© 2024 Public Radio Tulsa
800 South Tucker Drive
Tulsa, OK 74104
(918) 631-2577

A listener-supported service of The University of Tulsa
classical 88.7 | public radio 89.5
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Invisible Beauty' explores Bethann Hardison's role as a fashion trailblazer


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Do you remember the first time you saw a Black model on the cover of a magazine or walk down a runway? Chances are Bethann Hardison had something to do with it. There is no one title that encapsulates Hardison's 50-plus-year career in fashion. She entered the fashion world in the late '60s as a model before becoming one of the first Black women to own a modeling agency. Throughout her career, she's rallied for diversity and is credited with helping to jumpstart and support the careers of models like Naomi Campbell, who calls her mom, Tyson Beckford, whom she discovered, and Iman, who considers Hardison a mentor.

A new documentary chronicles Hardison's life and career. It's titled "Invisible Beauty," which Hardison co-directed with documentary filmmaker Frederic Tcheng. Hardison has won many awards throughout her career, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America's Eleanor Lambert Founder's Award in 2014 in recognition of her work championing diversity in fashion over three decades. Bethann Hardison, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BETHANN HARDISON: Well, thank you so much. I'm happy to be here.

MOSLEY: You describe yourself in the film as, like, the first Black Black-looking model. Can you paint a picture of what you mean? How did your look differ from the status quo at the time during your modeling days?

HARDISON: At that time, fashion models - there were girls of color. They were, you know, light-skinned brown or brown-skinned girls that - you know, they had hair that moved. I mean, they - I hate to say it like that.

MOSLEY: And you had a short 'fro. Yeah.

HARDISON: Yes, exactly. I had a little natural. And the fact of it is that they were a little bit more - you know, more appealing to a more conservative or maybe a more commercial.


HARDISON: But then along comes this little girl named Bethann who is skinny, boy-like, not being really, truly androgynous but in a way could be, you know, because I wasn't trying to have makeup on and have hair pressed and all that. So I come along, and there are a few designers who were breaking the mold and liked me.

MOSLEY: I want to play a clip of you talking about what it was like for you then as kind of the first Black-Black-looking model. This is footage featured in the documentary of you. It was an interview from the '70s. Let's listen to a little bit.


HARDISON: Nothing in the white advertising pages or the white television or the beautiful blonde girl walking down the street ever made me want to look like her or be like her because where we came from, we had so much going on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Where did you come from?

HARDISON: Brooklyn. But if I came from South Philly, if I came...


HARDISON: Community, just the community. It may have been the Black community or whatever. You had to style. We are fashion girls, not because we're involved with the fashion business. We just are because our great-grandmothers are...


HARDISON: ...Your grandmothers.


HARDISON: You know, if you did nothing else, you wore clothes and looked good, you know? If you never had money in the bank, we never worried about getting our teeth...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Still looked good on Sunday.

HARDISON: Things like...


MOSLEY: That was a clip of Bethann Hardison speaking in the 1970s. It's featured in the new documentary about Hardison's life called "Invisible Beauty." And, Bethann, I just love how you say where we came from, we had so much going on. We were the it girls. I mean, you were in this fashion world that was certain it was the center of the universe as far as determining beauty and trends. And here you were saying, where I'm from, we are the tastemakers.

HARDISON: I was talking about the people in the street, the people who lived in the buildings there next to me. I was talking about the people of Brooklyn, and that's what we were talking about when we were speaking of that. Remember; I grew up in the garment business. It wasn't so fashionable as we all talk about it like now 'cause pop culture has made fashion like a tiny island with thousands more people on it. And the island hasn't gotten any bigger, but the inhabitants have. So for me, when I speak about this, we're talking about style. And we don't need to, you know, look in the magazine to have style. We don't need to go out and buy a designer label in order to look good. And that's what I was referencing.

MOSLEY: It was all around you.

HARDISON: It was all around us.

MOSLEY: Right.

HARDISON: And it didn't have to be fancy. It just had - you just had to notice a guy's cordovan shoe or a wingtip, or you noticed a man's double-pleated pant and the belt he put on. You just noticed so many things, you know? And people just basically always looked nice. And if they didn't look nice, it didn't matter 'cause they were funny.


