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They Invented the Supermodel – The Cut

Debra Shaw and Pat Cleveland.
Photo: Rahim Fortune

The only way to start this story — any story, really, about the American Supermodel — is with the Battle of Versailles. The one in 1973. On one side were the French, of course: designers Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior. The other, American: Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Halston, Anne Klein. Each country’s fashion royalty at the time. In theory, it was all for charity, to raise funds to restore the crumbling Versailles Palace. In reality, it was all ego.

Rehearsals and personality clashes took place in vast, unheated palace rooms. The French constructed a pumpkin carriage and a sequined Bugatti set and booked Josephine Baker and Rudolf Nureyev to perform. The Americans had Liza Minnelli, who gave the models a pep talk after Kay Thompson, the choreographer, stormed off. (The American stage designer measured everything in inches rather than centimeters and ended up without enough décor to fill the stage.)

Pat Cleveland walking in Halston’s spring show, 1977.
Photo: Nick Machalaba/Fairchild Archive/WWD

But that’s not why we’re here. We’re here because of ten American models — specifically, the ten Black models, out of 36 Americans total — including Bethann Hardison, Alva Chinn, and Pat Cleveland, who, spinning in layers of chiffon for Halston, owned the night. Those ten women delivered attitude, something no one had been delivering in traditionally stuffy and snoozy fashion presentations. The audience — the European beau monde — stomped their feet, threw their programs in the air, and leapt out of their seats to cheer. American models weren’t just taken seriously after that night; they were suddenly sought after.

“I think I’m a walking cartoon, really, because you have to have a sense of humor when you dress up. You can’t be too serious about it, even though it’s a very, very serious undertaking having the responsibility of wearing clothes for the first time. I’d always try to be like a farmer, like at the end of the shows, I would say, Okay, what is my new feeling for this year? What is actually happening in society? What’s the new thrill? Are we in the streets walking, or are we on a yacht enjoying the wind?—Pat Cleveland

“My runway walk was something extra special. There was a lot of sass, oftentimes too much for some designers’ tastes, but in the end, it did set me way apart. I used to feel like the Josephine Baker of fashion. My own country did not celebrate my beauty and talent the way France did. 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.” —Tyra Banks

“I’m aware of what that Vogue cover meant, then and now, 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. And still, to this day, that responsibility of being first is always in the forefront of my mind when I’m doing anything.” —Beverly Johnson

“Back in the days of TWA and Pan Am airlines, they had magazine stands, and they would put I don’t even know how many of the same cover in the windows. One time, I was walking in the airport and saw my face, you know, just smeared all over — 50 Mademoiselle covers, all in a big block. And I was just like, Oh my God, that’s me! I stopped, used a pay phone, and called my dad and my mom. I didn’t even know I was going to be on the cover.—Beverly Peele

“When I first came into the industry, Black girls really didn’t get coverage because they couldn’t sell magazines. There was no cosmetics company — which would traditionally buy the back cover and inside front cover of magazines — that had a Black person working for them and would invest in buying the advertising that would get a model associated with the company on the cover. 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.’ ” —Veronica Webb

“I remember a designer once said to me, ‘Oh, we saw another Black girl today. We like her. Do you mind if we use her?’ I was like, ‘Of course.’ I was always that cool Black girl who was open to other Black girls — not saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want her,’ or ‘I want to be the only one.’ That was just never my formula.” —Debra Shaw

Photographs by Rahim Fortune for The Cut, Rahim Fortune for New York Magazine

For the next several years, Black American models dominated European runways. Sandi Bass, having been told she was too skinny to work in the U.S., in 1978 found herself personally invited to become the muse of Givenchy. By her account, Black girls also ruled the runways in Milan for prêt-à-porter and in Rome for Alta Moda.

Beverly Peele walking in Versace’s spring ready-to-wear show, 1993.
Photo: Guy Marineau/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

“They loved the way we walked because … we had a kind of pizzazz in our walk. We brought a certain vibrancy to the shows,” says Cleveland, recalling the stride and rhythm of the Black American models, a complete departure from the robotic white models of the 1950s and ’60s. Cleveland was a member of YSL’s exclusive cabine (fashionspeak for a group of models who work almost exclusively with a single designer) and walked for Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino, and Thierry Mugler, building her brand by ramping up the theatrics and the sass.

