In 1973 a show I starred in accidentally made fashion history. It was called The Battle of Versailles and was promoted as a “battle” between five French designers — Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy — and five American designers — Oscar de la Renta, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Bill Blass and Anne Klein — to raise money for the restoration of the palace. Princess Grace of Monaco, Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli and Josephine Baker were all in the audience. But it was so much more than just glitz and glamour: it became legendary for the number of Black models used. Out of the 36 models who walked for America, I was one of the 10 models of color. For everyone, this was groundbreaking.
I look back on that moment now, and it was just worlds away from what I had known. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, fashion was a word that really didn’t mean anything to me. I lived with my mother and grandmother until I was 12, where I was raised as a “latch kid” — when you are given the key to the house at the age of seven and you can take care of yourself after school until your parents get back. After, I went to live with my dad, who was an intellectual, holy man practicing Islam.
When I fell pregnant at 18, it was the worst time in my life. It shocked everyone — I just wasn’t that girl. But I accepted motherhood. My son, Kadeem, lived with me until he was three, then my mother took care of him while I was traveling and modeling in Europe. When he was nine, we moved into a flat in Manhattan, which I still rent now.
It wasn’t until I got a job as a sales girl in the garment district that I became aware of fashion. I have [the late designer] Willi Smith to thank for that — I eventually became his assistant and later his muse.
At that time, for me, modeling and working in the fashion world was an opportunity to affect society. I got to experience glamorous, wonderful things. I was liked, and it made it easier to speak out to the people I was surrounded by. I just wanted to bring people together, to talk about something they never talked about.
When I fell pregnant at 18, it was the worst time in my life.
I started my own model agency, Bethann Management Co Inc, in 1984, when I was still in my twenties. At the agency I had white kids primarily, with Black, Latin and Asian kids. It was scary learning how to do everything on my own — taxes, accounting — but I had to figure it out. I think it helped that around that time I decided to be celibate for a year! I have never been someone who didn’t have a boyfriend or didn’t have a love interest, so I thought taking men out of the equation for a while would be a chance to put my ducks in a row and prepare myself for starting my business — I didn’t know that at the time, but that’s what I was doing by being celibate. It was a good focus and important for me to straighten myself out.
In 1988 I founded the Black Girls Coalition, which serviced a successful purpose back then. In 2013 I founded the Diversity Coalition with the support of Naomi Campbell, Iman and concerned others who represented the fashion industry. We published an open letter to the fashion councils in New York, London, Milan and Paris, and named designers who used two or no models of color consistently in their fashion shows. I challenged the industry on its lack of racial diversity, but I was never scared — I was just reporting the facts. If they aren’t ashamed of doing it, I’m not ashamed of saying it! When magazine editors asked me, “Do you really think you can make a difference?” I never had any doubt in my mind. I still don’t. I believed if people could get used to seeing non-Caucasian models, then it would become a more normal thing.
When people call me an activist, I correct it to an advocate. Activism has to remain active — this is my quote. I knew the industry’s actions were based on ignorance and not conscious racism; it was never a point of accusation as much as education. Not everyone is chosen, not everyone is revolutionary, not everyone is a leader, but you do need to be a good soldier. In my case, I’m a doer. I honestly believe I was put on this earth to do this, but everything I’ve done in my adult life, I’ve pretty much been pushed to do. If I liked the title enough, I’d probably name my book “They Pushed Me to Do It”.
I’ve always been popular, but I just couldn’t see the things that other people saw in me. It’s only at this age — let’s just say I’m in my seventies — that I’ve started to be impressed with myself. People still want me on their team and I have a friend who calls me the “oracle”. When I was awarded the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Founders Award in 2014, I was stunned — you just don’t think there’s an award for what I do. Finally I am recognizing my work and I am proud.
Not everyone is chosen, not everyone is revolutionary, not everyone is a leader, but you do need to be a good soldier.
I have lived a wild life filled with joy — when I look back I have to smile at myself. Without meaning to, I’ve carved out a certain lifestyle. I’m currently living in my home in Saugerties, in upstate New York, surrounded by pine trees and quiet — the mountain air gives me a different energy to my life in New York City. I love them both. I have one son and one granddaughter, and I still consult for brands here and abroad. I’m making a documentary and I love to travel and live where I travel, so I have a home in Mexico while spending time in Mexico.
Twice divorced and happily single, I have been so loved in my life — I can name wonderful relationships I’ve had with men of different races and different ages who have loved me for me. Nowadays I tend to have younger men in my life. Women say: “Don’t you worry that he is so much younger?” My response is always the same: “Why would I worry? He’s my lover and my dance partner — I’m not looking to get married. Why don’t you just enjoy life rather than having such high bars that someone has to reach in order to be part of it?” Laugh, go dancing, go to the movies — have the experience. It’s so much more worth it than wondering when you are going to.
As told to Jane McFarland