MOSLEY: Right. They were entertaining. Right.

HARDISON: Exactly.

MOSLEY: They were characters.


MOSLEY: Your first big break was for designer Willi Smith, who created WilliWear in the '80s. And he put streetwear as we know it on the map. He saw that you were an it girl. He could see that in you. Had you considered yourself a model before then or...

HARDISON: Oh, no, absolutely not.

MOSLEY: ...That you could do it?

HARDISON: No. I - you know, look. I was, you know, a child tap dancer, and I was quite good at that and known for that. And so I would - you know, I wanted to get on - I liked being on the runway. I loved being on stage. So when he said it to me, it was fine. And I had already done a little bit of, you know, walking for, I think, Bernie Ozer, who had the - he was the head of Federated Stores. So he used to put on these shows for his buyers.

And I - one day, taking the clothes over from my company, I saw what he was doing. And I really - I love being on stage. And I just sort of said, well, you know, you really want to have someone good, you should hire me. And by the time I got back to my office, my - the women I worked for, who was Sylvia (ph) and Ruth (ph) - they were so excited for me. They were always excited for me. This is what's so interesting about growing up and watching people believe in you before you believe in yourself.

And then when I told them that Willi wanted me to be - you know, work with him, I work - I had a full-time job. They were always so excited. They said, yes, you have to do that. Oh, he's a young, young upcoming designer. He's great. Do it. So I would have my full-time job, and I'd go off and do these little things. You know, it was just a - it was a call. But I just basically never, you know, was thinking, oh, this is something I want to do. I was just doing it for the joy of it.

MOSLEY: I think, like, when we look back and read all of these names, like - reading Willi Smith and all of the other folks that you worked with, it's like, wow, these are larger-than-life people today as we look back. But in the moment, you all were young scrappy folks, like, just creating something, right?

HARDISON: And you have no idea how much I love that word scrappy.


HARDISON: I have been using that word a lot lately because there's certain things you find that's unique. If you can find something that - someone or something that's scrappy - yeah. Back then, it was just real, real. Like, you know, I'd say Giorgio Sant' Angelo. You'd say Halston. Oh, my God, you knew? You know, it just - it sounds - it's a lot because it's true there. It doesn't come around so easily to repeat these kind of people, you know...


HARDISON: ...Again. And, you know, when we say streetwear - yeah, we - the reason why Willi was considered street - because his clothes were found on the street. You would see WilliWear. These people who have streetwear brands - I never see any of that stuff. Other than Supreme and that logo, I don't recognize anyone's stuff.

MOSLEY: Today? Yeah.


MOSLEY: You don't recognize streetwear today.

HARDISON: It's just called streetwear. So what is it?

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

HARDISON: Why is it streetwear? 'Cause there's a T-shirt and a pair of pants? Willi's clothes, from head to - you would notice it. You would say, oh, man, that's a WilliWear. And everyone had WilliWear back then. So that was unique.

MOSLEY: You tell this story in the documentary. During a show, Southern buyers wouldn't even look up at you.

HARDISON: They didn't look at me. Yeah, yeah, no, that's true. I don't know if they - they just put their head down. They - and they started talking, and they were like - they were so - I think they were so shocked by looking at me. They had never seen anyone in - because then those shows were done in the - you know, like, in France - also, like, they're in an atelier, you know? It's right in the offices and the showrooms. And it was no music or anything. And they had numbers, you know, the - someone would call out the number of the attire. And, you know, you walk out the first time, and people are a little stunned. You - the time you walk out there second time, they're not having it. They're very uncomfortable.

MOSLEY: When did you realize that this was happening, that they were putting their heads down? I mean, did you notice it right away?

HARDISON: You - they - you know 'cause I always - I would look in the - into the audience. I'd look at people because that's the best way I felt to connect. And you could just see them being uncomfortable. They were just uncomfortable. I felt bad for me, but I felt bad for them, too. They were so uncomfortable. And then at some point, you know, by the second outfit - you know, 'cause Chester could see that I was really, you know - like, I didn't think - I just wanted to go to the bathroom and never come out.

