The Face That Changed It All: A Memoir

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9781476774411: The Face That Changed It All: A Memoir
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A revelatory and redemptive memoir from Beverly Johnson, the first black supermodel to grace the cover of Vogue, and who, over five hundred magazine covers later, remains one of the most successful glamour girls ever.

In The Face That Changed It All, Beverly Johnson brings her own passionate and deeply honest voice to the page to chronicle her childhood growing up as a studious, and sometimes bullied, bookworm during the socially conscious, racially charged ’60s. Initially drawn to a career in law due to the huge impact the Civil Rights movement had on her life, Beverly eventually made her mark as the first black cover model of American Vogue in 1974. A successful three-decade career in modeling followed.

Offering glamorous tales about the hard partying of the 1970s and Hollywood during the ’80s and early ’90s, Johnson details her many encounters and fascinating friendships with the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Halston, Calvin Klein, and Andy Warhol, as well as stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Jack Nicholson, Keith Richards, and Warren Beatty. But not everything that glitters is gold, and Johnson’s memoir reveals the countless demons she wrestled with over the course of her storied career. She brings us into the heart of her struggles with racism, drug addiction, divorce, and a prolonged child custody battle over her daughter that tested her fortitude and sanity. She shares for the first time intimate details surrounding her love affair with the late tennis icon Arthur Ashe, giving little known insight into the heart, mind, and spirit of the revered tennis legend. She also pays homage to her mentor, the late Naomi Sims, while lifting the veil off the complicated, catty, and often times tense relationships between black models during her fashion heyday. Familiar names from the catwalk, such as Pat Cleveland and Iman, appear regularly in her story, illustrating how each had to fight various battles to survive not just the system at large, but each other.

Featuring gorgeous, never-before-seen photos from Johnson’s childhood and modeling days, The Face That Changed It All gives a no-holds-barred look at the lives of the rich, fabulous, and famous. It is also a story of failure and success in the upper echelons of the fashion world, and how Beverly Johnson emerged from her struggles smarter, happier, and stronger than ever.

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About the Author:

Beverly Johnson is an American model, actress, and businesswoman. She made history when she rose to fame as the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue in August 1974. She starred in the OWN reality show Beverly’s Full House in 2012 and was named one of the twentieth century’s most influential people in fashion by The New York Times.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The Face That Changed It All

Foreword
Beverly Johnson made history in 1974. Her story is both powerful and unique.

She was the first African-American woman, a woman of black skin, whose face appeared on the cover of the world’s most prestigious fashion magazine, the holy grail of style—American Vogue.

Since that defining moment in 1974, Beverly has journeyed on in her life with grace, gravitas, and gold-rimmed guts.

Beverly Johnson shattered the ideological standards of beauty in a commercial domain, introducing a whole new paradigm not only for black women, but for the world and its acceptance of and response to black beauty as a whole. Beverly should be considered among the most important faces to alter the image of fashion, and the entire cultural dynamic, over the last century. Her staggering influence in that world still looms today.

This is the story of an American woman, a role model, and a mentor for so many women, particularly women of color all over the world. And for all of us: I became the first African-American man to break the secret code of the Vogue culture when Anna Wintour named me one of the magazine’s creative directors in 1983. I flew into that gilded cage nine years after Johnson’s historic breakout cover.

Beverly becoming the first black woman to grace the cover of Vogue signaled a bold game change in the world of fashion. The year 1974 was a hallmark year because of the courageous decision of Condé Nast and then Vogue editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella to use Beverly’s image on the front of the revered fashion bible. It was all at once a beautiful and triumphant nod to the 1960s—that eventful and fascinating decade of civil rights, women’s liberation, feminism—and a breakdown of the invisible codes of prejudice on the hallowed pages of the gold standard of fashion. And it was only one of the fabulous moments that make Beverly Johnson’s life and narrative so wonderfully rich and so fabulously vivid.

Today, Beverly is a strong businesswoman, daughter, mother, grandmother, and a true survivor of life and everything it’s thrown at her along the way. She is a true force of nature—determined, fighting back from the brink of destruction—and to this very day she is still just as elegant and just as beautiful as she was on that now-legendary Vogue cover in 1974.

If Beverly’s life were fiction, it would be a great masterpiece from the very grand Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize–winning African-American author. If Ms. Johnson’s life were a film, it would no doubt be directed by Steve McQueen, whose 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 2014.

Beverly is brutally honest throughout and doesn’t hold back the tears, even when revisiting some truly heartbreaking life events. She is especially introspective when delving into her seriously troubled second marriage, which ended in an ugly divorce and an even uglier child-custody battle, in which she lost her daughter.

But she fought back and survived it all with grace and style.

In the light of the disco ball, which she aptly calls “smoke and mirrors,” where money is big, egos are colossal, and evidence of a noble human spirit is a rare thing, Beverly amazingly managed to survive fame, celebrity, and all the damage it can do to the human soul.

