When Bethann Hardison was in her early 20s, she made the most consequential elevator pitch of her life. The Brooklyn native was working as a showroom salesperson in New York’s Garment District — an uncommon role for a Black woman in the 1960s — and was tasked with delivering samples to Bernie Ozer, the head of Federated’s junior dress department. While waiting in line to speak with Ozer, she overheard him talking about an upcoming fashion show.
“It sounded like something I’d want to participate in,” Hardison tells Bustle. “When I gave him the dresses from Ruth Manchester, I said, ‘If you really want to have a great show, you'll have me in it.’” When she got back to the office, Ozer had already called. She got the job.
By the time she turned 28 just a few years later, she’d been discovered by Willi Smith. And at 30, designer Stephen Burrows booked her to model his dress at the famed Battle of Versailles, a 1973 show that pitted American designers against their French counterparts. In her years of supermodel-dom, she was modeling for the likes of Issey Miyake, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Kenzo, and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.
“It’s important that people have some sense of self, and if that means spending a lot of time with yourself, don’t be shy of that.”
This month she’s releasing the self-directed documentary Invisible Beauty, with Naomi Campbell as an executive producer. The film chronicles Hardison’s transition from model to businesswoman and activist, including the founding of her eponymous talent agency, and her mentorship to future generations of models. (Just last month, in ELLE’s August 2023 issue, Imaan Hammam credited Hardison, who’d regularly convene 20-some emerging Black models in a salon format, with helping her escape the industry’s competitiveness.)
Below, the venerated model, businesswoman, and activist discusses confidence at 28, what she looked for in a partner, and advice to her younger self.
Take me back to the early ’70s, when you were 28. Did you have a signature style or makeup look?
I always had great style, but makeup was not something I would waste my time about. As a kid, I was too much of a tomboy. As much as I liked boys, I didn’t feel the need to [put on] makeup for them.
In Invisible Beauty, I noticed you had an iPad sticker that read “Baddest b*tch in the room.” Did you feel that confident at 28?
Not at all. I don’t think I even used the word “b*tch” when I was 28.
What did you love most about being in New York at that time?
New York was great. New York is always great. Europeans all started coming back and saying how groovy it was. There were some interesting young designers coming out. The ones that we knew that were more established, they were all good. Halston, Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta.
Where did you hang out at that age?
Well, you had to go to Studio 54 — people would just drag you along — but I loved the Loft. I loved Paradise Garage. Those small places really promoted music and dance. I had danced since I was little, so I’ve always been a great freestyle dancer. Everybody’s pretty much moving the same way, but there are dancers that people stand around and want to watch. I was one of those.
I look at people now, standing on the floor with their drinks. Girls have big pocketbooks on the back. You don’t do that. You take your bags off. You don’t come to dance with a big bag. If they want to drink, they [can] go to the bar. The floor is only for dancing.
Was there anywhere you remember really wanting to visit?
I was already going to places I’d never expected to go to. Once I went to Ibiza because I was in Stockholm. I met a guy at dinner, and his mother said, “You should go with him.” I went off with him the next day in a car with another guy, all because the mother said, “I’m telling you, my son is wonderful.”
That’s wild. What did you value in a partner (or in a romance!) in the early ’70s?
Everyone always says humor and all that, and I don’t think that. Kindness. I had nice boyfriends. If they were kind and had a good walk, I was interested.
Conversely, what were you like as a partner when you were 28?
What I didn’t understand was why people were attracted to me in that way. There were a lot of guys attracted to me. I didn’t get it. I think I was appealing to a lot of people, even in high school. I learned later that people used to say, “I really wanted to maybe consider Bethann, but she always made me her brother.”
You brother-zoned a lot of people.
Really did. I never thought they were interested or wanted to be my boyfriend. They were my best friends and brothers, you know?
Maybe you were laser-focused on your career. By 28, you’d already been breaking barriers as a model.
I wouldn’t have thought of myself as having had a career back then but I stayed busy. I had to pay rent. I had to make sure I survived. I learned how to do a lot of basic things [from] growing up in the garment business and I was still learning how to do more. That’s the great thing about age. You never stop learning.
At 28, you were already a mom to a young Kadeem. What was the biggest joy of being a mom at that age?
There’s no joy in being a mom. Maybe these young people think that today. There’s no joy. There’s all work, conscientiousness, and really hoping you don’t fail. But Kadeem was a nice kid. He was easy. Kadeem was someone you couldn’t help but like and also love. He listened to me. He had good manners.
What was the biggest struggle of being a mom then?
Hoping that you could pay the rent, that you didn’t lose your job. The hardest thing was making sure you could [stick to your word]. I’d say, “I’ll pay the rent and you do well in school.” But at the end of the day, it’s not easy. If they begin to not do well in school, that’s on you. You have to change it.
Back to modeling for a second: Aside from the Battle of Versailles, which runway show early in your career convinced you that you were meant to be a model?
I remember having a great moment at a Calvin Klein show when I wore the most basic cowboy shirt, and I sold it. I moved and danced down the runway. Calvin was always a strong marketer, very smart, ahead of the game.
Who among today’s young stars reminds you most of yourself at 28?
I look at Aurora James as someone who’s defied the system. I can relate to that. It’s different what we do, but she’s trying to change the game and succeeding.
Is there anything you miss about being 28?
I miss the freedom of my body, the fact that I could squat, talk to people for a long time, dance like most people were so impressed with, and physically be so limber and quick.
If you could give advice to your 28-year-old self, what would you tell her?
No one’s going to hand you something. Keep on thinking and being conscious about what it is that you would like to do. Learn to travel alone. Go on your own, and discover the world and let people discover you. It’s important that people have some sense of self, and if that means spending a lot of time with yourself, don’t be shy of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.