It was just so - and I never thought it was - people say that to me. Did you - oh, they think that when I'm telling the story that it was because I was Black. I didn't think it was because I was Black. I thought it was - because I knew other - there were other models of color - you know, like I said, once again, the conservative, nice-looking girls. I thought it was because I just was so odd-looking to them. And I was someone who just came along that just didn't look like what everybody else looked like at that time.

So I just seemed a little - you know, there was something that was just hard for them to just grasp what was coming out there. I didn't want to go back out for the third one, and I think Chester felt that. He came to me as he was so busy with everything else, and he just started telling me how beautiful I was and how, you know, just - you know, he just kept encouraging me 'cause I had to go back out there, you know? I had to show this outfit. That was an experience that I always remembered.

MOSLEY: You'd envision yourself as a samurai when you were walking the runway. And...

HARDISON: (Laughter) Yeah.

MOSLEY: I love this 'cause what did...


MOSLEY: ...A samurai kind of signify for you?

HARDISON: Oh, yeah - no, samurai. Yeah. It was really Toshiro Mifune. You know, he was - for me, you know, I grew up with Japanese cinema. And, yeah, Toshiro Mifune was a wonderful actor, and he played in all those films. And it was just the way he moved through everything. And it gave me the sense of, like, warrior sense and also purpose of a lack of defeat. It was just a way of - you're not trying to cause trouble, but if trouble comes, you're there. You're able to defend yourself. So whatever I did on that stage at the time, I always kept him close in my head. And so the movement, when I say - like, there was one moment in the film that shows where I'm just strutting, you know, just strutting through a moment. And that was because there was a moment that he could walk with such pride but also ability to be able to defy. And I think that's what I would think no matter what I was doing.

MOSLEY: Did you enjoy modeling?

HARDISON: Oh, absolutely. Look. I'm a child tap dancer. I love - look. I ran track - anything. Put me on the stage. Put me in front of people and tell me to go. Yeah, man. No.


HARDISON: Yeah, of course. And - but remember. I was a runway model. I wasn't a print girl. So runway is wonderful. It's the roar of the crowd out there. You know, you get out there and do you, and you get all that, you know, appreciation - immediate appreciation, especially back then.

MOSLEY: Is it almost like a different set of skills that you - it's the same - it's in the same family of skills. But there's a little bit of a different kind of showmanship of being on a runway versus being in front of a camera.

HARDISON: Back then, definitely, because people really expected you to, you know, bring it. They needed you to put on the clothes and bring who you were in it to make the clothes feel like that woman watching, the editor or whoever could recognize that this really works on a body or this really works on a person. Oh, this person really loves what they're wearing. It isn't - it didn't get to be like that after a certain time. It changed. But yeah, no, when we had - and we could do anything. You could do anything. One time, I remember I wore plaid - just a simple, plaid shirt. They never gave me the greatest clothes. They always said, Bethann will make it work. And I hated that 'cause I was narrowed hip. I didn't have a - you know, I didn't have a body.

MOSLEY: Was this 'cause you were going to bring it? You were going to bring your showmanship.

HARDISON: So they...


HARDISON: Yeah. That would be the thing. So put it on Bethann 'cause Bethann will make it sell. And I remember it was the first time Calvin Klein had showed outside of his office, and he got a loft. And Calvin was an incredible marketer, and he built this runway and stuff. And it was - the music was so good. And I had this just simple, plaid shirt and a pair of pants. And I walked out. That song hit. I danced the whole runway. The people went crazy. That's when people had no - they weren't shy. We had enough people that were in the audience that really knew how to applaud and yell (laughter).

MOSLEY: Right.

HARDISON: So we had - you know, that was a moment. And that - and it was so funny because it was told to me because Jeffrey Banks, at the time, was his assistant. He said, that shirt sold like you couldn't believe. And it's just the - those are the moments you feel so good about.

MOSLEY: I was really struck by how all of the models you worked with - Naomi, Iman, Tyson Beckford - they all describe you as not just a good agent but as kind of like a protector. What types of things did you do to guide them?

