Fashion model, actress, and activist
Born October 13, 1952, in Buffalo, NY; daughter of an electrician father and Gloria (a surgical technician) Johnson; married Billy Potter, 1971 (divorced, 1973); married Danny Sims (a music producer and publisher), 1977 (divorced); children: Anansa (from second marriage). Education: Studied criminal justice at Northeastern University, c. 1969-72; studied acting with Lee Strasberg.
Addresses: Office —c/o Warner Books, 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.
Worked as a fashion model, 1971—; appeared in Glamour, 1971; first African-American model to appear on the cover of American Vogue, 1974, and French Elle, 1975; appeared in television commercials and print advertisements; worked as an actress, c. 1977—. Film appearances include: Deadly Hero, 1976; The Baron, 1977; Ashanti, 1979; The Meteor Man, 1993; National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon, 1993; A Brilliant Disguise, 1994; Crossworlds, 1996; True Vengeance (video release), 1997; How to Be a Player, 1997; 54, 1998; Down 'n' Dirty, 2000; Crossroads, 2002; Red Shoe Diaries 15: Forbidden Zone (video release), 2002. Television movie appearances include: Crisis in Sun Valley, 1978; The Sky is Gray, 1980; The Cover Girl Murders, 1993; Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives, 1993; Ray Alexander: A Menu for Murder, 1995. Television episodic appearances include: Emergency!, 1976; Hunter, 1990; Law & Order, 1992, 1993; Martin, 1993; Lois & Clark, 1994; The Wayans Bros., 1995; The Red Shoe Diaries, 1996; The Parent 'Hood, 1996; Arli$$, 1996; Sabrina,
One of the first successful African-American fashion models, Beverly Johnson became a celebrity because of her success in the 1970s and 1980s. The 5'9" Johnson was the first black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue and French Elle magazines. Over the course of her career, she was featured on more than 500 magazine covers and in numerous advertising campaigns. Johnson used her success as a model to launch a second career as an actress and to become an advocate for several social issues.
Johnson was born on October 13, 1952, in Buffalo, New York, where she was raised. She was the daughter of an electrician father and his wife, Gloria, who worked as a surgical technician. Johnson received her education at School 74, Fillmore Junior High, and Bennett High School in Buffalo. As a child, she was gawky and tall, and believed her younger sister was far more beautiful. Johnson became very interested in sports, including swimming. She won a number of swimming championships, and nearly made the U.S. national team in the 100-yard freestyle for the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico.
After graduating from high school, Johnson moved to Boston, Massachusetts, to enter Northeastern University around 1969. She had a full scholarship and studied criminal justice, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. While still a college student, she started modeling with the encouragement of friends. Johnson also had somewhat tumultuous personal life, marrying her first husband, Billy Potter, in 1971. The couple divorced in 1973.
In the early 1970s, Johnson gave up her studies at Northeastern to focus on modeling full time in New York City. This phase of her modeling career began with much difficulty. She applied to the famous Ford modeling agency, but was turned down. Johnson then turned to a modeling agency that specialized in African-American models called Black Beauty. This company was also not interested in signing her. Finally, Johnson went to Glamour magazine in 1971. She walked into the office and was immediately hired for a shoot. The issue went on to set sales records. However, from the first big job, Johnson was told to lose weight. She weighed about 135 pounds at the time, and by not eating, got her weight as low as 103 pounds.
Johnson built on this success, appearing on the cover of Glamour five more times over the next two years. By the mid-1970s, she was an in-demand magazine model. One highlight of her career was her appearance as the first African-American cover model for Vogue in the United States. Johnson appeared on the cover of the August 1974 issue, also a best-selling issue. She was quoted on the website for clothing line Peter Nygard Signature as saying, "Becoming the first African American to grace the cover of Vogue magazine in August 1974 was a historical movement in time, the color barrier was broken ." Johnson again appeared on the cover of Vogue in June of 1975.
Johnson broke the barrier again for the French edition of Elle, in 1975. Over the course of her career, Johnson appeared on more than 500 magazine covers, including other leading magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Essence. Johnson's career was not limited to print work. She also worked as a runway model for designers such as Halston, and appeared in television commercials. For example, Johnson had a role in ads for National Airlines, singing a well-known jingle of the time, "Come On and Fly Me." In addition, she appeared in print ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes and was a spokesperson for Avon cosmetics.
In the mid-1970s, Johnson was part of a trend where black models were considered hot, and she was regarded as arguably the most successful African-American female model of the time. At the time, she told Newsweek, "I see the inspiration of black women being lifted up all over when they look at me and that's a super feeling." Johnson wanted to build on her popularity with black women by creating her own brand of cosmetics targeted at them. She also thought about making her own doll. Both ideas came to fruition years later.
Johnson's success in the 1970s, however, transcended race. She signed with the Ford agency, and was one of the highest-paid models in the industry making about $100 per hour for advertising work and $125 per hour for editorial modeling. Johnson saw herself as more than just a black model. She told Ted Morgan in the New York Times Magazine, "I've in the business for four years. There's not a model, black or white, who's done what I've done in such a short time. It's so, and I think I should say it."
As Johnson's modeling career reached its height in the mid-1970s, she wanted to move into acting as well. To that end, she studied acting with Lee Strasberg, a well-known acting teacher. Her future in feature films looked bright. She appeared in several in the late 1970s, including 1976's Deadly Hero, 1977's The Baron, and 1979's Ashanti. In the last film, she played Dr. Anansa Linderby. Johnson also had roles in television movies including 1978's Crisis in Sun Valley and a guest-starring role on Emergency! in 1976.
