At 28, Bethann Hardison is forging her own path

Bethann Hardison was in her early 20s when she gave one of the most important elevator speeches of her life. The Brooklyn native worked as a showroom salesperson in New York's Garment District—an unusual role for a black woman in the 1960s—and was tasked with reporting to Bernie, head of Federated's youth apparel division. Bernie Ozer delivers samples. While waiting in line to talk to Ozelle, she overheard him talking about an upcoming fashion show.

"It sounds like something I'd like to be a part of," Hardison tells Bustle. "When I gave him the Ruth Manchester dress, I said, 'If you really want a great show, let me do it.'" When she returned to the office, Ozer had called Called. She got the job.

A few years later, when she was 28, she was discovered by Willie Smith. At age 30, designer Stephen Burrows asked her to model his clothes at the famous Battle of Versailles, a 1973 show that pitted American designers against French designers. During her supermodel career, she modeled for the likes of Issey Miyake, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Kenzo and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac.

“It’s important for people to have some sense of self and don’t be shy if that means spending a lot of time with yourself.”

This month, she will release the documentary Invisible Beauty , which she directed and starred in, with Naomi Campbell serving as executive producer. The film chronicles Hardison's transformation from model to businesswoman and activist, including the founding of her eponymous agency and her mentorship of future generations of models. (Just last month, in ELLE's August 2023 issue, Imaan Hammam credited Hardison with helping her escape the industry's rat race, where he regularly brings together more than 20 emerging Black models in a salon format. )

Below, the respected model, businesswoman, and activist discusses feeling confident at 28, what she wants in a partner, and advice for her younger self.

Hardison was on Stephen Burrows' show. WWD/Penske Media/Getty Images

With the late Andre Leon Talley. Penske Media/Penske Media/Getty Images

Let me go back to the early 1970s, when you were 28 years old. Do you have a signature style or makeup look?

I've always had great style, but makeup is not something I waste time on. As a kid, I was such a tomboy. As much as I like boys, I don't feel the need to put makeup on them.

In "Invisible Beauty ," I noticed you had an iPad sticker that said "The Baddest Bitch in the Room." Are you still so confident at the age of 28?

not at all. I don’t think I even used the word “b*tch” when I was 28.

What did you enjoy most about being in New York at that time?

New York is great. New York is always great. Europeans are starting to come back and say how great it is. There are some interesting young designers emerging. We know the more mature ones and they're all good. Halston, George di Sant'Angelo, Ralph Lauren, Oscar de la Renta.

Where did you go to play at that age?

Well, you have to go to Studio 54 - people will just drag you along - but I love the loft. I love Paradise Garage. Those little places really promoted music and dance. I've been dancing since I was little, so I've always been a great freestyle dancer. Everyone moves pretty much the same, but there are certain dancers that people stand around and want to watch. I am one of them.

I'm looking at people now, standing on the floor with drinks. The girls all have a big purse on their back. You don't. You take the bag off. You don’t come dancing with a big bag. If they want to drink, they can go to a bar. The floor is for dancing only.

Hardison (far left) with models Karen Bjornson, Alva Chinn and Iman and designer Stephen Burrows. WWD/Penske Media/Getty Images

Is there a place you can remember that you really wanted to visit?

I've been to places I never thought I'd go. One time I went to Ibiza because I was in Stockholm. I met a guy at dinner and his mom said, "You should go with him." The next day, I drove with another guy and left with him because the mom said, "I'm telling you, my My son is great.”

That's crazy. What did you value in a partner (or romance!) in the early 1970s?

Everyone always says humor and stuff, but I don’t think so. Kind. I have a great boyfriend. If they're friendly and have a nice walk, I'm interested.

Conversely, what were you like as a partner when you were 28?

What I don't understand is why people are attracted to me in this way. A lot of men are attracted to me. I do not understand. I think I attracted a lot of people, even in high school. I later learned that people often said, "I really want to think about Bethan, but she always thinks of me as her brother."

Your brother divided many people.

Really did it. I never thought they were interested or wanted to be my boyfriend. They're my best friends and brothers, you know?

Maybe you're preoccupied with your career. At 28, you’ve already broken through barriers as a model.

I wouldn’t have considered myself to have a career at that point, but I kept busy. I have to pay rent. I had to make sure I survived. Growing up in the apparel industry, I learned how to do a lot of basic things, and I'm still learning how to do more. That's the great thing about age. You never stop learning.

At 28 years old, you are already a mother to little Kadeem. What was the greatest joy of being a mother at that age?

There is no joy in being a mother. Maybe young people today think so too. There is no joy. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and a genuine hope that you don’t fail. But Khadim is a good boy. He is very relaxed. Kadeem is someone you can't help but like and love. He listens to me. He is very polite.

What was your biggest struggle as a mom at that time?

Hope you can afford your rent, hope you don't lose your job. The hardest thing is making sure you can [keep your word]. I'd say, "I'll pay the rent, and you'll do well in school." But at the end of the day, it's not easy. If they don't do well in school, that's your responsibility. You have to change it.

Back to modeling: Aside from the Battle of Versailles, which fashion show early in your career convinced you that you were destined to be a model?

I remember having a great time at the Calvin Klein show where I was wearing a basic denim shirt and I sold it. I danced on the runway. Calvin has always been a strong marketer, very smart and on top of things.

Among today’s young celebrities, who most reminds you of yourself at 28?

I think Aurora James was someone who rebelled against the system. I can understand this. We do it differently, but she is trying to change the game and is succeeding.

Is there anything you miss about being 28?

I miss the physical freedom of being able to crouch down, talk to people for long periods of time, dance like most people can remember, and be so flexible and agile.

If you could give your 28-year-old self some advice, what would you tell her?

No one will give you anything. Keep thinking and realizing what you want to do. Learn to travel alone. Explore the world on your own and let people discover you. It's important for people to have some sense of self, and don't be shy if that means spending a lot of time with yourself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.