Book Talk: Catwalk Confessions

Groundbreaking supermodel shares the highs and lows of her life in an intimate, tell-all memoir.

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Beverly Johnson (right) with Sheila Johnson (Photo Courtesy of Beverly Johnson)

Beverly Johnson (right) and at the book signing Sheila hosted at her Salamander Resort & Spa. Beverly credits Sheila as her mentor and “the one who gave me the courage to speak my truth and tell my story to Vanity Fair.” (Photo courtesy of Beverly Johnson)

What’s the story behind this famous face? In 1974, Beverly Johnson made history as the first African-American model to land the cover of Vogue magazine, a milestone that launched an explosive modeling career and a life in the limelight, but one not without hardships. In her newly released New York Times bestselling memoir “The Face that Changed it All” (Simon & Schuster, $28), Johnson gives a brutally honest, comprehensive account of her fast-paced life, from dealing with bullies as a kid to falling in love, getting married then divorced (twice), struggling to make it in the modeling industry, dealing with custody battles, spousal abuse, addiction, speaking out against Bill Cosby and finally finding peace.

Johnson’s ability to use humor as a way to talk openly about her struggles captivates readers as much as her stories of perseverance inspire them. As André Leon Talley states in his foreword, referencing that iconic Vogue cover: “Since that defining moment in 1974, Beverly has journeyed on in her life with grace, gravitas, and gold-rimmed guts.”

The Face That Changed It All (Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

The Face That Changed It All (Photo Courtesy of Simon & Schuster)

The book is replete with insightful anecdotes from Johnson’s encounters with other celebrities and influential people throughout the course of her 30-year career. Among those featured are Mike Tyson (she dated him briefly), Michael Jackson (who asked Johnson for skincare advice), Jacqueline Onassis, Bob Marley, Oprah Winfrey, Iman and Eddie Murphy.

Johnson did not shy from including the most controversial of her celebrity encounters; she made the news in a high-profile case when she bravely stepped forward to stand with other women who claim to have been drugged and/or sexually abused by Bill Cosby. From her chapter “Mr. Cosby”:

“As we settled in to rehearse, Mr. Cosby asked if I wouldn’t mind acting out the part of a drunken woman for the scene we were about to practice. As I concentrated on portraying the best drunk I could, Mr. Cosby made a cappuccino and offered it to me. I declined – it was late afternoon, and coffee of any kind would keep me from sleeping that night…But Mr. Cosby wasn’t interested in my insomnia. He kept insisting that I’d never had a cappuccino like this one, and I’d be missing out on something really spectacular. I didn’t want to argue with him after he’d been so gracious and against my better judgment, I took a few sips. In an instant, I felt woozy.”

She also wrote about working with Ford Agency founder Eileen Ford at the start of her career:

“‘Too fat.’ Those were the first words uttered to me by the legendary Eileen Ford.”

The pressure to be thin, the pressure to keep partying on the ’70s scene and the influence of an addict husband, led to Johnson’s regular use of cocaine and other drugs.

“It was absolutely an unspoken rule in the world of modeling then – as it is now – that the thinner you were the better you’d look on a page. We all lived or died by that rule and achieved it by any means we could. I remained thin by relying on any number of vices, each one more detrimental than the next.”

The book is unique in the completely honest way she writes of her romantic relationships, with all triumphs and failures included. Genuine insights from moments of reflection follow memorable, vivid scenes, including one in which she is taken away in handcuffs in front of her young daughter, the orchestration of her mobster husband, Danny Sims.

“The elevator doors opened and two police officers came out. They asked me if I was Beverly Johnson, and when I said yes, they arrested me for theft. It seems that Danny had reported me to the police for taking the Keith Haring picture. He had also worked out that the police would be handcuffing me in front of our daughter, but he hadn’t counted on our daughter’s keen mind.”

A riveting story that is ultimately empowering, Johnson shares good and bad moments in equal measure, capturing the chaos and beauty of life in the memoir of a model and writer to be admired.

This story appeared in the November 2015 issue of Washington Life.

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