Beverly Johnson, the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue, explains how she’s teaching her four grandchildren about racism in a new Instagram live series launched by Meredith Corporation’s Black Employee Resource Group.

By Adrienne Farr
July 29, 2020
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Courtesy of Fadil Berisha

When supermodel Beverly Johnson first became a mother, seasoned moms in her circle were quick to tell her there was a light at the end of the stress she was feeling. "Just wait until you're a grandparent. This is the reward,” they said, according to Johnson during an interview on :BLACKPRINT’s #NoFilter, an Instagram live series launched by Meredith Corporation’s Black Employee Resource Group.

Did she believe them then? Not so much. But now that she has four grandchildren of her own? “They're absolutely right," says Johnson. "It's beautiful. It's wonderful. It's the best time of my life.”

Not only does Johnson—who was the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine in 1974—adore her grandchildren (ages 8, 7, 6, 18 months), she's also very active in their lives. “One of my biggest achievements thus far, besides being there when they were born, is teaching them how to swim. They're killer swimmers,” she says. “I'm involved in their life. I'm in the school; I'm in their classroom; I'm a hoverer. I'm the grandmother that hovers.”

But in the midst of Johnson’s blissful family moments, she’s concerned about how racism will affect her grandchildren and what she can do to help, yet again. That’s why she’s made a conscious effort to teach her grandchildren about racial injustice, as early as possible.

"I think that there are ways you can tell the story [so] they get it—and they'll never really understand it until it happens to them," says Johnson. "But I believe in being as honest as one can, as much as they can handle. And of course, you should check with whomever those experts are as to when you should have those conversations."

Raising Kids in the Current Racial Climate

Johnson is amazed by how much her grandchildren already know, despite how protective her daughter is of them. “They watch no television, no news—but somehow, they know. And they ask questions about race and who they are,” she says.

As the wrongful death of Black men have been at the center of racial conversation, Johnson admits she's worried about what the world could be like for her grandsons. “It's scary for me. I know they're very young right now, but I know that they're not going to be young forever. They're going to be teenagers. They're going to be out in the world. That's why, for me, it's just really important that I get involved." She also encourages her grandchildren to love the skin they are in. “My granddaughter is super brown skin. I talk to her about loving her skin and how beautiful she is and read books to show her that she's beautiful just as she is,” says Johnson.

Luckily Johnson’s granddaughter will be able to flip through magazines today and see people who look like her on the pages—thanks to her. Following Johnson’s cover that helped redefine beauty, “Vogue magazine’s sales also tripled,” says Johnson. “The people who owned Condé Nast were saying that the readership tripled because women were working. I think it was because you had a whole brand-new readership that was interested in buying the magazine because of Black women being in the pages and on the covers.” She’s helped pave the way for today’s more diverse model population. “It’s been great to see women of color from all over the globe—Joan Smalls, Alek Wek. It’s wonderful to see,” adds Johnson.

But while there have been strides in the right direction, there are still puzzling gaps of inequality. For example, Dario Calmese became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of Vanity Fair when he shot Viola Davis for the July/August 2020 issue. Tyler Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot for Vogue when Beyoncé appeared on the cover in the September 2018 issue. “In the fashion industry, particularly in the magazine part of the fashion industry, it’s the photographer that’s really the prominent piece. The fact that it took until now to have the first Black photographer to work for these fashion magazines is a bit of a shame,” says Johnson.

Paving the Way for Her Grandchildren's Future

Although Johnson has done enough for two lifetimes in the way of moving racial justice forward, she recently decided to institute the Beverly Johnson Rule. In speaking to her fiancée W. Brian Maillian, chairman and chief executive officer of WhiteStone Global Partners, about the current state of racism and bias, she asked him, "What can I do? I don’t want to complain anymore. I’ve been complaining for 40 years now."

Maillian told Johnson about “the Rooney Rule in football which says at least one Black coach should be interviewed when there’s an opening for a coaching position. Twenty years later you see Black coaches, Black quarterbacks, and Black people in the front office,” says Johnson. Maillian encouraged her to create the Beverly Johnson Rule. This rule calls for at least two Black professionals to be interviewed for open positions within the board of directors since that’s where the policies and strategies are made. Johnson also wants the rule to apply to executives, photographers, hairdressers, and makeup artists.

“It’s a mandate and it’s up to the company or the industry whether or not you want to adopt that rule,’ says Johnson. “I really feel that we as evolved human beings cannot come up with the excuses that say, ‘I don’t know anybody.’ All the Black professionals know that’s not true. We know that if we get in the rooms and we are a part of the policy and strategy making, we won’t be making faux pas like the blackface sweater or the noose around the neck. We know that’s not fashion. That’s my itty-bitty solution to systemic racism."

Johnson is optimistic that the young generation will help move her agenda and the new movement forward. “I just love seeing the young people out there globally, just really taking the torch and running with it.”

Watch the :BLACKPRINT #NoFilter live interviews every Wednesday on Instagram at 5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT.

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