The odyssey of Bethann Hardison, the protector of Naomi Campbell and Iman, who brought diversity to the catwalk | Fashion | The USA Print

Naomi Campbell and Iman call her “Ma.” Bethann Hardison is like a second mother to her. She didn’t discover them, she didn’t even represent them through her modeling agency, she just protected them, cared for them, helped them face hate, rejection and racism in the fashion world. “I met her at the age of 15, recently arrived in New York, and I remember saying to her: ‘I don’t know if I want you as an agent or as a friend for life.’ I chose the second one”, recalls Campbell in the documentary Invisible Beauty, premiered at the Sundance Festival, which tells the life of the model, agent and activist Bethann Hardison.

“She’s the godmother of fashion,” says Tracee Ellis Ross at the beginning of the film. “She, whether people know it or not, she has changed the way we define beauty.” In fact, Hardison doesn’t like the word beauty. She doesn’t feel comfortable with this concept, which continues to signify standards and limits that she has been fighting against since she first began as a model in the late sixties and later as an agent for other models in the eighties and nineties.

Bethann Hardison, director of ‘Invisible Beauty’. Photo: Sundance Institute.

The documentary is written and directed by herself. Hardison is the main source for telling her story through archival footage and on-camera interviews with her and her friends from the fashion and fitness industry: from Willi Smith to Naomi Campbell, from Iman to Zendaya, from Bruce Weber. to Fran Lebowitz, Whoopi Goldberg or Pat Cleveland. The film, in fact, will be the audiovisual part of a memoir that she is finishing writing. “I have to tell my life, I owe it to the community,” she says to herself out loud in her New York apartment. “Look back to move forward,” she insists. At 80 years old, she has no intention of stopping, she is convinced that her activism against discrimination, for equality is even more necessary than when she lived her great moment three decades ago. “We’ve come a long way today, but we’ve come so far that I’m afraid we’re going to do a 180-degree lurch and go back,” she says. It is a justified fear because she has already experienced it.

Frame ‘Invisible Beauty’. Photo: Bruce Weber

Born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, to a Muslim “and intellectual” father and a “dancer and social” mother, Hardison was sent to a white institute in another area of ​​New York. Far from experiencing that experience as traumatic, she discovered there that she could stand out, “be something”: “I was the first black cheerleader, the first black athlete…”. It didn’t take long for her to delve into that beatnik and hip Manhattan of the sixties and she was discovered by the designer Willi Smith, an important name in the industry and African-American. With him and a group of black and white models, she went to the elite Versailles show. White European royalty, led by Grace of Monaco, enthusiastically applauded Bethann Hardison.

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She returned to the US a star. “Something that seemed impossible being a black woman and looking almost androgynous,” says photographer Bruce Weber. “She didn’t look like anyone.” And according to the writer Fran Lebowitz, she was especially distinguished from the whole group of glamorous and partying New Yorkers of the seventies “because she was the only one who had a child.” “We were at Studio 54 and Bethann was like, ‘I’m leaving because I have to take care of Kadeem.’

Scene with Hardison in the documentary. Photo: Oliviero Toscani

Motherhood pushed her to abandon her career as a supermodel traveling the world and went to the other side, to discover talent and represent other models. Her agency, from the beginning, stood out for “having personalities.” All origins, races, profiles: Farida, Bonnie Berman, Veronica Webb, Katoucha, Nick Kamen, Ariane, Roshumba and its great star Tyson Beckford, the first black model signed exclusively with a great brand, Ralph Lauren.

Having role models from all backgrounds and races, Hardison experienced inequality firsthand. “A black model can charge $700 for a session, while a white model can be paid $3,500 for the same job,” she said at the press conference of the Black Girls Coalition that she founded in 1988 and presented surrounded by Campbell or Iman . Denouncing it so much in the face of the industry, she managed to make an increase in the presence of other beauties in campaigns and catwalks noticeable over the decade.

With the feeling of having fulfilled her role, in 1996, tired of the industry, she retired, closed the agency and went to Mexico. But without her in the fight, the fashion world took little time to reverse progress. In the documentary they justify it like this: the fall of the Berlin wall resulted in the boom in Russian beauty. Miuccia Prada, first, followed by Calvin Klein, and later by the rest of the brands began to hire only “very young, ultra-thin, white” models. “No black, no ethnic” was a written directive that reached modeling agencies. “Diversity had been exchanged for uniformity,” Hardison says that it took her four years to react and return to the front row of activism with a massive press conference and a manifesto that gave names and demanded responsibilities.

Bethann Hardison during the photocall for her documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, 2023. Photo: Sundance Institute.

Liya Kebbede, Naomi, Iman, Veronica Webb, Tyra Banks… They all accompanied her. Also Andre Leon Talley. And many more. Franca Sozzani, the director of Vogue Italia reacted with an issue only dedicated to black beauty and talent. A number that was sold out and had to be reprinted in Italy, Germany, the US and the UK, a success still unmatched.

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Hardison today celebrates all these advances. He also celebrates that today he lives again a golden age, recognized by contemporaries and younger generations. “Without her I would not have the opportunities that I have had and have in this job that I love. It’s that simple,” Zendaya blurts out. But you have to continue. “I don’t see the end,” she says. “I always say that I am not helping black people, but trying to educate and help white people.”

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