At every stage of her career, from the fashion runway to the boardroom, Bethann Hardison has been a pioneer.
Her remarkable journey through the highest echelons of the fashion world is explored in Invisible Beauty, directed by Hardison herself and Frédéric Tcheng. The award-winning film played as part of Deadline’s virtual event series For the Love of Docs.
As Invisible Beauty documents, Hardison was among the first African Americans to model at high-end fashion shows, working closely with designer Willi Smith.
“What made me a great model was because as a child tap dancer, I loved the stage,” Hardison explained during a panel discussion after the screening. “I really just would perform. It would be more like I was acting. And I think that’s what was so great about the models back in the ‘70s. We all had our own personalities and we could do anything we wanted. And the designers really appreciated if we bought a lot of personality.”
Later, Hardison founded her own modeling agency, launching the careers of Tyson Beckford, Roshumba Williams, Veronica Webb, and Kimora Lee Simmons, among many others.
“I didn’t want to do it, I’ll be honest with you. That was not my desire,” Hardison said of starting her own agency. “But there were other people around me who kept telling me, ‘You have to do this’ and, ‘What else are you going to do?’ I wanted to go to Los Angeles and make movies or get into the music business. They’re saying, ‘No, what, are you crazy? You have to do it.’ So I was pushed to do it… And I really am grateful that I did it because I did it in such a way and such a style that it really made a great difference. And it was successful.”
Tcheng, who has made documentaries about Halston, Diana Vreeland, and the House of Dior, says Hardison’s contributions as a businesswoman in the modeling space were pivotal.
“It was certainly the first time that a Black woman was owning an agency that was catering to the top fashion designers in the industry,” Tcheng noted. “It had white models, it had Asian models, it had Black models, it had everything. So, Bethann really put the bar pretty high and wanted to service everyone. And she did… She had all the cool girls and boys and then those models would be snatched by bigger agencies because she was really discovering the new talent.”
She brought major change to the industry by forming the Black Girls Coalition with Iman, holding fashion houses and fashion magazines to account when they booked only white models, ignoring talented people of color. And through her mentorship, Beckford became extraordinarily successful as the face of Ralph Lauren’s menswear, a watershed moment for fashion. “With the agency,” Tcheng said, “she starts mothering the industry.”
Speaking of motherhood, Bethann is mom to actor Kadeem Hardison, who rose to fame as the star of TV’s A Different World. Their relationship, and its ups and downs, becomes a focus of part of the film.
“He’s like a cheerleader for the film,” Hardison said of her son. “At some point when he heard there was going to be a screening — another screening after we had opened [theatrically] – to sort of help more people see it, he called up so many friends of his that hadn’t heard from him so long that they all showed up… He loves the film. He’s so proud of it.”
Watch the full conversation in the video above.
For the Love of Docs is a virtual Deadline event series sponsored by National Geographic in partnership with the International Documentary Association (IDA). The series concludes next Tuesday with our screening of Kokomo City, directed by D. Smith.