The models had a whole choreography that they worked on together behind the scenes. They had a special kind of rhythm to their walks and made conscious decisions together. “When we hear this beat, we’re going to do this turn,” Cleveland recalls. “This is what the designers in France and Italy loved about us Black American girls,” Bass says. “We had a throwaway spirit that they had never seen before. We were lively. We were colorful. We spoke, we gave our opinions.”

Beverly Johnson on the cover of Vogue, 1974.
Photo: Francesco Scavullo/Condé Nast/Shutterstock

The women who ruled Versailles shoved open the fashion industry’s front door for fellow Black models who, up until then, had to fight to just barely squeeze through. Unsurprisingly, not everyone was thrilled or willing to welcome them, with many fashion brands, modeling agencies, photographers, and others happy to maintain the status quo of exclusion and exoticism. Still, some opportunities that had once been exclusively reserved for white models did arrive — as when Beverly Johnson became Vogue’s first-ever Black cover model in 1974, one of what would become more than 500 and counting magazine covers in her decades-long career. It was what the next generation of Black models did with these opportunities that defined the power and influence of the American Supermodel.

Veronica Webb in a Revlon ad, 1993.

By the mid-to-late-’80s, Black models had proved they could be just as profitable as white girls like Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, and Elle Macpherson if afforded the chance. In 1984, Versailles veteran Hardison even founded her own agency, Bethann Management, to create those chances for clients like Veronica Webb, an early discovery of hers. With the odds stacked against them, the women in these pages were the first Black models to translate runway and editorial bookings into big-money advertisement deals, capitalizing on their images to create mainstream commercial success — a tenet of supermodeldom — in an industry historically unwilling to do the same. Like Webb, a favorite of Marc Jacobs, Gianni Versace, Lagerfeld, and Azzedine Alaïa, who became the first exclusive Black spokesmodel for an unheard-of three-year, $2.2 million Revlon contract in 1992. Or Lana Ogilvie, who, that same year, scored her contract for CoverGirl, which made a surprise move (for the time) by running her campaign across all magazines, not just Black ones. The next year, Tyra Banks landed her own CoverGirl contract and went on to become the first Black model to cover the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1996 and a Victoria’s Secret Angel in 1997.

Kara Young alongside Laurence Treil and Christy Turlington in Revlon’s “Most Unforgettable Women” campaign, 1988.

Karen Alexander, nicknamed “Black Barbie” at the height of her career in the late ’80s to early ’90s, starred in over a decade of Ralph Lauren campaigns, while Kara Young landed the iconic Revlon “Most Unforgettable Women” campaign after a 1988 Vogue cover shoot by Richard Avedon catapulted her career.

“Your job as a model is to sell things. My cover of Vogue where I’m smiling, they told me it sold 20 percent more than the month before. I’ve always known you have to have something extraordinary about you to set you apart. But I actually think I got to do a cover early on because I was approachable looking.” —Kara Young

“Before I got my CoverGirl contract, I modeled for five years, just doing editorial, being broke. And it was huge. I was the first ethnic woman. They had not put anybody who wasn’t white under contract before. CoverGirl, unlike Revlon, made sure the ads were in all of the magazines. My ads were not just in Black magazines; they were across the board. That hadn’t really happened. But CoverGirl did not compensate me equitably by any stretch of the imagination. I got much less than the white contract models were getting. They said take it or leave it. ” —Lana Ogilvie

“I didn’t necessarily feel like I was ‘in competition’ with any other mixed-race models, but there was a sense of heightened stakes. There weren’t many of us at all. There was always a question in the back of my mind, like, What is it, exactly, that you want from me? Am I a trend? Or an oddity? We’d gravitate toward one another and compare notes. ‘How are they at this brand or that brand?’ There was definitely no road map. We were a network unto ourselves … shar[ing] stories, experiences, and advice. It was like a lo-fi, high-payoff group chat.” —Kimora Lee Simmons

“I think I had a lot of anxiety, but I didn’t know it at the time. I would show up on set and sometimes there was no appropriate hair and makeup, so if I had a job on Monday, I had to think, Salons are closed on Sunday. Iman was the one who pulled me aside at a Ralph Lauren show and said, ‘This is what has to be in your bag at all times: mascara, your own foundation, and always your own powder.’ And I think all of this contributed to this humble pie that Black models just sort of all partake of. I mean, I don’t talk about my Vogue cover.” —Karen Alexander

Karen Alexander.

