Bethann Hardison on Pushing Fashion Forward and Toward “Complete Diversity”
Bethann Hardison happily accepts the role of the “grandmama.” Over the past five decades—first working a range of jobs in New York City’s Garment District in the 1960s; then as a model and producer in 1970s, collaborating with fashion designers including Willi Smith, Stephen Burrows, and Issey Miyake, and walking in the historic Battle of Versailles show of 1973; then as a pioneering talent and model agent who ran her firm, Bethann Management, from 1984–1996—Hardison has, with great finesse, risen to become among the most vital voices in fashion. A self-described “advocate” who currently serves as Gucci’s executive advisor for global equity and cultural engagement, she is a powerhouse figure who has not only reshaped conversations around diversity and anti-racism industry-wide, but has actively pushed for and, in turn, made change in terms of representation, from advertising campaigns to editorial shoots to runway shows.
Hardison brings a nuanced, lived approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion, one that is wholly her own, and one that she has practiced from a young age as the independent-minded, Brooklyn-born daughter of an intellectual imam father and a “cool,” supportive, humorous mother. “At the end of the day,” she says on this episode of Time Sensitive, “I’m the quiet storm that’s going to make sure that things change in some way.” This has always been her way. With subtle (and sometimes, not-so-subtle) force—and through projects such as the Black Girls Coalition, which she co-founded in 1988 with her friend the model Iman, and the Diversity Coalition, which she started in 2013 by calling out certain brands for not using any models of color in their runway shows—Hardison has stepped up again and again, speaking truth to power, against what was and in certain respects remains a long, ongoing lack of representation.
This work—a “life,” she calls it, not a career—has earned her a matriarchal place in the upper echelons of the fashion world, with recognitions such as the 2014 CFDA Founder’s Award and a 2022 Housing Works Groundbreaker Award. A wise seer and doer, Hardison continues to fight the good fight. It’s a fight, she admits, that she has never been particularly ambitious about getting after; it’s simply something she feels she was put on this earth to do. “Me,” she says, “I’m just along on the road. The car comes by. I get in the car. We go someplace. It’s as simple as that.”
Soon, Hardison’s wisdom and groundbreaking journey will come to the fore in book and film form: She’s currently at work on a memoir about her life and all the people she has met along the way, including the late novelist Toni Morrison, who was a confidante and close friend of hers (and in fact long urged her to write her story). A documentary about her path in fashion and diversity work by the filmmaker and director Frédéric Tcheng (Halston, Dior And I) is also underway.
On this episode, Hardison talks with Spencer about her “queen-ager” energy, her glass-half-full philosophies around death and dying, her efforts to call out fashion industry racism, and her rational, deep-seated concerns for the future.
Hardison discusses her many relationships with and connections to the Italian fashion house Gucci, from her early-life interactions with Aldo Gucci to her current role with the company.
Hardison gets philosophical about how she retains a youthful edge and shares her fearless views on death and dying.
Hardison talks about her decades-long friendship with Toni Morrison, the long-overdue memoir she’s currently writing, and an in-the-works documentary about her life and impact on representation in fashion.
Hardison considers how she’s processing the Covid-19 pandemic and the related grief and loss from it. She also remembers the model Carol LaBrie-Rose (1946–2021), who was a muse of the fashion designer Kenzō Takada and “like fire.”
Hardison recalls her upbringing in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights neighborhoods, her high school years, and her time in a youth gang. She also goes into her early fashion life in Manhattan’s Garment District, her work with the fashion designers Willi Smith and Stephen Burrows, and her rise as a model.
Hardison discusses the creation of her model and talent agency, Bethann Management, as well as the Black Girls Coalition.
Hardison talks about the immediate shifts in fashion that took place following the creation of the Diversity Coalition. She also talks about what it means to her to see Black women such as Ketanji Brown Jackson and Kamala Harris in positions of power.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Joining me in the studio today is former model, advocate, and fashion industry groundbreaker Bethann Hardison. She is also Gucci’s executive advisor for global equity and cultural engagement. InStyle magazine has called her “the fashion industry’s conscience.” Welcome, Bethann.
BETHANN HARDISON: Oh, wow. That’s a nice intro. Thank you.
SB: I’d like to begin by bringing up a brand that’s near and dear to your heart: Gucci. I was wondering, how do you personally think about the evolution of Gucci as a company across time, or at least over the past few decades? And how do you think about your own very personal evolution with Gucci now being in this role you’re in? When did Gucci first come onto your radar?
BH: The late seventies. Yeah, I became a Gucci observer, I would say, because I was being sought after by Michael Coady, who was under John Fairchild at Women’s Wear Daily, Fairchild Publications. And he wanted me to come work there. It is always interesting learning how my life is now that I’m writing about it. How many people really believed in me to do things that I wasn’t ready to do, or couldn’t understand why they believed in me. But he would really try to get me any kind of way to talk me into coming to work for him, and tell me that I could be a writer. I thought I couldn’t write.
And twice he asked me to come to lunch with him, with Aldo Gucci. And so I’d go to…. And Michael would have me: “Come, come, come on. We’re going to go to the lunch. We gotta go see Aldo. We gotta go see Aldo.” I’d sit there with them. And between me, and me sitting there, this little girl from Brooklyn—Black girl, by the way, from Brooklyn—sitting there listening to these two guys talk. Nothing to do with me; his point was to impress me. And I saw Aldo Gucci another time. Then I got interested in Gucci because I liked that Gucci held true to culture. That they were in America, in New York City, on Fifth Avenue, and they closed their store from the siesta times, like we do in Latin countries. I thought that was so cool, that they were the only ones that would close the store so the employees could have a break.
BH: You never forget things like that.
And then I just liked all the terrible things you used to hear, that people thought was terrible. But I always liked gangsters as a kid. I was into [Jack] “Legs” Diamond, anybody—Capone. All that stuff always intrigued me. So when you hear all these crazy stories about Gucci, dead bodies on the boat, and cocaine—I was just intrigued. I thought this is my kind of… Well, it had nothing to do with buying apparel, or buying of anything else, but it was just the idea of them, yeah. And as time went by, and it no longer was that anymore, and it became something that was conscious of apparel, which was never my cup of tea per se. I was more of a style kind of girl, not so much a luxury brand person, much more Japanese—like, Issey Miyake, Kansai Yamamoto, people like that. That was my inspiration more so. But then as time went on, they did more apparel stuff. And then all of a sudden you noticed that they have someone like Tom Ford, [who] never attracted me either. And then the next female designer [Frida Giannini] never attracted me.
When Alessandro [Michele] came along, it was at a time that I was trying to change and educate the industry, internationally, about diversity. So it was a little scary, because when he came along, he was a brand-new guy that everyone was saying, “Yay.” At his first show was all white kids. And I was just at that place where I was waking people’s minds up. So it became something that really worried me. I said, “Oh, God, this guy now.” He’s brand-new. I gotta go back down the road and tell people, “Listen, I don’t care what he’s doing. Stay the path.” But within the very next season, he had girls in his resort shows that looked like me. I thought, and it wasn’t even like a show. It was actually a lookbook. And I thought one of the girls was me. How could he put me?
And I’m standing here, and I’m much older. And Edward Enninful contacted me. He said, “Oh, my God, did you see that Gucci? My God, those girls look just like you.” I said, “I know.” And then I’d open up my head. That was, I think, three or four years before they actually approached me.
SB: Tell me a little about this role you’re in now. What are you doing exactly with them?
BH: It’s interesting. [Laughs] I laugh—I giggle, I should say, because I don’t know if I’m in the role because of who I am, but they respect me so much and appreciate me so much. And when you realize that the company is a small company with very few people who run it—it’s small—but the real estate is so huge that you think, Oh, my God, Gucci is huge. But when you get to see the guys and girls and women who run, it’s small. So I know them all. And it’s very interesting for them how I play a part. I say what I think, and they expect that of me.
Marco Bizzarri is someone who’s so impressive. He’s the CEO of Gucci. The relationship that he and Alessandro Michele have is very interesting. The fact that he could find this guy. The ones that he’s added, the ones that he’s kept, the ones that he added to the company are very unique in itself. It was nothing to teach them anything about diversity—it’s nothing. The Italians may they be…. And I had my life with [Giancarlo Giammetti of] Valentino, so I’ve lived a life of being around Italians. But it’s very interesting to educate them. But these people really, basically, their hearts and minds are already there. So I like the fact that he listens to me, that it shouldn’t be one person who comes in to be a DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] person. It’s more important that the company is all DEI people. And that’s what they bought.