Johnson's acting career stalled in the 1980s as her personal life became more complicated. In 1977, she married her second husband, Danny Sims, a music producer and publisher. The couple had a daughter, Anansa, before separating in 1979. When the couple's divorce became final, Johnson lost custody of her daughter to her former husband. While Johnson had some visitation rights, she felt restricted from seeing her daughter. Johnson fought for custody of her daughter for nearly a decade, spending nearly all her money and causing her much emotional distress. She also had some health concerns, including thyroid problems, perhaps caused by dieting to keep her weight down. Johnson later admitted that she was anorexic and bulimic. To address these issues, she joined Overeaters Anonymous in 1986.
By the end of the 1980s, Johnson had moved to Los Angeles to further her acting career. She soon gained custody of her daughter without a fight. When Sims moved to London, England, in the late 1980s for business reasons, Johnson's daughter began spending long periods of time with her mother in Los Angeles, beginning in 1990. Anansa soon decided she wanted to live with her mother full time in 1992. Sims agreed because his business situation had changed and his work required much travel and living abroad. By the age of 13, Anansa Sims decided she wanted a modeling career as well. She signed with the same agency which then represented her mother, Wilhelmina.
Johnson's acting career took off again in the late 1980s, and into the 1990s and 2000s. She appeared in small roles in feature films including 1993's Meteor Man and National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon, playing Doris Luger in the latter. Johnson went on to appear in 1997's How to Be a Player. She played Sandra Collins in Down 'n' Dirty and Kit's mother in the Britney Spears film Crossroads, both in 2000.
Johnson also worked in television in this time period. In 1993, she appeared in two television movies, The Cover Girl Murders, as Michaela and as Jane Marlowe Morrison in a Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Wicked Wives. In addition to guest-starring appearances on shows like Law & Order, Martin, and Lois & Clark, Johnson also appeared on the hit NBC situation comedy 3rd Rock from the Sun with other former models in 1998. She played a character named Prell. Johnson's ambitions were not limited to acting. Summing up her career at the time, she told Karen Brady of Buffalo News, "I love comedy. I have been working on a lot of auditions for films. I would like to do more in the line of producing. I know how to get people together."
In the mid to late 1990s, Johnson also became an author. In 1994, she published a book called True Beauty: Secrets of Radiant Beauty for Women of Every Age and Color. This tome was a guide to inner and outer beauty targeted at minority audiences, including African Americans and others. Johnson wrote it to address self-esteem issues as well as outward appearance topics specific to minority women, including bleaching and skin issues. Johnson included pictures of many of the women in her life, including her daughter and her mother. In the late 1990s, she also wrote a novel Top Model, though she could not find a publisher.
Business ventures also consumed some of Johnson's focus in this time period. In 1995, she licensed her name to be featured on a line of eyewear. Though Johnson did not create the glasses, she approved the designs. The line of eyewear was primarily intended for women of color, and Johnson served as spokesperson for the company, Marine Optical. The glasses were sold at Montgomery Ward and Sears. In addition to eyewear, Johnson also had her own line of cosmetics called The Beverly Johnson Skin Care System that was sold on a home shopping channel. She also had a line of wigs and extensions that featured her name and were sold through beauty shops and other supply houses. In 1998, Johnson added a line of costume jewelry. Johnson also had her own doll as part of the Real Model Collection sold by Matchbox Toys.
Throughout her career, Johnson had been very active in charity work and speaking out about health issues. Beginning in the 1980s, she worked as an AIDS activist. Some of her activism was related to her own health problems. In 1997, she went public with the fact that she had been suffering from panic attacks for many years, beginning in college. In the early 2000s, Johnson announced that she had had a hysterectomy that she probably did not need. She became a paid spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson during a uterine health information campaign. Johnson shared that she had problems with fibroids as early as 1997, but continued pain led to the hysterectomy. She wanted other women to become informed about their choices, including the fact that a hysterectomy would led to full-blown menopause. Recognizing her contributions to the world of fashion and activism, President Bill Clinton named her goodwill ambassador to the fashion industry in the late 1990s.
Despite her many ups and downs professionally and personally, Johnson remained self-assured. She told More magazine, "I had my midlife crisis at twenty-six. It's the age at which a model starts to feel the pressure of being past her prime. So while women who are turning forty or fifty may be feeling it now, I've done it already."
True Beauty: Secrets of Radiant Beauty for Women of Every Age and Color, Warner Books, 1994.
Buffalo News (New York), November 24, 1997, p. 1B.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 18, 1994, sec. 2, p. 46; December 27, 1995, p. 43.
Daily News (New York), January 2, 1996, p. 14.
Ebony, July 2003, p. 69.
More, October 2002, p. 40.
Newsweek, May 5, 1975, p. 68.
New York Times Magazine, August 17, 1975, pp. 1014-18.
People, August 10, 1992, p. 85; January 11, 1993, p. 80; July 31, 2000, p. 88; June 2, 2003, pp. 123-24.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 25, 1998, p. Y2.
Rocky Mountain News (Denver, CO), February 13, 1997, p. 54A.
USA Today, July 2, 1997, p. 2D.
"Beverly Johnson," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0424588/ (November 2, 2004).
"Beverly Johnson—Portrait of a Lady," Nygard.com, http://www3.nygard.com/corporate/news/beverly_johnson.html (November 4, 2004).
"Beverly Johnson Spotlights Hysterectomy Awareness," DrDonnica.com, http://www.drdonnica.com/celebrities/00006539.htm (November 3, 2004).