Bethann Hardison Transcript
Bethann: The real racists don't care what you think. I knew who I was talking to. I wasn't talking to the Klu Klux Klan. I was talking to fashion people.
Helga: A person who came into her natural self without any interference modeling agency founder and model Bethann Hardison has forged a path all her own. She managed a model that looked like me and helped me imagine that I was also beautiful. I'm Helga Davis.
Bethann Hardison's life and work have centered around identity. A word that can be a double-edged sword in the fashion world.
Bethann: I'm not going to hug and kiss you, but I can hug you and kiss you.
Helga: Our circles overlap...
Bethann: So much spirit.
Helga: And yet, we're meeting here for the first time to talk about her fight to educate, integrate, and give back to this community that made her a model and entrepreneur.
Bethann: God, I hope I can be as smart as those. Wow. Wow.
Helga: The fact of the matter is, I find that when people come here and they agree, yeah, something else happens too. And we learn things that we need for now. We get our medicine. We get the things that that, you know, in ways that we need to hear them now.
And so I'm always very, very appreciative of the folks who come and who agree.
Bethann: No, I agree with you in that. I think it's a wonderful thing because like I was asked while I was in Chicago to please come to be on the news for to talk about diversity. I'd say no.
Helga: Hmm. How come?
Bethann: Because I'm tired. I'm just coming back from somewhere. I have things I need to do in my home when I get home. And even though I, you know, I like to be able to be that voice that tells it right, all over. You just can't all the time. So you just, you choose to pick and choose. That's the same old topical subject, diversity.
What you and I will talk about, it's not typically topical, so it's a little bit more interesting for me.
Helga: Tell me where you come from. I know that you grew up in Bed-Stuy.
Bethann: I grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant. Not Bed-Stuy.
Helga: Okay. Lesson number one.
Bethann: It's important to me.
Helga: Tell me why?
Bethann: Because Bedford Stuyvesant was what it was. This is Bed-Stuy, which is what it is.
Helga: Hmm. What was it?
Bethann: It was different. It was a place you really, you know, you grew up in and you came from. Not that you went and lived in.
Bethann: That's Bed-Stuy to me. I mean, you know, look. I'm old school. I'm a snob. And I'm a little mad at everybody who's over there. But I understand, I appreciate people who run- it's like, you know, the wild, Wild West. You run towards it. I get it. But still in all, it was where I came from and it was really quite special.
Helga: And, you grew up with both of your parents?
Bethann: I grew up with my mother and my grandmother. And then I went to live with my father when I was 12. He was Islamic and he was, and also an Imam. He knew that it was very important- his responsibilities to his daughter or any child he would have. He had to educate her.
My father had rights to have me. When they got divorced, actually annulled, the courts for some reason gave me to him. And, so he had asked my grandmother to come from North Carolina to take care of me when he had to go into the service cause he just knew my mother partied and had a good time and he was frightened for that.
So once she came up, she became very, you know, attached to me. So, then he didn't want to take me away from her cause she got sad. She'd left her home, she'd left everything to help him.
Helga: What effect do you think it had on you that your mom had this other kind of life? Did you think about it then and what did you think about it later in your life?
Bethann: No, my mother, she was very cool, my mother. She was, I mean, it makes me laugh all the time every time I think about, you know. Why I said the other night, I said, "What could Sophie have done so badly that not only did they get annulled, but that the judge would give a daughter child to a father?"
But she, I loved growing up with Sophia and my grandmother- Mama Carrie, which I always refer to us.
I really came into my natural self without any interference. They were big supporters. I did a lot of things on my own. I realized that as you look back at what most kids could never do.
Helga: What did you do? What were some of those things?
Bethann: I became a well-known child tap dancer. I ran track as a kid. Every girl that I got to be friendly with in school, I went to their homes and saw what it's like to see a mother, father, you know, kind of environment. Which I didn't have. And watch how stern fathers could be and how, you know, we had to be quiet when the father came home. It was time to leave.
And also that I liked so much going to another person's church. My mother and they would say to me, “So what are you doing this week?" And I was like, you know, 9, 10, 11. I was always doing things.
So I get very lucky that I had these people in my life that really, that you could do that. I also gang fight. I was in a gang from the age of 9 till the year I went to my live with my dad until I was 12. The Chaplains. It was a five-borough gang. it was one of the strongest gangs in the city.
Helga: What do you think you got there?
Bethann: Leadership. Cause I was a war counselor. Now imagine I'm 9 years old. I mean it was kinda ruckus, but it wasn't like it is now where people shot people. You know, the biggest thing that ever happened in gangs back then was that someone might have gotten stabbed. That was as brutal as it ever got and it never, they never died from it.