HARDISON: I only represented, technically, Tyson Beckford. Naomi was someone that I did meet when she was 14 years old with her parents in London because her agent then, who had just discovered her, contacted me and my agent. She was new. She liked the style of what I was doing, and she trusted me. So she thought maybe Naomi should be with me when she comes to New York. And she didn't wind up coming to my agency, but she'd wind up coming to me as a human because she wanted - I was the only person she knew in New York. She was only, at that time, 16. And so she stayed close to me because she felt some sort of kinship with me.

Iman came to America, and we connected right away as well. But I never represented her as a model. But I was a good guide for her. When times she'd had questions she wanted to ask things - yes, they both had that with me. And I just think that they both had it going on in a lot of ways because they were both beautiful and undeniable to the white eye so that there wasn't that much of a problem for them to do well. But they had to competitively do well, meaning that if they - if someone booked them, you know, they'd have to work maybe three times as hard as maybe their white counterpart. That was something that they were capable of doing.

But Naomi was something and Iman, too. She knew her values, so she stood strong for herself. And Naomi, as a very young girl, was - I always called her my buffalo soldier 'cause Naomi came, you know, fighting on arrival, fighting for survival. She always stood up for herself since the time she was a teenager. She - if she ever dared hear that someone was getting more money than her, she would - she - you'd be sorry you were her agent because she would give you a hard time.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bethann Hardison, former model and activist whose work in fashion spans more than 50 years. She's the co-director of a new documentary about her life titled "Invisible Beauty." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're talking to Bethann Hardison, known as a trailblazer in the fashion world. For more than 50 years, she served as a model, designer and agency owner representing some of the industry's top models. She's also been a champion of diversity. She's the co-director of a new documentary about her life and career titled "Invisible Beauty." The documentary also captures a period of time when she and her son, actor Kadeem Hardison, weren't communicating and how they worked toward reconciliation.

During your time as an agent when you owned your modeling agency, you represented all models. You didn't just represent Black models. And I'm just curious what the competition between agencies was like. How did you fit into that competition?

HARDISON: That's a good question. Yeah. Yeah. That's the good news. I basically - that's - you know, there's a lot of things I'm learning as this - because of this project and because talking to someone like yourself, the things you have to reflect back on and you know, in hindsight, would you have done it this way? What did you do? What was your ambition? - all those words that people ask you. But I basically knew that I had to just do me. And I knew that - I knew not to have a Black model agency for sure because I didn't think anybody would call for that. I had to have what was going on. I had to compete with my white counterpart.

So I had to - I knew to have exactly what they had, but I also would have more than they had. So I would have, you know, the Asian kids or Latin kids or, you know, Black kids. I would have that already, but they would be good. And so I really, really knew how to compete. And then they would start to think that they - if I had that and I was beginning to work, that maybe they should have one of those, too. And then slowly, they start to steal. And they start to - you know, if I - thought I was getting a girl from London - there's one girl I really wanted so badly. And once they found out I was getting her, an agency that had bigger girls, you know, was much more well-known - I was more like the boutique agency - they would go right in and snap her right up.

MOSLEY: You started your modeling agency in '84, but before that, you actually worked for Click, which was this agency that was well known for providing kind of like this alternative to the Nordic look that was popular at the time.

HARDISON: Well done.

MOSLEY: Well, while you were at Click, you represented a young Whitney Houston.

HARDISON: Yeah. Aww (ph), you know that.

MOSLEY: You have to tell the story of how that came about.

HARDISON: Yeah. Gene, her agent at the time - yeah, he brought her to us. And he really liked me. So even though I wasn't the owner of the agency and I wasn't the number one, it was just - it was Frances who owned it. And then Allan Mindel, who was also a partner of hers, and her son, Joey. They were the three. And then I came in because she had asked me to, you know, join them for a while. And I did. But Gene liked me. He - something about me, he liked. So my relationship with Whitney became a little bit more personal between us. And so that was a great thing. And she - you know, he was just beginning to get her to sing. And so this was just a way of trying to see if he could make money - she could make some money while they were trying to develop her career as a singer. And then eventually - we did some good things. She did some good things for me because Whitney was someone, every time I'd call, I'd have to say, Cissy, is she wake? Is she awake?

MOSLEY: Cissy being her mother, Cissy Houston. Right.


MOSLEY: Is she awake and ready for a call? Yeah.

