JoAni Johnson, The 67-Year-Old Model Defying Every Fashion Stereotype
How a happenstance, only-in-NYC moment & tragedy led to her new life before the camera
JoAni Johnson has lived more lives than a bodega cat. A quintessential and stoic New Yorker, she was born and raised in Harlem, and hung out at Studio 54 during Warhol’s heyday decked out in Stephen Burrows. She’s worked every job from a receptionist’s desk, to sales, to running a showroom, to blending tea, and she pulls off a Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat like no one else. Now 67, she’s come out of semi-retirement for a completely unexpected modelling career.
Johnson enters an industry unsure of what to do with her story. The odds would typically be stacked against her: She’s in her seventh decade of life, stands tall at 5’4” (and a half), is unsigned to a major agency and books jobs through Instagram directly. And yet, following a viral 2016 Allure video, she’s on the cusp of a breakthrough, walking for contemporary and emerging designers, modelling in a few editorials here and there, and building a social following. And it’s not just due to her striking appearance and sharp, easy personal style (she loves Rick Owens, Demobaza and others): it’s Johnson’s charisma, a star quality that’s impossible to manufacture, that has casting directors abuzz.
If you ask her, she’ll tell you modelling is just a hobby; by day, she's a certified tea-blender. But, as she opens up about her past professional and personal lives, her triumphs and her losses, it’s clear it means so much more.
Despite what most people may deduct from Johnson’s outer appearance, most notably an endless river of grey hair (which she’s had for the greater part of her life), she’s not a conventional product of the beauty or fashion worlds. Though she initially majored in Biology and Art in college, Johnson’s path started in numbers. “I loved math. I loved it,” she says of switching to become a math major. “But after the first semester, the teacher advised me that I was maybe in over my head. But in my junior year, she got up in front of the class and said, ‘I made a huge mistake. I suggested that this person not major in math and she just proved me wrong.’”
After graduation, Johnson moved to France for three months, but her plans to attend nursing school there were stifled by her struggle to learn technical/medical French (amygdale, gonflement, piqûre d’abeille). She returned to New York and got a job in the Garment District. “I was always interested in fashion,” notes Johnson, who fused her love of clothes and math to get a job as an accountant for a men’s shirt company called Foxy World, a competitor of the ubiquitous Nik-Nik-style shirts. There, Johnson learned the ins and outs of pattern-making, selling and merchandising.
At her next gig, she worked remotely for a denim company based out of Dallas. “Back in the day, we had no internet. We had no cell phones,” she remembers. “When fashion happened, it took a long time for it to get from place to place. Being in New York and working with this jean company out of Dallas, whatever sold well in New York took six months to catch on in Texas.” Johnson was tasked with filtering the company’s best-selling styles to Texas, where the patterns would be adapted to fit their customers. But her Texas tale didn’t last long — “They thought I was weird” — and she moved on to work for esteemed fashion executive Warren Hirsh, of Gloria Vanderbilt, Calvin Klein, and Fiorucci fame.
“I loved it,” she says of that job, particularly her time in the Fiorucci division, where she sold the ready-to-wear line to major department stores across the country. “I still think that Elio [Fiorucci] was one of the most brilliant designers on the planet. You could pull out his stuff now and you could wear it and be fine. He was so ahead of his time.”
Her next stint in fashion, however, would turn her off of the corporate world completely. It was the ‘80s, and another fashion executive, Les Wexner, had revolutionised the apparel industry and the direct-to-consumer retail strategy. Wexner, who turned The Limited into a multi-billion dollar company, created his own manufacturing and distribution network, which ultimately put merchants and middle-women like Johnson out of a job.
“Hong Kong was really important. What they would do is: They’d come into your showroom, they’d buy anywhere between 24 to 48 pieces, they’d do the merchandising and find out which were hot sellers — and you’d never hear from them again. Then their floors would be filled with your styling but half the price of yours!” Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s — the retail landscape would never be the same. “The one that really got to me, though, was when Les [Wexner] went in and bought the Lerner Stores. He canceled everybody’s order and he came back into the marketplace and offered 5 cents to the dollar. I had people and friends who decided to leave this planet because of what he did. He ruined people’s lives. So, I made a decision to get out.”
JoAni became a stay-at-home mom, caring for Zenzele, her daughter with husband Peter Johnson, former director of admissions at Columbia University. Eventually, heading back to work after so many years out of the game, Johnson realised she was entering uncharted waters. “Every place I went to, they’d ask me, ‘Can you type?’ And I couldn’t type. When I was growing up, my mom said, ‘Do not learn how to type! If you learn how to type, that’s the only job they’re gonna put you in. You don’t wanna be a typist.’ So I never learned how to type.” But the mulish Johnson went back to school and learned how to type, and got a job that brought her corporate career full circle: as a receptionist. “I said, What am I gonna do? But then I said, I know what I’m gonna do: I’m gonna be the best damn receptionist they’ve ever seen. And I was.”
But she eventually found her way back to fashion — by happenstance. In 2016, while walking down the streets of Chelsea in Manhattan with husband Peter (“During the summertime, we used to take parts of the city and just cover them [on foot], just to see what has changed”), she was stopped by a street style photographer who asked to take her photo. Johnson unenthusiastically obliged. “I didn’t want to. But my husband said, ‘C’mon, let her take the photo.’,” she remembers. A few weeks later, a casting agent reached out to Johnson asking her to film a video about someone with grey hair. “I asked my husband first and, again, he said, ‘Go ahead, just try it.’ I didn’t know what they wanted. I was semi-retired and working on my tea blending business. But then I went and that was the Allure video.”
Alongside one of her favourite designers, Norma Kamali, and writer Michaela Angela Davis, the video, on dispelling beauty myths and ageing gracefully, went viral. Like, around-the-world-in-80-seconds viral. With more than a million views, the Allure spot led to several other modelling opportunities for Johnson: she’d soon walk the runways of designers Eileen Fisher, Tome, Deveaux, and CDLM by Chris Peters. And, like one bluebird to another, her husband was there — just as he was on that Chelsea sidewalk — iPhone at the ready, supporting Johnson at every show.
“The best part of walking the runway was that my husband was going to be there. My husband wasn’t a true dandy, but he dressed impeccably. Ahead of New York Fashion Week, he searched for an entire week for an outfit!” she says. “He’d be in the audiences and when the show started, he’d want to take pictures of me so he’d jump in front of the photographers and get the shot they were getting. It annoyed them so much.” But on November 7, 2017, Peter Johnson died unexpectedly in the family's New York City home. His memorial service the following month, JoAni says, was attended by over a thousand mourners (Peter had worked at Columbia for over 30 years). For the first time in decades, JoAnni was alone. In her grief, modelling — even if she still considers it a part-time gig — has offered distraction, catharsis and a sense of purpose.
Her breakthrough into an industry that has grown to love “real people” in recent years couldn’t be better timed. She’s got an agent, she’s amassed 18k followers on Instagram, and has recently modelled for Rachel Antonoff and The Zoe Report — Johnson is the embodiment of #greyhairdontcare. ”I consider myself timeless,” she says. But the reason she’s doing all of this, after a life in suits and at a time in her life when she doesn’t need to do it, is enough to bring a tear to the eyes of fashion’s most jaded players.
“All of this is for him,” she says, quietly. “My husband was the most wonderful man I could ever imagine. There are so many times that I know that he’s with me. On my last shoot, for example, they put on a song that was something that we used to listen to together — I knew that he was there.” Johnson slips into our last look of the day, a Nomia number topped off with Manolo Blahnik boots.
“I tell people all the time: I do this because he loved me doing it. I know that he would have wanted me to continue.”