A Fashion Model & Activist Leads The Way

Dear Readers,

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We are excited to have you join us for today’s salute to Bethann Hardison.  She is a fashion model who became an advocate and activist for young women and men of color, looking to chart their course in the modeling industry.  From her Brooklyn roots, she has traveled the world, and she has used her influence as a trailblazer to change a few things along the way.

Bethann was raised first by her mother, who was a stylish, fashionable woman, before going to live with her father, who was a respected Islamic leader.  When reading about her early years, I clearly see the reverence she has for both parents, and how they influenced her career trajectory.  She embodies her mother’s love for fashion, style and unmistakable grace; and is grounded by her father’s skill as a leader and strategist.  These experiences motivated her to become a fashion model turned activist, and a champion of ideals and causes.

Bethann’s Early Years

By all accounts, Bethann was a game changer.  In an interview for the book Inspiration: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World by Crystal McCrary, she recalls her reaction to the invasion of the Suez Canal, which happened when she was a teenager.  A strong believer in the power of the individual in the face of government, she sent letters and beseeching telegrams to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stating her opposition.  This bold move set the stage for many initiatives that she would pursue.

Bethann made the decision to attend an all-white high school in Brooklyn that African-American students were being bussed to, George W. Wingate High School, instead of attending the performing arts school that she had been accepted to.  She views this as one of the best experiences in her life; for she discovered who she was and stepped into her power.  She also found her voice and began to express her ideas.  As a student, her impact was significant and punctuated by some impressive “firsts.”  She was the Wingate High School’s first African-American cheerleader.  Additionally, in her junior and senior years she was elected to produce and direct “Sing,” a performance competition among the upperclassmen.  Each year she led her class to victory.  These experiences set the stage for the world she would eventually help shape.

After graduating from high school she continued her education; first at New York University Art School, followed by her tenure at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  From there she entered New York City’s garment district in search of a job in the fashion industry.

Bethann’s Introduction to the Fashion World

In the late 1960s, Bethann was discovered by an African-American designer, Willi Smith, and began working for him as a fitting model.  She crossed over into runway and print modeling for other designers shortly thereafter.  In the early 1970s, was among a few African-American models to appear in fashion spreads for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines.  She joined the ranks of her contemporaries – Iman, Beverly Johnson and Pat Cleveland.

Bethann Joins Click Models

In 1980 Bethann joined Click Models, a firm that would usher in change for the modeling industry.  Within one year she was head of Click’s women’s division, which is the most powerful and lucrative department in any modeling agency.  In her interview with Crystal McCrary, you can feel Bethann’s delight as she recounts her accomplishments while working at Click.

“We went up against the big boys without even trying.  Our vision was very different from that of Ford, Wilhelmina, Stewart and all the other agencies.  It was an alternative.  The girl next door wasn’t the girl we wanted, but we found the boy next door before anyone else did.”  “We represented people like Whitney Houston, when she was a young teen.  We started Talisa Soto, who was a Calvin Klein girl.  Isabella Rossellini was our girl and the list goes on.  Fashion photographers loved our style because it was different.”  Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis were the main clients of Click.  They loved Bethann and were interested in anything she was a part of.

Following her success at Click, Bethann was in a position to make a greater impact.  Concerned with the politics of the fashion industry, in 1981, she changed her focus from modeling to activism.

Bethann Hardison Management 

In 1984, and with the support of a friend who was in law school, Bethann decided to go into business for herself.  Bethann Hardison Management was created.  From the inception, she set out to increase African-American visibility in the fashion world.  When building her talent roster, she skillfully negotiated with female models from other agencies.  In lieu of obtaining their standard agency advance, they agreed to wait for their checks until Bethann’s clients made their first payment.  This generosity was a testament to her stellar reputation as an industry leader, mentor and friend.

Her company opened its doors with a 16 models.  Nearly 50% were African-Americans.  It is important to note that from the outset that Bethann did not set out to run an exclusively “people of color” agency.  It was always her goal to bring more diversity into the business.  Over time, her roster approached 30 models.  She took an involved role in helping to keep the young men and women focused on the challenging work of modeling.  Following her advice, they learned about finances, how to be professional and the importance of good public relations.

Bethann The Activist

In 1988 Bethann, and her friend Iman, co-founded the Black Girls Coalition, a group of industry insiders working to help clear the path for other African-Americans interested in the fashion industry, both behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.  The group tackled important issues such as homelessness.

Paying this forward, earlier this year Bethann launched the Balanced Diversity Campaign to end racism on the runway.  She received support and encouragement from her friends Naomi Campbell and Iman.  In an open letter to the governing fashion bodies of the four major fashion capitols – London, Milan, New York and Paris – she called out the industry’s white-washed model casts, citing a number of designers who had featured zero, or one, model of color in past seasons.  Designers and the public paid attention.  Within weeks, 2014 was hailed as one of the most memorable, and important, moments of the season.

Bethann Talks About The Future 

Last month, On February 5, 2014, Bethann’s push for racial diversity on the runway was featured in the Huffington Post.

In her own words…

“I’m looking forward to seeing what happens – I’m hopeful,” she told The Huffington Post.  “Diversity is just good for the world. And images have much more power than words.  When people start putting those colorful images out, and people of power start standing behind them, it starts to create a paradigm shift.  And I believe it can happen.”

Naomi Campbell, Bethann Hardison, Iman on GMA via ABC News

Naomi Campbell, Bethann and Iman – ABC News

Bethann was able to point to prominent examples of increased diversity in magazines and advertisements.  She praised designer Prabal Gurung, who had just launched his debut ad campaign, featuring black supermodel Liya Kebede.  She also singled out Vogue’s January 2014 issue; calling it a “brilliant example of organic diversity” that featured several fashion editorials with models of color and stories showing celebrities like Idris Elba and Lupita Nyong’o.  She met with Vogue staff members in November, after the January issue had been pulled together, to discuss the importance of diversity in the fashion world.

A Celebrated Woman

Bethann’s contributions have earned her several awards throughout her career which include: the First Annual Vibe Style Lifetime Achievement Award – 1999, the Magic Johnson Foundation Distinguished Service Award – 1999, The Black Alumni of Pratt Lifetime Achievement Award – 2003, The Black Enterprise Woman of Power Legacy Award – 2012, Frederick Douglas Award for promoting diversity in fashion – 2013.

What’s Next?

These days you will find Bethann living a quiet life in rural Mexico.  She came to a point where she did not want to feel trapped in a big city any longer and is now working to tie up loose ends in her career.  At the same time she is quick to say “that’s not all of who I am.  I need to be among people who reflect more than tangible items proving financial success.  I want to live simply, to experience the preciousness of life.”

Bethann certainly deserves the chance to enjoy the fruit of her labor.  Her career and life’s work exemplifies hard work, integrity, inclusion and compassion.  While this tribute provides a small glimpse into the huge world she has helped to create, I am truly inspired by this courageous woman who, as a teenager in Brooklyn, began to take on the world.

Thank you Bethann for all that you do!  We at Brooklyn Legends are proud to salute you.


Inspirations: Profiles of Black Women Changing Our World by Crystal McCrary
The HistoryMakers – July 15, 2013
Julee Wilson – The Huffington Post – February 18, 2014
Julee Wilson – The Huffington Post – February 5, 2014

2 thoughts on “A Fashion Model & Activist Leads The Way

  1. Thank You Brooklyn Legends for ‘Taking the High Road’ and reminding us who we are and the importance of celebrating one another.

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