“She, to me, is Black history,” says Tyson Beckford.
“She was like the Statue of Liberty,” says Iman.
“She’s the godmother of fashion,” says Tracee Ellis Ross.
The “she” in question is not so sure about all the plaudits from these admirers, who sing her praises in the newly released documentary Invisible Beauty. Bethann Hardison, the model, agent, and activist, says she’s not a revolutionary. She makes no grand statements about altering perceptions or changing lives. She also doesn’t believe she possesses an especially outsize power. “I was just busy,” Hardison tells me. “I was just capable.” Or, as she says in the film she directed with Frédéric Tcheng, “if you’re going to go to the circus, get on the rides.” And what a ride!
Naomi Campbell calls her “a second mother.” Hardison’s actual child, the actor from A Different World Kadeem Hardison, sometimes refers to her as “Batman,” a play on “Bethann” and on an event he remembers from early childhood when a fire broke out in a building across the street. People, apparently, were about to jump from a third-floor window when Kadeem saw his mother running down the street carrying a blanket. In his memory, Bethann was ready to catch the jumpers. That blanket might as well have been a cape. “She was a superhero,” he says.
It’s not entirely far-fetched. Bethann, now 80 years old, has been a superhero in a world where superheroes are uncommon. She spent her long career first commanding the runway as a model, then advocating for other young hopefuls as an agent championing diversity. In 1988, she and Iman created the Black Girls Coalition, formalizing their efforts and raising their voices. In 2013, she memorably sent an open letter to designers about racism in the fashion industry.
“I was never thinking of advocacy,” she tells me. “It just happened.” She describes her work as a practical necessity, “like coming into your home and seeing it dusty. At some point, you’re going to have to dust it … Somebody has to do it. Something has to be done.”
There was a thick film of dust on the fashion industry when Hardison arrived for work in Manhattan’s Garment District, in the 1960s. Willi Smith, the designer, saw her on the street and admired her style. She soon became his fit model.
She was a formidable presence. “I was the first Black Black-looking model on Seventh Avenue that was allowed to ease in.” She brought her full force to the runways, taking the samurai as her muse, and describing her approach as “the will to not have fear.”
In 1973 she joined a group of American designers and models for a fashion show in Paris that turned into a competition with the French establishment. The French press called it the “Battle of Versailles.” Hardison says, “I knew these people thought we were less.”
She describes her work as a practical necessity, “like coming into your home and seeing it dusty. At some point, you’re going to have to dust it.”
The American models, about a third of them Black, didn’t take the stiff, mincing steps of French models at the time. The French shows were silent; the Americans played Barry White. “When I hit that stage, I put something in my head that was defying the audience,” says Hardison. “The more I walked, the harder and stronger and more intense I became. I look[ed] at [the audience] with such disdain.”
The Americans triumphed. Pat Cleveland, a model who was also on that stage, recognized the event as transformational. “Being seen. Being able to say, ‘This is my world, too.’ In that moment, we got what we deserved: applause.” And not just applause; the crowd went wild, stomping their feet and flinging their programs into the air. Cleveland says, “That show gave [Hardison] purpose. And that purpose was … to make the statement that Black is beautiful.”
Even though she doesn’t claim it in so many words, Hardison’s mission was to bring visibility to Black models while simultaneously giving young people shining examples of success.
As Ralph Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Hardison was determined to keep that from happening again. Her method was cooperation, not confrontation. “You can’t win a war if you’re going to go in angry,” she tells me. “You have to have your thinking power, have your mind sort of … calm.” There’s that samurai again.
The movie shows one woman’s energy, ambition, and absolute optimism in the face of every challenge, every potential foe. As a teenager, she entered a mostly white high school, becoming the first Black girl on the cheerleading squad and the center of the action. “I started to assimilate. I started to integrate,” she says in the film. Classmates chattered, suggesting “maybe I thought I was white,” Hardison tells me. “I grew up in Bed-Stuy. I had no problem remembering I was Black, and I was happy about it. I had a reminder of greatness all around me.” Instead, she saw her popularity and success as “destiny.”
Invisible Beauty is a hero’s tale. And it’s one Tyson Beckford, who had a long contract as a model for Ralph Lauren, experienced for himself. “I look at all those ads, and I don’t ever see me. I see something we as Black people never really saw. It was so heroic and so out of this world.” Hardison, as his agent, had a hand in that, too.
There were plenty of setbacks along the way. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, model scouts eventually discovered the next group of stars in Eastern Europe. In the film, Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion critic for The Washington Post, describes this influx as “very young, very blonde, very thin, very malnourished.” Many designers stopped using Black models altogether. Liya Kebede recalls being the only one in show after show. “You were almost expected to be so grateful for being the one,” she says in the film, shrugging. “Because there was only one spot.”
Hardison was unrelenting. She sent her open letter to the fashion industry, calling out racism and naming names. “I’m not trying to help Black people. I’m trying to educate white people,” she says of her intention.
Invisible Beauty happens to arrive in theaters the same year as the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Versailles, and the 10th anniversary of Hardison’s open letter to the fashion industry. But Hardison dismisses it all as coincidence. “There’s no significance to anything,” she tells me. “Life is just rolling right along.”
And even though she sometimes tries to downplay her work, she also recognizes its scope. “My objective was always to change the world. It wasn’t just to change the fashion industry. If I found it could change how people see things, it would change other industries all around. It would change everyone’s vision. And it has.”
At its Sundance Film Festival premiere, the movie brought many viewers to tears, something Hardison never expected. It’s a triumph of one woman’s vision, so undaunted, so galvanizing, that some might call her a superhero. “The idea is to make it where everyone gets so used to color that it doesn’t make any difference anymore. It’s a fight, but it’s a wonderful fight.”
Linda Wells is the Editor at Air Mail Look