Supermodel Beverly Johnson Opens Up About Her Career, Body Image — and Bill Cosby

It’s not easy being beautiful.

No, really — especially when you’re known as the first black supermodel, expectations are heightened, and the pressure can be fierce. But supermodel Beverly Johnson made it through a harrowing second marriage, eating disorders, custody battles and addiction to emerge fully intact on the other side, her legendary beauty seemingly untouched. Because now, at age 63, Johnson is every bit as gorgeous as she was when she first graced that fateful August 1974 Vogue cover, if not more so.

Make It Better got the chance to talk to Johnson on a recent visit to Chicago to promote her new memoir, “The Face That Changed It All” (by Beverly Johnson with Allison Samuels, Simon & Schuster, 2015), a compelling read through a very big life. In this exclusive interview, Johnson talked to us about everything from motherhood to Bill Cosby, from today’s fashion world to her nonprofit work. Her answers were candid, articulate and straight from the heart.

Make It Better: We are really honored to have you here with MIB today. To what do you attribute your longevity, both in the industry and in life?

Beverly Johnson: Waking up every day, for one … and I really think that doing what you can to be content and happy takes effort. I think that as women, sometimes, we put a lot of [other] things first — family, children, grandchildren, parents who are elderly — we get pulled in lots of different directions and sometimes we put ourselves last. And for me, it takes a lot of effort to make sure I take care of myself, because I find the better I am, the better everyone else is because of it.

You’re a survivor on many levels: a harrowing marriage, addiction, anorexia, bulimia … where did you find the strength to dig out of those situations?

I think faith. My father was a steel laborer, my mother was a nurse, and we came up in a very kind of lower-middle-class work-ethic family where education was the be-all-end all. I’m the only one who hasn’t graduated from college of my family of four siblings. If I say I have a regret — which I have none — it would be that I never finished college. I tried to go back when my daughter was in college, but she wasn’t having it. Of course, now she says I should go back, but I say, “Too late! Brain cells gone.”

Your mother, Gloria Johnson, just went back 10 years ago and got her degree! What a role model.

Yes, she’s amazing, and a mentor to so many young women through high school and college. And I believe it’s those kind of examples of faith and work ethic and the fortitude of perseverance and a moral compass for me that I inherit and I believe it was that foundation that got me through that along with the grace of God, through a lot of harrowing trials and tribulations in my life. But I’m very happy I came out on the other side.

Let’s touch on the Cosby story, which is a chapter in your book. On the Today show you said, “We are expected as women to be voiceless.” What inspired you personally to come forward with your story? 

It was very interesting when I decided in 2013 to write my memoirs. I didn’t know I was going to tell about the encounter with Bill Cosby, actually. I was just working with my writer and I told her about this encounter that I had with Cosby drugging me, and we wrote up the chapter. We handed it in to our editor and publisher and they said, “Absolutely not. We will not put that chapter in the book; it’s a legal liability. It’s unfortunate that that happened to you, but we can’t put it in the book.” And then in 2014 in December when the women came out with their stories of being drugged and raped, I sat there on television and watched these women bare their soul and be re-victimized and vilified for simply speaking the truth, [and] I knew that I felt very fortunate that I wasn’t raped, but I was drugged, and I knew they were telling the truth. And so that’s when I did my story for Vanity Fair. I didn’t know it was going to have the kind of impact it had, which was a tough decision to make. There’s nothing in it for me except for to tell my truth. And I realized that as women we are taught to be voiceless — don’t rock the boat, don’t say anything. All of my friends, all of my family, no one wanted me to say anything. They were really afraid for what would happen, and the judgment that would come with making that kind of a statement. But needless to say I got the phone call from the publisher right before my book was going to print saying, “You know that chapter that you wrote, we want to put it back in the book.” But for me it was indicative of what the women have been saying all along, that we tried to tell our story but nobody wanted to listen and nobody wanted it.

And that was true until late last year, when comedian Hannibal Buress did his anti-Cosby monologue that went viral. It took a man publicly shaming Bill Cosby for people to be willing to listen to the voices of his accusers.