And the most you feared is going to the wrong neighborhood and getting beat up cause you had parents and relatives and other neighborhood. Your parents don't know anything about gangs. You have to go and visit Aunt So and So. That happened mostly to the boys.
It was just good to have all these experiences in my life that if I look back, if I said in hindsight, do you think this helped to make who you are now? Well, maybe it did. But one thing for sure, I had a very interesting childhood, you know.
It wasn't, you know, like someone picks me up and then another car comes and picks me up. And then I had lots of little play dates and all that nonsense. I just, I pray, I'm so glad I don't have children now. Thank God there was still freedom to go out and play. I mean, and be back by this time.
And I grew up with a lot of freedom and Sophie was very cool. My mother, And you know, I was in this film. It's on HBO, called, About Face that a Timothy Greenfield-Sanders did. And it talks about the models of the nineties, eighties, seventies.
Anyway, and when I tell my story, I talk about my mother and I talk about how she used to be with all these Drag Queens. And the first time I ever heard about the houses was my mother used to go to the houses where they would all be in drag and perform and all. And that was something that was shocking. Imagine I was like 9 and 10, 11 years old when that happened. This ain't brand new.
Helga: So how old were you when you were discovered? And I say that in, or in with air quotes around it. Who, who chose you to model? What were you doing? Where were you?
Bethann: Oh, I'm a Garment Center kid. I grew up in the Garment Center. I grew up between 40th Street and 30th between Broadway and Seventh Avenue.
Willie Smith is the first person who actually thought I might've been a designer and sought me out in the neighborhood cause he would see me walking in the area. To him, my style reflected a lot of what he liked.
Helga: Which was?
Bethann: Which was a style that I could never explain to anyone. But it was just what he liked, you know? And so, when he met me, he realized that I worked in a showroom as a sales girl. I was not a designer, but I worked for a design company.
They asked me to take the dresses over, samples over to Bernie's office who was one of the senior executives at Federated. And Bernie always liked to put on a really great, you know, production like Broadway. He liked to entertain his buyers, but he also wanted to teach them about what dresses were the hot things to wear from different manufacturers.
And so, I said to him, when I took the dresses up, you'd have a really great show if you put me in it. And he looked at me and said, "Who are you? Where are you from?" I said, "Oh God, I done over spoke." Right?
But I told him I was from Ruth Manchester and he said, "Okay, thank you. Thank you for this." And by the time I got back to my office, Bernie had called and said, I want that girl in my show.
So I actually did the show and I really performed. I went out there and entertained. And they were, I mean, I was the girl with short, short hair, like I wear my hair now. Very, very thin. Looked like a boy. Wasn't typical of the garment business of what was then.
So I got lucky in that one sense, but Seventh Avenue didn't relate to me very much because I didn't look like that to some of the brown girls that they had. They were much more sophisticated looking. I was like the new wave. I was what was coming along that they weren't ready for.
And so the good news, having someone like Willie and then all of a sudden Stephen Burrows came along. Then the industry started to change with more really more interesting designers.
Helga: And you integrated your high school? Yes?
Bethann: Oh, yes. So, and that's for funny. That's right. Yeah, we were bussed. That's right. I didn't even know about that until one of my White, Italian girlfriends explained that to me. Years later, once we were grown up. She said, "Do you know that's what happened when you came to Wingate?"
We were the first blacks that go into that school. I had already gotten accepted to performance arts for, drama. But what wind up happening, this young white guy came to our school in Bedford Stuyvesant. Invited some of the students to consider that school for junior high school. And it was so interesting.
You know, first of all, we never see a white person come into our neighborhood, you know, unless they were had a store. And then the other thing was that the school was so, like interesting. It was a banjo design. I just went home and told her mother, "I'm not going to performance." She said, "But you, you studied, you was so excited. You got in. Why?"
See once again, I was leading the way. My mother? Whatever. And I just basically said, "No, I'm going to go to Wingate." And it was one of the greatest things I ever done.
Helga: Did you see yourself as a mother?
Bethann: No. That was just something that happened to me. You know, you're young and there's no, there's no such thing as abortions. Legal abortions. All that. That was just, it was tragic. But in the end of the day, it wound up being okay because Khadeem turned out to be okay.
But it was really not what I had in mind. I did everything to prevent that from becoming a reality. It was a tough moment for me.
Helga: And what else was happening with you in that moment when you realized that you were pregnant?
