It’s been 46 years since Beverly Johnson became the first Black model on the cover of Vogue. But, as she pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed this June, not much has changed in the industry since. Ever the trailblazer, the supermodel then got specific: She not only called out fashion’s most untouchable figure, but also explicitly cited her as the op-ed’s inspiration. “Anna Wintour, who has been the editor-in-chief of Vogue for over 30 years and is currently the doyenne of Condé Nast, admitted last week to a culture of structural exclusion at Vogue and across the fashion industry,” Johnson wrote. “Wow—after three decades, fashion’s leading arbiter has finally acknowledged that there may be a problem!”
Which is why she went on to make a proposal: that Condé Nast and other fashion and beauty companies adopt the Beverly Johnson Rule, a commitment to meaningfully interview at least two Black professionals for influential positions. One company was particularly quick to take up Johnson: Retrouvé, a luxury skincare line from two third-generation members of the family behind Kiehl’s. Its cofounder, Jami Morse Heidegger, not only signed on; Johnson was also named Retrouvé’s first brand ambassador and released her own line of products. If anyone can sell you on the cleansing elixir, body oil, hand cream, and jade roller that make up the Beverly Johnson Iconic Collection, it’s Johnson herself—even though it’s currently priced at $260, which is actually a bargain compared to the original $430. (Five percent of the retail price goes to the nonprofit Project Angel Food.)
These days, it seems like every celebrity has a makeup or skincare line. But this one holds special significance for Johnson, and not only because she’s fully obsessed with Retrouvé. When Johnson started out modeling in the 1970s, cosmetic campaigns were for white models—they were considered more marketable, and the products were made specifically for white skin. That meant the only real moneymakers for Johnson were liquor and cigarette ads, which were marketed in predominantly Black neighborhoods like Harlem. Even while she shot to the top of the ranks in the editorial sphere, Johnson—and what other Black models there were at the time—struggled. While at that point already known as a legend, Johnson was reprimanded for requesting Black makeup artists and hairstylists, leaving her to find DIY solutions like slicking back her hair with Vaseline.
When I get on the phone with Johnson, she’s at home in Palm Springs with her two Goldendoodles, Macbeth and Macduff. (“This is just FYI—they’re very strong and muscular dogs,” she says.) While watching them frolic, she filled W in on her skincare journey, from her arrival to New York City (“I’m just looking at everybody like they’re crazy”) to her current CVS-level stockpile of products.
I want to start with the op-ed you wrote for the Washington Post back in June. I love that you both created a plan of action and explicitly called people out.
Thank you. During that moment that we were all living, people were asking for a statement from me. And I didn’t have anything to say, until Anna Wintour’s leaked letter to her staff compelled me to answer it. I said to my fiancé, Brian [Maillian], “There has to be some kind of solution that I can offer—something that I can actually do.” And so he told me about the Rooney Rule —how the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers went to the NFL’s board of directors, which he felt needed some diversity. He said, Just tell me that you’ll interview at least one Black professional coach when there’s a coaching opportunity. And now, 20 or so years later, there are Black professionals in the front office and so on and so forth. So Brian said, “You could do the Beverly Johnson Rule.” I didn’t want to call it that, but he said, “Well, either you claim it or you let someone else claim it. If you really want to do something, this is how you do it.”
And Retrouvé was the first to adopt your rule, right?
Yes. Almost two years ago, this striking, gorgeous woman came up to me at one of my readings. Her name was Jami, and she said her family business was Kiehl’s, which was a big thing in the ’70s and ’80s in New York. It was an in-crowd kind of thing—the makeup artists would take us down to Kiehl’s. And she mentioned that now she’s doing a company called Retrouvé, and I just had a feeling it was going to be amazing. To make a long story short, we began a little friendship. She didn’t know it at the time, but she’s been a mentor of mine. You know, we’re both women, we’re both entrepreneurs, and she’s super intelligent—Harvard, the whole thing. We were talking on a daily basis, about business and our lives, and then she came to me and said, “I really don’t know as much as I thought I knew about racial inequality—could you tell me a few things?” I thought, Wow, this lady is really deep. So I began to tell her some of my own challenges, whether being stopped for two hours in West Hollywood, six or seven months ago at midnight, for no reason at all—scared to death, of course—or being followed around by the security guards at the stores where I live.