HARDISON: Yes, because she said, hold on, Bethann. And she'd go and get her. You know, she wasn't always - 'cause she was an artist at that point, you know?

MOSLEY: Yeah. She was just doing modeling to make ends meet until she could become a recording star. But did you hear her voice while she was modeling for you? Had you heard her voice?

HARDISON: I had never heard anything. But I remember she would tell me when she performed at night at a club or someplace. And then Gene came to me and telling me that he had a meeting with Clive Davis, and he had another meeting, and he wanted my opinion of where she should go. And I was very much interested in the music business then. And so I told him that he should take - he should go with Clive. He was really trying to decide.


HARDISON: And I really felt like when - you know, when it happened that I had a little something to do with that.

MOSLEY: To do with it.


MOSLEY: Like, the rest is history.

HARDISON: Yeah. Yeah.

MOSLEY: 'Cause Whitney Houston went on to sign with Clive Davis, and he was a partner for a very long time.

HARDISON: Very long time. He was a big protector. And I stayed - you know, as time went on, I - you know, she had me - she always identified with me more than anybody else in the company. And then she - when - the time when she got with Bobby, she had me come to the wedding. And, you know, I always stayed in touch with her.

MOSLEY: Her marriage with Bobby Brown.

HARDISON: Yes. Thank you. And I, basically, have always - I stayed in touch with her off and on throughout - until she was no longer - you know? - till she passed away.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Bethann Hardison, co-director of a new documentary titled "Invisible Beauty" about her 50-plus year career in the fashion industry. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


GEORGE MICHAEL: (Singing) I won't let you down. I will not give you up - got to have some faith in the sound. It's the one good thing that I've got. I won't let you down, so please don't give me up 'cause I would really, really love to stick around. Oh, yeah.

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, we're talking to Bethann Hardison. Over the span of more than 50 years, she served as a model, designer and a model agency owner, representing some of the top models in the industry. She's also been a champion of diversity. She's the co-director of a new documentary about her life and career titled "Invisible Beauty."

You know, I've been thinking about something you said in this film ever since I heard it. In this relation for you to push for diversity, you said, I'm not trying to help Black people. I'm trying to help white people. They are the ones who need help. Can you elaborate on what you mean there?

HARDISON: Yeah, it's - the results of what I'm going to do, in my mind, was going to help all races, and especially Blacks. Those who were being underserved or suppressed at the time were those who were Black in my industry. I was using the industry to see if I could do better, even to affect the rest of the world. But I knew that who was in charge is the white population. I do well in a white world because everyone respects me, likes me. I do well. That's good. But, end of the day, when I'm having a business and you can see the product change, you get smart about what's going on.

And I want to go right back to one thing, what I didn't say, you said - about educating white people. I just want to say that it's very important, if you're that person, that if you can get to them when they're making - going down a rabbit hole and explain to them something they're doing, because you have the confidence in who you are and they have respect for you, you're trying to help them to do better so our society could be better, because they're the ones who really are basically in charge.

They're the ones who are in the majority. They're the ones who could determine something or not. They could take it away. They can give it to you. So the whole idea is to help them to understand that our whole social environment would be better if we all got along and we can all integrate with each other. That's the reason why I do it.

MOSLEY: One thing - I think I almost screamed when I saw just a little clip of it in the documentary from "The Wiz," which is the '78 re-imagination of "The Wizard Of Oz." In the Emerald City sequence, which is one of the best scenes in the film, which is like - there's the song "The Color Is," and it's a dance scene when all of the dancers change their clothing color. It is a fantastical scene. And we learn from the documentary that you were one of the dancers. I just want to know how it came to be that you were in this scene.

HARDISON: Well, to be even clearer, I wasn't one of the dancers. I was one of the residents of Emerald City.

MOSLEY: Ah, OK, even more fascinating, yes.

HARDISON: It's more fascinating. Yeah, this was Sidney Lumet and Joel Schumacher. And Joel Schumacher was a creative helping him with the show. And it was very interesting because, you know, there were certain people that they just knew they wanted to have to be part of this Emerald City. And I came in - they were doing auditions. It's funny, I'll never forget getting to the office. And right away, as soon as I got there - you know, you sit down and wait for your turn to be called because you have a number. And as soon as they said - did Bethann Hardison get here yet? I heard them say that.