Beverly’s journey is one that should inspire every woman from any generation and from any walk of life to keep soldiering on no matter the endless land mines she may come across.

More than just a face, Beverly is a bona fide living legend. As I reached the end of her manuscript, tears of joy welled up in my eyes. Her life thus far is a story that should uplift the human spirit of both men and women. She has lived through it all: adversity, fame, fortune, love, marriage, divorce, marriage again, divorce again, addiction, redemption, renewal of spirit, and just plain life in general. Beverly’s history is not just a chronological tale about her rise to the top of the world of fashion, it’s also the story of a woman who refused to give up even when the world seemed to turn against her.

Ultimately, Beverly Johnson’s story is one of infinite grace and towering strength.

—ANDRÉ LEON TALLEY

CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, VOGUE

INTRODUCTIONOde to Gloria
My mother, Gloria Johnson, always had the most towering presence in my life, all of my life, and what a gift she has been. When I think of my lucrative and history-making career on the covers of so many national and international glossy magazines, I can’t help but bring to mind my mother’s looming influence.

When my father forbade me from entering the modeling world oh so long ago, it was Gloria Johnson, ever so sweet and proper, who did the unthinkable. She defied my father’s wishes and made the phone call to New York to set up appointments for me to be seen by those who could help steer me toward a career that I could have never imagined for myself. My mother rarely defied my father, but that time she did.

Many years passed before my mother told me that she, too, had once dreamed of a career in modeling. But the times didn’t allow it, and my mother’s prayer remained unanswered. She was determined to make sure my dream didn’t suffer the same fate. I think in many ways I fought hard to develop my career in fashion as a tribute to my mother and to make her proud. Deep down inside I knew I was also helping her fulfill the long-lost dream she had been denied so many years ago.

Gloria Johnson was my hero then, and she remains my hero today as she gallantly fights the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s disease. She always said she didn’t want to experience pain as she got older, but we never thought she would suffer the pain of a disease that attacks the mind in the way Alzheimer’s does. How I loathe this unrelenting disease that has stolen so much of my mom from me and my entire family. Alzheimer’s has stolen too much from far too many families, and I pray a cure is close at hand.

The memories that once made my mother laugh, cry, and smile are no longer there. She barely recognizes me or my name now without my prodding, yet she is still the mother I adore, and I’m forever her daughter. The smiles, hugs, and girlish giggles we share together are more precious now than ever. I thank God every day for the gift of my mother and her unwavering support. My mother’s love was always deep and always unconditional, and it is that love that continues to sustain me now.

Today, my mother isn’t able to remember the story of my rise to the top of the modeling world, nor can she recall her role in helping me get there. But I can assure you she was right by my side every step of the way.

CHAPTER 1Who’s That Girl?
I never really thought I was pretty. Not that I gave my looks much thought at all while growing up in Buffalo, New York.

Let’s be clear: There were more than a few attractive people residing in the Johnson family household. We can start with my mother, Gloria, then move on to my two gorgeous sisters, Joanne and Sheilah; but not me. Never me.

So how exactly I ended up being the one with a coveted invitation to spend an evening at the home of designer Roy Halston Frowick for one of his legendary gatherings on this particular day was a true mystery. Though my sisters Joanne and Sheilah were the girls every guy in our neighborhood drooled over at first sight during my childhood, I was the Johnson girl who later moved to New York to model for major magazines. No one saw that coming, least of all me.

It was August 1973, the height of Halston’s glory days on Madison Avenue, and there I was standing on West Sixty-Third Street, trying my best to figure out where exactly I was going. It was the hottest summer afternoon I could remember in New York City, and the heat wasn’t doing my perfectly layered makeup any favors. I hurried down the street, in heels of course, trying to read the house numbers. It seemed like the sun’s powerful rays were the universe’s way of punishing me for jumping out of the cab before I had my bearings.

Even though I was still in my early twenties, my life had already become an endless blur of appointments, interviews, and meetings. My likeness had already begun to appear on a bevy of magazine covers and in advertisements, but I was just learning how to navigate the peaks and valleys of what that exposure really meant for me.

Since this wasn’t quite the adult life I had envisioned for myself while growing up, I was still adjusting to the madness of running from one photo shoot or fashion fitting to another. The sheer weight of the logistics could easily frazzle anyone’s nerves on any given day. If that weren’t enough, I was also encountering some self-inflicted personal drama in the form of an ex-husband who refused to comprehend the true meaning of “ex.”

Many days I found myself just trying to keep my head above water. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the life I was living, but I wasn’t always prepared for the nonstop demands and pressures it presented. Somehow I had gotten on a fast-moving roller-coaster ride, and I wasn’t at the controls.

