On top of today’s Inauguration Day excitement, Modelinia is also thrilled to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a special tribute to legendary model, manager and fashion activist, Bethann Hardison! Remembered as a true ground-breaker in the world of modeling and fashion, Bethann is credited with paving the way for some of today’s most prominent African American models, following her own inspiring rise to the top as a young model in the ’70’s. First taking the fashion world by storm with her infamous runway walk in the Versailles fashion face-off of 1973, Bethann has since continued her efforts to fight racial boundaries and promote diversity both on and off the catwalk, marking her as one of fashion’s most influential voice. Since opening her own modeling agency in 1984, which was responsible for jump starting the careers of such icons as Naomi Campbell and Tyson Beckford, Bethann has continued her long-fought efforts to fairly represent and promote young models of all race and ethnicities, most notably as the co-founder of the Black Girls’ Coalition— founded with fellow icon Iman in 1988— and as one of the contributing editors behind Vogue Italia’s now historic “All-Black” issue. In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, Modelinia sat down with Bethann to discuss diversity in modeling, the state of the fashion industry today and her dream for future generations. See our full interview with the iconic model and inspiring business woman below!
Well, that’s decades of change. By the time I stopped modeling in 1981, there were a lot of models coming along that were trying to fit in. When I opened my agency in 1984, that was really the first time that models of color had the chance to be in a magazine and star on the cover and that’s how the Black Girls’ Coalition started. In the years after the Civil Rights Movement there was a change for the better and you saw black models in mainstream society, photographed on the covers, in the magazine and walking on the runway. After 1996 though, it started to diminish again. Celebrities started landing all of the covers, so of course, Black models disappeared too. It became very sparse. The fashion model became extinct, there weren’t any muses and we weren’t seeing a lot of really interesting girls coming through any more—diversity got lost. When the Black Girls Coalition held the press conference in New York in 2007 though, people started to change again. After that meeting, we established casting rights again in the modeling industry and the whole image of the model changed. Once we called the lack of diversity to their attention, things started changing and there were more Black models coming through the agencies. Things have gotten better since then, but it’s not perfect.
Are there still areas of the modeling/fashion industry that could use improvement as far as dealing with issues of race, ethnicity etc.?
Yes, on the runways, in editorials, in advertising—it can all be improved. What tends to happen is someone will say, “I want to use a black model,” and I’ll say “OK good, and how about Asian models?” and they’ll tell me, “no, just black girls.” They’re never using these girls for the right reasons then. These things shouldn’t be an issue, but every time a select number or group of girls are cast, it makes them a category again and it points out the imbalance. I don’t think that’s a good thing. Agents only incorporate Black models when its asked or after white models have been considered and that’s still a problem.
You’re remembered as a truly groundbreaking model and a proud advocate for minorities in the modeling industry. What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome as a young model? What did you take away, if anything, from those early years?
When I started, I was unusual looking within my own race. I was very skinny and different from the other Black girls, so it was a different thing for me. It was tough yes, because audiences were very stunned to see us, which made it uncomfortable. You realized these things happened, but perceptions did change very rapidly around me throughout the ‘70s and following the ‘Black is Beautiful’ campaign. That’s when we started seeing designers embrace us and it was great! Runway shows back then were much more exclusive and elitist than they are now, because then it was only for the buyers and it was held in a salon. When I walked in the Versailles show I was radical looking and people were stunned, but none of us really thought it was so special—it wasn’t as awkward as it is now. We were unique because we were black, but we had personality and that a great thing. The doors just started opening and going into the ’80s everything was changing and it was really great for the new girls coming in. There were so many beautiful girls working and you could name all of them. After that, I came away from it all thinking I am the one who wants to embrace these new models and the modeling industry itself now. That’s when I started my agency and started working with these girls.
Naomi, Veronica Webb, all the girls who were top girls then came at a time when things were really happening. When we started with them, there were not that many girls starting out and I would tell them, “you have no idea how wonderful this is!” They were getting booked for covers and everyone knew who they were and really embraced them. What we did was really make sure that they were making the same kind of money and getting the same benefits as their white counterparts. There were a lot of those types of business inequalities and things that we had to share with them to educate them of the industry and to keep pushing to make it better.
You also had a part in Vogue Italia’s famous “All-Black” issue. What was it like working on that issue? If you were to create a similar issue today, how would you approach it? Is this something you would like to see more of in the fashion industry?
Well it was interesting, because when Franca Sozzani first brought the idea to me she wanted to interview me and other Black writers, as well as have me find the young new models that her son would photograph for the issue, but I had already said that there weren’t that many good Black girls out there. I thought it was going to be a challenge for me to find any, but I ended up finding 10 and that was a challenge for me, but I did it. The issue sold out rapidly, twice actually, and everyone wants to do it again, but we haven’t. Still, Franca knew she was holding a secret weapon that would go viral on the Internet, which is what happened when she launched the subsite, “Vogue Black.” After that my job was to introduce new faces, and it’s been great finding new girls to introduce to the industry. I loved my interview in that issue and how things were handled, but I would like to see it happen more often where a portfolio is specifically dedicated to each kind of girl, Black, Asian, whatever. If we do things like that more frequently, then it starts to seem more normal within the industry and it’s accepted as just a normal thing and it’s no longer a category.
I wish it wasn’t so hard. I wish we could get so many more girls into the game so that when some girls are selected in the casting process, we still have some in the running. The problem today is, there are just not enough different girls in the mix. Out of 10 there are only two minorities chosen and there isn’t any overfill. I wish there were more Black girls and that you could find more of them at the agencies. Physically they can compete with their white counterparts, but we need to make it so that designers don’t feel the need to put only certain girls in the show. We need to mix it up and create a balance and then we can start to see a lot more really great girls across the industry.