MOSLEY: (Laughter).

HARDISON: And I said, oh. I said, yes, I'm here. They said, please, please, come in. And I went ahead of all the other people who were sitting there. And it was just that, you know, Joel knew that - he introduced me to Sidney, and he knew that I'd just needed to be in it. And at that time, I was already close to his wife, Buckley. His wife was the daughter of Lena Horne. So I had friendship with her already anyway because of Lena, and also her daughter. And so she's married to Sidney, and Sidney said, oh, my God, I've been dying to meet you. And my wife only talks about you. So I was already to be part of it. It was a great experience, straight up, because of the...

MOSLEY: Well, it...

HARDISON: No, no, not because of the...

MOSLEY: I mean, it's a magical...

HARDISON: Yeah, not because of the results of what was, but also the daily of it, you know, the rehearsing, being there with Quincy, being there with Michael. And having to - you know, Michael would have - and I would have lunch every day.

MOSLEY: Michael Jackson is who you're talking about.

HARDISON: Thank you, yeah - because he's shy. And everybody didn't want to approach him anyway because he's so shy. But he and I would sit and have lunch together. Or Quincy would ask me - you know, I would go to the store for Quincy. You know, it was just an interesting - and Diana always - every time I'd get up to do rehearsal, Diana was screaming, go Bethann, go. It was just fun. It was a fun thing. And it - there's a lot of nice moments that happened. You know, you're right about what you said earlier, that all the things that we did back then, we make - we sound so cavalier about it. Like, oh, you know, and then I was sitting there with Truman Capote. And then I was sitting - you know what I mean? It sounds so - but it's just the way it was.

MOSLEY: It's just the way it was. I mean, Quincy Jones produced the musical score for "The Wiz" and the soundtrack. And, of course, Michael Jackson played the Scarecrow and Diana Ross was Dorothy. What a moment.


MOSLEY: What an experience to have.

HARDISON: It's true. And they showed it in the park in Brooklyn just last week, so it was very nice. You know, it's one of those things that I still get residuals for. Can you imagine?

MOSLEY: Oh, you do?

HARDISON: I still get...

MOSLEY: Like, is it a lot?

HARDISON: No, but...


HARDISON: But it's the idea that it still comes...


HARDISON: You know, $140 here - I mean, all the time. I mean, every couple of months, you get another check. Isn't that weird? Yeah, that's the nice thing about, you know, those kind of things that people are fighting for right now. But it was a really wonderful experience. A lot of nice things like that happened along the way.

MOSLEY: I want to talk with you for a moment about your childhood. You were raised in Brooklyn with your grandmother and your mother before moving with your father. Before I ask you about the experiences with your family, you were in a gang from the time you were 9 until you were 12. And I think we have thoughts about what a gang is. But, like, what was this gang that you were a part of? And what kinds of stuff did you all do?

HARDISON: It was the Chaplains, and I was part of the Lady Chaplains. And the Chaplains was a five-borough gang that, you know, had a, I guess, what you'd say - a mainstay in each one of the boroughs. And they were known. And so what did we do? You know, it's more, like, silly stuff like, you can't go in the wrong neighborhood. You get beat up, you know? Those are the things that happened back then with those gangs. It's not like the gangs today that just kill people. I mean, we didn't - even when we had a gun, it was like a zip gun, you know, something that somebody put a barrel and found wood and they made something. It was...

MOSLEY: Did you have one?

HARDISON: I never had one. No, no, no, no. But I did get - you know, one was put in front of my face on the street of my block, my God. And these kids came, and they invaded our neighborhood. And we had to stand up to them. And they were the Stompers, and they were a crazy gang. They were really bad. We were good compared to them. And I, you know, chose to be the war counselor. This is so crazy. This shows you how young people are. And the war counselor is someone who protects, you know, their people. They'll stand up in front and take the first hit if they have to, they're the ones.

And this gang comes into the streets. And this is crazy. My mother's at work. I'm out, you know, doing my thing in the afternoon. And there they are (ph). They come in, and they're beating each other up. We're fighting. And I go up, and I walk in front of them. And I said, you know, shoot me, not my people - that kind of stupid things that kids can do.