Because they tried that when they got bombarded by the idea that the balaclava sweater was Blackface, and for me, I looked at it, I still couldn’t see Blackface. So, I understand that once the internet says something is something, God darn it, it’s something. So here we are, and you live with that kind of moment. But you find out that these people basically felt the pressure to go and find this person, because everybody says, “Well, if somebody was Black there, that wouldn’t have happened.” Well, that’s not true. I’m after-the-fact Black there, and I didn’t even see it as that. So they go and you get somebody that’s like that. But at the end of the day that person doesn’t necessarily serve the purpose of the company.
The most important thing is the company to be serving themselves. And that’s what I was able to bring to that. I was happy that I could share that wisdom, and that Mr. Bizzarri listened to that, too. That he agreed. That we don’t need someone from the outside coming in that’s not even fashion to tell us how to be one person. We have to all be that person, and they all are. They’re concerned about so many more things that most big brands are not even thinking about.
SB: So you’re basically like a cultural ambassador and public editor?
BH: Well, yes, very true. And I’m a grandmama. [Laughs] At this point I’m accepting the role of that, because they’re really like, “No, we don’t want you to do too much.” I’m like, “Put me in coach. Put me in.” But anyways….
SB: Matriarch at Gucci, not a bad place to be. [Laughs]
BH: No, true, true, true.
SB: Early on in the pandemic—on May 18th, 2020, if I’m being exact—you made this great post on Instagram about the subject of time. It was particularly about your time spent alive on earth. I wanted to quote a bit of it here. You wrote, “If you were full on time, ‘fully grown,’ how you see things now, opposed to how you might have seen them as a teenager or young adult, differs. Experience, time, and wisdom seem to be the defining factors.”
In the same post, which was, like right now, during the month of Ramadan, you also made the point that, “I want to recognize my time on earth and where I am today.” So I thought it’d be an apt moment, early on in the interview, to do exactly that. Where are you today, right now, this minute, the second, other than the obvious, which is sitting here in this room with me?
BH: Oh, that’s a good one because I just started saying, “I need a friend. I’m going to put an ad in the newspaper.” [Laughs] You know how they used to have ads in newspapers? That’s a thing. Do we have ads in newspapers anymore? Like, local ads from one person so you can seek another person? Well, I got a little frustrated with a friend of mine because they just wouldn’t listen to me speak. And she means a lot to me; she’s family. So, at this stage of my life, I realize I am that to everyone, but I don’t have anyone like that for me. And now I’m at a place where I would love to be able to have a friend.
I was saying this to a couple other people, as I’ve come to this conclusion, how important it’s to have someone to talk to. And I had that with Toni Morrison. It was when I was younger. And life got in the way, and I separated from touring. You just keep moving along. But I recognize those moments we had. Who do you have, someone that’s your age or older, that really is just wise and compassionate and kind? You don’t find that. I realize, now, I’ve been stuck with a lot of fashion people, and I always thought they were cool. What do I know? [Laughs] I’ve always been a mamacita to them all, even though I’m a young-spirited person.
But when you get to a place where you really recognize your time on earth—I’m feeling right now that it is a place that I’m thinking about my democracy, the country I live in, would I choose to live elsewhere? Would I go to Mexico, really? Would I spend more time in Marrakech? Do I just stay in upstate New York? But I love my city. I’m born and raised in New York and I don’t care what happens, but I need to have that energy, that slice. But I’m thinking about those things right now, very prominently in my mind. That’s where I’m at right now: thinking of having a good friend, where am I going to live, and staying healthy.
SB: The image for this post was a pink block with text that reads, “I think the proper name for ‘senior women’ should be queen-agers.”
BH: Oh, yeah.
SB: This concept of queen-agers definitely made me laugh because I love a good pun.
BH: Yeah, queen-agers. [Laughs] Yeah, that’s funny. Yeah, that was funny.
SB: As you age, and as time goes on, how do you maintain this sort of youthful edge? What do you think keeps that spirit—that energy—alive? And I’m thinking here, too, that this is something you share with our mutual friend Kim Hastreiter.
BH: Yeah, it’s interesting when you talk about age and time, because so many people think of themselves as old when they start to ache, or when they recognize the time they’re no longer 23 or 33. And I have infatuations with many younger people. A lot of young people, I have an infatuation with Harry Styles, I’m big on BTS boys now. [Laughter] No, but I am—don’t laugh. [Laughs] I have a crush on Aurora James, as a good little daughter of mine. I really appreciate her spirit. She gets on my nerves, of course, because she’s younger than I, and I’m a different generation, but that’s an intergenerational mentality.
I think also the fact that I’m just lucky enough to be healthy. I don’t have to have anything to keep my organs going. And I’m constantly thinking about what to do next. There was always something falling at my feet to do. I’m trying to think now, is it possible I could get real estate for the young designers that I’m working with somewhere in L.A. or maybe here in New York, where I can have a place where they can put their goods? I know this guy in Leimert Park, and I’m thinking about that.
I’m watching how my mind works. It’s not that I want to not retire. It’s just a way that I’m just here to do things. I think there are people who come to earth that are meant to do. That’s just destiny. I think I’m not trying to do—I don’t think of myself as older. Even when I look at images of myself now I go, “Wow, look at that. That ain’t… mmh.” People say, “Oh, but Bethann, you look so much” a lot. “You look just the same.” I keep saying, “Are they kidding me?” I’m not, but yeah, I’m recognizing it. And when I ache, I don’t think of myself as old. I think I just ache because I know a lot of young people who ache. So I don’t let my mind go in that direction. It’s not because I’m trying not to; it just doesn’t. And I do believe in, if they say that cannabis helps you, do it. If a shot of tequila works, laying in a hammock—whatever it takes to just have time with yourself. I think that’s the most important thing for me. And I’m selfish enough. And it’s a good selfish. I’m conscious of my selfishness.
BH: And that’s why I need—
BH: Yes, exactly. That’s why I say, I need a friend. I’m going to put an ad in some paper, yeah. Village Voice, maybe. No one reads it, but who cares?
SB: It’s back.
BH: It’s back. I got a copy the other day in that luxury store called Zabar’s. [Laughter] Have you ever been in there?
BH: [Laughs] Oh, my God. Whew. Okay, go ahead.
SB: Well, last year in Vogue [U.K.], you said, “Age is something I just don’t give into. I think more about running out of time.”
BH: Oh yeah. Oh, you’re good. That’s good, yeah.
SB: You said it.
BH: Yeah, no. It’s true. No, this is very true, yeah. Because that’s the thing. You have things you want to do, and I don’t think about, Oh, my God. And I definitely don’t fear dying. I think that’s why I’m never mad at anyone who takes their life. I actually, oh, I get that. And people say, “Oh, it’s so sad.” Well, I don’t know. Some people are not meant to be here the whole time. Life is not all it’s cracked up to be, as they say. If you’re not having a good time with it and it’s not working for you, I understand. But I really do believe that that’s what you worry about. You worry about, did you get everything done that you wanted to do? Did you put all your ducks in a row? Es muy importante, no? I think it’s very important to consciously know that you’re living to die.
SB: It’s how you spend it.
BH: It’s how you spend it really. And if you don’t do anything with it, it’s fine. Everybody’s not supposed to go to college. Everybody’s not supposed—you know what I mean? If people can drop out, if a kid wanted to drop out of school in junior high school and go farm, wouldn’t that be cool? Yeah, it would be, depending on what place you’re farming.
SB: So you’re working on a memoir. Tell me about this. When did you start thinking about a book being something you should do?
BH: Back in the eighties I was approached to write a book. Marie Brown, I’ll always have to give a shout-out to her because she stayed on me. She’s a book editor. When I first started my agency, Bethann Management, in 1984, I think somewhere around that time, she came to me. She saw then. Because there was no one like me. I was the only Black representing white kids. I had an agency, it had Black kids, and Latin kids, and Asian kids in it, but it was primarily a white agency. That, to her, was unique in itself, in that I could actually have that vision. And she was asking me to, and I was thinking I could do it. Never could get it together—you know me. She was so patient. That was back then.
You know you’re supposed to do it. Then you feel you owe it to your community. So I kept on thinking about it, but never being able to do it because never having time. Then when I met Toni —but years later, not after the good years of Toni and I talking all the time—
SB: Toni Morrison.
