On Knowing Yourself + Remembering: My 360° with iconic supermodel Beverly Johnson
We never know how we touch each other’s lives yet, that effect is the essence of legacy. Over 20 years ago, Supermodel/Goddess/Queen Beverly Johnson took a minute out of her life to give me kindness that changed my world. Her advice helped me remember myself and get centered amidst a dehumanizing situation. It’s been a touch point in my life ever since and last week, I got to recount the story of that moment and thank her for sharing her light and fire with me after all those years. This was truly a 360° moment.
I was 19 years old and on go-sees, which are essentially model auditions, in New York. I was focused on building my connections, even though I wasn’t focused on modeling as my actual career. My motivation into the industry was travel and financial independence; that was exactly what I was receiving. However, I also had this vague idea that I’d be bathed in constant praise. Instead, it was people continually nitpicking me. That was manageable until this one particular go-see.
I found myself standing before people who were upset and bewildered by my “wide” nose in relation to my dark “skin tone”. Essentially, they didn’t know how to make me fit for their campaign since I had walked in with dark skin and a non-European nose. One them questioned, “Why isn’t her nose like Iman’s?” They were talking about this in front of me as they flipped through my book and discussed the girl in the photos, as if that girl was not me, and they tried to whittle my ancestry down to their aesthetic preferences.
I felt infuriated and sideswiped. I wanted to smash every piece of furniture in that room but I guessed that would result in them calling the police on me. So, I grabbed my book and I left. I took myself off the table. I don’t remember how I got to the elevator or through the lobby or down onto the sidewalk. I only remember staring out into the world feeling so incredibly lost. I felt unseen, betrayed and disconnected from myself.
Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “Hey, beautiful.” I looked up to see the one and only Beverly Johnson standing before me, smiling. I thought I was hallucinating. At some point she started looking at me as if she should question whether or not I speak English. I managed to utter something and she asked if I was OK. I told her something about how I had just had this rude, racist go-see. She looked me in my eyes and she asked, “Well, do you know who you are?”
The way we touch each other’s lives is the essence of legacy. It’s another way we #disruptaging. Over 20 years ago, @BeverlyJohnson1 took a minute out of her life to give me kindness that changed my world. Thank you, Beverly, for helping me remember myself. pic.twitter.com/Qgtzd3ayCp
— Joy Donnell Society (@doitinpublic) August 2, 2018
I said, “Yes.”This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced racism or even the worst situation I’d faced. I think I expected to have somehow crafted a life that wouldn’t encounter anymore of it, hence the sideswipe feeling. It’s impossible to stop people from trying to dehumanize you. That’s why it’s necessary to stay fortified in knowing who you are. That simple question helped me remember myself, who I am, what I’ve been through and most importantly, what I’m made of.
She looked at me with this combination of fire and peace and stated, “Then that’s all you need.”
We both went on with our lives but that chance encounter has remained a touch point in my journey ever since. For me, it was incomparable to receive such a message from the woman whose face changed everything. In 1974, Beverly Johnson became the first woman of color to ever be on the cover of American Vogue. She herself stated that at the time, she didn’t realize how impactful her image would be. She was ambitious and simply wanted the top modeling achievement, which is Vogue’s cover. Her history making triumph came with massive responsibility.
When I got to reminisce about that moment with her at The Getty, she revealed that she was able to pass that kindness forward to me because the pioneering legend Naomi Sims, who became the first black woman on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal in 1968, had once done the same thing for her.
No matter who or what you face, you have to know who you are. Remembering yourself is healing. As the world becomes more pressurized to be a brand and constantly put yourself out there in imagery and other media, few people partake in the process knowing and owning who they are. As I’ve gone on to create campaigns and publicize projects or even build media platforms, I’ve always found that the most magnetized messaging resonates from people who start with themselves inwardly and build out from there.
Part of knowing yourself and staying connected is also allowing yourself to change. Change is the only constant. Everything about you is supposed to grow. Sometimes we have to calm things down. Other times, we need to shake stuff up.
As an entrepreneur and trailblazer, Beverly Johnson is flipping so many scripts. She’s a true disruptor who is shifting the way we talk about race, beauty, aging and business. She’s revolutionized hair products such as weaves and extensions. She’s working with a female innovator who is changing the dynamic of the stiletto. I witnessed her standing in a gorgeous pair of high heels all day with no pain.
She also invests in herself. I got to ask Beverly the same question she asked me all those years ago. You can hear what she says about knowing yourself, staying in spirit, never resting on achievement and disrupting, here.