Beverly Johnson is used to doing the impossible. Johnson, a former competitive swimmer and law student, came on the fashion scene in the 1970s. At the time the industry’s beauty ideals narrowly focused on blondes with blue eyes and fair skin. The look’s uniformity meant that even the most minor idiosyncrasies—Lauren Hutton’s gap, Patti Hansen’s freckles—were considered shocking. Still, Johnson knew what she wanted to achieve within her career: a cosmetics contract, the chance to write a beauty book, and a spot on the cover of Vogue.
Some considered Johnson’s ambitions audacious—legendary modeling agent Eileen Ford told her that such a feat would be unthinkable—but Johnson didn’t have time for haters. “[Eileen] said, ‘Who do you think you are,’ so I knew I was not going to get that cover there,” she says. “So I changed agencies. I went to Wilhelmina to get that Vogue cover.”
Coming from the world of sports, she was driven toward achievement and understood that the milestone signified success. “Being on the cover meant that you had won the Oscar; you had a gold medal,” she explains. “That’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to be at the top of the profession. Not just the top Black model; I wanted to be the top model. Period.”
Johnson’s presence on the August 1974 Vogue cover, in a beauty shot by Francesco Scavullo, was a turning point in her career and the industry’s representation of Black women. With a single image, she showcased her versatility while challenging years of stereotyping and discrimination that had prevented her peers from advancing. Models can receive a digital preview of their work these days, but Johnson only discovered she had accomplished her goal when agency head Wilhelmina Cooper called her at 6 a.m. one morning to share the good news. Running down to her local newsstand to snag a copy, Johnson was so excited she forgot her wallet. The achievement came with responsibilities, especially once Johnson realized that she was the first Black woman to be on the cover. “I realized I had some soul searching to do,” says Johnson. “But also some history [to learn], to know about who I am, where I came from, and what the struggle is really about.”