Bethann Hardison On Invisible Beauty and Being The Ultimate Connector

Oliviero Toscano | Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Bethann Hardison needs no introduction. She’s a former model, a mother (in the literal sense and as a surrogate, maternal figure to legions of people in the fashion industry), an activist, an icon, and a full-on force. The industry maven has dedicated her career to service, pushing diversity and inclusion to the forefront. Decades ahead of the many DEI initiatives of today, it was Hardison who led the charge, holding a mirror to the fashion industry to create a more inclusive modeling industry that reflected the real world. And now she’s the subject of a new documentary, Invisible Beauty, that chronicles that legacy and more. The 1h 55m film takes the viewer on a journey through the life and career of Hardison, from a latchkey childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to the catwalks of Paris, walking for the likes of Kenzo and Issey Miyake to a game-changing commitment to diversifying fashion and subsequently beauty. “It’s definitely a social justice film, no doubt. It’s a woman’s story, truly a mother’s story, it’s so many layers of things,” Bethann tells, explaining the essence of the film. Contributor Shelton Boyd Griffith caught up with the fashion luminary via Zoom, talking all about her brilliant new documentary, her prolific career in modeling and advocacy, the writing process, her participation in pop culture experiences like The Battle of Versailles, Studio 54, and The Wiz, her Bethann-isms, and her stature as a great connector in the fashion industry at large.

Interview – Shelton Boyd Griffith | Editor – Irene Ojo-Felix

This isn’t a fashion film. It’s a story about an ordinary (yet extraordinary) woman with fashion threaded into it. It’s very intimate and, at times, emotional. Has that been the overall response?
People really walked away inspired. I mean, there’s a lot of emotion I hear. I know that from when we decided to have all those New Yorkers who came and were connected to the film. They just came to my arms crying at the end of the film. I had them come down if they were part of the film, and anybody that was in the film to come down and stand with Frédéric [Tcheng] and I, but the tears that were coming from people, it was always and still is for me surprising. So now, when people say they saw the film, I always say, did you cry? And they all say yes. When we made the film, I never saw that it was emotional. That’s because I’m like the tree in the forest, right? I can’t see it, but I’m very happy when you can walk away and say it touched you.

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I bet Invisible Beauty was an introspective process — Did you learn more about yourself?
I learned that there was a story, first of all. When you’re busy doing it, you know, you’re not thinking, “Oh, God, this is gonna be a movie. This is significant.” I don’t think people who help change the world think like that. You don’t think that your work is something that’s significant in a way that needs to be noted. You’re too busy trying to change the game, change the system, help people out, educate others — it just seems like a journey. I just needed to recognize it. I learned a lot from watching that film. I learned there was a story, and what I’ve learned better because of the film is going on the road and listening to what other people have to say. That, to me, is everything.

You’ve been a part of so many important cultural milestones: Battle of Versailles, regular at Studio 54, and my personal favorite, participating in the Emerald City sequence from The Wiz movie. How was that experience?
When we did that scene in rehearsal, no matter what I did, Diana would scream from where she was sitting, “Go, Bethann, go!” And I would say, “Hey, Diana, stop. I got it!” [Bethann laughs] It was just such a cheerful kind of thing that Emerald City moment for everybody. You always say — that was a scene. I remember going to the call. Of course, by the time I got there, at some point, someone comes out and says, “Bethann Hardison, here yet?” And I looked up, and I had just gotten there about five minutes before, and I said, “Yes,” they said could you please come in? There were just certain people they were going to have in the film. I guess I was one of those people. I was a well-known runway model at the time, and I was popular, just socially, a downtown kid. And then just having the opportunity oftentimes with Michael. He’s a very, extremely shy guy. Sometimes, I would sit with him, and we would have lunch because everybody else stayed away because he was so quiet, and then he’s Michael Jackson on top of that, so how are you going to sit with Michael? But I did. We would sit and have lunch together for a couple of days. I don’t like to get autographs and stuff, but you know, I had a son at the time, and I knew he would be dying to know I was there with Michael. I never do such a thing and wouldn’t dare ask anyone. But in this case, I did and I got it. Michael signed it nicely, and I took it over, framed.

Jean-Luc Hure | Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

What is one of your favorite moments modeling?
Oh, surely Versailles. I think Versailles is one and also another moment when I went to work with Calvin Klein. There are moments I had going down a runway, you know, to a song that Calvin had (he always had great music). Calvin was one of these extraordinary marketers, you know, as we both see the things he’s done. He was the first one to bring the print girl onto the runway. And then he also moved his show out of the showroom, where designers always showed, and went to his loft. He always had a good DJ. And this song came on; I always remember it as I danced the whole runway, and the people went crazy. All I had on was a little plaid shirt and a pair of corduroy pants. Calvin would always say, “Bethann could wear this,” “Put it on Bethann, she’ll sell it.” I got the worst clothes because I was the one who could sell them. But this particular moment, I’ll always remember dancing down that runway, and Jeffrey Banks, who was one of the assistants at the time, told me that shirt sold out so fast with the buyers. Those are great moments!

You were a muse to pioneers like Willi Smith and Stephen Burrows and then somewhat of a godmother to Aurora James and Sergio Hudson. How does it feel being that link between those generations?
I think it’s kind of normal to me. People ask me, “How do you think you got to be who you are?” I don’t know. I think it’s in your DNA; you’re born with certain things. We come on Earth, and this is just our destiny to be who we are. I mean, the average Joe could not have written the letters to the industry. People look at the film and want to go home and become more of a revolutionary, and I get that it’s inspirational in that sense. But I remind people don’t try and do what I did. I did it with determination, but I didn’t do it with ambition. So I think when it comes down to being a link to people, what winds up happening is that you do the work you do because you’re called to do it.

Keith Major | Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Many of your friends in the documentary state that while you dedicate your life to service, you’re still somewhat of a mystery. What’s one interesting thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?
Oh, well, there’s a lot of things about me that the general public wouldn’t know. Like, people don’t know I have homes in Mexico. The film shows you a bit of it, but I have two: one in the mountains and one in the beach. I never had a lot of money. I’m just one of those people who could go down the road that nobody has gone down and make that home. I chose to have a home in Mexico, and I also chose to have a life in Marrakech. You can want to be in other places, but I don’t ever want to leave or no longer be a New York City kid. I’m always going to want to be a New Yorker because I love my city. And then I have a place upstate New York. So I think the reason why I continue to love my city is because I’m not in it all the time.

Designers who constantly inspire you?
There are only four designers I really would never want to miss. I want to be in the moment. That’s Alessandro Michele, Marc Jacobs, still Ralph Lauren — it’s a feeling, he has such an additional mainstay of who he is; the way the show is, the girls, etc., everything about it is just Americana in a very interesting way — and also now Christopher John Rogers, I’ll continue to watch what he does.

Get tickets for Invisible Beauty in theaters here.

Bethann Hardison | Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures