Real talk about style, Hardison's documentary ‘Invisible Beauty’ and continuing the fight for representation in Document's Spring/Summer 2014 issue.

According to the women’s blog Jezebel, minorities modeled only about 20 percent of the approximately 4,621 looks that went down the runways of New York Fashion Week last February. Bethann Hardison paved the way for these men and women of color when she began her career as a model in the sixties, and she continues to provide support as an influential agent and mentor. Model Liya Kedebe interviews Hardison about her rise, running a modeling agency, and her fight for diversity in fashion.

Liya Kebede: So tell me where you grew up and how you grew up. I don’t actually know where you grew up! [Laughs.]

Bethann Hardison: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, born and raised. I left Brooklyn when I was about 19—I started to venture to my uncle’s, who had an apartment on Fourth Street. He was an art director for J. Walter Thompson. He was kind of a bohemian guy so I tried to spend a lot of time there, but I don’t think I officially left Brooklyn until I was about 21.

Liya: And when did fashion enter your life?

Bethann: Style has always been in my life because I grew up in Brooklyn. But my first job in fashion was in the garment district, working at a button factory. That was after my very first job as a long distance telephone operator. [Laughs.]

Liya: What were you doing at the button factory?

Bethann: Back in those days, big business in our industry was coats and suits. And this button factory made custom buttons. It was called Cabot, and they actually painted the buttons. You would take them to designers to see what matched the fabrics. I was such a stylish girl, my boss thought when he hired me, and this was really a factory, so he used to send me to design houses to show off the merchandise. He thought I looked too good to be sitting in the factory all day! [Laughs.] It was great experience for me to go into the showrooms back in those days—it was like Europe, baby! They had these big doors and you’d meet the designers in their ateliers.

Liya: But eventually you became a model.

Bethann: I did. Like I said I started in the button factory, then I went to a low end dress company, at which I learned a great deal. Low end dresses are a fast market! Then I went to a juniors dress company and I got my first opportunity to model. There was a gentleman named Bertie Ellis, he was a godfather of the industry. I took samples over to him for my job, and when I’d go in, I’d watch and hang around. I saw that this guy was really putting on huge shows: he was getting out, entertaining the crowd. So I went up to him, and I leaned over to his ear, and I said, “Listen, if you really want to have a great show, you’ll put me in it.”

Liya: No! You did not do that, did you?

Bethann: Yes, that’s how I started, I promise you.

Liya: That’s amazing.

Bethann: He said, really, really! Who are you, where are you from? I said, “Oh, I work for Ruth Manchester,” and he said, “What’s your name,” and I told him, then I left and I went back to my office. The people I worked for were like my Jewish family. They cared so much for me, and they encouraged me so much. Eventually they got a call from Bertie that he wanted me to be in his fashion show! I was only supposed to have one outfit in that show, but the girl who was the star had to leave, so they put all of her outfits on me! I got an opportunity to really bring the house down.

Liya: And that was the beginning!

Bethann: That was the beginning. And then Willie Smith discovered me. He saw my style and he thought it was fab. I told him, “I work in a showroom, you know, I’m just a salesgirl,” and then he asked if I would consider becoming his muse. I told my bosses and they loved it, because Willie was young and popular and he threw his weight around. That’s really how I started modeling, I started doing it for him and he pushed me. He also introduced me to Bruce Weber when Bruce was just starting out. Bruce and I became locked in buddies and he used to photograph me all the time, and then he pushed me onto Stephen Burrows. Eventually I became a runway model for Burrows. In those days you were a runway model or a print girl, you weren’t both.

“But activism has to remain active. That’s the trademark slogan and that’s the mantra, because if your foot doesn’t stay on the pedal, the car will stop.”—Bethann Hardison

Liya: So the print girls didn’t have any relationship with the designers?

Bethann: Correct. Because we had runway agencies representing the girls, and the agencies did everything: produced the shows, fit the garments. It was Calvin Klein who decided to put the girl who was in the pages on his runway, so the editor could understand how to see the clothes. And that’s how it started.

Kebede: What was the most important runway you did?

Bethann: There were two. The first was as a Calvin model. He put this one show in a big loft, which had never been done before. It had a high, long runway with disco music blasting. I had on a kind of cowboy shirt. I’ll never forget hitting that runway: I danced the whole way down!

Liya: You danced?

Bethann: I danced. I was a well known runway girl, one of what they called the “black stallions.” I danced and those people went crazy! In interviews Calvin would always talk about it, because that shirt was one of their biggest sellers, and that was because of how I sold it. And the other most important runway was a show I produced for Kansai Yamamoto, a Japanese designer. He wanted to have it on skates, and I was a well known skater at the time. I had to choreograph skating! It was one of the most extraordinary moments because he didn’t speak English!

Liya: I didn’t know you were a skater, by the way.

Bethann: Yeah, I’m a lot of things. It’s a big world. [Laughs.] Yamamoto was so taken with the show that he wrote me the most incredible letter, all in Japanese. I never understood a word of it, but I still have it!

Liya: And what about Versailles in ’73? The international fashion face-off when French and American designers competed?

Bethann: It was an extraordinary experience because of how people started looking at the Americans.

“I went up to him, and I leaned over to his ear, and I said, ‘Listen, if you really want to have a great show, you’ll put me in it.”—Bethann Hardison

Liya: Who was with you at the time?