BH: Toni Morrison. Thank you so much. That was another time that she was the one who came upon me to say—and I didn’t know when we used to hang out that she was really a book editor before. Writer? Yes. But then one day she was saying to me, she said, “Let me tell you something. If I was still in that business and I was still an editor,” and I looked at her, and I didn’t know that. And she said, “You would have a book out by now.” I said, “Really?” She said, “Bethann, your story needs to be told.” She said that a couple of times to me in my adult life. When I say “adult life,” it’s like, more in the years of the last ten, fifteen years, twenty years.
SB: Coming from pretty much the preeminent storyteller of the 21st century.
SB: And the 20th century.
BH: Yeah, and it puts you to want to…. I’m just writing my little stories because I’m thinking, in my mind, the way my astrologist said to me one time when I just couldn’t figure out how to get going, once I realized I really needed to write it. And then I found a literary agent who really felt that I should do it when I was going to do it, and then I gave up on it. She wanted to meet me, and we talked, and she said, “Whatever way you want to write it. Just do whatever you want to do.” She gave me that space to do it.
And I thought about Toni speaking to me, too. I was thinking, How am I going to approach it? My life is so full. I just have lots of stories and things. I’m not trying to do anything. My astrologer once said to me, “The way you should write your story is by telling about all the people you’ve met along the way. That’s your story.” And I [went] click. And that was the way to start to tell this, and write. So now I just write about instances of my meetings, my things, my moments with these different people. And that helps to tell.
Because that’s what everybody says when they read my posts. They say things on Instagram, “Oh, my God, I can’t wait for your book.” So that becomes the audience, the crowd. And then you feel the obligation to give the story back, and that’s the reason why you cannot in your life now—this is the reason why you cannot—is because you have to tell the stories, you owe it to a community. And the community is broad, integrated. Definitely diverse, young and old. I always wanted to be able to do something with the generation that’s before the generation that’s supposed to be the generation now. So that’s got to be now. I should be talking to 11- and 12-year-olds, and not the 20-year-olds. Now I should be talking to maybe the 9- and 8-year-olds.
SB: I was wondering if you could just speak to this idea of wisdom, quickly, because I feel like this project at this moment in your life, having lived the incredible life you’ve lived, how do you think about this project in the context of wisdom?
BH: Yeah, that’s an interesting… Everyone doesn’t have that. Wisdom is like…. I don’t know. I don’t know how to explain what wisdom is. I tried to say that to a young person one time. But it’s not a luxury, but it’s something almost like that. It’s very…. They’re few and far between. You don’t meet many people with wisdom. You meet a lot of people with opinions. But wisdom is something very special. I think that…. I know that I have wisdom. I know that only because my father used to tell me I was wise.
I didn’t understand that when he used to say it to me, but as time had gone on, he watched, and he said to me, “Look at all your friends”—I used to be in a gang as a kid, right? He was nice enough when I went to live with him to let me ease myself out of this gang, so to speak. But he used to say to me, “Look at that.” He said, “Look, let’s start another kind of gang for you. Why don’t you start one with all your girlfriends?” It was called the Chaplains. It’s interesting because he let me see that I had such influence over many people. And that was when I was 13, 14, 15. Many people would come to me. Many of my friends would listen. If something was an argument, a debate, he said—and that’s why I was on a debating team—“Look how you can argue, look how you see things, how you bring… you can understand both sides and how you’re right in the middle of it.”
And then he would show me that me being—even with astrology, he would share with me my sign, the balance of Libra. So I think it’s an interesting thing about wisdom. It’s really, I think, birthed out of compassion. And sometimes you have a way of just being…. Seeing both sides of a coin and being able to kindly educate with that and not judge so much. I get frustrated. As you get older, you do get frustrated with more, and you want to lessen the audience, lessen the amount of people—and you have to.
There are certain people you don’t want to let go of. I will always have crushes on boys. That’s one thing. I mean that not like 12-year-olds. [Laughs] But when they get to be in their twenties, yeah, yeah. Like, for sure, you can just crush. Crushes are wonderful things. They’re not like anything other than admiration, basically. It makes you feel good. Because they’re inspiring. I think those are the kind of things that you find, too, that you have that kind of wisdom.
Even in my book, people say—my publisher says, “Your book is going to be special because you’re going to release a lot of things for women. A lot of things that most people would never say, you say. A lot of things you think, you’re going to make people feel better about how they can think that too, or feel better about themselves.” And that might be coming from a basic sense of wisdom. If that might be the answer to that question.
But I think that when she said that to me, I thought it was interesting because I do. I mean come on, late at night, my secret to you—and I’ll share—is that I look at reels of BTS, okay? [Laughter] Only just to practice dance steps. Now come on, I’m a dancer and I’m impressed with the boys because they can dance—I mean really can dance. So what you see normally in a performance, you’re not going to see what I see. I see a lot of the rehearsals, and it’s impressive to me that I can sit and spend that kind of time, to even express that kind of thing, because most people when you’re a certain age, you just don’t do things like that. And who does? I do.
SB: You’re also working on this documentary film about your life called Invisible Beauty. Tell me about this project, and what is it like seeing your life quite literally through this lens?
BH: Yeah, it’s very interesting to me, too. That was something that I had started. And “Invisible Beauty” was because I was trying to use this medium to reflect what was going on in the fashion industry at the time. And it was really about, I was trying to tell the story of how, at some given point, the fashion industry had gotten lost when it came down to its basic inclusion mentality, racial inclusion. And it was going to be about three girls and it was going to show their stories and how the industry had lost their way. Because I was part of the times when it was good times, I was [at the Battle of] Versailles [runway show]. So, of course, I know and worked with Stephen Burrows. I can name so many designers of color at the time.
So it was for me, that’s what it was going to be. And then people would say, “You should be in it.” And I go, “No, no, no, definitely not in it. I’m just behind the scenes, and I’m just going to make sure I tell the story.” And eventually it became my story because even though I thought, Well, I don’t need to do this anymore because I’ve helped to change the mentality of the international industry of fashion. They’ve now been finding themself being inclusive of the girl and boy of color. I don’t need.… And someone said, “Are you kidding? You need to do it. Now, somebody needs to do a documentary on you.” And I remember telling my first director, “Yeah, all right. The story is on me.” And he said, “Thank God.” Because I was always so resistant.
SB: Well it’s entangled, right? I mean, there’s the industry through you and you through the industry.
SB: It’s both.
BH: Yeah. So if you had been with me at the time, I would’ve recognized that a long time ago [laughs], but I was so busy fighting it. And so now, yes, it’s my story.
And how I feel about it? You just hope that, “God, I hope it’s enough.” I didn’t think I had even enough archives. And then they say, “Oh, my God, she has so much archives.” I go, “I do?” I was never a print girl. I wasn’t famous. I was popular. And it’s a great difference. I wasn’t like a celebrity. I’m still not. People say, “Oh, my God, are you kidding?” No, I’m known, but that’s a difference. It’s not the same. And so for me, I didn’t imagine it was enough information that anybody would care enough, but then people start to say that, “Are you kidding? You are a story.”
And then when Frédéric Tcheng, my director—I would lean on him after I had met him, and he had done my three-minute piece for my CFDA award. I would lean on him after I got to know him I talked to him about what I was trying to do. And he compared my story to what he had worked on, which was Mrs. Vreeland, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. And I love that film so much. I thought, Well, maybe there is something to me, I don’t know, because I just don’t think there’s something.
But as you know, we got people who want to give us grants. The Ford Foundation first stepped up a long time ago when I was just talking about the industry. I think it came down to a fact that he was onto something and everybody else was right and there is something there. And I just see that, when people give money to you and you can get equity and they see what we’ve presented, at this Sundance Catalyst program, then you start thinking, Well, maybe there’s something to it. And I hope that we…. I keep saying, “I know the book will come out. I don’t know if the film will,” and people say, “You’re kidding me, right?” But you just don’t know if there’s enough of an audience. Maybe it’s not me being—I’m just hoping and praying that there’s enough story there that it will be worth its weight in gold.
SB: Obviously, both these projects are about legacy. They’re also about memory, and they’re also about lessons learned. They’re coming out of, through, or during this pandemic. And amidst tremendous grief and loss. And I wanted to ask you about that.
How have you been thinking about these past two years, and particularly those who have left us, regardless of the reasons for them leaving us, Covid or not? And I’m thinking of Virgil Abloh, Sydney Poitier, bell hooks, Greg Tate, Grace Mirabella. There’s a lot of loss, and you knew all these people individually.
