Johnson says that her Vogue cover was the most thrilling event of her life. Back then, models didn’t know if they made the cover until it hit the stands. Johnson said, “People were lining up to buy their morning paper, and I got in line. When I got to the cashier with the magazine in my hand, I realized I had left my money at home. ‘This is me, this is me!’, I exclaimed. The cashier gave me a New York look. ‘Pay up, sweetheart.’ I promised I'd return with the money. ‘Honey,’ he said, ‘if that was really you, you'd be able to afford the magazine.’ I had to put it back."
At the time, photographers were even less equipped in photographing Black models. Although Johnson says her photographer, Francesco Scavullo, “...and his team—the makeup artist Way Bandy and the hairdresser Suga—got me: my skin color, the texture, the tone, how to light me.”
There has only been one Black photographer in the history of Vogue when Beyonce advocated for Tyler Mitchell to shoot her for the cover in 2018. Two years later, Mitchell still remains the publication’s only Black photographer in its 150 years of business.
Johnson stated in an interview for Vogue in 2009 that, prior to when her cover hit the stands, she wasn’t aware she would be the first Black woman to be on the cover, assuming models like Naomi Sims and Helen Williams had already landed covers in years prior.
For Johnson, being on the cover of Vogue was a personal ambition, but after she realized the gravity and impact of what she had done, Johnson used her new influence to champion against racial injustices. Today, Johnson is still working to eliminate racism and advocate for more Black professionals in the industry as well as focus on the fight for various health initiatives for Black women.
In her piece to the Washington Post, Johnson said, “My debut was meant to usher in a current of change in the fashion industry. But as the national conversation around racism expands, stories about discrimination in the fashion industry and at Vogue, in particular, have come under the spotlight.”
In addition to hundreds of other shoots, Johnson graced the cover of Vogue two more times and also appeared on the cover of Elle France. She reports she was paid significantly less than her white peers and was reprimanded for requesting Black photographers, makeup artists, and hairstylists to work with her on shoots. Johnson stated, “Silence on race was then — and still is — the cost of admission to the fashion industry’s top echelons.”
Johnson proposes the fashion and beauty industry incorporates the “Beverly Johnson Rule” akin to the “Rooney Rule” which is exercised in the NFL. This rule would mandate at least two Black professionals to be “meaningfully interviewed” for influential positions in the industry.
Johnson wrote that companies have become extremely proficient in the “racism management cycle.” In other words, companies are very good at putting out fires and releasing lengthy statements to “do better” when they are exposed for their racism (e.g. Gucci’s minstrel-inspired line in 2018 and Urban Outfitters employers using “Nick” and “Nicky” to racially profile customers in stores). Instead of learning from mistakes and actually doing better, however, racism management is a cycle that seems to be on a continuous loop.
It is evident that structural change needs to be made in all aspects of our country--however the fashion industry, even though praised for its open-mindedness and presumed acceptance of all types of people, is not immune to the racial biases and injustices present in our society.
Although the fashion industry capitalizes on Black culture, it continuously reaps the demographic’s rewards without compensating, hiring, and promoting the Black men and women whom the companies are gaining from.
Johnson wrote, “The fashion industry pirates blackness for profit while excluding black people and preventing them from monetizing their talents. . .Forty-six years after my Vogue cover, I want to move from being an icon to an iconoclast and continue fighting the racism and exclusion that have been an ugly part of the beauty business for far too long.”