Bethann: I was very young and so my father was really upset. He couldn't even imagine that I could survive that. And I was just blessed that I did survive it, but my father didn't speak to me for a couple of years, you know. In the end of the day, yeah, I made it work. And he was, I guess in the end, very proud to
No, I didn't seek to be a mother. No, not at all. But I was a good mother because I was so scared to fail. Yeah, I was good. And then I had the support of my mother. They, by the time he was three, my mother took them from me again and just wouldn't let him come back home to me.
And she kept saying, "Go do your thing. You're always so busy. Just go, do you. Live your life?" And I kept looking over like, "Well, I started to live a life." And I had the support of others.
Helga: Also, you know, when you think about the fact that women were having abortions and-
Bethann: No, but not then.
Helga: Oh, not then.
Bethann: No, no, no, no. That was all illegal. It was all illegal, then. In the 60s and all that. You couldn't, no, no, no.
Somebody told you about somebody who did something that was. You know, it's backdoor. It was that way. But then when I was trying, everyone would look at me and said, "No, I don't know where you heard that from."
I said, "But I know they told me." You know, you had to be secretive. It had to be a secret cause you people would get locked up. And something about me scared them off. And I always say that was because he was supposed to come.
Helga: I want to come back to one other bit that you do talk about being destiny with having your son. And raising this black man whom you are clearly very proud of.
Bethann: He's a nice guy. He really is. He's just, he's just very nice. That's what the, you know, that's the pride, you know? Then when people would say, "Oh my goodness, you know, you must be so proud." When he was like successful on television or doing things. I said, "Okay, I mean, we'll see." You know, cause to me, it's always to the end.
Helga: So you go off to Paris.
Bethann: Yeah. I did. I had a full-time job. The whole time I worked. I was never that model who was "grande" And then I also modeled. I was so good at what I did working at the company, I could go to Guido who ran the company, Stephen Burrows at the time on seventh Avenue, and I could say, "Listen, I want to go to Paris."
I would get invited to an Yves Saint Laurent show, but I never got to walk that runway. But I worked for people who just started. Like Issey Miyaki, Kenzo, Claude Montana. It was people like that, that were younger brands coming up at the time. And I was part of the new wave of girls. You know, who looked like me.
And then Issey and I became very, very close and I began to produce a lot of his shows. We still think of eachothers, you know, sister and brother.
Helga: So it feels like you were just on some kind of path.
Bethann: Yeah. That's very true. And I still feel that's still, now. I look back, even at this age in my life, and I think, "Jeez, isn't it funny. People still want you to do something." Or you're going here and going there.
And I'm, I'm like literally saying to myself that I'm proud of me. You know that I'm proud that I have the determination or that I had the natural drive to want to do something about something. And that's a revolutionary. That's not like someone could teach you that.
Helga: But Bethann, what are the things that you do and have done to cultivate this, this sense of purpose and confidence?
Bethann: Oh wow. That's a very good question. You know, I always like to take care of myself physically. I like to lay back. But the idea really is that I do care so much for my society. The immediate one. Especially my industry. The one I came from. The model industry that services the fashion industry.
I care that they don't come off looking like a silly, silly people. So that's the reason why you stand up to them. You educate them. Because I've been around long enough that I know that I know more than the average one that has been there now.
So, I know that if I say certain things to them, cause you could see naughty things happening, but you don't see that they see it. And I believe that they're not who- other people refer to them as racists or so. I believe that there's more ignorance to it than there is racism.
Helga: Say more about that?
Bethann: It's not a point of accusing as much as a point of educating. It's the way you approach people. And I think that that's something that's helped me to be successful at it. Cause I never think that who I'm speaking to is guilty of the results of what I could be saying.
Like when I wrote the letters to the international world of designers. Nationally and internationally. Because the best way I could do that is just to list the designers who were guilty and put it under one umbrella.
So what I basically did was just say that if you use one or two models of color or less for three or four seasons consistently. Whether it's your intention or not, the result is racism.
You're not calling them a racist. What you're doing is showing them that your actions fall into a category. Whether it's your intention or not. That's something that's much easier to be read than someone saying, You're racist."
You say that to someone, their back goes up. First of all, they gonna come at you. You know what I mean? There's all kinds of wrong ways to say something and there's all kinds of right ways to get the great results.
And because I know I was talking to an industry that I was familiar with. That said, I sent it properly to media. But I sent it all letters out to them, first. And the very next day I sent it to the media. So the media writers way calls me to ask me, "Well what- did you do this? Who wrote this letter?"
I had to admit it was me. Cause I do have a, you know, I have a backup band. But I can't announce who the backup band is cause there are people in the industry. So it's like a, you know, a speakeasy kind of club. They're all people who, black and white. Asian also. Are many different backgrounds of who they are. But we sit and talk about it and they help guide me. What I can't see, sometimes they can see.