Photographs by Rahim Fortune for The Cut

Kimora Lee Simmons, 13, as the “bride” in Chanel’s haute couture presentation, 1989.
Photo: Courtesy of Kimora Lee Simmons

These women also became indispensable to the era’s greatest designers, something that would have been considered an impossibility before the Versailles girls forced designers and consumers to see models as actual human beings with star power. In the early-to-mid-’90s, Beverly Peele became the go-to booking for Versace, Lagerfeld, and Todd Oldham. Debra Shaw walked in fashion’s most theatrical ’90s-era shows like McQueen for Givenchy’s “Search for the Golden Fleece” collection and John Galliano’s debut collection for Dior. And Kimora Lee Simmons was 13 years old when she landed on the Chanel runway in Paris in 1989 and went on to walk every season for Chanel, Dior, Ungaro, Valentino, Fendi, Kenzo, Moschino, and Yves Saint Laurent as well as Geoffrey Beene and Anna Sui in New York.

Debra Shaw walking in Givenchy’s spring-summer haute couture show, 1997.
Photo: Daniel Simon/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

There is, of course, a glaringly obvious reason not all of these women are household names today. And a glaringly obvious reason why there aren’t more of them. As much as their legacies endure — and some have present-day modeling careers that are stronger than ever — so does fashion’s history of exclusion and exploitation. And while Banks and Simmons found megafame through reality TV and their own fashion and lifestyle brands, for many of them, their impact outweighs their name recognition.

In order of appearance:
On Debra Shaw Peter Do Technical Satin Twill Night Dress, available soon at Moda Operandi. Patricia Von Musulin Sterling-Silver Ram’s Head Cuff and Wave Cuff, at Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Avenue. On Pat ClevelandCarolina Hererra Full Ruffle Puff-Sleeve Blouse, at carolinaherrera.com and 954 Madison Avenue. Khiry Jug Drop Earrings in Sterling Silver, at khiry.com.
On Pat ClevelandPeter Do Silk Trench Blouse and Wool Viscose Signature Belted Tailored Pant, available soon at bergdorfgoodman.com, and Ostrich-and-Chicken-Feather Corsage, available soon at select retailers. Mateo Half-Moon Floating Pearl Hoop Earrings, at mateonewyork.com.
On Tyra Banks Lapointe One-Shoulder Long-Sleeve Midi-Dress, at shopbop.com. Cartier Love Necklace, at Cartier boutiques nationwide.
On Beverly JohnsonPeter Do Cotton Cloud Trench, available soon at select retailers. Khiry Isha Hoops With Tiger’s-Eye Earrings, at khiry.com. On Tyra BanksPeter Do Embossed Velvet and Nappa-Leather Cloud Trench, available soon at select retailers. Khiry Khartoum Hoops Embellished Earrings in Gold Vermeil, at khiry.com.
On Beverly JohnsonBrandon Maxwell Taffeta Off the Shoulder Dress with Zip Front, at brandonmaxwellonline.com. Prounis Granulated Boat-Shaped Hoop Earrings and Trade Ring I, at prounisjewelry.com.
On Beverly PeeleJason Wu Collection Navy Taffeta Off-Shoulder Gown, at net-a-porter.com.
On Beverly Peele & Veronica WebbSergio Hudson Alpaca Knitted Sweater Dress, at sergiohudson.com.
On Veronica Webb Khaite The Sloan Dress, at khaite.com. Manolo Blahnik Maysli Nappa Leather Buckle Slingback Pumps, at manoloblahnik.com. Almasika Universum Hoops with Center Diamond, at almasika.com.
On Debra ShawMarc Jacobs Swirly Stripe Jersey Dress at bergdorfgoodman.com. Cartier Juste un Clou Earrings, at Cartier boutiques nationwide.
On Kara YoungSergio Hudson Signature Dress, at sergiohudson.com. Khaite The Bella Belt, at khaite.com.
On Lana OgilvieChristopher John Rogers Puff-Sleeve Zip-Front Maxi Dress, at net-a-porter.com.
On Kimora Lee SimmonsMichael Costello Dress, from the Michael Costello Archives.
On Karen AlexanderHarbison Triangle Slip Dress, at harbison.studio. Manolo Blahnik White Satin Slingback Pumps, at manoloblahnik.com.
On Karen AlexanderSergio Hudson One-Button Single-Breasted Tuxedo Jacket and Tuxedo Pants, at Elyse Walker. Spanx Suit Yourself Fancy Strapless Cupped Panty Bodysuit, at spanx.com. Manolo Blahnik Raqui Black Snakeskin Strappy Sandals, at manoloblahnik.com.

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