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) March 31.
Johnson has a niece with Downs syndrome and is a spokesperson for the Global Downs Syndrome Foundation. Also, there’s a portrait of her on display at The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. as part of “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.
An avid golfer, Johnson can be found unwinding on the golf course when not working on or off camera. She lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., 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.”
Tell me a little about your new TV series, “Beverly’s Full House.”
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.
When I interviewed Gabrielle Union about Tyler Perry’s “Good Deeds,” she told me how flattered she was to have you play her mother in the film.
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.
Tell me about your new beauty line, Model Logic.
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.
Even if you designed the dream hair care line, you still had to land a distribution deal to be able to reach everybody.
Yes, that’s where Target comes in. I still have my Korean beauty supply stores, as well as the retail outlets.
Why go into business for yourself instead of just doing a licensing and royalties deal where you lend your name to a product line?
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.
I see that the Beverly Johnson Ponytails are made of a blend of natural and synthetic fibers.
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.
Is it better than 100 percent human hair?
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.
What’s your target audience at Target?
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.
Do you use more East Asian or East Indian human hair?
[Chuckles] You know something about the hair business, Kam. The majority of the human hair I’m using is from India.
What goes into your cosmetics, extracts, emollients, etc.?
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.
How do you manage to (maintain) your high level of beauty as you mature?
I get that question a lot. Oprah did this show in which these scientists shared the secrets of the world’s oldest living 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.
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?
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 backward.
When you graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, did you imagine your career taking you to such heights?
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.
You are wearing many hats: model, actress and entrepreneur. Which one fits you best?
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.
Is your daughter 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.
I never got a chance to see it.
Have Darryl (director Darryl Roberts) send you a copy. It’s a great expose.
Good idea. I talk to him all the time. My daughter has fulfilled all of my dreams, because she has a B.A. and M.B.A. 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.
What is your secret to succeeding for so long in the competitive world of fashion?
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.
How much responsibility must fashion models and designers take for the body images they present?
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.
How can we begin presenting more realistic and wholesome images?
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.
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?
Oh, that was many years ago. I can’t think back that far. But yes, he was an old boyfriend and a great guy.
Are you ever afraid?
Yes, for a moment. But I try not to stay there, because if you’re afraid, you’re not in faith.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
What was the last book you read?
I read a lot, especially now that I have a Kindle. I just read the biography of Steve Jobs and “The Blue Zones.”
What are you listening to on your iPod?
Whitney Houston’s greatest hits.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
I don’t like to cook, but I like to eat popcorn with butter and salt.
Who is your favorite clothes designer?
I love Tracy Reese, Nicole Miller and Gucci, but I think my favorite is Tom Ford.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
I see little, 7-year-old Beverly.
If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
That my mom and family remain healthy and happy.
What key quality do you believe all successful people share?
What was the best business decision you ever made, and what was the worst?
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.
What is your favorite charity?
The Global Downs Syndrome Foundation.
How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
It taught me that you can rise from the ashes and get over anything.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Come on! It was great for me. Just have a Plan B and a Plan C ready.
How do you want to be remembered?
I want to have schools and libraries and other institutions named after me. I tell my daughter that all the time.