Though born and raised in New York, model and activist Bethann Hardison became a household name when she took her turn on the catwalk at the Battle of Versailles, a historic fashion show that took place in Versailles and put American fashion on the map. With that moment, Hardison became one of the first Black models to walk a European runway. She's since devoted her career to the ethical treatment and advancement of models of color across the globe, which she discusses in depth in this week's episode of UnStyled with Refinery29's co-founder and global editor-in-chief Christene Barberich. For Hardison, the concept of racial equality is a simple one. Yet as history shows, it's a battle that's hard fought and long from over — but not if she has anything to do with it.
When Hardison takes listeners back to a time when the nationalities of models were even less important than the color of their skin, it's a stark reminder that, despite the progress she's brought forth in the industry, the needle has just begun to move. She recalls a time when major designers would phone her requesting a Black model; not plural, just one. Almost dumbfounded, she'd ask: Do you know how that sounds? It was moments like this that inspired Hardison to start the Black Girl Coalition, an organization comprised of the industry's top models of color, women like Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Tyra Banks, who routinely call for more racial diversity on the runway.
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Her momentum hasn't slowed down, either. After her standout interview in About Face, a documentary about beauty featuring the supermodels who defined it, Hardison is now hard at work on another film, Invisible Beauty, which aims to tell the story of one woman's plight to change the fashion industry's attitudes toward racial diversity. From her mouth to the industry's ears, Hardison's frankness comes full circle on this week's episode of UnStyled.
It sounds like there's a cyclical nature to this sort of interest in diversity in the fashion industry. What do you think?
Bethann Hardison: "You have to educate people. Thank goodness I had a white modeling agency with good ethnic kids in it, but Brides magazine always booked this one girl I had, who was a beautiful brunette girl. And one day, I just — I had so many good kids — I said, 'Don’t you ever book Black girls? You do know they get married, too?' You have to say things for people to think, because at the end of the day, they're living with an ignorance."
No one saw the inequalities in fashion to be discrimination at the time?
BH: "No. In 2007, casting directors were writing to the model agencies [asking] 'No Blacks, no ethnics;' telling them 'Before you even send a girl to us: no Blacks, no ethnics.' It's the good news and bad news about our industry: We talk in identity. We talk about what someone is when we book them. We recognize it because that's what you do. You say, 'We want redheads, we don’t want redheads,' [for example]. We're very specific about what someone should look like. But it has eliminated entire races of people."