BH: Yeah. Also between the Islamic part and the Christian part, my grandmother always said, “We come here to die,” and my father, who lived [his] life to go to paradise—death is something that…. I’m one of those people who champions [death] in a way, because I know it’s inevitable. So whoever goes, whatever way they go, “Aw, sucks,” like that. It’s like biting a bullet when you hear about it. But that’s the deal, right? So during the pandemic, the only thing that was hard for me, the only thing that has been hard for me for results—because I see here so many people were depressed by it—was the loss of so many people dying. And I lost someone that I was close to. I started thinking about her. She lived in Brooklyn. She was older, maybe my age or younger, but very fit. And I thought, Oh, my God, Vera. And that was like, March 20. And by the time I rang her house—she lived alone—a young woman answered. It was her daughter. She had just died the week before. And I was like, “God.” And so that kind of thing—ugh. And you’re trying to fight and hope you don’t die.
But I’m upstate New York and you’re watching it change up there slowly, too. It hit the city rampantly. So during the pandemic for me—during this pandemic now—I feel like, well, it’s a lot of loss and people are going to pass away. But so many people are passing away now, young and old. I mean so many around you. I don’t think the young people, in my generation of time growing up, we didn’t know that many people that passed away. We don’t know that many deaths like young people [do now]. We don’t know that. Death is for old people. Death is old people. But now it’s many people, young people take their lives like you can’t believe. They get bullied into things. There’s so much of it. The pandemic to me is just a sideshow. I hate to say it, but that’s the way I look at it.
SB: Yeah. You look at the painkiller situation in this country….
BH: Tell me about it. Now that they’ve reopened up the sporting [bets]—I say that now that people can now bet like they can now on their phones and all that. Wait till you see what that’s going to bring. That’s going to bring a lot of hardship. A lot of people are not going to want to be here because they lost all their money or they started stealing—it becomes addictive. There’s a lot of ways to leave this earth. And a lot of things that can take you out of here. Unfortunately, we have lost a lot of people.
I lost a lot of people during HIV/AIDS, that pandemic. That was major. To see most of the industry, so many brilliant people, just being wiped out—guys you know. So it’s kind of…. We’ve been through a pandemic before. There’s a generation that has been, and now there’s a generation that’s going through it. And for all the parents out there, let me say to you, I really mean it: Stop making your kids think that it’s terrible what they’re having to have to go through. You should make them pull up their boots strings and understand this is their time. This is what they’re living through, and stop acting like “What a terrible thing.” Because that elitist mentality is no bueno.
SB: Once we’re through this one, there’s going to be another.
BH: It’s always something. Make your kids know, come on. Because this is not the Roman times, this is not the slavery times. This is their time, and it’s not as bad as you think other people have had it.
SB: About a year ago, you wrote this really beautiful post on Instagram about Carol LaBrie, another life lost. And I was hoping you could talk about her here. I imagine most listeners don’t know who she is.
BH: Awww, that’s so nice you bring up Carol. Carol LaBrie was one of those models. [Pauses] Yeah, Carol LaBrie. That was back in the day. That was the late sixties, early seventies. Carol LaBrie was a wonderful model and she was an American girl, beautiful. When Essence came along—we talk about diversity and things like that. We were out of the Black Panther moment—Black is Beautiful. We came out of all of that. And Carol LaBrie, I remember there’s an image of her and the girls marching with their hands struck up like this [holds arms up], it was a photoshoot. And it was for Essence magazine, a feature in Essence.
But Carol worked with Kenzō [Takada]. She was very close to Kenzō in Paris. And that was my most memorable moment of her. She was his muse. And Kenzō’s store was on Place des Victoires, in Paris. But back in those days in Paris, there were such unique models, like Marion Womble for YSL, Carol LaBrie for Kenzo. There were certain kids, and they were brown kids. But she was beautiful. And she had a lot of attitude. She was tall. [Laughs] And she was so beautiful. And she was married to Uli Rose, [who] was a fashion photographer. That these two met and God knows she was like fire and he’s like calm water. I never did understand how those two could be together. He was Scandinavian, and she’s a mixed fiery girl of color. And so they stayed together, and they had these wonderful kids [David, Ruby, Max, Franz, and Billy]. And I thought when she passed away, that photograph itself was so beautiful of her, that she just needed recognition. I think it’s more important to recognize people right when they’ve passed away, pretty much within the eve of their spiritual movement.
SB: Something floating.
BH: Yeah. Really at that time, [rather] than to do things when it’s two and three months later and you say, “Oh, here’s a memorial.” And then I think, What is this for? You get a little disappointed about things like that. But yeah, and thank you for bringing Carol up because she was truly a representation of what fashion was like then, and what the spirit of Paris was like back then. It was just beautiful times.
SB: Let’s get into your upbringing in Brooklyn. Tell me about your parents, your grandparents. Tell me about the tap dancing, the cheerleading.
BH: Well, I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant until I was 12 years old, and then I went to live with my father, who lived in Crown Heights, on Park Place, when I was 12. I did join a gang when I was 9. My grandmother and my mother worked. I was a latchkey kid. So from 7 years old, when I started going to school, I had to go to school and come home to an empty house. So I had to have the key—latchkey kids are kids who have the key around their neck, more likely on a string or something, or a ribbon. And we let ourselves in and we’d take care of ourselves. That’s what’s called a latchkey kid. And a latchkey kid, well, my mother was very organized and we lived in rooming houses, the three of us. And she would leave my clothes out on the bed and everything. I was always impressed with this girl—girl being my mother. [Laughter] Because she was a girl. And how organized she was, and neat and clean.
So I would take myself out, change my clothes from my school clothes and then put on my play clothes and go out. Eventually I became part of this gang. It was called The Chaplains. And I remember at a very wonderful interview at the Schoenberg [Center for Research in Black Culture] , I gave a shout-out to my gang and that impressed the audience. But when things are important in your life, they get a shout-out. So I was part of the Lady Chaplains until that time, from when I was 9 until I went to live with my dad. These gangs back at the time, they were lightweight. I mean, you got beat up if you went in the wrong neighborhood and maybe, maybe someone got stabbed. That’s as much as gangs did back in the day, but that was a five-borough gang, so it was one of the biggest, the Chaplains. And there were a lot of other gangs, too, but we don’t mention them because we give a name credit only to the Chaplains.
I ran track at the age of—I think started running track at 11. I ran the 100 relay, I think, until I was about 12. But somewhere in between there, I started tap dancing, on my own. I was very busy as a child. My grandmother, my mother, they didn’t know what I was doing next. They was just trying to keep up with me. And I was the kind of kid who would come home and say, “Okay, this is what I’m doing.” Or “I learned—I’m gonna go do this,” and they’d go, “Okay.” It’s the opposite of what people do today. Parents who really, basically, have to be busy, putting their kids in certain places and—
SB: They’re prescribing them.
BH: Yeah. And helicoptering them and protecting them and building their self-esteem, and all that stuff that parents have to work hard at now. It’s so different when you grow up and you can walk out your door and hang out and your parents say, “Okay, be home by 7,” or, “Don’t be late for dinner,” give you the freedom to be outside. We grew up in a different way. To grow up in New York City, in that manner, was everything. I grew up in Brooklyn. And for me, I never knew when—the teachers would say that we were lower-upper income. And I’d go, “Well, that don’t sound like we’re poor.” But it didn’t sound like you’re medium income, either.
But when you look around your neighborhood and you see nothing but tree-lined streets, you never think you’re living in the ghetto. But still, they would allude to the fact that you were in the ghetto. That was only mostly because everybody in the neighborhood was of the same color, but we were never in the ghetto. Parents worked. People worked. People had nice homes. Some people had nicer homes. We lived in a rooming house owned by one person. But there were people who I went to visit, their parents owned all the houses, mostly because they were from the Caribbean, too. And that’s another thing that’s different.
I liked growing up as a kid, I had no bad issues. I mean, I’m very lucky that way. And when I went to live with my dad, that was a whole new ball game.
SB: He was an imam.
BH: He was a imam. He was a Islamic leader, but a very cool guy. Good-looking, he was the brown Yul Brynner; everybody compared him to—when Yul Brynner came along, they kept saying, “Man, that guy looks like you,” they always said to my father. And he was good. He was a very aspirational person to a lot of the musicians who were coming around embracing Islam at that time, when Muhammad….
SB: Elijah Muhammad?
BH: Thank you. Elijah Muhammad wanted to come into New York; he was in Chicago. My father sat and told my stepmother and I that he was going to Chicago to meet with him. And he wanted to discuss coming into New York. My father was Orthodox Muslim, so it was different. And he was also an imam—I mean, haji, pardon me. He was a haji. He’d gone to Mecca three times. So the idea that he had influence with Malcolm X, when Malcolm was having his problems or wanting to go into Mecca. When he started having problems with Elijah, he would come and seek my father’s council.
