JoAni Johnson, a 67-year-old supermodel who hails from Harlem, New York, was discovered walking down the street in Manhattan's Meatpacking district a little over two years ago. While most Americans retire at the age of 65, JoAni embarked on a dream career that changed her life. An employee of Allure magazine stopped Mrs. Johnson and her late husband while strolling the street and asked to take her photo. She was apprehensive, but her husband encouraged her -- and the rest is history.
BET sat down with Mrs. Johnson for an intimate conversation surrounding breaking barriers in the contentious fashion and beauty industry. An “ageless” Black woman standing at nearly 5-foot-5 doesn’t meet the “typical” model criteria. However, the industry is clearly getting tired of seeing the same images.
Meeting a model can be a little intimidating, but upon meeting JoAni you’re immediately drawn in to her. She makes you feel so comfortable, as though you’ve known her for years. Not only due to her arm hug, but the way she looks at you -- like she’s speaking to your soul. You can’t help but notice her beautiful brown skin and perfectly styled long grey tresses loosely curled, framing her face. The New York native is styled to perfection wearing a metallic designer dress and “old” Celine boots (meaning ones designed while Pheobe Philo was at the helm of the house) with accessories that you can’t help but stare at to the point that you have to compliment her and ask where they’re from. (They're vintage, of course).
JoAni had dreams of being a model. However, with the stringent height and weight requirements back then, she opted to work in showrooms instead for 13 years. Then, she went on to hold positions as a receptionist, and even became a certified tea-blender after hosting tea parties -- which she still loves to do when she isn’t ripping the runways.
“When I was younger, I wanted to model desperately, but I couldn’t because of the restrictions. Pat Cleveland and Beverley Johnson were models at the time, I couldn’t compete with them,” JoAni said.
JoAni owes her current success to her late husband. He encouraged her to allow the Allure magazine employee to take her photo that went viral. JoAni continues to model today to honor him.
“I do it in honor of him. I would have never taken that first photograph,” JoAni recalls. She remembers walking in her very first runway show. “I was happy that he was going to be there. He was more excited about me walking the runway than I was. I had no clue what I was supposed to do besides just walk. But my husband got very excited, it took him a week to figure out what he was going to wear to Fashion Week, because he had to,” JoAni said.
We’re currently in a time where the beauty industry is making billions of dollars selling products to make women appear younger. JoAni doesn’t believe in using a ton of fussy products. You will not find Retinol or Hylaronic acid on her vanity. The timeless beauty credits her beautiful skin to Vaseline and cold water. That’s it.
She says, “I keep everything very simple. I will take my Vaseline, and I will use it to remove the concealer from under my eyes and moisturizing at the same time. Then I will do my splash of water, cold water to sort of wake up the pores, ‘Come on guys, wake up,’ and then I’ll start my moisturizing."
Skincare regimens are usually passed down from generations, so I asked JoAni what beauty secrets she has passed down to her daughters. JoAni said, “I have taught them to keep it simple, because that is more important. It’s about caring for your skin but not the embellishment. You don’t need all of that.”
JoAni broke barriers by starring in luxury campaigns and walking in high-profile, well respected fashion shows. But we can’t pretend that the lack of diversity and inclusivity hasn’t been an ongoing conversation in the industry. Black designers and Black creatives, like Rihanna and Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, have shown us how important it is to see ourselves represented in these places. However, we haven’t had a proper conversation surrounding ageism. We may see a white woman of a certain age in a beauty commercial, but rarely do we see women of color representing that same age group. JoAni is privy to these issues. She believes that we’ve come a long way. Although, she believes we still have a way to go, realizing that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“There are more of us out there, and they’re just not being recognized. We can always be better. Do we stop improving upon ourselves or issues? Do we stop because things are always changing? There is room for us all, and I applaud those who have taken on such a humongous task, because again, being a designer is not easy. But don’t let this be a trend. Make it part of your brand to be inclusive,” JoAni explained.
Being a Black woman from Harlem, JoAni knows a thing or two about setting the trends. The same city Dapper Dan hails from, Harlem is known as an influential epicenter of culture and fashion. In a world where Black women greatly influence popular culture but don't get the recognition for it, JoAni wears her Harlem USA hat proud and knows that our people have been inspiring the masses for decades.
“The fabrics that they're using now, like vinyl. They would never have made in vinyl and charged thousands of dollars for it, because that was unacceptable, that’s plastic. But once it starts to become part of the conversation, then it’s adopted. Finger-waves, cornrows, afros -- this is nothing new. We can go back in history and you’ll see it.”
Throughout every age, women are made to feel insecure about something. For some women it’s weight, for others, it may be going grey. We asked JoAni what advice she has for women to overcome those insecurities in order to be your authentic self. She didn’t always love her beautiful tresses of grey hair. Although it is now a trend, she said:
“Insecurity is one of those things, we all have them, no matter who it is. We are human beings and with that we are not perfect. I could tell you all of my imperfections, OK, but it’s not going to change them. As I got older, the big thing became color, because grey hair was not accepted. I dyed my hair, it didn’t take. So I bleached it. Eventually I started allowing my hair to grow out, then cutting off all the blonde. What turned out to be is what it is now,” JoAni said.
JoAni defines herself as “ageless.” She doesn't like the term older, because she feels that people can put a limit on themselves due to age. She wants women to follow their dreams no matter what age they are.
“Don’t ever give up on your dreams ever, ever, ever, whatever that dream may be. Suppose I decided not to take care of myself, suppose I decided to just let myself go? I would not have had the opportunity. It’s hard work! You have to be prepared for hard work, and they say, 'Oh, but I would do that any day.' Yeah, you stand out there in Far Rockaway in 16-degree weather in the middle of winter in a chiffon dress. That’s hard work! And you have to be ready and willing to do that.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
(Photo courtesy of Vaseline)