For 30 years, Bethann Hardison, the former model and agent, has sought to expand the fashion industry’s notion of what’s beautiful. And it hasn’t been easy. In the latest issue of V magazine, she speaks with her close friend Iman about the genesis of the black supermodel.
IMAN: Tell me about the Versailles show, the amazing showdown that I think all the kids should know about.
BH: Francoise de la Renta—Oscar de la Renta’s late wife, one of the sweetest women—came up with this idea. She wanted to do something for Versailles, to benefit the restoration of the Marie Antoinette theatre, so she thought up this idea for designers in Paris and New York to do a big show together.
IMAN The black models in Versailles were Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean Darden, Charlene Dash, Barbara Jackson, Ramona Saunders, Amina Warsuma, and, of course, you. You guys were packing.
BH: We were. We were really good. But it was like a football match. The thing that was so great about it was the American designers went with a very small crew, with Kay Thompson, Joe Eula, and Liza Minnelli. We had simplicity, but the French had the production. They had the Crazy Horse Saloon; they had Nureyev. But the thing that was unique about us was the girls of color. The black girls had that personality, and it was something that wasn’t typical back in the early ’70s. Anyway, the Americans went first and I was one of the last girls.
IMAN: I wrote in my book: “Bethann stalked down the runway in a tight-fitting yellow silk halter by Stephen Burrows, holding a floor-length train by a tiny ring on her pinky finger. When she reached center stage, she made a dramatic turn and haughtily dropped the train. The audience exploded in a frenzy of approval.” How did that feel?
BH It was hard. It wasn’t a runway that you could walk straight on, but I gave it my all. Bill Cunningham said, “The way you looked at that audience, the strength in your body. They exploded and all the programs went up in the air. They started stomping.” I was standing there, trembling, and the American team was in the stage wings screaming, “Go, Bethann!” It was an amazing moment. Liza was screaming. I started crying.
IMAN: You guys brought home the gold in that historic moment. How did that feel?
BH That night at Versailles, we introduced the talent of girls of color to the French designers. People don’t know that there are real people who took some shit. Even when Paco Rabanne wanted to have a black model in his show, there was an editor who spat on him. His family begged him [not to], because it was hurting his business. But that was before Versailles.
READ ABOUT HER CREATING THE ALL-BLACK ISSUE OF ITALIAN VOGUE BELOW THE GALLERY!
IMAN: In 2007, you had a town-hall meeting, which resulted in an Italian Vogue devoted to black models. Tell us about it.
BH I asked different people in the industry to give me a list. I found a space in the Bryant Park Hotel in September after the fashion shows and I invited the modeling agencies, casting directors, fashion writers, and a few models, as well as a human-rights lawyer I knew from years ago. Naomi flew in from London. Liya [Kebede] came. You were there. And once we had the first meeting, the response was so good. It triggered everything.
IMAN: So how did the Italian Vogue issue happen?
BH The editor-in-chief [Franca Sozzani], who is wonderful, said they just felt it was right. Everyone felt like it was a phenomenal thing. One writer questioned the idea of it, wondering if it was a one-off. The editor-in-chief never did another issue like it, even though it had to be reprinted twice. She did, however, launch a subsite online called “Vogue Black.” My job there is to introduce new faces. But to me, everybody is a new face if they’re black. Even if they’ve been working for years. With Sessilee [Lopez], they all told me, “She’s not a new face. She’s been on the cover of our magazine!” I said, “Yeah, but she’s still struggling as a model.”
IMAN: What did you do when you had your agency that people aren’t doing anymore?
BH When I had my agency in the ’80s, Brides magazine didn’t have any brides of color. I used to say to them, “You know we get married, right?” They’d get so embarrassed, but I would put it to them in a way that would have some humor, and at the same time I was putting something into their heads that they hadn’t thought of. That’s subtle activism. When we started these discussions back in 2007, there were no great black girls out there. Now we’ve gotten them into shows and editorials, but we have to push them to advertisers, because that’s where the money is.
IMAN: In a way you’ve seen the cause from its infancy. Now you’re doing this documentary. Tell me about it.
BH The title is Invisible Beauty. It tells the story of the black fashion model today and how she’s disappeared, and it becomes a journey about how I’ve tried to bring her back and the pitfalls of it all. It follows three girls—Joan Smalls, Janiel Williams, and Kinée [Diouf]. It also educates the audience about the behind-the-scenes of the industry, about the adversity of race, and at the same time, about the fashion model, who she used to be, and what she’s become.