In the 40 years since I was the first woman of color to appear on the cover of American Vogue, things in the fashion realm have gone through a world of change. And yet at the same time—unfortunately—many things have remained the same. As I wrote just last year, the absence of black runway models in high fashion is stark, and it is really startling and troubling to me.
The notion of what is beautiful in black women is still a source of great debate in popular culture; just look at the recent casting call for a movie about the trailblazing rap group N.W.A. The call sheet asked women to “grade” themselves, from A through D, using such criteria as skin color, waist size and hair type. The “A”’s were the women who had a model-like build, light complexion and long hair.
By their scale, Beyoncé would rate only a “B” grade! Sure, “B” is for beautiful and Beyoncé, but I don’t think there are many who would argue that Bey earns an “A” on the scale of beauty across all races, so what gives?
That we are still held to standards like these—even for a movie about a legendary hip-hop crew—says a lot about how far we’ve come … or, sadly and more accurately, how far we haven’t come since that August 1974 issue of Vogue.
And there is still the issue of hair—which, for black women, is fraught with great meaning that goes as deep as our roots (both literally and figuratively). By that casting-call scale of beauty, Solange Knowles could have scored only a “C” at highest, mainly because of her choice of hairstyle. When does hairstyle make such an impact on our perception of beauty as it does on black women? The quick answer is: really, never.
And the politics of black hair—both personal and public—rages on. For proof, no need to look further than the recently announced new regulations regarding acceptable hairstyles in the U.S. military. Though not purportedly aimed directly at black women, the guidelines most directly affect them, banning many styles that are the easiest to create and least expensive to maintain. Is it any wonder that black women account for 70 percent of sales of hair extensions and weaves?
There has been some notable progress, of course. Beyoncé and Solange represent such a terrific range of proud black beauty. Award-winning 12 Years a Slave star Lupita Nyong’o’s recent meteoric rise on the red carpet and as the new face of Prada has been wonderful to watch (her first Vogue cover was just one month shy of the 40-year anniversary of mine). Of course, there is Kerry Washington’s amazing role as the star of “Scandal” in the high-profile role of the solver as a smart, beautiful and sexy black woman. And “Orange Is the New Black” has offered so many shades of black beauty to its viewers, from the touching vulnerability of “Crazy Eyes” (played by Uzo Aduba, an actress of Nigerian descent) to Sophia’s strong, sexy and beautiful black trans woman (portrayed by real-life strong, sexy and beautiful black transgender actress Laverne Cox).
When I became the first model to brand herself 25 years ago with the Beverly Johnson eyewear line at Sears’ optical and then 17 years ago as the hair guru and the face of the third-largest Korean hair company in America, the core of my business was to offer a wide range of beautiful hair products to women of all colors, but especially black women, by licensing my name.
Now, as a “modelpreneur” for the past three years, I have been building my own company, BJE LLC, and I’ve expanded from licensing my name to building my business to include television, media, retail, makeup and accessories, but the cornerstone is still the hair. I want to empower black women to be able to be their most beautiful selves—however they define it, not how it’s defined for them. And I’m proud to have been at the forefront of helping black women in the journey to define their own beauty. But I know we still have further to go in that journey, and there are many of us who are in it for the long run.