Supermodel Beverly Johnson Reflects on Being "First"

By As told to Isoul Hussein Harris | November 16, 2021

Above: Johnson’s March 2020 portrait PHOTO BY FADIL BERISHA

“‘FIRST’ IS AN INTERESTING PLACE BECAUSE NO ONE CAN EVER TOP IT.” –BEVERLY JOHNSON

“When I became the first Black person on the cover of American Vogue in 1974, I immediately felt the gravity of that moment. Someone said to me: "'First is an interesting place because no one can ever top it.’" Being the magazine’s first Black woman on the cover and all that that entailed in the world was a very imposing position for me as a young woman. However, I quickly realized that it was an opportunity for me to rise to the occasion. I was fully immersed in this alien world of high art and culture, and I didn’t know art from whatever. I had no artistic ability. I did not know what they were talking about when I heard, ‘Look at those cheekbones!’ I thought they were talking about my jawline!

Thank God for a gentleman named James Farabee.

He was Black, gay, stylish, and my guru. Not only was he my hair and skin specialist—he treated my skin daily, and my hair was perfect—but he also introduced me to culture. James sent me to galleries, museums, the opera, the theater, the ballet, and the symphony. He immersed me in the arts. It was a daily education, which included a list of books that I bought and read. I’ll never forget: He had a vintage Mercedes convertible, and we would drive out to the beach in New York. I remember him sitting on the beach, and he looked at me and said, ‘You have the face of life.’ I thought to myself, ‘The face of life? I’m only 18 years old!’ Then indeed, I started learning about myself—my physical self. He also taught me about jewelry, including the cut, color, and everything about diamonds. He was exquisite himself. A Black gay man dressed in caftans and flawless jewelry wasn’t common in the ’70s, not even in New York City. It was an extraordinary time for me, and he really groomed me to rise to the occasion of where I was headed in the modeling world.”

Photography by: (Image credited above)