Iconic supermodel Beverly Johnson has revealed shocking details about the extreme measures she took to stay thin during the height of her modeling career in the 1970s and 80s.
Model Felt Pressure to be “Chiseled to the Bone”
In a new interview with People magazine, the 71-year-old Johnson says she became addicted to cocaine which she used to curb her appetite down to just two eggs a week and a bowl of brown rice. She says she was encouraged by modeling agents and photographers to be as skinny as possible.
“Everybody was chiseled to the bone…and I just wanted to be [that way] too,” she told People.
Johnson rose to fame in 1974 when she became the first Black model to grace the cover of American Vogue. She went on to become one of the world’s highest-paid models, but says behind the scenes she struggled with extreme dieting and drugs.
Model Lived on 500 Calories a Day
Detailed in her upcoming memoir, Johnson says at the worst depths of her eating disorder in the late 70s, she was living on just 500 calories a day from two eggs and a small bowl of brown rice, according to The Daily Mail. She supplemented the starvation diet with copious amounts of cocaine which she says modelling agents and fashion photographers openly encouraged her to take.
“I was given drugs to make me feel full even though I wasn’t eating properly,” she told The Daily Mail.
The model says this combination of starvation and drug abuse led to a severe addiction which took years of recovery to overcome.
Shocking Revelations in New Memoir
Johnson is sharing the full details of this traumatic time in her upcoming memoir which covers her groundbreaking 40-year modeling career.
Titled The Face That Changed It All, Johnson writes openly about both the highs and lows of being one of the fashion industry’s first successful Black models. From landing her history-making Vogue cover to speaking out about discrimination and sexual harassment, Johnson provides an unfiltered look at the darker side of the modeling world in the 70s and 80s.
Memoir Being Adapted for Theater
Alongside the release of her memoir, Johnson’s story is also being adapted into an Off-Broadway one-woman show called Beverly Johnson in Vogue.
The limited engagement show opened last week at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. Directed by Kristin Hanggi, the show features Tony Award nominee Charity Angel Dawson playing the supermodel at different stages of her groundbreaking career. Early reviews have praised Dawson’s “commanding stage presence” as she brings Johnson’s story to life.
The show was originally set to close this week but was just extended for an additional week until January 28th due to strong ticket sales and audience enthusiasm.
Model Speaks Out About Discrimination
While Johnson achieved immense professional success, she also endured discrimination, harassment, and manipulation by those around her. She says she was often turned down for jobs explicitly because she was Black. Johnson also details several disturbing incidents of sexual harassment by photographers and agents in her early career.
Johnson says her cocaine addiction stemmed in part from the immense pressure she felt to shrink her curves that did not fit the rail-thin white standard of beauty at the time:
“I did not wake up one day addicted to cocaine. My addiction was the direct result of the stress and pressures I was forced to endure to stay at the top of my modeling career,” she writes in her memoir.
The model hopes that by speaking out about her experiences, she can continue raising awareness about the systematic mistreatment and exploitation that many models still face today.
What This Means for the Fashion Industry
Johnson’s story comes amidst larger reckonings around discrimination, harassment, and the promotion of unhealthy body standards within the fashion world. While some progress has been made towards more diversity and inclusion over the past 50 years, Johnson’s memoir shows how the industry still has further to go.
As Vogue highlights, while models today may not face the same level of overt discrimination as Johnson did, many still feel intense pressure to lose dangerous amounts of weight. Stories like Johnson’s aim to further spur positive changes around health, diversity, and workplace conditions:
“I think models have it a lot better today than we did back then,” Johnson said in an interview with Vogue. “But still we have a long way to go.”
The model hopes the vulnerable look back at her younger self will empower future generations to advocate for themselves and enact change.
At 71 years old, Beverly Johnson has achieved icon status as a trailblazing model who broke barriers for Black women in fashion. But as her shocking new memoir reveals, that success came at an immense personal cost which included dangerous drug abuse and an eating disorder stemming from extreme industry pressures around appearance.
By courageously opening up about this painful chapter, Johnson aims to spark further dialogue around improving conditions for models so others don’t have to face the same struggles she endured early on. Though some positive progress has been made, Johnson’s story sheds light on how change is still needed to root out discrimination and the promotion of unhealthy standards.
As her memoir hits shelves and her one-woman show gives an intimate look at the costs of being fashion’s first successful Black supermodel, all eyes will be on how the industry responds. Will Johnson’s revelations lead to more meaningful changes around inclusion, health, and ending exploitation? For an industry often accused of superficiality, taking the lessons from Johnson’s traumatic past could have deep impacts on improving future standards and practices.
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