So not only did Jami endear herself to me as a friend, but also I wanted to be in business with her. And she actually helped me construct the rule. I presented it, and Anna Wintour and Condé Nast were very open. We’re still in conversation about it. So there was a little lull, because no one really knew what was going to happen with the election. Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren put Valerie Jarrett on his board of directors. There’s been a lot of movement, which I’m so excited about, because my strategy for really making a difference is for the board of directors of the fashion, media, and beauty companies to have Black representation. Right now, it’s just basically just white men.
Your experience in the beauty industry goes back decades. What was your first skincare or beauty splurge?
I have an interesting journey skincare-wise, because when I landed in New York with my mom, I was kind of an overnight sensation. My first job was Vogue, my second was Glamour, and my third was Essence. It took three months for all those to come out, and I had to get an agent. And one of the things they told me was I needed to have someone for my skin and my hair, and introduced me to this incredible man, James Ferabee, who was at 58th St. and Seventh Ave. I learned that one of the reasons why I was so, you know, whatever in the modeling business, is that retouching a photograph was very, very expensive. We didn’t have the filters and the great stuff we have now. And my skin was so smooth, so people loved to book me because they had to spend very little on retouching. I was like, okay—that’s another incentive to take care of my skin.
So then it just became what I do. All of the things I’ve done are in the beauty or hair business, because that’s where I grew up and that’s what I know. I splurge all the time. When people come to my home, I don’t show them my bathroom, and they’re like, Why? It’s like a CVS or Walgreens, because I buy everything, from the best to the cheapest products, because I’m a curious person. I’m always looking for that product that’s going to make that difference. And also one of my best friends, Dr. Wendy Roberts, is this major dermatologist who gives one of the biggest dermatology conventions here in Palm Springs. And I would actually go. [Laughs.] It’s all these doctors and it’s fascinating. And I’ll never forget, about three or four years ago, this speaker was saying that you just need to use the correct skincare products—not fillers and Botox and whatever. So that made me even more enthusiastic about finding the skincare product line. And for me, it’s Retrouvé. It’s not that type of thing that you put on and all your lines will be gone. Not that snake oil kind of thing. It’s really natural and beautiful.
Do you want lines to disappear from your face? How much do you worry about aging when it comes to your skin?
I just want to be perfect. [Laughs.] No, I’m just kidding. As I understand, as you grow older, you want to keep your skin hydrated. Retrouvé products have avocado oil from the avocados at their permaculture ranch, which I want to tie back to the ‘70s: When I met my first skincare and haircare specialist, I was a little girl from Buffalo, New York, a swimmer. All I wanted to do was become a lawyer. So New York City is a whole thing for me—I’m just looking at everybody like they’re crazy. James Ferabee gets this avocado and mashes it up and puts it on my face. I’m like, Oo, okay. Then he takes the avocado and does this hair mask, wraps the aluminum foil, and I get under the hairdryer. So when Jami told me about the avocado, it took me all the way back to there, when I had the most gorgeous hair and skin.
Can you tell me about the products in the Iconic Collection?
It’s crazy, what’s going on in skincare. There are creams for everything—your left eye, your right eye, your earlobes. But Retrouvé is very simple. For instance, the cleansing elixir blew my mind. Everyone, myself included, was scrubbing their skin and using these harsh products, and then seeing dry, tight, and red skin in the mirror and thinking, Okay, my skin is clean. No, it’s not. You’re doing it a disservice. So when you put on the cleansing elixir, it’s like, what is this? It’s almost like a moisturizer. When I rinse and towel off my face, my skin is glowing. It’s beautiful. It’s to die for.
Wow—you’re really selling me on it.