HARDISON: You're just silly. You know, one the things we used to do is jumping in the train tracks and running down the train tracks, hang on the back of the trolleys and buses - I mean, things that people do that - oh, it's dangerous stuff. But, you know, you can do it when you're a kid because you have less fear. So in this case, you know, you just stand there, and you don't think anything's going to happen. And this guy pulls out this zip gun. And a zip gun is a part of a barrel of a real gun and maybe some wood, and it's bandaged together and all. And he put it in my face, and I just had no thought that it could work, that he could - that I would go anywhere, that I would die. I don't know why. But it didn't work because it didn't - the gun didn't work. It just didn't work. But Lord knows the - you know, in the neighborhood, they saw me.

MOSLEY: Right.

HARDISON: Everybody on the block - you know, you don't get away with nothing back in the day 'cause your parents are the entire neighborhood.

MOSLEY: Right. They talk with everybody, right? They get all the information.

HARDISON: They see you, and they go and report you. Or they tell you - they tell your parents, or they reprimand you themselves to the point you don't ever want to do anything again (laughter). So, you know, yeah. Once my mother learned the stuff that I was doing, she was like, what are you thinking? Yeah. But, you know, I continued on gently until I got to my father's at 12. But he was very cool. He just felt like - I guess he must have been wise enough to think, you know, less said best, and it will go away. And it did.

MOSLEY: Well, you went to live with your father when you were 12. And you call your father an intellectual, and his main goal with you was to raise your consciousness. What did that look like?

HARDISON: He was different. You know, my father was an imam, you know? So he was a religious leader of the Muslims - Islamic leader. He was Orthodox - Sunni Muslim, not Elijah Muhammad Muslims. Fruit of Islam - not that. He was influential with that, you know, because he knew Elijah and he also knew Malcolm.

MOSLEY: Malcolm X. They would come to your house sometimes.

HARDISON: Malcolm has come to the house twice that I saw to have some counsel with my father. But he was that guy. He was - you know, he knew he had to take me. His responsibility was before I turned 13. And just to be able to put things into my mind that, normally, he knew my mother and my grandmother couldn't. They were, you know, good people, and he - that's why I stayed with him, though, so long. But he had many things to teach me, and - everything from reading, writing, learning about politics, you know, using - how to use your power to do things, to change things. Some people say to me when they see that, you know, like, did you think your father had an influence on you that made you the person that you are? Well, I may fall from - I may have his DNA, yes. But I don't - I never think of it that way. I don't realize it that way.

But he - you know, he had me send - you know, when the Suez Canal was a big problem, you know, he'd have me send telegrams to the - John Foster Dulles at the time. And, you know, he was a politician who basically oversaw, you know, the Suez Canal crisis and all the Middle East things. And I - you know, I learned so much from my dad. And when you think about things that he was so forward - like, you know, even from juicing - I mean, people say, you juiced back then? Yeah. My father was very much that guy. He was always interested in doing better or learning more, doing that.

He was a great leader, too, because people had a great deal of respect for him. A lot of musicians who had turned Muslim would come to see him, and I got to see a lot of that. So he was a stricter environment. Yes, for sure. And my stepmother was really - you know, she was a real pain because she resented my mother. So she took it out on me. I liked her in a lot of ways because I got to learn what a great woman is behind a man. And I saw that.

MOSLEY: Did your father have expectations for your role as a woman?

HARDISON: No, I think he just wanted to make sure that I had all the right stuff. He didn't tell me what - you know, he just reminded me that no matter what happens, remember you're the queen. He learned - he taught me that, you know, you learn how to take care of your man, but remember who you are and things like that. You know, he taught me how to, you know, cut his hair. He taught me how to tie a tie. My stepmother made sure I learned how to - basics of good cooking, you know? He wanted me to just have the right things you need to get through the life.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bethann Hardison, former model and activist whose work in the fashion industry spans more than 50 years. She's the co-director of a new documentary about her life called "Invisible Beauty." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. And today we're talking to Bethann Hardison. She's known as a trailblazer in the fashion industry. And for more than 50 years, she served as a model, designer and an agency owner representing some of the industry's top models. She's also been a champion of diversity. She's the co-director of a new documentary about her life and career called "Invisible Beauty." The documentary also captures a period of time when she and her son, actor Kadeem Hardison, weren't communicating and how they worked toward reconciliation.