So, I admitted that I had written a letter. And then it just, they called, the councils of fashion in these different areas to get a response. And it was very effective because of that letter was sent out in September 7th, 2014 by October, London, Paris, Italy. It was a shift.
They were putting girls of color quickly. Celine, who had never used anyone of color.
Helga: But why?
Bethann: Because in the design world people, as much as their individuals, they're followers. So, they basically do the same thing that everybody is. And who started that was really Miuccia Prada. Because when she got tired of seeing that glamorous girl, the supermodel. Anything that would take away from the clothes, the Eastern European girl had been discovered. And the next thing you know, the Eastern European girl was now being decided that, that's the model.
She wasn't particularly attractive. You didn't remember her face. All you noticed were the clothes. That's what Miuccia did. And when that happened, it became a trend. And next thing you know, it's happening over and over.
Trying to get a girl of color into a show, or a boy of color. It was very difficult because that wasn't the trend.
Helga: When you're saying you're trying to save an industry, what do you mean? I mean, if your argument is that they aren't being racist, then they've not done anything wrong.
Bethann: Yeah, they have. Because if you continually sort of like eliminate a race of people. Two races, three races of people. And you just stay within a Caucasian race, whether it's your intention or not, it ain't the coolest, smartest thing to do because then you're not really reflecting society. You're not modernizing the times. You have to modernize the time.
If something happens with an average young kid in school, sometimes, oftentimes not. If you ask them who hit you, they won't even know the color of the kid. Because they just see it as a kid.
What we can afford to do as elders, people who are mature, is to allow ourselves to fall into trips and traps that allow us not to even do something that's responsible to society.
But I knew that if I could get the visual out there, if I can make sure that the girls are seen. The boys are seen. Color is seen. That it will affect other industries. All of a sudden, you'll start seeing them in magazines.
It will help people that are not of color feel more comfortable.
Helga: But Beth Ann, is there some desire, whether it's conscious or not, for those brands to be exclusive? To not have, they maybe they don't want everybody in their stuff. They don't want every, every idiot with a credit card to be able to walk into their shop and, and afford-
Bethann: I stop you there.
Bethann: That's not so.
Helga: I'm asking.
Bethann: Yeah, that's not so. Because designers don't determine who buys the clothes. I know you think so. Everyone thinks that. Once a designer presents the clothes, there's someone comes in their showrooms and so selling to the world. They want everyone to buy it.
The designer is just presenting an image. He's just representing his feeling. What he thinks the length of the skirt. Should it be plaid? Should it be texture? Should it be the girl? All that's important to the designer.
What's important to the company is that things sell. And they don't care who buys it because it's not like they got to go and hang out with the people who buy it. They don't care.
Oh no. Money's money. Oh, come on. No me boy. They don't care. No, no designer sitting there saying, "I don't want no black people in my clothes." You think it because you don't see the image of a person of color in their clothes. But that's not where their thinking.
Their brain has not going that far. You can't give these people that much credit. I don't give him a lot of credit. That's probably part of the problem. Or probably the solution. Cause I don't. I don't think that that's smart.
And if I was going to interview any one of those designers and if they could say to me, "Bethann, get out of here with that. I'm not interested in your black girls. I don't care about your Latinas. Get them out of here." Nobody could have the courage to say that.
And if that was true, what we think, then they wouldn't have been able to switch by a letter. Cause a real racist don't care what you think. I knew who I was talking to. I wasn't talking to the Klu Klux Klan. I was talking to fashion people. They're not that deep. Because they're thinking about other things.
Helga: You start this modeling agency. How come?
Bethann: I was working with a model agency, helping someone and I became very attached, known through this model agency called Click Models.
Someone approached me and just wanted me to come and merge with them. They were coming from Paris. They sort of screwed me. I was left out there on my own. They said, "let's do it." They told me we're going to be partners. Then when I started having my person called their person, they said, "Oh no, that never said that she's going to come work for us."
Well, I'm not gonna leave the people I'm working for who's been very good to me, to go work for somebody who now tells me coming in there, right.
I got left out there. I had already left my company and I was encouraged by others to do this modeling agency. I didn't want to do a model agency. I kept thinking, the last thing I want to do is die and on my tombstone is, “There lies Bethann. A model agent.” I thought I got to have more I like come up with in life, right?
So, I had no choice because people kept talking to me. Why don't you come on you? This is what you see. Don't walk away from this. This is what you're doing. Do it now. Stop working for other people. Do it for yourself. And I'm thinking about the community I came from. Bedford Stuyvesant. Blacks. How many people get an opportunity. Stay with it. Do something. Represent. And that's why I did it.
