“There’s power in being beautiful,” Beverly Johnson said recently at a special screening of “About Face: Supermodels Then and Now,” at the Paley Center for Media in New York. The documentary is directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (“The Black List” and “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart”) and debuts July 30 on HBO.
Ms. Johnson, who is an astonishing 59, wore a sheer, black sequined dress and sexy, open-toed booties. She made history in 1974 when she became the first black Vogue cover girl. “Now I realize the importance of that cover,” she said. “It means more to me than ever.”
The walls of the Paley Center are adorned with the large-format images of women like Ms. Johnson, who defined society’s ideal of beauty from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. (The exhibition is up through Nov. 4.) They were once household names, including Christie Brinkley, Carol Alt, Paulina Porizkova, Cheryl Tiegs, Pat Cleveland and Kim Alexis. The photographs of the models by Mr. Greenfield-Sanders are recent and neither retouched or photo-shopped. Gravity is gently tugging at their chins and around their eyes, but they are still beautiful.
Mr. Greenfield-Sanders came up with the idea for the documentary about three years ago. “I walked into this room with these gorgeous women. It was this Facebook party for 70’s and 80’s supermodels,” he said. “I left thinking there was a photograph here.” He took a group portrait for Vanity Fair and as he got to know the women, he realized they should be the subject of a film. “I love these women,” he said. With the assistance of producers Lisa Heller and Sheila Nevins, who is also the president of HBO documentary films, he made “About Face,” which had its premiere at Sundance in January.
Meanwhile the reception was crammed full of beautiful women. “I never saw so many models in one room,” someone said. Supermodels Carmen Dell’Orefice, Pat Cleveland, Karen Bjornson, Bethann Hardison, Kim Alexis and Carol Alt, had just walked the red carpet with as much verve and attitude as they did back in the day.
Pat Cleveland, 60, wore an off the shoulder, floor-length champagne-hued gown. She is over 6 feet tall and as thin as she was when she first started modeling. She carries herself like a dancer and once danced on Broadway. “It’s as though I’m lifting off the ground,” she said in the documentary, describing how it felt to be on the runway. “It’s dancing! What you’re trying to do is let them appreciate what you’re wearing by being alive in it.”
At the reception we asked her what was the biggest difference between modeling then and now? “We worked closer with the designers, and that’s important. We worked with the creators.”
At the reception we spotted writer Gay Talese, who, it turns out, is a great admirer of models. He sipped a martini and looked dapper in a pin-stripped suit. “I’ve always been interested in fashion,” he said. “I came to New York in 1953 and Ford (modeling) agency was just starting in the 1950’s. I knew some of the young models, and now some of the young models are not so young, but still beautiful.” He pointed to model Carmen Dell’Orefice, who flitted around the room in black-and-white coordinated outfit, including white palazzo pants. She is famous for her shock of white hair, porcelain skin and high cheekbones. “She is the most beautiful 81 year-old creature in the world,” Mr. Talese said, “and also still is a professional model who gets paid to pose. They still have supermodels but what they don’t have is endurance and perseverance. Who can still be around in this profession of fickle looks and appetites? Fashion is so flakey. For someone to be able to be paid by photographers, and to be published in fashion magazines from the 1950’s when I first came, into the 21st century is something. Carmen has seen it all!”
Many of these models were only teenager when they started. They didn’t feel pretty. They were too young to know what they were doing. They were as insecure about their looks as everyone else. But these are the smart ones, who persevered, had husbands, lovers, friendships, families, children, careers outside modeling.