In this work to increase representation, though - I mean, you've been at this a long time, so you've seen that there's this desire for Black and brown models that comes in waves. It's almost like a trend in itself. How do you contend with the up and down of it? - 'cause this is more expansive than even the modeling industry. We see diversity initiatives more broadly come in waves. Some people feel like we're at a wave now where we may be reverting back.

HARDISON: Well, I don't think we're reverting back on the visual of the fashion model. I think you're reverting back since the Black Lives Matter movement happened and it affected corporations and fashion and music and film. You know, it made everyone feel like, oh, yes, you know, because it wasn't a Black movement. It was an integrated movement. It was white kids out there, a lot of white kids out there, trying to make a difference. And God we're not going to stand for this, and this is wrong. And they're right. So it's really, actually, at this given point - as far as the fashion model, she's well-covered. I mean, she and he of color is - they're in it. You could see from the advertising, from editorials, from fashion shows, they are in. Finally, the industry has embraced the girls and boys of color. Do I ever sometimes think that that can revert back? Yeah. I keep my foot on the clutch a little bit, but I don't worry about it as much as before. What is changing is the corporate situation behind the scenes, where they were really being very giving and all the money and da, da, da, and let's help this - now that's pulling back.

Now, why is it pulling back? Well, you know, everything comes down to money. If you can generate it, you will last in it. If you're smart enough, especially in my industry - talking about design and all. If you're smart enough to be able to know how to manipulate the world that you go into, which is in retail and wholesale, if you can get through that - 'cause it's a tough business. No matter if you're Black, white, Asian, Latin, it's a tough business, so that's going to be a difficulty for people. But in the end of the day, I do think it is changing because corporately, you know, look how many DEI executives have been let go recently.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Does this change your optimism for the future?

HARDISON: No. No, it doesn't change my optimism for the future 'cause I've always seen it like this. I've always realized, always, that this is another person's ball game. We're the players in it, but we're not the umpires. Let's just put it like that. So it means that there are people who can determine your future, can determine your destiny, because they are in charge of an industry. But in the end of the day, that's how it's always been. And if we're lucky enough to be able to spend past that time and really be that one that they desire and want because - you know what? - you're making money for yourself or them, or your product is worth it, you'll remain.

MOSLEY: There's this part in the documentary where Tyson Beckford is asked, who's going to carry the torch when you're no longer here? And you said, the rest of the people. Can you say more about what you mean there?

HARDISON: I do believe that, you know, we don't have - you know, that's why when people ask me - you know, they see the film, and they feel they want to go home and change their life and do things like me. And I say, please, please, especially young people - the younger ones, like, in their 20s and on, they ask me, what do you think we should do, walk away? And all I want them to do is just vote. You can't - I didn't start out wanting to be this person that I wind up being. I didn't have any intention of anything that you see. It's just that, that was my calling.

And I want other people to recognize, you don't have to do what the other guy does. But the things that we should do is to help what we can change in our own destiny, that we can control. So if you do anything, just go out and vote, 'cause the rest of it is like, you know, oh, my goodness, what are we going to do? How are we going to get there? Oh, my God, I want to be like that. I want to go home and - I need to get better. Well, just vote (laughter). It's a simple thing you can do.

You learn a lot about yourself when you write a book or you make a film, especially if it's about yourself. And I've learned a lot about myself from - not from the film so much, but more from the audiences, the things that people say, the questions that they bring to the table, the things that they say about what they get from the film. So I'm very taken with that to know how to be even more conscious of myself and what I go forth - and what I want to do going forward. And what I want to do going forward is not a whole lot because it's not, like, based on ambition, it's just based on inspiration.

MOSLEY: Bethann Hardison, this has truly been a pleasure. Thank you so much for this conversation.

HARDISON: It means a lot for me to have been here.

MOSLEY: Bethann Hardison is a former model, activist and co-director of the new documentary about her life and career called "Invisible Beauty." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUINCY JONES' "MONTY, IS THAT YOU?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.