And then I went to [George W. Wingate High School]. My high school years were phenomenal to me. I had gotten into performing arts, but I chose to go to this school because this white guy came to my junior high school and he was so cool. And he showed these pictures of this school that was so architecturally designed—it was [shaped like] a banjo. And I just said, “Okay, that’s where I’m going.” So my mother said, “Well, what happened to that other school you worked so hard to get into?” “Nah, I’m going to this school.”
And I stayed. And it was like destiny, because I became very successful in the school. The school bodies at sophomore, junior, and senior [levels] voted me to be in “The Sing,” which [was when] we would do a performance, compete against each other’s grades each year. And it was wonderful to learn about myself—the bit of leadership or, like my dad used to say, that sense of wisdom: how people draw to you because of how you live with people, how you deal with people, how you see things. And it was just very good for me to see that. And now that I’m writing, I recognize and appreciate it more.
SB: And you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you didn’t realize it at the time, but you were actually part of a busing program.
BH: Yeah, I didn’t know that. An Italian girl used to go to school with me. And we were both grown, and one day she contacted me because she had found my number or something and she said, “Hey, you know what I want to tell you? Did you realize that when you came to Wingate that you were part of a busing program?” “What do you mean?” She said, “You were part of the busing.”
I never knew that, yeah. That’s why that white guy…. And you grow up in an all-Black neighborhood, and at some point you want to step out. That was just what it was for me. He was so cool, the way he was dressed, his little shirt and his…. I always remember that whole moment in assembly. And I told my best girlfriend, I said, “We’re going,” because she would follow anything I’d do. She was such a good friend. And we went and it was just part of that. It was a great experience.
SB: And from there you sort of fail through N.Y.U. art school.
SB: You attend F.I.T. for a couple years, but don’t graduate. You become a young mother. And then you go work as a corrections officer at a New York state prison.
BH: I’m so sorry you know about that. Because I keep saying to people, “Where did you find this?!” “It’s on your website.” I said, “What?” So I told the guy who wrote it I never read the bio. [Laughs] Oh God, I don’t want anybody to know about that. Jesus. Because how that came out was that, yeah, Clovis Ruffin told Bernadine Morris of The New York Times that one time, because I was his fit model. I was so upset.
SB: It will be in your memoir, though.
BH: I don’t know. Yeah, I think so. Yeah. I basically was just really coming out of wanting to always believe that I wanted to be in the law area of life. I wanted to help people. And I saw this movie [The] Snake Pit one time, and it was all about this crazy prison for women. I don’t know how…. And I was dating a guy at the time, and his mother was a corrections officer. And I thought, That’s the way I get into at least helping people. And I was the first officer that was hired—I passed the test, but I was the youngest, so they had to let me wait one year before they could appoint me because I had to be 21. I had applied at 19. You could apply at 20—you could apply at any time—but you couldn’t be appointed until you were 21, so that’s what happened.
SB: You’ve spoken a lot about your time in the garment district, your job at a button factory, as a showroom salesperson, an office manager, a fit model. And out of this period—through this—you meet Willi Smith. This is a pivotal, life-changing moment for you.
SB: I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about Willi, and particularly in light of this Cooper Hewitt exhibition curated by Alexandra Cunningham Cameron that you helped make happen.
BH: As you were saying that, I was just whispering to myself, “I love Willi.” Everyone loved Willi.
Willi used to see me in the streets of the garment district, and he sent this young girl. They used to have runners for the Federated [Department] Stores, when they’d go around to different offices to get the orders and then pick it up. So he asked if she knew who I was, and she said she thought she did. And he wrote a note that said, “Please contact this woman and tell her that I want to meet with her”—at that time, I was a girl. And I took a chance because it was Willi Smith and my office at the time was very supportive to Jewish women—Ruth Manchester and Sylvia Courtney—who just wanted me to be so successful, and I met Willi in that way.
He asked me, would I consider being his model for a few things? Because he thought I was a designer. And I said, “No, I work in a showroom.” He said, “Wow. Man, you’re so cool, blah, blah, blah. Would you consider…?” And I said yes. And I went back and talked to my two women employers and they said, “Oh, yes, you have to do that.” And so I started working with Willi and I really basically am so proud of what we have done in this time frame keeping Willi’s name alive. Mostly because we have so many people who are creatives now who are entrepreneurs who are working in the industry of fashion and design—apparel design—that should know who he was. Mostly for those who think that, Oh, it’s so difficult being a Black designer. Well, I keep saying, “You’re not a Black designer; you’re a designer of color,” basically to keep their minds going forward: to know that there were people before you, way before you, that did very well.
So I’m very proud that Alexandra, who knew nothing about Willi, heard about him. She being the visionary and curator that she is, just said, “Let’s get a museum show for him.” I got one set up for Stephen Burrows, who was my other bookend, and here we go. And this is another man of wonderful talent of color. And that’s my job. That was my job, the two of them, and I’m so proud of that show, that she was able to erect that in that wonderful museum. You don’t need the Metropolitan Museum. You just need an exhibiting hall and the [Museum of the City of New York].
To me, that was so important, that both these two young men had the opportunity to have an actual show that many people saw because they deserve it so much. And there will be a lot of designers—white, Black, Asian—there will always be very great designers, but they won’t be able to have a museum show. That’s like it when you’ve gone. So it’s really wonderful. I’m very proud of him.
SB: And the breadth of what Willi did in his short life—
SB: Working with Christo [and Jean Claude], creating these incredible retail [spaces] with James Wines.
BH: Yes. Just being simply Willi, just being that kind, simple guy that, when people would meet him, they liked him. And they could see the basics of his aesthetic was always great. But it went beyond apparel. That’s what you’re saying. And that was true. Working with Bill T. Jones or working with creatives as choreographers—the people who would meet him. He did furniture for Knoll. I mean the thing—simplicity and Butterick patterns—things that no designers get opportunities like this before. These are collaborations that you think about, Wow, and Christo and Jeanne-…
BH: Jeanne-Claude. Thank you. I’m so glad you’re here. That they would recognize him and bring him to Paris, wherever they would be. Even to do Edwin Schlossberg’s suit to marry little Miss [Caroline] Kennedy—just things like that. It’s genius.
SB: So from here you go on to become this successful model alongside Beverly Johnson, Alva Chinn, Pat Cleveland, and—your best friend—Iman. In 1973, there was, of course, the incredible Battle of Versailles that you mentioned earlier, which pitted these American designers against French houses.
SB: And a year later you grace the cover of Essence magazine. Tell me about this transition—going from the garment district to [becoming] a runway model in just a matter of years?
BH: Oh yeah. That was, because I had, once again, the support of…. That’s one great thing about growing up in the garment business, because I had people who really believed in me. It’s hard for me when people think that it’s so hard to get up because you’re Black, it’s so hard to get up because you’re a woman, it’s so hard to get up—and I had just the opposite [experience]. I was a young Black girl who went and found a job through The New York Times ads, advertising, and was hired. And when I even got fired within my own company, the manager of the company would find me and put me in another department. She kept educating me. These were Jewish people, white people. So when people have these hard times, I don’t know, maybe it’s because times have changed, but Lord knows it’s not because people are not good. When they have good in front of them, they want to improve that good. They saw good in me.
And how I first started to model was because there was a man named Bernie Ozer, who actually worked at the Federated Stores, and he was head of junior dresses. And he used to put on very big shows, because he liked Broadway, to impress his buyers from different stores. I wind up getting this job to be in his show. Because I was a former tap dancer and I was taking samples over, and I said, “Well…” I’d watch all these people giving these things and he’s talking about the show and show and show. By the time I reached him with our samples from Ruth Manchester, I leaned over and said, “If you really want to have a great show, you’ll put me in it.” And that was interesting because I always say I’m not ambitious, because I always felt like I’ve never been ambitious. But these moves that I made were just opportunities I saw, and I had enough courage to say things. But I never think, I want to do this. I’m just trying to—
SB: Yeah, it’s a seize the moment.
BH: That’s right. And I’m just trying to help the other guy out.
So I wind up doing that first as a show and I performed so well in the show that I became this model. Then eventually, with Willi and other people, it happened. I eventually left having a job—because, being a young person, you sometimes mess up and people eventually have to fire you, because you’re just heartbroken over a boyfriend or you can’t get to work. When you’re young, you can really mess up. And I wind up working with Willi as an assistant and stuff and him trying to keep me afloat.