And I had a white model agency. Most people don't know that. I wouldn't have been successful, as I was, if I didn't. Because I was the one who made sure that I had Blacks, Latins and Asians in my agency. Which most other people didn't.
But in order for me to be effective, I had to compete against my white counterpart with the same product. And outdo them. And I did.
Helga: And was it, did you find any resistance from white models who didn't want to have a black woman representative?
Oh no, I was already somebody. You know what I mean? The only thing that would happen with me is that when we have a white girl and their family wanted to come to meet, they would go around and see all the agencies. And they could start seeing the power I was starting to have. The other white agencies that were my competitors.
And they would start to say to them, "She's really nice, you know. But I just want to say, if you choose to go with her, she tends to have more blacks than-" Or they would say, if it was a black girl, they said, "Well, you know, she's good, but she always, she seems to focus much more on Roshumba." Or you know, they name another girl of color to compete. That's how they do.
But the people, no. They never seem to because I was established person. And if you looked at my book, the book that you have to show people to show who you represent, the way it's done and who's in it now, you couldn't deny.
Helga: Why did you close the agency?
Bethann: Oh my goodness. Girl, I couldn't wait. When they asked me to have a model agency, I said, "Okay. I'll do it for three years." They said, "You can't do and agency for three years." You know, we're going to give you this money. You have to, you know, at least do it say five. I said, "Okay, I'll do it for five years."
I was dying at the idea. I just wanted to go to Hollywood and be in film or something, right? I wanted to make movies or something. And I wind up doing five years. Five years because you become successful at it.
Five turned to seven. Seven turned to nine. Nine to eleven. But the 12th year I said to my sister, I took her out for dinner and I said, "This is 12 years I'm doing this. Year 13 I want out." And I told her. We planned it and year 13, I was out.
And it wasn't because the models weren't good. It was the other things and the agents that were coming. The ones who you were starting to hire. The bookers. They were like, a little aggressive and little, you know, a little mean in a way.
They didn't take care of the kids the way you want them to take care of. The models would come back and tell me things. And they would say, "Oh, you're always taken up with the model." And I'm thinking, well, that's who I'm supposed to take up for, you know?
It was- I got out and the many people to this day who I go to see who was still in the business always say, you really were smart. You got out. But it was my destiny. It wasn't for me to be in it forever.
Helga: Is there something, do you have some kind of ritual, some something that, a practice that you do every day that every person could do that you feel helps keep you aligned and on your path?
Bethann: I think, you know, I, would like to say all the things people would like me to say. Like, I meditate. But I do yoga in bed, so I'm kinda, you know, I make sure I, if I get up, not anything, get distracted.
I do like to take care of myself, that's for sure. I like to go to Korea town and go get scrubs and, you know, lay in saunas for long periods of time. I like it. I like to go to quiet places.
I love that I have a home in upstate New York. I love Mexico. The daily practices I think is really that I really don't take anything for granted. Well, I try to take care of my health. I know that a lot of people, you know, didn't wake up this morning and I'm very conscious of that. And, I always believe in preparing for the end.
I'm not someone who believes that life is forever. I believe in the hereafter. I believe in you're gonna leave. So, you gotta live life accordingly.
Helga: And what did you do about love in all of these years?
Bethann: Oh my God. I have like what people say, oftentimes, "A man in every port." Well, I'm blessed to have that. I have love in my life. Yes, I do. But I am also someone who's quite selfish. I like to be alone.
And I'm glad I live here. And he lives there. And they live there. And I visit and I spent long, like months at a time. But I also like to be alone cause I have a life and I keep moving and I have to see people. I don't think I would ever be able to stage of my life be able to take care of someone else.
I think this is it. It's me. And I try to go visit my children cause they're so lazy. LA people, my God. And that's it. You know, just try to keep it nice and simple. And you have a lot of good friends. A lot of people who really admire you and support you and there for you and care about me. And that's really nice too.
Helga: Bethann. Thank you.
Bethann: Thank you so much for having me talk with you. I was so frightened that I have to be so smart, but you talked about me, so it was easy.
Helga: Helga is produced by Krystal Hawes Dressler and myself. Our technical director, composer, and sound designer is Curtis Macdonald. Lukas Krohn-Grimberghe is our Executive Producer. Special thanks to WNYC's Program Director, Jacqueline Cincotta and Alex Ambrose.
Be sure to visit us online at wnycstudios.org/helga
Bethann: Oh God Helga. You're so cool.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. 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 New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.”