*Beverly Johnson’s name is just about as famous as her face. And what a face! Hers was the first sepia toned one to grace the cover of Vogue Magazine back in 1974. By her own admission, it’s The Face That Changed It All, which is the title of her new, strikingly candid autobiography.
I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down with Johnson and talk about the new book. Oh, hell, let me come correct: I’d have sat down and talked with Beverly Johnson about the weather! I have had a crush on her for decades.
Check out this conversation, and then pick up a copy of The Face That Changed It All. Johnson made me promise not to publish any spoilers about her story, but I did sneak a few points in to let you know this book is a saucy read! For example, wait until you read what she has to say about her former boyfriend Mike Tyson — let alone Robin Givens! And of course, I had to ask her about her relationship with tennis legend Arthur Ashe, and her moment with Bill Cosby, to which she devotes an entire chapter of the book.
This interview has been edited.
TNT: With such a heralded career, why’d you wait until now to publish your memoirs?
Johnson: I’d been messing around with the idea for awhile. I published my first beauty book in the 80s, and a second one in the 90s. I was asked to do another book in the [early] 2000s, and that eventually fell off the table. I was then asked to write my memoirs, and I said “Whoa! Wait a minute!” To me, it seemed so daunting and overwhelming. It took me about five year to finally realize that I wanted to say some things.
TNT: You took “tell all book” to a whole new level with this one! How’d you summon the courage to put it all out there? And why?
Johnson: To be perfectly honest, my mother has Alzheimer’s, and I don’t know if I would have written the book if she did not have that condition. There’s a lot about my life and the things that I’ve gone through that she doesn’t know, and I know that that knowledge would really hurt her. So I don’t know if I would have put my whole life out there like that if she didn’t have that condition. I wouldn’t have been that candid if my mom were well. If I had written it while my mom was well, my sisters and brothers would have REALLY come after me! I’ve always had this kind of very transparent life. When I went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and she said “How are you doing?”, I just kind of blurted out all kinds of stuff! My family would ask me “Do you have to talk about EVERYTHING?” I’ve always been upset that as African Americans, because of our history, we don’t always pass stories down. I always tried to remember those stories that my grandparents had when they slipped and told something — I just cherished those moments and tried to remember them, because they didn’t often tell us about the hardships of their lives. My mother didn’t tell us stories about her childhood, either. I really wanted to not be like that. I think stories are good, and it’s history, and I needed to tell my story.
TNT: You were the very first black woman to be on the cover of Vogue. I was at Barnes & Noble the other day, and every other magazine today has a black person on the cover, but that wasn’t the case in 1974. What’s it feel like to know that that’s a part of your legacy that cannot be taken away?
Johnson: It is as exciting for me today as it was then. It was such a huge kind of responsibility for a young women of 22. I felt like I was carrying a nation on my shoulders. It was God trying to tell me something, and I really didn’t want to mess that up or tarnish it. I thought it was an honor, and I really wanted to represent it well.
TNT: You were really candid in writing about your substance use and abuse. You wrote “I had used my fair share of cocaine, but heroin was hard core.” Having come from a tea totaling family, that gave me a picture of the level of addiction you were dealing with. You even wrote about using drugs during your baby shower when you were eight months pregnant!
Johnson: I wanted to bring people back to the era. I remember smoking marijuana and having conversations with our parents about it, about the good of marijuana. And cocaine wasn’t considered an addictive drug. ‘Caine increased one’s mental capacities, we thought. There were all of these fallacies about drugs, just as there were about cigarettes at the time! So we didn’t know what we know now about drugs. And in our industry, cocaine was an elitist drug. It was only for rich people — [using cocaine] it was like carrying a Gucci, you know? [laughs]. I wanted to evoke that era in the book, but also bring back the ignorance that still exists today. A lot of us didn’t make it, and a lot of us are still succumbing to drugs.
TNT: You wrote so lovingly of your relationship with tennis legend Arthur Ashe.
Johnson: I wanted to include Arthur in the book because it really pains me when his name is mentioned and people ask “Who is he?”, especially when you’re standing in the Arthur Ashe Stadium! He was truly a trailblazer. What I learned about being a trailblazer is that you get a lot of burns on that trail. It’s not the kind of glory that many think about all the time. Out of respect for that great gentleman, I wanted to tell that story.
TNT: Your book gives us a whole new side of Mike Tyson, with whom you also had a relationship. You wrote about him calling you to tell you he wanted to marry Robin Givens. You wrote “I won’t disparage [Givens] in this book, but I knew enough to know how that was going to turn out.” Can you share how you knew that, and a little of WHAT you knew about Givens that led you to believe things weren’t going to work?
