Beverly Johnson Took Catwalk Classes Ahead of New York Fashion Week Return: 'It's Been Decades'

The trailblazing supermodel tells PEOPLE she enlisted the help of runway pro Miss J Alexander before her headline-making New York Fashion Week stint

Beverly Johnson on runway 2022; credit: Kevin Sturman
Photo: Kevin Sturman

Beverly Johnson has graced more than 500 magazine covers in a career spanning more than 50 years, but the iconic supermodel was still a little apprehensive when she got the calls from designers Sergio Hudson and Bibhu Mohapatra to walk in their New York Fashion Week shows earlier this month.

"It's been decades," Johnson tells PEOPLE when asked about her return to the runway. "I never really did a lot of shows. I did a few shows with Calvin Klein and those special clients, but I wasn't really a runway model. I was doing editorial and taking photographs all over the world. They were two totally separate categories."

Johnson's first call was to the industry's top catwalk coach Miss J Alexander, who gave her masterclass and had her feeling confident in her strut.

"He trained me in three hours — he's a master," Johnson says of collaborating with Miss J. "He taught me all of the tips for walking gracefully with rhythm on the runway. We'd practice in really high heels with music. He walks with you. He makes you watch him. And it's beautiful to see up close what the process really looks like."

Johnson also admits that while mastering a runway walk is "not easy," collaborating with Miss J gave her the confidence she needed to take on the challenge.

"What I found difficult was that you have to lean back from your top half. I said, 'Lean back? It's so hard to walk in that position.' But that's key. And I was just determined to get it."

Beverly Johnson, Calvin Klein Fashion, New York, USA
Beverly Johnson on the runway for Calvin Klein in the '70s. Ron Frehm/AP/Shutterstock

Johnson's determination paid off when she commanded the catwalk for Sergio Hudson (who she first met at the CFDA Awards in November 2021) in a plunging blush dress with a ruffle hemline and sky-high heels.

"Everyone was saying it was so low," Johnson says of the sexy design. "But it fit like a glove. And it felt good, and I felt good in it. And Sergio was just really wonderful."

The model maintains that her healthy lifestyle and frequent exercise had her feeling runway-ready when Hudson called her to be in his show.

"I was already in very good shape. I was doing these Pilates classes and all this kind of stuff, just for my own self-care routine," she shares. "And so, I said, 'My body looks great." And I just said, 'Yes - I'll figure out the rest later.'"

Two days later she closed out the Bibhu Mohapatra fashion show in a gorgeous, sweeping black-and-white gown. The New York-based designer cast all-black models in the show in honor Black History Month, something that meant a lot to the groundbreaking supermodel (who became the first Black model on the cover of Vogue in 1974).

Beverly Johnson on runway 2022; credit: Kevin Sturman
Kevin Sturman

Johnson jokes the other models were so excited to work with her, she believed they'd been prepped beforehand. "They must have gave the girls a lesson. They were all like, 'Oh, Ms. Johnson, we're so happy you paved the way for us.' I was almost in tears," she says. "They were so honest and genuine. And tall! There was not a girl under six feet!"

"Having Beverly Johnson participate in our show—an entrepreneur, an activist, as well as the first Black woman to grace the cover of Vogue in the '70s—was both a gift and also a reminder to me and everyone involved that we have a big vision, and it may not happen overnight, but it happens in moments, like this one, when the message of strength and power in the collection and the brand just come to life," Mohapatra wrote on Instagram of collaborating with Johnson. "Thank you Beverly for being a lifelong inspiration to me and to so many others, and to all the models who worked with us this season, I thank you for helping to tell our story, too. I am grateful and I will remember this show and collection for a long time to come."

Regarding her groundbreaking Vogue cover, the model — who has spoken about the racism she has experienced in the fashion industry — told PEOPLE in 2020, "That cover came with a huge responsibility — and it inspired me to use my voice."

She continues to use her platform to fight for equality and representation, noting that there are still advancements that need to be seen.

"I think we've got it on the forward facing part, but I think we have a long way to go within the industry, within the economics of the industry," she tells PEOPLE. "And that's not only for the fashion industry, it's for all industries. When you really get to the statistics of how minute Black participation is in the engine of this country, it could be demoralizing, but I'm an optimistic person. We've got a long way to go."

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