And then he introduced me to Stephen Burrows and eventually I got to be…. Eventually—it took a while for Stephen to bring me on and I worked with Stephen. Then all of a sudden when Eleanor Lambert decided that she and Françoise de la Renta were going to do Versailles and try to bring American designers to Paris to sort of give a benefit for the Marie Antoinette Theater at Versailles, to use the excuse that Eleanor Lambert saw the opportunity to bring America into the international stage, having five designers which were all her clients. And basically, the deal was each designer gets three models or the deal was for a model to go, they had to be chosen by three of the designers. It took a while for me to get selected. I had two and I was looking—and I had to go because I was Stephen Burrows’s assistant. Not only was I his fit model and a model for others, I was also his assistant. He needed me to be there, and he had already developed this dress for me.
So for me to go from these points to point, it was just the road traveled. It’s just the way it is. It’s not like something you’re planning or you’re scouting out. Ambition is one thing that I never really…. I seriously mean it when I say it. It looks like it because I achieve things, but it’s never because I’m plotting. Ambition is something that you really have the desire, and then get out there and get the job done. Me, I’m just along on the road. The car comes by. I get in the car. We go someplace. It’s as simple as that. [Laughs]
SB: There is this incredible event you organized in 1976 that I wanted to bring up: Issey Miyake and Twelve Black Girls, a presentation you organized in Tokyo and Osaka. I haven’t really heard you talk about it, but this is like an event for the history books. I mean twelve Black models…. What was it like for you? How did—
BH: Wait, wait, wait, you need to stop. How did you get all this stuff? Wow. You’re blowing my mind. You’re right about that. Thank you. Make a note. [Looks at Frédéric Tcheng, who’s filming behind a soundproof glass door.] Can you make a note? [Laughs] I should write about that. What am I thinking? Okay. There’s so much to write about. Okay, look. Okay. All right. What was the question?
SB: What was it like for you to organize that project and event? How did the Japanese respond? How did the world of fashion respond?
BH: Wow. Yeah. I’ve always been considered…. Issey [Miyake] like brother; me like sister. I was a muse of Issey, and then I was also working for Stephen Burrows as my full-time job. Because I had a full-time job. I’ve never been a model like the other girls. I just was able to model, but I always had to have a full-time job. I couldn’t afford to be a model. Modeling for me was like just performing. It was like me going out and doing a tap-dance show. For other girls, that was their thing. That’s all they had and I never thought I could afford to be [that].
But when I was working with Stephen Burrows, the good news is, I went to talk to the owners of our company and I asked them if I could also go to Paris from time to time, because I was being asked to come there by Sylvie Grumbach, and she knew a couple of designers that wanted to work with me in Paris. And they said, “Listen, as long as you do the work, you can go. You always seem to get it done.” Because at that time, Paris came before New York. And so I was able to go over. I got to work with Issey in that time frame, and that’s how I first met Issey Miyake. That was his first show in Paris and we connected. I was a real Samurai. Toshiro…. just a second. [Laughs] I can’t remember my inspiration’s name. Toshiro Mifune. Okay? He was my inspiration. He was a Japanese actor. He played in all the Samurai movies.
So when I worked with Issey, Issey could see that in me. I worked hard. We connected. Over the years, I worked with him. I was working still with Stephen Burrows, and he needed to do a show in Japan, and he wanted to do this show, “East Meets West.” And I was not able to go, I don’t know if I was not able to go, I didn’t want to go, whatever the case may be. Maybe it was a conflict of our collection. But I still was the one who helped to organize the girls—who he should have, which models he should make sure…. Issey always had to have my energy if I wasn’t even physically there. So that was great, the first one. And then the second one, he said, “I don’t care what happens. You have to come.” And the second one, I went as well and so we had everyone from Grace [Jones] to Iman to Toukie [Smith]. Yeah, there was a lot of good girls there.
SB: What was the result or what was the—
BH: Once we got there, it was so hard. I never ever wanted to go back to Japan because—I always said Japan is where I lost my youth, because I’d never worked so hard. First of all, they work extremely hard. No one works harder than the Japanese, as far as I’m concerned, in my experiences, but you work hard with them. And then we would go down…. I would go down that runway and they never even clapped. They just sit there and look at you and we’re used to—and it’s a huge stage, and we’re used to so much response and I would work so hard up on that stage. And I could just see my youth just floating away from me into the audience. [Laughs] I said, “I don’t even have the energy anymore to do this.”
It was really something, it was really powerful. It was Tokyo, and we learned a lot, too, experiencing, for me, especially being in a country where—I had never gone to a country where it wasn’t run by Caucasians. So for me to see a country that primarily, when you saw a white person, you were shocked. You were like, “Oh man, a white person.” It was very impressive. That was my first experience. The goodness of the show in Tokyo was wonderful and then to go to Osaka was wonderful. It was always a great tribute, because Issey had become very successful in that country too, in his country. And look, we still have Issey Miyake. He’s alive still. I’m still alive. He’s more a recluse. I’m not. The differences of us. Sometimes I think I’d go back just to see him, yeah.
SB: You launched your eponymous model and talent agency, Bethann Management, in 1984. And in 1988, you founded the Black Girls Coalition with Iman. These become wildly successful. You continue on this path. You sign all these top models, including Tyson Beckford, who becomes the first Black man to get “super” status. But then 1996 comes around, and you decide to close [the agency], get out of the industry. What happened?
BH: Oh, I never wanted to get in it. I hated doing that. You kidding? Oh, what a terrible…. I was thinking, all right, one day I’m going to go off and I’m going to L.A. and I’m going to work in the music business or the film business. I was trying to have some ambition. It doesn’t work for me, ambition. And I had a young man tell me—the same young man who introduced me to Toni many years ago—he said to me, “Why would you do that when you’re already known in an industry that really is appreciating you? Why don’t you stay in your own industry?” “What own industry? That’s not my industry.” “Well, that’s the industry that knows you.” And he convinced me to stop looking over there. And when I was working at this agency Click, and I was going to leave there to do my own agency, it was interesting for me at that time, because I was going to work with another agency from Paris, and she sort of, like, duped me, and I was stuck.
I had already said goodbye to my agency that I was presently with, which was Click. And I was just only reminded by [the former model] Bonnie Berman, who really found me the money, and these young kids really believed in me. They believed that I should do this. So I don’t want to do it, but I got to do something. I’m used to working. I have to pay the rent and so she found me the money and these kids were willing to do exactly what had never been done before. Then I said, “Well, I can’t do it because we have enough money. You need a lot of money. They said, “Well, how much do you need?” And I said, “Well, what do you need it for?” “Well, you have to pay the models in advance because that’s what Elite [Model Management] did. That’s what Ford [Models] did.” She said, “We’ll wait for the money. We’ll wait with you for the money. If you don’t get the money, we don’t get paid.” Wow. I couldn’t get out. Then I would talk to someone like Steven Meisel and Lisa Robinson, and I started talking about the name. Everyone was just convincing me I had to do it. Then they said I had to use my own name and I didn’t want to do that. And then they were like, “What are you, crazy? It’s such a good name.”
So I got stuck in it, really. Then I became successful in it. I said to them, when I took the money to do it—I was able to pay back the money in two or three years but, “Could I get out in three?” They said, “No, if you’re going to take the money, we gotta at least do it in five.” Five turned to seven, seven turned to nine, nine turned to eleven. By year twelve, I said “I’m getting out of this,” because I could see the handwriting on the wall—maybe without clarity—that this was something that I didn’t need to stay in anymore.
I don’t have a lot of clarity about what I want to do in life, but you do know when the road is ending, and you just have to step away. I don’t have a career. People say, “Oh my God, your career is so amazing.” I’m like, “What career? You mean my life?” Oh, that’s different. If you’re talking—I don’t have a career. Career is like doctor, singer, I don’t know, things that people, that’s all they do and that’s all they get paid for. Me, I’m like jack of all trades, master of none almost. So I basically told my assistant at the time, “I’m out one year from now.” And she said, “I’m with you.” And that’s what I did. I was getting rid of all the top models. But Ralph Lauren was like, soon as I was telling them I’m going, they were getting ready. They were telling me, well, we want another two years with Tyson. Three years. No, another year, they said, with an option for two more. That’s what it was, because they started with two. I was like, Oh no, I got to get stuck in this stuff. I was trying to get out. I can’t get out. They pull you right back in.