Still, even with all that background noise in my head, I couldn’t afford to be out of sorts that afternoon. I had to appear flawless when I entered Halston’s party, and flawless is what I was determined to be. There could be no clothing mishaps, and no evidence that my perfectly applied makeup had encountered that sweltering New York City day.

While I was enjoying a booming career in the world of high fashion at that time, I knew I had really arrived when I received an invite to a dinner party at the home of one of the world’s most prominent designers.

Halston was by far the most celebrated and influential designer of the seventies, and I loved him something fierce. Everyone did. Halston—one name was all he needed—emerged as the first billion-dollar fashion designer in the world of haute couture and single-handedly developed the blueprint for the likes of Oscar, Ralph, Calvin, and Diane to become household names the world over. Until Halston appeared on the scene, most of the highly respected, famed, and grand design houses were located in Europe, in either Paris or Milan. Halston would change that the day he created a pillbox hat for Jacqueline Kennedy to wear as she watched her husband take the oath of office of the President of the United States in 1961. After that major coup, Halston’s designs routinely graced the bodies of some of the world’s most stylishly stunning women. Fabulous ladies such as Lauren Hutton, Princess Grace of Monaco, Ali MacGraw, Bianca Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Lauren Bacall were photographed regularly in his couture designs.

Then of course there was me. I’d always been fascinated by each and every aspect of the fashion industry, and Halston was the first to take my call when I yearned to learn even more. He agreed to put me in his runway show at a time when well-known print models, which I was at the time, rarely did such a thing. Runway modeling was considered a few steps beneath print during the sixties and early seventies. But that did little to discourage me from wanting to be on the runway. As far as I was concerned, a rule wasn’t a rule until somebody had the gall to break it.

Thankfully, Halston was happy to oblige me. Early one week in 1973, I strolled along in his show wearing several of his slinky halter-neck dresses and wide-legged jersey trousers. I loved every minute of it! Despite my initial terror of sashaying around a room filled with potential buyers and New York socialites, my first foray into the world of runway modeling had been as seamless as one of Halston’s pricey cashmere designs. Simply put, I nailed it! After the show on a Tuesday, Halston casually mentioned a little dinner party at his home that Friday and suggested I stop by.

Stop by? Of course I would stop by! Yes, I had a modeling assignment for Glamour magazine on the island of Saint Martin the day following the show, Wednesday, and wouldn’t be returning until Friday afternoon. But a little thing like being out of the country wasn’t going to prevent me from accepting one of the most desired invitations in town. Halston was the king of the New York social scene, and his parties were as legendary for their ambience and fine dining as they were for their cachet and megastar power.

Halston personified everything that made the crazy seventies the decade many people wish they had been part of. It was a sparkling new age that seemed to belong exclusively to the young, or at the very least the young at heart. The baby boomers of today were actually teenagers back then, which means those years were all about exploration and experimentation. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll ruled the day, every day. But it was also a decade in which people searched for their identity and for truth, including me. Halston embodied all of that complicated seventies angst in his talent, in his style, and in the manic way in which he lived his public and private life. And I wanted to be in the middle of it all.

But first I had to get to his party. The actual logistics were complicated. The dinner began at 7:00 p.m., and my plane didn’t land back in New York at JFK until 4:00 p.m. If you’ve ever tried to get from JFK airport to Manhattan at that time of day, you know what a nightmare it can be. There was a fifty-fifty chance I’d make it on time, but nothing was going to stop me from trying. I was in luck—my cabdriver seemed to think he was driving in the Indy 500, and though I kept thinking that I really would rather not succumb to the flames of a fiery car accident just to get to a party—not even Halston’s—we somehow made it to my apartment safely and in good time.

Which was good, because the party was sure to make the top of Liz Smith’s celebrity gossip column in the New York Daily News the next day. After debating half an hour what to wear to my first big-city party, I chose a long black jersey cape over a matching long black dress. But it wasn’t a Halston, even though I had a closet half-filled with his designs. (Note to self: You really should wear the design of the designer to his dinner party.)

Those days were long before the era of personal makeup artists arriving at your house before an event. That night I had to do my own, and I think I did a pretty jam-up job, if I do say so myself. My hair was pulled back in its usual neat bun and my silhouette was chic, slim, and sleek. Once I was ready, I grabbed yet another cab and raced from my West Forty-Eighth Street apartment to the Upper West Side soiree. Fortunately, I found that my “face” had stood up well against the smoldering August heat, as I finally found the famed 101 West Sixty-Third Street address. I arrived looking exactly like the version of Beverly Johnson most expected to see out and about in the big city.

I entered the designer’s glass-façade town house and stopped dead in my tracks; I couldn’t believe I was still in New York City. Halston had transformed what had originally been an eighteenth-century carriage house into a virtual oasis, a more-than-seven-thousand-square-foot home solely created for him to peacefully exist in his own space and time, completel...

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