Bethann Hardison, the pioneering activist, model, fashion icon and groundbreaker, does things her way. And nothing illustrates that better than that she directs her own documentary about her life, “Invisible Beauty” with FrédéricTcheng.
“Basically, in directing myself it’s to step out of your way, trying to act like you are not the subject,” Hardison, an energized 80, explained in a Zoom interview.
“The good news is that whatever Frédéric wants to shoot, I could say, ‘OK, that makes sense.’ ‘OK, we’ll go to Mexico.’ ”
“For a while,” Cheng said, “I just want to say ‘Yes’ because it is about mutual respect. In the process of making the film I became even more impressed. It’s all about each of us trying to engage in a conversation that was meaningful. Trying to just have that dialogue.
“This is really about collaboration and when you put your best foot forward, trying to impress the other person. That’s when, hopefully, good things happen.”
Hardison was a Black woman pioneer in Manhattan’s garment district in the 1960s , a single mother who then made an impression as a new kind of runway model with a wired, emphatically personal style. In the ‘70s she broke barriers in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar
Hardison segued from modeling to being the first Black woman to run a fashion agency. She co-founded with Iman the Black Girls Coalition to support Black models in the industry. Twelve years later, she shut it down and went off to Mexico. Why?
“Because I never wanted to be in the model industry per se. I just did it to help somebody. By Year 12 I needed to do something more. That wasn’t meant for me to do forever. I did it very well. I had a white model, Black kids, Asian kids. I was really competitive to my counterparts of the other agencies.
“But when that time came in 1996, I needed to get out and get free. To see what else was there.”
“Invisible Beauty” boasts a remarkable lineup, a testament to her stature: Whoopi Goldberg, Zendaya, Tracee Ellis Ross, Fran Lebowitz and the models Tyson Beckford, Pat Cleveland, Naomi Campbell.
A diplomat rather than adversarial, Hardison helped educate the fashion industry about diversity and the importance of representation with Black, Asian and otherwise unseen models.
What has she accomplished with “Invisible Beauty”?
“What we’ve been seeing,” Chen said, “is people get really inspired by how Bethann reinvented herself and just didn’t follow the rules.”
“It’s just taking yourself seriously,” Hardison concluded, “You have one life to live, and you need to make it the best it can be.”
“Invisible Beauty” is available on VOD