Bethann Hardison, American Model and Activist, On Going After What You Want
WIE SUITE WOMEN
September 25, 2023
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Bethann Harrison; image courtesy of MFA/Boston
Bethann Hardison - former model, advocate, and founder of the modeling and management agency that bears her name - has long been a groundbreaker in the world of fashion. She has helped guide the careers of some of the most prominent models in recent times and through her decades of advocacy work has challenged and helped change common notions of beauty by consistently championing diversity in the fashion industry. She has a new moving coming out in 2023 called
Invisible Beauty
I didn't want to have a model agency. The last thing I wanted in my life was to have a model agency. I want you to write this down. Not my aspiration. It was everybody else's aspirations, not mine. I was going to Hollywood. I wanted to make movies. I wanted to be in the music business.

What do you think is the role of  the media companies to reach a lot of people. What do you think their role is right now? 

I think the most sincere people are the ones who are going to win. The most sincere companies are the ones who are going to win. And the interesting thing for me, when you say that, one of the best things that I think that I gave as an idea to Tom Ford, when he was having his meeting with the board, and one of my best ideas, and I'm so glad he implemented this idea, was, we all know that how most of us get jobs in the world and industries is by referrals. Forget the headhunters, they're for bigger situations. Those are for the grand dams of it all. But when it comes down to things, it's who do you know? And the one thing I wanted them to do, the CFDA, is to start to have what I call a Rolodex. And Tom said, no one says Rolodex anymore, but to me they should bring that word back because Rolodex was cool.  I mean, I like how its spelled, Rolodex. So you need to have a Rolodex of names of people.

Get to know who the people are out there. Find out how many Black and Brown people are out there in the world, who are in every different division, not just creatives, not just people who are designers, but people who maybe could be just doing something special on social media. Or people who really are great at just marketing, or people who are good at whatever. They're good at this relative to the fashion industry. Because many times people don't know who those Black and Brown people are. They don't have an interaction with them. And what I always ask to anybody who's black in a firm, if you're doing a really great job, the next time you hear someone is needed, go to your boss or someone and tell him, I know someone. Because if that guy sees how great you are, they might not be too shy to also take on someone else's Black or Brown.

The idea of what these companies have to do right now I think is really, they are scrambling because they're being put on. But if it's sincerely in your head, a perfect example is what Gucci did for change makers, that came way before any of this happened, but the idea is, they just stayed committed to communities, people who were working in their communities, for the underserved communities, just doing great things, but they needed a light to be put on it, to get some money to help them continue to do great things in their community, or support students who really want to be in the fashion industry in every division. Not just a designer, but maybe you want to be just a marketing person, you want to be in business. Give those students opportunities, give them scholarships so that they can afford their education. Those are things that were being done a year and a half ago. And now they have the results of it now. That's a sincerity effect.

So when you left modeling to start your agency, is that something you wanted to do, and what was the impetus for that? Was it about autonomy? Was it about money? Was it about wanting to not be a model?

First of all, let me just explain to you. As a person who was a model, I was a model who always had a full time job. I was never a print model. I was a runway model. So even though I was a really well-known top runway model, lucky for me, I was always able to keep a full time job because of the work I did, how good I did my work. My bosses were always like, you've got to go to Paris, you'll be back in time to work on the collection here. Yes. Okay. That's how it worked. Because back in the day, we used to be behind Paris. We used to show after Europe.

Now we show before, right? I had a full time job. I still had a job. I worked with Valentino. I was always working. I never was, what am I going to do? I had a job. And even when I didn't have a job, it was like, oh my God, how am I going to survive? But the modeling thing was good that I had. I stopped modeling. I gave it up, and at the time, Valentino had a bathing suit licensee that wanted to put come into New York. He was in Como Italy, and he wanted to represent his brand, his Italian brand. And Valentino agreed to do it, if they hired me, because I used to work with Valentino before. And because Valentino wanted me to move to Rome, my son was like, no, I'm not going to Rome. And he was very young at the time. So I stayed in New York and that gave me an opportunity to do this for them. So I was doing a show room. Helping a show room. It was called Concord Fashions.

After that, I didn't work for other people. I've worked for Bill Kaiserman. I mean, I worked for different designers. It's interesting enough. I honestly am someone who got so lucky to do these different things. I was working for a model agency that someone I knew convinced me to please come and help her. It was quick, it was the beginning Frances Grill. I had a Swedish boyfriend, and she had a Swedish boyfriend. They both knew each other. When I used to live in Sweden, he got to know me and recommended me to her, but she knew me already. So it was important that I help her. And I worked with her for like two and a half years, and then someone from Paris wanted me to go with her to New York. I left to do that. But then as she stepped away, it caused a problem, and then I couldn't do it. I didn't want to have a model agency. The last thing I wanted in my life was to have a model agency. I want you to write this down. Not my aspiration. It was everybody else's aspirations, not mine. I was going to Hollywood. I wanted to make movies. I wanted to be in the music business.

So how did you get started?

Bonnie Berman and Talisa Soto, those two kids, they really insisted that I start this model industry. But it was people like Steven Micelle and Lisa Robinson, people who really convinced me that I could do it and wanted to make me do it.

Thank God I had a law firm who knew of me, and really liked me, and signed on to do it all pro bono. No payment. I finally found me a tax accountant, a very good accountant Norman Rubinstein. They started with me, they had nothing. I had to go around and find the office space. Lucky for me, I went far away. Johnny Casa Blanca, begged me forever to come work with him. I wanted to make movies, I wanted to do other things. And I winded up having this opportunity, and I went down, with Bonnie telling me they could find me the money, please you've got to do it.

So I went to Tribeca, because I wanted to be away from the maddening crowd, and I didn't want to be in an office that had track lighting. I didn't want to have that. You know that lighting that makes you look weird in office light. And I went down to look for a loft, and I found the space on Northmor Street in 1984. That's how I started. And I was nervous as heck. I'd never had my own business. But I had basic tools. I knew I was raised in an industry or garment business that taught me a lot of the basics. I knew how to file, I knew how to do accounting. I started by myself, and I had one girl that was at the agency behind me that always said they treated her like back pain, bad way. And she was waiting for me to come in. She became my assistant. Then I found a girl who could do the accounting. And Norman helped me a great deal. My law firm helped me. That was my story.

So it was never, me? No.

Want to have my own business? No.

I tell all the young kids. They're so shocked with that because you became so successful. Yes, not because I wanted it, but because other people made me do it, as most things in my life. But I think I feel like you're someone who feels such great relationships. I feel like that is the key for anyone to success is having the great relationships around you so that whenever you want to take a step in any direction, you have that support mechanism that helps you do it. And I feel like what you're saying is really a testament to that. But you know, you don't know it at the time. Everything is so brand new, even that right now. I'm sitting there thinking, well, moaning about, I've got to do this, I've got to create the stuff for these stupid designers. I say I have such vision, I have a mind that is so creative, but then I look around the room and I'm thinking, I'm happy in the trees. Who's going to help me do it? Because this is the next level.

Every time, the blessing of Allah is that people come, you know that people care, because people believe in me. They just don't know how much I have already going on. They don't know that. But back then, believe me, that was a scary moment. And I mean, I knew I had the girls. I knew that kids would want me to do it. And I knew I had, like Steven Micelle. I knew I had people who were young and coming up who really believed in me. I had no choice. I really had no choice. If I could have done something else, like a child pack in school, I would have done it. But then looking at me, you keep going in that direction.

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