A testament to her magnetism in front of any camera, Johnson's latest fashion credits include walking in Ozwald Boateng's AI-themed show in Harlem, the Manhattan neighborhood she's originally from; starring in Pyer Moss ads; and now, appearing as a mystical muse in Rihanna's campaign for her Fenty Maison LVMH launch.
After appearing alongside Norma Kamali in a viral 2016 video dispelling beauty myths about aging gracefully, Johnson went on to walk runways for Eileen Fisher, Tome, Deveaux, and CDLM by Chris Peters. Her life until then had involved working as a receptionist and accountant, gigs with fashion executives affiliated with brands like Calvin Klein and Fiorucci, being a stay-at-home mom, and currently, her work off-the-runway as a certified tea-blender.
Johnson's career as a tea-blender requires her to give presentations on the history of tea, tea drinking trends, and more. For work, she travels internationally to lend her authoritative, poised voice to the community. Soon, the world will also know Johnson as a fashion star in her own right — a born and bred New Yorker, who stands at 5'4" and defies industry norms by simply being herself.
"Being Black and not of a certain height, in modeling terms, didn't give me a chance to get in the industry," Johnson says. "Now this is my time."
PAPER caught up with the booked and busy Johnson to talk about working with Rihanna and creating more diverse seats at fashion's table.
How did you get involved with the Fenty campaign?
Actually, it was pretty straightforward as far as I know. The creative team reached out to my agents to see if I was available for the campaign, and shortly afterwards I was on a flight to LA to shoot with Glen Luchford.
Rihanna was inspired by the Black Is Beautiful movement of the '60s. You're starring in a campaign inspired by something you lived through. What is that like?
Well, I'm working as an older model, which is amazing to begin with. I also consider myself ageless. Whenever I hear terms like "older" or whatever, I try not to let it register because it takes me away from what I'm doing and the joy of doing it. You know, I'd always thought about being a model when I was younger. But it was different times, so restrictions were so tight. Being Black and not of a certain height, in modeling terms, didn't give me a chance to get in the industry. Now this is my time. And in a lot of ways, it's more perfect because I bring a real story of life to a newfound work, which gives me a degree of life texture when you're presenting the brand.
"I consider myself ageless. Whenever I hear terms like "older," I try not to let it register because it takes me away from what I'm doing and the joy of doing it."
Life experience is so valuable. As a model, would you say that bringing that experience to a brand, no matter how long it's been around, is what helps you connect?
I'd say that is true. I've only been doing this a very short period of time, almost two and a half years. When I say this to people they look at me and say, "Really?" But I do bring life experience, and that has certain history along with it. Because being influenced by the models that I was seeing — and I'm speaking specifically of some of the Black models that I would see in various magazines — they all had their certain savoir faire. I remember that, and I remember what it felt like when I was watching them or seeing them, and just how unique and special it was that they were breaking down those barriers for other Black models to come.
Which Black models through history have inspired you the most?
There were — I don't want to start tearing up here, okay. But there were quite a few. You've got Pat Cleveland, of course, Bethann Hardison, of course, Alva Chinn, Norma Jean — those were the girls. And after them, of course, you've got the classic Naomi Sims, you have Beverly Johnson afterwards. They all brought their own charm to the industry, and I remember that.
What gets you emotional in thinking about that?
Oh, gosh. Just the fact that they... for them to have opened doors. For them to have opened the doors, it just gets me emotional. I'm sorry.
"Rihanna is a real boss in the true sense of the word. She understands her vision thoroughly."
I understand. When you posted your shots in the Fenty campaign, you wrote about Rihanna being "on the right side of history," as the first Black woman to head a luxury fashion house. What about that also strikes you?
Well, it was my first time meeting Rihanna. And I can't say much about our time on set, but I will say that she is a real boss in the true sense of the word. She understands her vision thoroughly and had a real hands-on approach to bringing it to reality. Rihanna is a consummate professional and an absolute pleasure to work with.
She's creating those seats at fashion's table for all kinds of people, regardless of age, race, ability, gender identity or size. Why do you believe that kind of diversity matters?
When it comes to age, there are over 109 million folks aged 50-plus compared with 49 million Gen Xers and 82 million millennials, and it's about time my demographic was reflected more broadly in fashion. We still love it, and we buy it. And most of all, we can still rock it. So it's important to see all ages in campaigns. Fashion doesn't have any age, gender, or race limit, so why restrict it in the visuals?
I don't have a whole lot of modeling experience, though I worked in fashion when I was younger. But what I do find challenging is that although the fashion industry is addressing the need for diversity, the world hasn't caught up yet. For example, I'll be going to work — it is work, a lot of people don't seem to realize that — going in, being on time, and ready to get out there, whether I'm doing runway or a presentation. And the guard will stop me downstairs like, "What are you doing here?" because I don't fit the profile of who they think belongs. And they have to do all this checking and all of that to make sure that I am supposed to be there. I see other models who are taller and have a certain look and they just walk in.
So, like I said, the world hasn't caught up. But it will, as long as the fashion industry and other industries keep addressing it and making it the norm as opposed to the exception.
"It's about time my demographic was reflected more broadly in fashion. We still love it, and we buy it. And most of all, we can still rock it."
How are you feeling about what's possible for you now, going forward? I love that you said that you feel ageless.
If anybody would have told me that modeling was going to be part of my journey or part of my story, I would have told them, you must be mad. I deal with this day by day. I'm loving it, I'm enjoying it, I am thrilled that it's happening, but I don't predict the future. I am enjoying the ride.
Photography: Ibrahem Hasan