How a former model plans to diversify the fashion industry

HARI SREENIVASAN: Next, we turn to our year-long series Race Matters.

Tonight, special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sits down with Bethann Hardison, a former model and current owner of a New York modeling agency.

As Hollywood comes under fire for the lack of diversity, Hardison shares her solution for making the fashion industry more inclusive.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For generations, this was the face of the fashion industry, beautiful models in stunning designer outfits, but that face came to be almost always white, with a few notable exceptions, like Naomi Campbell and Iman.

Enter Bethann Hardison, herself a former model, who decided that just wasn't good enough. I caught up with her at her home base in New York City.

Bethann Hardison, thank you for joining us.

BETHANN HARDISON, Model Agency Owner: Thank you for having me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You know, we have seen all the beautiful models like Beverly Johnson, Iman, even yourself in magazines for many years, but there weren't many of you.

Why was that? What was that like?

BETHANN HARDISON: Well, there were many back in the day.

I mean, back in the '70s and '80s, there was a great deal between runway and print. And then, by, say, 2000 — well, '80s and the '90s, it was pretty good. And then by '90, mid-'90s, it just began to disappear.

It was a change of the industry because of the Eastern European models start to come in. Things just changed. The business changed.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, this influx of non-black people, non-women of color really decimated the ranks of black models on the runway?

BETHANN HARDISON: It definitely did. It changed everything. And when they began to bring in more girls from outside, what changed greatly was the body alignment of the Eastern European girls, because the hips are very narrow, the bodies are very long. And that discovery was something else.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What was wrong with that, and what did you do about it?

BETHANN HARDISON: So, what I did is, I got encouraged to, please, do something. And I thought it, and had the first press conference, which was in 2007, and pulled together editors, models, people who basically represented models, everyone, writers, in a room of 86 seats, and sat down and discussed the whole situation.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And so you moved from being a model to a muse to a revolutionary.


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You called out some of the most famous designers in the world of fashion. Did you tell them they were perpetuating racism?

BETHANN HARDISON: No, I didn't say that exactly.

What I said is that the — no matter what your intention is, the result is racism, so that if they felt like, well, I mean, I don't — I'm not a racist. Well, I didn't say you were a racist. I said the act of eliminating one race, or not being inclusive, the result is racism. If you consistently demonstrate you not being inclusive, then the result is racism.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what was their reaction, and what happened as a result?

BETHANN HARDISON: What I had done is written this letter specifically to the councils of fashion in each fashion city, so the councils of fashion got the letter.

And all the names were written on each one, so that's London, Paris, Milan, and New York. And so I, before — as they got the letter, I had already spoken to the press, at the same time they were getting the letter, so the press, which was Women's Wear Daily, which is our trade paper, contacted each one of them.

British was very good. She said, we have issues with this ourselves. We would like you to be able to have you come in and speak to us. The Italians said, we never had this as an issue because no one ever brought this to our attention before.

The Parisians laughed it off. And New York said, she knows us. Why couldn't she have spoken to us directly? She knows us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, why did you think you had to go the way you went, as opposed to knowing them and speaking to them like they said?

BETHANN HARDISON: When you have an issue that big, you have to come, you know, in a sense that it is that serious. It's not a personal conversation.

Once it went — one publication picked it up, then it became important, that other news medias picked it up, and it became a very important issue because it was done in such a strong way.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But why was it important? People would say, oh, they're just talking about fashion. That's just something people play with.

BETHANN HARDISON: Because of the fact that fashion is no longer just in our tiny island that no one knows anything about.

Now it's part of popular culture. Now it's influencing young people. Anyone now is involved with fashion. It's beginning to show people what things should look like. It's giving you the idea of what we see, how we act, how we be when it comes down to race.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right, when you look beyond the fashion industry and you look at the fact that so many — so much in the corporate world is still dominated by white males, how much of the solution that you came up with can be adapted to other — to the corporate world and to other areas, where — that it's like even Hollywood, where you have got major problems with diversity?

What about what you did is applicable in those situations?

BETHANN HARDISON: Because now, slowly, my industry is beginning to become more inclusive.

And when you begin to see in magazines that they are now becoming more inclusive, when you start to see runway shows, you start to see blacks, girls, guys, it begins to remind people that it's OK, it doesn't hurt, it's not going to make you sick. It's not a disease to be inclusive.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But I guess my question is, in terms of the tactics that you used, what would you offer as a solution to parts of our society that are not inclusive and not as diverse as they should be?

BETHANN HARDISON: That's a very good question.

I think the only thing I can answer is, everyone has to be responsible. Everyone has to think twice about it. And I have to remind people that people who are privileged are the first ones who say: Why do we always have to talk about race? What is the problem? I don't see what is the problem. Race, we're always bringing up race. I mean, I really don't see a problem with it.

That's a privileged attitude. And when you think — if you don't think that you're privileged, you say that, that makes you privileged, because there is a problem.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you have to stay on the case.

BETHANN HARDISON: Yes. You never can take your foot off the gas.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this would apply to the corporate world, as well as to the world of fashion?

BETHANN HARDISON: Everything. Can we all stop thinking so consciously about race, or should we consciously think about race? Yes, I think we should consciously think about race.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And you need people like yourself in the corporate world taking the kinds of positions you took?

BETHANN HARDISON: I think also not only people like myself. I think I need more white people like myself, who think like I do, and not be afraid to speak up and say, I'm sorry. We need to have some. Let's change some of this, because it happens in my industry.

Do I want it to be all black? No, I want diversity, because I think, once you diversify, it reminds people gently how the world looks, not — don't book a model because she's black. Book a model because she's undeniably beautiful. That's for him and for her. Then we can compete with our white counterpart.

And it's not just the black model I'm fighting for. I'm fighting for any fashion model that is non-Caucasian, because the Caucasian kid is good. She's got it. She can run. I'm looking for everyone else who makes up — I want the world to look like when I walk out on the street. This is not a Woody Allen movie.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Bethann Hardison, thank you for joining us.

BETHANN HARDISON: And thank you for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And speaking of movies, tomorrow on the "NewsHour," Jeffrey Brown examines the cause and implications of the lack of diversity in the entertainment industry ahead of the Academy Awards this weekend.