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African-American Model Beverly Johnson On Her Historic 'Vogue' Cover

NOEL KING, HOST:

Beyonce will grace the cover of Vogue magazine's September issue. And for the first time in its 126-year history, the cover photographer will be African-American. The cover of Vogue is a big deal. How big? Here's legendary supermodel Beverly Johnson.

BEVERLY JOHNSON: This is our Oscar. This is our gold medal. This is everything in the industry.

KING: NPR's Justin Richmond recently spent some time with Johnson. She was the first black woman to appear on the cover of American Vogue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK, on three - one, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Gorgeous.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Beautiful, beautiful.

JUSTIN RICHMOND, BYLINE: Beverly Johnson still loves having her picture taken. Even in the age of Instagram, she says it never gets old.

JOHNSON: Oh, here I am.

RICHMOND: At an exhibit at the Getty Museum in LA called "The Icons Of Style," Johnson spots a portrait of her younger self hanging on the wall. It's a close-up - just her face and a little bit of a blue turtleneck sweater, the August 1974 issue of Vogue.

JOHNSON: Oh, Francesco.

RICHMOND: Francesco Scavullo was the photographer.

JOHNSON: Scavullo presented her as he would any other fresh-faced American beauty. Wow, it never gets old. And they got the whole magazine.

RICHMOND: Johnson was determined to get the cover. She was represented by Eileen Ford, an agent who dominated the modeling industry. Ford told her flat-out it'll never happen.

JOHNSON: If she said you're not going to be on the cover, you're not going to be on the cover.

RICHMOND: No black woman had ever been on the cover, but Johnson wasn't going to settle. She got a new agent, Wilhelmina Cooper, who fought to get that Scavullo photo into the hands of the right editors. And one morning, Cooper called.

JOHNSON: She said, you're on the cover. And I was like, oh, the cover of what? She said the cover of Vogue magazine. I remember my heart was racing just like it is now.

RICHMOND: Johnson ran to a newsstand to get a copy.

JOHNSON: That night when I went to sleep, every hour I would turn on the light and look at the cover to make sure it really happened.

RICHMOND: She says landing the cover of Vogue magazine was not only the defining moment of her career but her life. Justin Richmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.