Bethann: Oh, it was so big, but on the dark side it was myself, Billie Blair, Pat Cleveland, Norma Jean Darden, Ramona Saunders, Amina Warsuma, and Charlene Dash.

Liya: Does what is happening now for black models surprise you?

Bethann: We came up right after the civil rights movement, the late sixties. The slogan “black is beautiful” became something that the industry grasped onto and held. Naomi Sims exploded, then it was just natural. I mean, look at me! Every time Salvador Dalí came to town he’d go to Studio 54 and he would see me and have his assistant come get me. If you had style and you had personality, you were part of cool! Because you added to the conversation as much as everybody else. It’s a whole different world now—everything is so caught up. When I started my own modeling agency I represented everyone. I love skinny white boys and I love the Asian kids, I love Latin kids. Well basically I love everything that walks. [Laughs.] In the late eighties I saw that using models of color began to slowly catch on.

Liya: Why do you think that happened?

Bethann: It was just the right time. There was money moving around, and… I don’t want to say it was because of me, because I existed and I kept pushing the envelope, but I had black kids in my company, and Asians, and non-Caucasians, when no other small agencies would have them.

Liya: You started a coalition to fight racism on the runway, and now you’re the face of the movement.

Bethann: Up until about ’95 everything seemed to be going fine. I had discovered Tyson, and he was doing Ralph Lauren. But then I left for an extended trip to Mexico, and the energy of the industry just seemed to change. In ’99 or so, I started getting calls like, “It’s really dying. It’s gone backwards, it’s like you were never there.” By ’04, I had Naomi in my ear saying, “You’ve got to do something!” But I kept saying I’ll do it next year, okay, I’ll do it next year, and then by ’07 I was like, okay, this is it. And in ’07 we called a press conference and I told everyone what we were going to do.

Liya: What did it achieve?

Bethann: Well, we changed things! For a time. From ’99 to ’07, casting directors would say they were seeing models but they would tell you, no blacks, no ethnics. Then we had that meeting on September 14, ’07—and for a while it was okay again. But activism has to remain active. That’s the trademark slogan and that’s the mantra, because if your foot doesn’t stay on the pedal, the car will stop.

“[The Calvin Klein show] had a high, long runway with disco music blasting. I had on a kind of cowboy shirt. I’ll never forget hitting that runway: I danced the whole way down!”—Bethann Hardison

Liya: So this time around you, you added more fuel to the fire.

Bethann: People think they’re so liberal. But liberalism can be borderline racist! It can be very subtle: sway and sway and you’re not standing straight anymore. And so I thought to myself: this will help the industry, because the industry is flatlining. We got people talking about the issue. I loved seeing everybody truly step up to  say: okay, we’re gonna help, we’re gonna co-sponsor things and put a panel discussion together on diversity and have the industry come in at a breakfast like they did with the Elle initiative. And never in the history of our industry have brown girls had such success at being booked into fashion advertising as they do now!

Liya: Yes!

Bethann: Of course there are still people I wish I could sit down with at a panel discussion to let them know how important it is to embrace diversity, not for people of color but for our entire, global society. It just feels better! If you try it, it looks better. It just gives things a life.

Liya: There are some excellent girls right now.

Bethann: Yeah, that’s true, it’s true that there’s a lot of choice. We have to keep on making it happen. I even went to London and had a great talk with Maggie Mayer, who’s now the president of the British Fashion Council, and she said, “you can help me by getting those girls to us, because so many designers say, ‘but there’s no girls!’” That’s kind of true, because how many girls can afford to go to London, you know? Just to be seen? The new girls can’t afford to go there. But someone gave me an idea that energized me: I thought it would be a great idea to take ten girls on a plane. It’s a very cost effective way to take them around. I’m very pleased with what I’m seeing happen. We won’t know the extent of it until the season’s over. And of course there are some people I’d really like to go up to and just strangle, you know, you just look at them and say, “What is your problem?” But it’s okay. [Laughs.]

Liya: I know that I shouldn’t ask you who those people are. [Laughs.] Or should I?

Bethann: We’ll get ’em, we’ll get ’em soon. By April, everybody will know who they are.

Liya: In the memoir it will all come out. [Laughs.] How’s the documentary going, by the way?

Bethann: I’ve been working on my documentary since the nineties. It’s been taking me a while! Thank god I have a young filmmaker in my life who knows how to tell stories, because I would have told 5,000 stories in that one film. But he really made me focus on who I am and what I’ve been doing, and tell a story about the lack of diversity in our industry and the struggle to bring girls of color into it. The film is called Invisible Beauty and it follows three girls and also tells my story. I’m the common thread that shows you how it happened, the struggle of getting it done.

Liya: Where would you like to be when it’s all said and done?

Bethann: This is easy! I would like to be where I am right now in my life. You can talk about diversity any place in the world now, and I think, I hope that we’ve got a permanent thing going on. At the end of the day I’d like to finish the documentary. And I hope that maintaining diversity encourages designers, and encourages the model agencies to keep searching for more girls. When you get to a certain age in your life you want to settle nicely into the home you’ve built and just hope that when you turn your back, you know that you’ve done your job well.

This conversation originally appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2014 issue.