Johnson: Well, I’m a woman and I have intuition. I was also older than they were, so I had an idea based on experience that things just weren’t going to work. I would like to say that Mike did not kiss and tell: I did! That speaks volumes for him. Maybe he never told anybody [about our relationship] because he didn’t think anyone would believe it! But I think the fact that he never told that story speaks volumes about his character. By that time, I’d been in the spotlight since I had been 18 years old. I’d learned how to understand people and their personalities, especially people in the entertainment business — we’re different animals! A lot of times, we’re seeking the approval that we never got from anyone. It’s a different type of personality that goes into this industry. It was never my aspiration to be an entertainer. That’s not a part of who we were brought up to be. In my family, you had to go to college!
TNT: You wrote that you’d planned to be an attorney.
Johnson: Oh yeah. Definitely. I don’t have regrets, but if I had to say I had a regret, it would be not finishing college. And then when I wanted to go to college when my daughter was at UCLA, she said “Are you kidding? You’re not going to college with me!” Then after she got her MBA, she told me I should go to college, and I told her “It’s too late now! That train has LEFT!”
TNT: You wrote about the roaming eye — and other body parts — of one of your husbands. You wrote “It’s one thing for a woman to come into your house and sleep with your man, but it’s quite another when you actually know the hussy.” You grabbed a broom and chased the woman down the street, and your husband watched you from from a second story window, laughing. Did it occur to you to turn the broom on HIM, instead of her because he was the one cheating on you, not her?
Johnson: What occurred to me in the moment was that I had to get away from that entire situation as fast as I could! I wanted to tell that story because a lot to times, people think “Well, he’s with Beverly Johnson. He’s not going to cheat on HER!” People have an idea that a woman who’s considered attractive doesn’t fall prey to womanizers. People don’t realize that that entire relationship was 18 months. I was moving fast to get outta there! I got a lifetime worth of experience from that 18 months. I’m not a violent person, and I don’t believe it that at all. People get physical because they run out of words and can’t express themselves, and they wind up going to that very primitive place. I don’t condone that in any way.
TNT: Your publisher told you originally that they were going to delete your chapter about your episode with Bill Cosby.
Johnson: I’d bared my soul after keeping the secret for all of these years, and the publisher told me that it was a legal liability for them and that they were going to omit that chapter of the book. When the whole Cosby thing erupted, they called me and decided to put that chapter back into the book.
TNT: Of your experience with Cosby, you wrote “In the end, it took nearly 30-some years before I felt strong enough to share my story with the public, a decision largely influenced by the bravery of those women telling their truth.” One might assume that BEVERLY JOHNSON would need no time to fortify herself and tell her own story. Why’d it take you so long to share your story?
Johnson: I think that if people know the cycle of sexual abuse, victims don’t tell. YOU were considered the freak if you DID tell. If you were raped and went straight to the police, that would have been rare. As a society, we bring women up to be voiceless, to go along with the flow, don’t say anything, don’t rock the boat. To speak out and have your story not believed is an assault on top of an assault. But for me to see these women on television being re-victimized and crucified, I felt for THEM. Here I was, sitting with my story, and I knew they were telling the truth because half of their story happened to me. I realized I could no longer keep my story to myself. I couldn’t do it.
TNT: I’ve learned that you’re working on a new reality TV show. Can you talk about that?
TNT: Toward the end of your book, you mention running into a few characters from your past. You wrote “My past was calling but I refused to pick up.” I LOVED that line! Elaborate on that!
Johnson: I realized in that moment that I needed help, and help can come in the form of a good self help book, or in the form of a therapist. You recognize the patterns in your life, and you know what sets you off. If you recognize the pattern, you can catch yourself. It’s your reaction to things that gives you great awareness of who you are. And it’s always the ants in the room. It’s never the elephants! Everybody can deal with the big elephants running through the house, but when the ants come through? Oh my God! All hell breaks loose! So it’s the little bitty things that you recognize will set you off, and the acknowledgement of that helps you realize that you can decide how to react, and to make a different decision than perhaps you’ve made in the past.
TNT: You wrote of the dissolution of one of your marriages “In the end, I realized we both loved high drama. That was great for a movie, but not for a marriage.” I think your whole book is good for a movie. Are you shopping the book for a movie deal?
Johnson: Very good question! We sure are! Stay tuned!
The Face That Started It All is available at retail and digital outlets everywhere.