It’s an experience, Stephanie. That’s what it is—an experience. And the body oil—the ultimate balm—is the bomb. Most oils, even an avocado oil from the health food store or something like that, are just a layer that sits on top. The balm tricks you because it’s this thick kind of honey oil, but it goes into your skin, leaving it shiny, not greasy.
What makes the hand cream so special? I imagine your bathroom is stocked with tons.
I was telling Jami about how my hands are really dry, with the sanitizer and washing them more than ever. She said, “Oh, I just did a hand cream, let me send it over.” And I’m thinking to myself, Poor Jami, she doesn’t know that I collect hand creams. I have every hand cream known to man. I even get the kind they have for construction workers with cracked hands at CVS. So she sends me over this hand cream and I let it sit for a little while. And then I tried it and I couldn’t believe it—I called her right away. You know, I wash the dishes. I don’t put on gloves, okay. I do things with my hands. I’m not a prissy thing, but I want my hands to be beautiful. Go figure. And this one gets rid of all those little cracks you get when your hands get really dry.
What about the jade roller? I’ve never really understood what they’re for.
Well, like I said, I get everything. So I’ve got every roller in my bathroom—the big ones, the rubber things, everything. When I picked this one up, and the handle was jade, I knew that most roller handles are wooden. I’ve had a lot of them, but I’ve never really understood what they’re for either. So I put the Retrouvé intensive moisturizer on and I roll it, and the jade is so cold. It’s hot in the desert, okay. I don’t know how the jade remains cold, but it’s cold. And then I noticed I actually had my eyes closed. It was like a little meditative moment. Jami told me that white jade helps to eliminate negative energies and thoughts. I’m a spiritual being. I’m on a spiritual journey and have been forever. So now you’re in my realm.
You mentioned you also have lots of cheaper products. What are some of your favorite drugstore finds?
I like the Neutrogena makeup remover. But you know, it’s interesting; once every decade, every so many years, I go back to some original products like baby oil and cocoa butter sticks. You try to trace back in your life what products worked at a particular time. But those things just don’t work anymore; we’ve evolved, and the products have evolved. So what’s happened is that Brian, my honey, is very happy that the bathroom is decluttered. He tries to put this little bitty barrier up—a bottle of Scope on a brown towel, like, Don’t go past this line. [Laughs.]
Are there any products you can’t believe you used in the past, before you were all about being natural?
Oh yeah. There was this one haircare product. I would wear my hair platinum blonde—I think I was in Europe, and I decided I was going to use this product, I don’t know from what country, to bleach my hair because my roots were coming out. I looked in the mirror and was like Wow, this is fantastic! It looks so white with my skin. And then it turned out this supposedly incredible product had taken all my hair out.
Going back to the Beverly Johnson Rule, what’s the current status? You mentioned you’ve been speaking with Anna Wintour and Condé Nast.
There was this lull, because everyone was really on pins and needles about what was going to happen with the election. Now we know what happened—we know where we stand in the world and the agenda that’s going to be set. So now we’re having appointments, those Zoom calls. Everybody’s calling, and we’re all looking at how we can do better and be better.
I love the young people, their enthusiasm. The Black in Fashion Council is great, and so is the 15 Percent Pledge. And I know it’s terrible, but I always call him Serena Williams’s husband—[Alexis Ohanian] at Reddit resigned from his board to make space for Black professionals. The word is getting out.
Do you think we’ll continue to have these types of conversations in 2021—that the reckoning won’t fade?
My astrologer had already told me that [Trump] was going to lose, and she’s been right about everything. Race is now not only on the ballot, but it’s a part of the administration. It’s a part of the conversation. Humanity is a part of the conversation. And I think we’re not going to go back. There’s been a real shift, and we’re moving forward now. There aren’t many times you can actually say there’s been a shift. I used to say, Wow, what a great time to be alive. I saw the Berlin Wall go down. I saw the first Black president. I saw, well, not the cure for AIDS… but nothing like this shift. Nothing like this shift.