Beverly Johnson, the supermodel who was the first black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue, has called for publisher Condé Nast to make it mandatory for the company to interview at least two black people for influential editorial positions within the company.
Johnson raised the idea in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, which was written in response to editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s internal memo, released last week, which apologised for not giving enough space or ways to elevate “black editors, writers, photographers, designers and other creators”. Wintour’s remarks in the context of the exclusive, largely white culture at Condé Nast were criticised and rumours swirled she would leave her job.
Beverly Johnson’s historic American Vogue cover in 1974. Photograph: Francesco Scavullo/Conde Nast/Getty Images
Johnson wrote that she proposes the Beverly Johnson Rule, which would see at least two black people being “meaningfully” interviewed for “influential positions”. She wrote that this would include jobs on the board of directors, “C-suite executives”, top editorial jobs and other influential roles.
Of Wintour’s remarks, Johnson wrote: “Wow – after three decades, fashion’s leading arbiter has finally acknowledged that there may be a problem!”
The former model added that she wanted to “move from being an icon to an iconoclast and continue fighting the racism and exclusion that have been an ugly part of the beauty business for far too long”.
Glamour magazine, 1971. Photograph: Mike Reinhardt/Conde Nast/Getty Images
Johnson has appeared on 500 magazine covers but made history in August 1974 by being the first black woman to be on the cover of American Vogue, under the editorship of Grace Mirabella. She also became the first woman of colour to appear on the cover of Elle France in 1975.
In her autobiography, The Face That Changed It All: A Memoir, Johnson recalled her ambition. “My goal was to become if not the top model, one of the top models in the world,” she wrote. “I couldn’t do that without having a Vogue cover. Getting the Vogue cover was how you reached the pinnacle of the business back then. Now it’s actresses who hope they’ll get the cover, but its power is still the same.”
Later on in the book, Johnson remembers that during another American Vogue cover shoot, it was fellow model Lauren Hutton who “bluntly told the entire editorial team it should be me and not her getting prepped and primed for the Vogue cover that month … She was more aware than I that Vogue was hesitant to put black faces on its cover.”
Johnson at New York Fashion Week in 2016. Photograph: Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic
Writing for the Washington Post, Johnson says at the height of her modelling career, “I was reprimanded for requesting black photographers, makeup artists and hairstylists for photo shoots. Silence on race was then – and still is – the cost of admission to the fashion industry’s top echelons.”
With the industry facing a reckoning for its systemic racism, the former model cuts to the heart of the racial paradox within the business. “The fashion industry pirates blackness for profit,” she writes, “while excluding black people and preventing them from monetising their talents. Managing racism is one of the things the fashion industry does well. Year after year, companies inflict harm against black culture while actively gouging it for inspiration and taking all of the profit.”
Last week Condé Nast’s CEO, Roger Lynch, outlined company commitments to anti-racism, justice and equality, including “equitable representation within our content across our print, digital and video” and investigations into inappropriate workplace behaviours. A spokesperson for the company told the Guardian: “Condé Nast is focused on creating meaningful, sustainable change, and has implemented an inclusive hiring process to ensure that a diverse range of candidates is considered for all open positions.”