Style…Beverly Johnson opened doors in ‘70s

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(Part three of a four-part series)

Dark and lovely, she descended the steps outside Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan wearing high heels and a colorful asymmetrical dress.

“That’s Beverly Johnson!” a young man shouted, prompting her to pause, smile, and wave as he and other onlookers took her picture with cell phones and digital cameras.

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NAOMI SIMS, BEVERLY JOHNSON,  and TYRA BANKS

The 57-year-old former fashion model’s appearance was a treat for the scores of curious folk who lined the sidewalks in front of the park on that particular day of Fashion Week last month. They congregate there for hours, hoping to get a glimpse of a star yet oblivious to the fact that celebrities usually enter and leave through side and rear doors to avoid, well, people with cameras.

Johnson’s rare visit to the Bryant Park tents couldn’t have come at a more interesting time. She was attending a runway show featuring the 2010 spring collection of Black designer Tracy Reese, who was unheard of 35 years ago when Johnson became the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue.

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TYSON BECKFORD, America’s only male supermodel

Unlike the young fellow on the sidewalk, it is likely that many guests at Bryant Park that day did not recognize Johnson. In the ’70s, she was the first Black model to appear on the cover of the French fashion magazine, Elle. She set circulation records for Glamour when she appeared on that beauty mag’s cover, and enjoyed a considerable tenure as the hottest model—Black or White—in America.

Since then, both much and little has changed for Black models. Some have penetrated the upper echelons of the industry, from Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Liya Kebede to Alek Wek, Chanel Iman and Tyson Beckford, the first man ever to be hailed as a supermodel. They command handsome salaries and in many cases, have widened their influence and extended usually brief modeling careers by diversifying their brands.

Yet Black models who are just as beautiful and talented as their White counterparts lack equal opportunity because the beauty standard continues to be pale skin on a super-thin frame. That is evident each season at New York Fashion Week, where diversity has slightly improved but dark skin still appear as the token, the oddity, the abnormal.

The modeling industry is a microcosm of the fashion industry, bedeviled by the same challenges and issues of access, parity, opportunity. It’s a place where the plum jobs go to Whites first, a place where racial politics still dictate that there can be only one Black supermodel at a time: from Campbell to Banks to Noemie Lenoire to Alek Wek to Kebede and, now, to Chanel Iman.

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UBAN HASSAN, a rising star

For Black models, opportunity is like a baton that one unexpectedly receives and then is forced to surrender when forces such as Vogue editor Anna Wintour become enchanted by a new face. Although that holds true for models in general, it’s worse for Black models because they are regarded as afterthoughts, anyway.

There have been rumblings of change, fueled largely by Black current and former models determined to change the rules of the game. Beckford’s manager, Black former model Bethann Hardison, and Banks are among those who have played a leading role in nudging the industry toward greater inclusiveness. That may be why the wider industry, while fretting about infringing on creative expression, recently urged American designers to make model diversity a priority.

Still, race is the elephant in the living room that some would rather ignore. But every now and then, like an abscessed boil, it erupts through the surface and oozes in a way that commands attention.

That’s what happened three years ago at Paris Fashion Week, when Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci opened his show with six Black models wearing black-rimmed eyeglasses and attired in head-to-toe black, some toting large black handbags. They were followed by a succession of White models wearing the collection’s more high-fashion outfits and were not seen again until the show’s finale walk. It was then that some spectators got the distinct feeling that a series of Jim Crow-era railroad porters were filing by, followed by monied Aryan passengers.

Fast forward to 2008 when, in the midst of increased dialogue about race and size in the modeling industry, Vogue Italia raised eyebrows with a July issue that featured only Black models. It was a daring turn of the tables, a whiteout reversal of the blackout that is commonplace in many fashion magazines. Some folk, missing the point, blasted the issue as reverse discrimination.

And just this month, French Vogue drew heavy criticism for the all-over, Blackface-like airbrushing of magnolia-white Dutch model Lara Stone for a 14-page fashion pictorial. Why not save the time and paint and just hire a dark-skinned Black model, some critics wondered aloud. Adding insult to injury, the so-called supermodel issue showcases an all-White roster of “it” girls, once again reflecting the preferences and prejudices of White editorial decision-makers.

It’s usually hard to tell whether such incidents are deliberate affronts or thoughtless stupidity. How could designers and editors be oblivious to the images that they carefully package and present? Are they really so insensitive or detached that they treat skin, eyes and hair, as just another physical feature to be manipulated to achieve a desired artistic effect?

That French Vogue would rather dip a blonde in black greasepaint than hire a model who is authentically Black-skinned is an affront to the many gorgeous and talented Black models who are unlikely to ever be considered for a magazine spread, let alone a cover or a runway gig or a cosmetics contract.

Increasingly, Black current and former models are helping to change perceptions and level the playing field by charting their own courses. They’ve come a long way since the late 1960s, when Mississippi native and long-time Pittsburgh resident Naomi Sims sidestepped racist New York agencies and became the first Black model featured in a national TV commercial and later the first to appear on the cover of a national magazine, Ladies Home Journal.

Beverly Johnson emerged from Buffalo, N.Y., and took up the banner, followed a few years later by Somalia-born sensation Iman. Brit beauty Naomi Campbell emerged in the mid- ’80s at the age of 15, becoming the first Black model on the cover of Time and French and British Vogue. She’s still getting print and runway work after 24 years, an industry record.

In the ’90s, Black models shattered more major color barriers.

In 1996, California native Banks became the first African-American woman to appear on the cover of the popular Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. The next year, she was the first Black person pictured on the cover of a Victoria’s Secret catalog, and three years later she made history again as the first Black woman to appear on the cover of GQ.

With Banks and two other Black supermodels diversifying their brands, 2003 was a banner year for African-American beauty. Iman introduced what has become a successful line of makeup formulated for women of color; Ethiopia-born Liya Kebede became the first Black model to sign a major contract with blockbuster beauty brand Estee Lauder; and Banks launched “America’s Next Top Model,” which has become a global phenomenon broadcast in more than 170 countries.

Meanwhile, Banks and New York native Beckford are working to get more Black models in the industry pipeline with reality shows. Beckford’s “Make Me a Supermodel” aired its second season earlier this year on Bravo. Banks’s groundbreaking series on The CW network, currently in its 13th cycle, has discovered fresh faces—many of them Black—who are getting high-profile modeling and acting jobs in the United States and abroad.

With more beautiful Black faces gradually emerging, the face of beauty could be lifted to a new standard within the next decade. That would be better for everyone.

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