The 2021 September issue of Vogue magazine features the models of today’s fashion industry on the cover – Black models like Anok Yai and Precious Lee are featured alongside Bella Hadid and Lourdes Leon – but the first Black model to ever grace the cover of Vogue happened less than 50 years ago in the 1970s.
“I’m aware of what that Vogue cover meant,” said Johnson, who was the first Black woman to cover the magazine in 1974, in a series of vignettes published by The Cut Tuesday for its fall fashion issue. She appeared on the Vogue cover dressed in a turquoise turtleneck with a scarf tucked underneath.
Johnson recalled in a 2009 column for Vogue that she was paid the editorial rate for her cover shoot that day: $100.
“But at the time, as a new model in New York City four years into my career, I didn’t know the impact it would have on Black models,” Johnson said.
Johnson went on to shoot many more magazine covers and snagged TV and film acting gigs. In an op-ed for the Washington Post last June she revealed she was paid less than her white counterparts throughout her modeling career and was even “reprimanded” for demanding to have Black makeup, artists and photographers, for her shoots.
Bookings in the U.S. were often filled with prejudice and racism toward Black models.
“There were photographers who were very loyal to me, and they’d have to tell me sometimes point-blank, ‘I tried to book you, but they don’t want any Black people in their ads,’ ” said Veronica Webb, who later became the first Black model to land a major cosmetics deal with Revlon.
Banks and Sandi Bass found much of their success overseas because of this.
“I used to feel like the Josephine Baker of fashion. My own country did not celebrate my beauty and talent the way France did,” Banks said. “Without France and its acceptance of me on countless runways and having my first magazine cover within a month of arriving there, I would not be where I am today.”
Banks, who started modeling at 15 and quickly rose to superstardom, became the first Black woman to be featured on the cover of GQ in 1996 and a year later made history as the first Black woman on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
Bass was told she was too thin for the American runway and instead took her talents to France in the 1970s where the French luxury house Givenchy invited her to become a house model.
Bass said “what the designers in France and Italy loved about us Black American girls” was that “we had a throwaway spirit that they had never seen before. We were lively. We were colorful.”
Black women are still making their rounds as the first in the magazine and modeling sphere. Megan Thee Stallion and Leyna Bloom were the first rapper and transgender woman to be on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition in July and Nadine Ijewere was the first Black woman photographer to shoot a photo for the cover of Vogue.
“And still, to this day, that responsibility of being first is always in the forefront of my mind when I’m doing anything,” Johnson said.