And then I wind up taking Tyson and keeping Tyson and having the Ralph Lauren deal, keeping my office. I loved my office. I never wanted to let that go. I didn’t care as long as I could find a way to pay the rent. The rent was low. At the end of the day, it wound up being a thing that worked out in the end for me. But the reason to leave it was because it wasn’t something I wanted to do all along. And once again, the good news is that it was changing anyway, and I was meant to go forward.
And talking about the Black Girls Coalition, that was something that was interesting too, because I was just doing that because I wanted to have a party to celebrate the fact that so many girls of color were working back in the eighties—something that had never happened. We’d never had girls work editorially like this. This was a big thing. And a lot of people don’t know it. We had Black runway models all up and down the street, but to have a lot of girls working, like, an editorial, and I have to give credit always to Regis Pagniez—and I will give this man credit until I pass—because, without him coming from France to start Elle magazine for [Hachette] Filipacchi [Media], the publishing company, we would never even have those girls like we have them now. He didn’t care about color. He loved brown girls. Even when he put a blonde girl in, she always was in Africa, all skin brown, lots of little brown kids around her. That was French Elle. He came to New York and he put those girls on the cover and competed completely with Condé Nast and Harper’s Bazaar till they had to start doing a similar thing because his magazine took off like that. And we were on covers and inside the magazine. So I was there celebrating. I couldn’t take all the girls of color, because I didn’t want a Black model agency. I needed to be integrated. I needed—
SB: You’re about beauty.
BH: I’m about culture. I get a little confused with the word beauty, because I never understood it when they throw it at me and ask me questions about it, but culture, society, that’s what I’m about. I’m about trying to make sure the people understand that this is how we live. Let’s not make it a Woody Allen movie. Let’s clarify that we need to integrate. And so I knew what I needed to do. I couldn’t take everyone on, because the other agencies were starting to tell white kids when their parents and them came to interview with different agencies, they started saying, “Well, she’s really great,” because everyone could not say nothing but great things about me, but they would do this clever thing by saying, “But she usually just works with Blacks.”
If they saw too many—I always had more than them. And, “She seems to lean towards this one.” If they saw me working hard on Rochambeau or Veronica, they would use it. And that would make the potential model hesitate maybe. So I couldn’t push it any further because by the time they’d get to me, they would tell me these stories. They would say, “Well, they told us; is this true?” Ah, here we go. So I had to watch it. I had to keep a balance. But seeing that these other girls were going to other agencies and working—ah, man. So I wanted to celebrate them, and let them know there’s a big thing with homelessness going on right now that I’m on for. And I want to do something about homelessness, and I want to do a big party. But I want them all to come together and make it happen. But I want to show everybody who these girls are, and I want to show these girls how they can use their celebrity to do better things for others. And I want them to see that they can work with each other, just women alone, just being Black.
It was a triple—a trifecta of intention. It was really a great thing. I’m very proud of that. The way my mind often works…. I’m always trying to figure it out, but I like the way that I pulled that one off. And a lot of people think that the Black Girls Coalition was about a racial thing. It wasn’t. It was a racial thing, in the end. I was using race to sort of educate people about another story. It was about homelessness. But I wanted you to see all those Black girls, because they were what was happening at that time. So it’s a way to…. It’s like a slow roll, yeah. It was interesting.
SB: And you were also, at the same time, navigating so much racism within the industry. In preparing for this interview, I read this 1997 Newsweek article that you’re quoted in. It’s about the model Alek Wek, and it noted, “Some African Americans complained that Wek is a demeaning stereotype of Black features: wide nose, full lips, natural hair, and ultra-dark skin. Ironically, at a time when many African Americans thirst for African culture, some are suspicious of Wek’s fame.” I was—
BH: I didn’t say that, right?
SB: No, you didn’t. But I was really kind of shocked in reading this article that this is 1997. This is twenty-five years ago, and that was where the culture was at.
BH: Yeah. You mean that there were divisions in how one is looked at [by] the other? Oh yeah. That’s forever. That will be…. I’m looking…. Well, no, I was going to say something so stupid, but that’s silly.
No, it wasn’t surprising. Look what happened when Iman came. Do you think that Black America was happy about [it when] this person called Peter Beard finds this girl in the jungle, and she’s bringing them all the way from Africa to bring him to America. Do you know there were people in Essence—the editor-in-chief of Essence magazine [Marcia Anne Gillespie] was completely infuriated by this idea, when there were so many good looking girls in Chicago: What are you, going to bring somebody all the way from the “bush” and get all this notoriety? It was offensive. She took the hit, too, because by the time they did this big press conference and all, it was like, “What? You’re kidding me.” And playing like she doesn’t speak English. So that was back then. That was in the seventies.
So when someone like Alek Wek comes along—when you get rid of most of the girls and you start looking at this and this is being the look and it’s only like a look, yes, it could be offensive, because within the culture—within the race—there’s so much culture, but also within the race there’s so much diversity. And so that becomes a little offensive to people, understandably. But at the end of the day, it’s getting better for many because division is becoming less for the people of a certain race. It is surely for Asians, for Black Americans, for the—oh, my God, I wouldn’t say Native Americans, because they’re still having their battle to be recognized. But we’re now—because we are getting so much play—we’re coming together more in strength and not looking at one or the other as being lesser. Look at what’s happening with West African models. So many are coming in.
Whether the image is right or not it’s only because of what we’ve done. So sometimes I worry that we’ve run so far in some direction that we’re going to lose what we are really trying to gain, which is complete diversity. Because oftentimes we have a habit in the industry of making something a trend, going so far in one direction that what you find [them] saying is that they get bored because we are a creative environment and you have to—to stay creative, you have to sort of swing your head another direction. And so what happens? You wonder, Well, all right, here we go. I want them to be inclusive and more Black, but now they’re going to just go right to one continent, which is a continent. And do, but are you still remembering there’s blondes and brunettes? [Laughs] Because I don’t want you to get so…. Because their minds can go, “Oh, well that was a nice moment.” [Makes sound of screeching tires] And just go in different directions.
SB: And did you go [back] to 1984, when you started this, that was your whole M.O.
BH: Yeah. Yeah. That’s true. Very true. And when you say my “whole M.O.,” you mean in regards to?
SB: And celebrating it.
BH: Yeah. Well, first of all, I’ve worked in a white world. I’m always someone who never lost my way. I’m Lady Chaplains. [Laughs]. I never stopped knowing who I am. I chose a school to go to. I went to the garment business to get work. I’m used to being integrated within a white world, but at the same time, my foot is on the clutch. My hand is on the gun. I know exactly that I’m here to bring in and to integrate. At the end of the day, I’m the quiet storm that’s going to make sure that things change in some way, because that’s my job. That’s what I come here to do. Whether I know it or not, I see it. I’ve seen it. Now, I’m also learning who I am. I’m also, as I say to Frédéric [Tcheng], often, I’m a fly on my own wall. That’s what I want to be.
I’m watching things, saying, “Wow, look at that.” So you understand that there’s a thing that is going well right now in so many ways—that’s on the image of models. But also now with designers, entrepreneurs of fashion design, trying to help them and making sure that we don’t get selected just because we’re of color—because that doesn’t help us. We have to get selected because we are superior. We’re equal to the best. We can run alongside our white counterparts. That’s more important than anything. And if we don’t get that, we’ll only fall backwards. If we get selected because we’re Black and they just try to check a box because they can’t help it. We’re putting pressure on them to do it. So now then they do it. Don’t you get mad at them because they’re doing it. We have to sort of help them to balance it. It’s a certain education. People have to be told. Don’t just put everybody in because the Fifteen Percent Pledge is being put so far on you that you don’t even recognize how you should handle the Fifteen Percent—I use that as a great example, that Aurora created, the Fifteen Percent Pledge, because, at the end of the day, there is something to that philosophy. But it’s how those people who have to do it, how they use it. [Pauses] Did I out-talk you?
SB: No. But a lot to think about, obviously.
In 2013, you started the Diversity Coalition, and this was really a way of holding people accountable. You took certain fashion labels to task for not including Black models in their runway shows and, in a letter to the CFDA and other national and international fashion organizations, you wrote, “If you use one or two models consistently for one or two, three seasons, of color, or none, the result—no matter the intention—is racism.” And you named a laundry list of these guilty parties, including brands many people would know: Celine, Donna Karan, Marc by Marc Jacobs, The Row. Looking back on it, now, nearly a decade later, how do you see things have changed? What would you say the impact has been?
