Sinewy, the definition of classic beauty, supermodel Beverly Johnson stops conversations as she glides through the Hilton Chicago.
Men and women alike stop and stare at the seemingly ageless 62-year-old woman who in the early 1970s was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine.
A successful businesswoman whom the New York Times named one of the 20th century’s most influential people in fashion, Johnson was in town for this weekend’s Black Women’s Expo at McCormick Place.
The fashion icon, promoting a new memoir, was more recently in the news as the 20th woman to come forward to accuse comedian Bill Cosby of drugging her in the mid-80s — with foul intentions.
Beverly Johnson devotes a chapter in her new book to her allegations against comedian Bill Cosby. | Provided
“Oh my God. It was a very difficult decision. I mean, very difficult,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in an exclusive interview.
To date, 30 women have publicly accused the once beloved, 77-year-old Cosby — who has spent his own career breaking barriers for blacks on television — of inappropriate sexual behavior.
Johnson wrote a first-person account of her run-in with Cosby in the December 2014 issue of Vanity Fair, making international headlines.
While Cosby representatives have not commented on her claims, his lawyers deny all allegations as “unsubstantiated, fantastical stories.”
Since the article, Johnson hasn’t said much about the incident.
But she opened up with the Sun-Times, at times pensive, other times passionate, as she spoke of the courage and conscience she says it took to come forward and the backlash she suffered.
“It was not easy to do, but I remain glad that I did it,” Johnson said. “I feel that I was lucky that I was not raped.”
The Buffalo, N.Y., native landed her first major gig with Glamour magazine in 1971, appearing on more than 500 magazine covers. Her August 1974 Vogue cover opened up the industry for black models.
It was while trying to break into acting that her alleged run-in with Cosby occurred. Johnson wrote that she met Cosby and got a call to audition at his home, where she was given a drug-laced cappuccino. She became combative and angered Cosby, who put her in a cab.
She was apprehensive about coming forward to accuse the icon who broke barriers in the ’60s as the first black star of a TV series, “I Spy”; and the creator of the groundbreaking 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show,” the first to portray an intelligent, affluent, black family.
Johnson had a limited acting career, with success in the beauty products industry. Her 2013 memoir didn’t mention the incident, but one she’s writing for Simon & Schuster, “The Face That Changed It All” — coming Aug. 25 — devotes a chapter to it.
“I had tried to include it in my first memoir, and was told by legals it couldn’t possibly be done, because of what he stood for — that overshadowed who this person really was. But this time, my conscience would not let me do anything but speak out,” she said.
“Basically everyone in my life said no, but I have mentors who said. ‘Tell your story,’ ” she said. “It was because of the victims and their stories; but more importantly, the way they were treated; and what I personally as a mother and grandmother told myself I would tell my own daughter and granddaughter if it was them. I’d say, ‘You have to say something.’ ”
She was aware there would be backlash, especially on the race issue.
“There was tremendous backlash. It’s been very interesting. I can almost make a case study of who says what. It would come from like the 80-year-old judge, a black man, from the white 30-somethings, and only occasionally from the black 30-somethings, but more so from elite black celebrities who had a problem accepting the truth,” she said.
“But I’ve gotten more support than backlash. I feel proud of helping create this lightning rod for a larger conversation that’s much needed in America — that whole silence on the rape culture that is here.”
Asked her thoughts about Camille Cosby standing by her man, staunchly defending him against the tidal wave of accusations, Johnson was quiet. Then, softly, she said: “I think she’s a victim too.”
Expo-goers can meet Johnson all weekend, at the booth of Harvard-trained plastic surgeon Dr. Charles Boyd, who’s introducing a new skin care line for black women. She’ll also be on an authors panel.
Does Johnson feel at peace with her decision to come forward? Yes.
“I, for one, feel there’s no expiration date on the truth,” she said. “And secondly, race doesn’t trump rape.”