Yes. I think what’s happened is something that is bigger than Cosby. I think we’re having a conversation about rape culture in America — a society that’s one of the leaders in the world — and now we’re finally saying what we needed to say for a long time, and we’re finally addressing what violence is happening toward women on a daily basis. So this has kind of opened up the floodgates for women to face their sexual harassment and molestation. All that happens to a woman in her lifetime that we somehow suppress or somehow we feel that it’s okay, but now we’re saying it’s not okay. And I think for my granddaughter who is four years old, that she can look at what’s happened in 2014 and 2015 and get the courage to speak her mind if it ever came to that, and she would have the confidence to come forward and speak her truth and stand in her truth and know that she has a right to be defended and that nobody has the right to her body.

Every step we take away from shaming the victim is a step in the right direction. On a completely different topic: the beauty zeitgeist has changed so much and thankfully so. There is so much more diversity now, not only in terms of skin color but also age and size. Your gorgeous daughter, Anansa Sims, is a plus-size model. How do you feel about her being in the business and what advice have you given her?

Well, I never wanted her to be in the business. If you read my book, you’ll understand why! Particularly because of what a model has to do — or at least, had to do back then — in order to stay thin, and of course the one thing I didn’t want her to do she went to NY to do. And she was a straight size model, a size 0 model, and she worked very hard and I was kind of getting used to it and then I received a phone call and she said, “Mom, I’m never going to let anyone tell me how I should look ever again,” and she went back to school and got her BA and her MBA. After that, I got a call and she said, “I want to be a plus-size model.” She says that she really wants to let people know that it’s okay to embrace your body. And now she’s one of the top 10 plus-size models in the world.

What advice do you have for other women about finding their own fashion voice?

Don’t be afraid. There’s something wonderful about the imagination, something so real about people being their own authentic self. It’s a way to express who you are, and I think that’s very empowering. I really don’t say a woman can’t wear certain things because she’s of a certain age or size. I think that’s an individual choice of how she wants to look, and what makes her feel good, and the face she wants to present to the world. I think that’s what’s so unique about humanity — our individuality. That’s the fun part about fashion. 

There’s something for everyone. There’s no longer a rule saying you have to dress a certain way.

That’s one choice I think we can make. We can wake up in the morning and say, how do I feel today? I’m feeling like blue, so I’m wearing blue today. That’s why we love life so much, is because of the variety, and the change, and the imagination that we can all display on a daily basis, just in the way we look [and] in the choices we make.

What is your daily beauty regime like? What products can you not live without?

Sunblock. I live in the desert and I’m a golfer. The older I get, the more I know I’ve got to take care with the sun; it’s really dangerous for the skin. And as a person of color, we really didn’t have those kinds of concerns, but we realize now with the [changing] environment that we most certainly have those concerns of skin cancer and the whole process of aging. So sunblock is really important.

My beauty routine really happens in the evening, as far as products. My bathroom looks like a CVS! I tinker a lot — I am in the beauty business. But the real beauty routine happens in the morning before I get out of bed with a meditation to center myself, and to make sure I recognize all the things I’m so happy, so grateful for. Why I’m so blessed to have these miracles in my life. As women, we have to keep reminding ourselves of that. Not, “Another gray hair, another wrinkle.” Remind ourselves how wonderful life is, and that is centering. It helps you make the right choices throughout the day.

Beverly, you’re beautiful inside and out. What are the causes that are near and dear to your heart?

The AIDS projects we have out in the Palm Springs area where I live. It’s an amazing community for people with AIDS, continuing to bring awareness about AIDS because it’s gotten forgotten about a little bit — which we don’t want to do, because we’ve made such progress in that way. But also I sit on the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center board, a center for abused children. Quite a few of them [are] sexually abused, I mean from six weeks old to 16 years old. And working with these courageous young people, who have come out and faced some tragic times in their [lives], I think it’s really bolstered me in the sense of finding a great purpose in life. I’m also the international spokesperson for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. I have a niece that has Down syndrome, [and] my first cousin has Down syndrome, so I’ve been around it all my life. I finally got the opportunity to be with and represent an organization that is doing so much great research and also taking the kids and young adults and having them reach their full potential. And then of course I now have this platform of domestic violence and violence against women that is a great sisterhood. We had an event for the Santa Monica Rape Clinic, which is one of the biggest in the nation, and also now we’re having these amazing conversations in the world about race, about gender and about violence [against] women. It’s an exciting time to be alive and I look forward to participating in some really purposeful [events].

Beverly, thank you. We’re so glad you found your voice and had the opportunity to share your truth. We hope everyone gets the chance to read the book!

This one covered the 70s and 80s; Book number two is on the way. But first I have to write it!

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