BH: No, it was immediate. Internationally, it was immediate, because I sent the letter out the first day of New York Fashion Week. But it gave time to the international market to do something about it. So they had almost a few weeks, and Celine was one of the first ones. Of course, Miuccia Prada had done something. She put the young girl of color in her ad, and that was like, “Oh.” Because she was the one who made it all be the way it was. She was the one who was the lead horse, taking the girl of glamor, the girl of color, the girl of fashion glamor off the runway. She was the one who was supportive of the Eastern European girl being the runway model that was the image. Because of that, and when she…. almost ten years later, put this girl, that was good because she was the lead horse.
But to see Celine, who had never used—and Phoebe is a great girl, Phoebe Philo [then the creative director of Celine]. But she had never even used an Asian girl. She never used anyone of color. And when that letter went out, that little wonderful girl with a little Afro [Lineisy Montero Feliz] came, and I was like, “Well, here we go.” And then you watch everyone. And then the British Vogue—and I’ll give Natalie Massenet a lot of credit, because they were the first ones and the only ones out of the four cities that responded immediately, the British Fashion Council, that they wanted to do something. But to watch someone like Armani open the show with girls of color, and close it, everybody responded. It was really wonderful to watch.
SB: And now, where do you see things?
BH: And it opened the door. It kept the door open, people, basically just…. No one’s closed it. There was a moment, sure, in the beginning, the first year too, you would watch it to go, we’re going up, up, up, up, and then they go [nosedive sound], which meant that they were sort of leveling off, but they would level off and start dropping the feeling of diversity. And then I’d get a call. Like, Edward Enninful would call me and say “Uhh,” because I used to use the coalition as my temperature. They would read because I couldn’t see everything. I wasn’t going to the shows, but they would give me the reading. [Laughs]
There were different people, whether it be models…. The people who were behind me are really people that’s everything in the industry. So they would give me their take: Some girls would be at the show, and they could see what wasn’t happening. There would be some editors, there’d be some hair makeup people, they would tell me what’s happening. And that was all I had. Because I was the one who wrote the letter and I was the only one—I had the backup band, but I was up front and center. I was the front band, so it was interesting to me to watch it. Sometimes it would start to go down. And we had [Italian Vogue] editor Franca Sozzani, too. That’s another person that was very important for you to—
SB: In 2008, you did the “All-Black” issue [of Italian Vogue].
BH: That’s right. Oh you know everything. So they…. What am I talking to him for? [Laughs] But the idea really was that you could see that you had to really keep your foot on the clutch. It was like driving a standard car—this was not automatic. You had to really just watch the gears and shift and shipment, seeing things that they weren’t staying steady. They would say, “Okay, well, we did that,” and they would slow down. We’d go, “Uh-oh.” And we worried for a long time. I did. I worried because I just know that you’re talking to human creatives; you’re talking about something that you might make them feel like they’re being made to do. Are they being inclusive, naturally? When are they going to embrace it? Now, just get it. We don’t have to be part—we don’t have to be fifty percent. Just make sure it looks like you get it. It could be thirty percent, it could be twenty percent. But just don’t make it two percent—just embrace. So it was worrisome. But now, they’re in a direction. I was going to say, “Okay, we can lean a little bit….” [Laughs]
SB: George Floyd lit the fuse.
BH: Well, that’s what I’m saying. Bless you for saying it, because the death of this gentleman—the movement just spilled right over into fashion. So it starts changing everything. And not only just in fashion—just everything, from corporate, C-suites…. There are people sitting there who could do the job that you’re just ignoring because they just never were there before. So you’re not paying them any attention, you’re staying in your lane. And eventually you’ll see that. Especially Black women. They could really do the job, and still breastfeed you without you noticing it, because….
SB: I want to finish the interview there, actually, because we just had Ketanji Brown Jackson [confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court], and we’re also in a moment of incredible Black women leaders—Stacey Abrams, Kamala Harris.
SB: How do you feel about seeing all these incredible, impressive, beyond-worthy Black women in these positions of power and leadership, and what do you see for the future?
BH: On a political note, it’s really great, in that sense. But when you grow up how I grew up, you’re so used to seeing and being exposed to Black women who were successful to you, whether they were just housewives or mothers or people who were always at the school. To me, I’m always used to seeing it. My mother was so cool. And that’s why I sometimes called her “girl” [earlier in this conversation]. I never called her “Mom.” I always called her Sophie, because my mother was a complete example of someone who lived to the end. So when you get to this place, when you start seeing other people doing great things, some of the greatest…. Bessie Smith, Sarah Vaughan—those are people, to me, who were…. just like what’s happening now for this generation of people watching a Kamala Harris get to be vice president. But we worked a lot, hard, to get these things changed. The [Black] Panthers and the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] and all those kids, those boys were all college kids.
And so, for me, I’m so used to seeing things in motion. These are great results. I’m still worried about my country’s democracy. But I’m very proud of a lot of entertainers and a lot of people who really, basically, behind the scenes that we don’t even know are running corporations right now. They’re not the shiny ones, but they’re the ones who are capable of doing it. So for me, I know that within the ether I’m really part of something—of things that are really happening. Fortunately and unfortunately, I’m not part of the corporate world. The reason why I say fortunately is because I can swing a stick any kind of way I want and not feel any abuse. I could wear dreads as long as I wanted to; I could do anything because I grew up in a garment business and I was part of an industry called “fashion.” And I came along at a time [when it] was very easy to be a woman of color—to me. I still think of my industry as a woman’s business. I don’t care how many men are successful in it right now and are getting the collaborations. But the truth of it is, it’s still a woman’s business. And I recognize that strongly.
I think, no matter what color a woman is, if she’s not part of maybe Dixie—if she’s not below the line in the South, that she’s gotten lost and she’s staying, sticking with the Confederate flag—she’s very powerful. Any woman is right now. Now to see—for me, it would’ve been a real defeat if they hadn’t made the Supreme [Justice], the Supreme [Justice]. It would’ve been a defeat, because she was worthy. And these guys [the 47 Republicans who voted against her] are really reminding you how bad they are. Bad meaning not good bad, but bad bad. And so I’m so happy that she really got nominated and has become a success. And I’m happy for Joe Biden, because at the end of the day, it wasn’t just because he was trying to make sure I do something that I said I was going to do. It was just for the fact that this is the guy. I’ve always known…. That’s why he got in because a lot of the old Black people know who he is; a lot of other people don’t know, and they’re not going to give him any kind of break because this is the world we live in right now. We’re living on the internet life. So I’m very proud of that, but I know we are in very [pauses] tsunami-type waters.
SB: And just, on a very personal level, how do you feel about tomorrow?
BH: Tomorrow as a future? Yeah. Yeah, I’m worried. I really am. I’m worried about… [Pauses] Yeah, I’m worried. Politically, I’m very worried. I never thought I would want to leave my country for any reason. I came up at a time where we just fought for things, and you watched us succeed. And you watched a lot of people who cared. We saw the progress of our country. Mine. My country. America. I saw the progress. Now I don’t see that. I see that the vision is so thick. And the power of one person—and then you start seeing other countries at the same temperature, other people are doing the same thing. It’s autocrat. It could become a little fascist, in a way.
So I’m thinking, I never thought I’d run. Not really completely, I never thought I would see how it is going to make a difference because I see the tsunami about to happen. I’m concerned about that and thinking, Where could I put my last years? Because I don’t know how much I can change things myself, except for what I can do in my neighborhood. No one in politics cares anything about fashion [laughs], because they don’t think that we’re thinking, so they don’t care.
I’m just going to stay in that lane, as best as I can, and throw some money to Beto [O’Rourke] and a couple other people I know that I just like. I mean, “Go Beto. Beat him [Greg Abbott], if you can, in Texas.” But at the end of the day, there are not many people. Throw some dollars out, few dollars out, Stacey [Abrams], gotta get some. Keep Georgia alive if you can. Those are things you just got to do, just like you would if you recycle—do the right thing to help our world. And so for that, I’m really kind of concerned.
And for the rest of it, I wish the parents would just take care of their children in a better way and stop making their self-esteem and stop building them up with so much elitedness. And people are getting very lazy. That’s what I’m getting ready to say. People don’t want to work no more. This is scary. I listen to the radio. I don’t listen to Oprah; I listen to the radio. And I’m telling you, they’re saying, “Well, if I can’t have this, and I can’t have.…” It’s getting very [makes questionable “mmm” sound]. So that said, I just wish everyone well. I’m glad I’m older.
SB: And I’m glad you came in today. Thanks, Bethann.
BH: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. You’ve been wonderful. Really wonderful.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 12, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Mimi Hannon. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Tiffany Jow, Mike Lala, and Johnny Simon.