JoAni Johnson: the sexagenarian model defying convention

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Interview JoAni Johnson: the sexagenarian model defying convention Aaron Hicklin The Observer Models Interview JoAni Johnson: the sexagenarian model defying convention Aaron Hicklin

She’s one of the faces of Rihanna’s recent Fenty campaign, but JoAni Johnson’s soaring modelling success only started when she was in her 60s…

JoAni Johnson shot for OM
‘JoAni is emblematic of designers thinking well beyond youth’: Johnson wears a black sculptural coat by davidkoma.com. Photograph: Heather Favell/The Observer

JoAni Johnson, a sexagenarian model with a cascade of hair the colour of moonlight, arrives for our teashop rendezvous serene as a breeze, as if the humidity of a New York summer was something that inconvenienced only other people. She shares this serenity gladly. Today she calms young models with advice she was given by Bethann Hardison, a long-time activist who has fought to diversify the fashion industry for decades: “Close your eyes, take a deep breath, open your eyes, and walk.”

Most of us are lucky to have one shot on life’s merry-go-round, but for JoAni Johnson the ride just keeps getting faster. Having grown up in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement, she now finds herself being feted as an exemplar of fashion’s reckoning with runway racism and misogyny as brands scramble to connect with millennial customers. When, in May, she was hired to model Rihanna’s fashion line, Fenty, fashion bloggers swooned at the symbolism of a young black designer choosing an older black woman as her muse.

Older women who defy convention have been having something of a moment lately. Maybe you’re among the 3.8 million people who follows Baddiewinkle, the 90-year-old Instagram celebrity who posts images of herself in garish attire alongside innuendo-laden captions. And perhaps you have seen the New York Times video of Inge Ginsburg, the 96-year-old Holocaust survivor who fronts a death-metal band in Switzerland. Then there’s Iris Apfel, the lavishly accessorized subject of a documentary by Albert Maysles. Last February, Apfel signed with modelling agency IMG, home of Kate Moss and Karlie Kloss. She is 97. You can buy a Barbie doll in her likeness.

You’d have to be a killjoy not to admire the ways in which these women thumb their noses at social pieties, but it’s hard to avoid a whiff of the Victorian sideshow in the way they are presented to us as kooks. Baddiewinkle may be a delicious riposte to a culture that has stigmatised the old as dull, but we also need templates to show how age can be strong, eloquent and beautiful.

Johnson, 67, has walked the runway for Ozwald Boateng and Eileen Fisher, and featured in ads for Pyer Moss, arguably America’s hottest fashion label. When Peter, her husband of 21 years, died two months after her first fashion show, Johnson felt compelled to continue. It was his enthusiasm that had pushed her forward. “He encouraged me all the way,” she says. Her voice is gentle and clear. “He was so proud.”

Grey power: JoAni Johnson wears a floral top by simonerocha.com and sculptural gold earrings by mishodesigns.com Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Grey power: JoAni Johnson wears a floral top by simonerocha.com and sculptural gold earrings by mishodesigns.com. Photograph: Heather Favell/The Observer

For many years, the couple had enjoyed a weekend ritual that involved walking around a different neighbourhood of New York together. The walks were a way of mapping a city they’d seen change and change again, but also of affirming the unchanging fact of their place in it. Having grown up in Harlem, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Johnson knew all about cycles of decline and resurrection.

It was during one of their walks, one afternoon in 2016, that Johnson found herself posing, reluctantly, for a street photographer who had doubled back to ask to take her portrait. “After that, I started getting contacted,” she says matter-of-factly.

She was cast in a video for Allure magazine, showcasing older, self-empowered women. When the video went viral, more bookings followed. If you needed an example of the ways in which social media has reshaped visibility and representation, that Instagram post would be a good place to start. It was the catapult that launched Johnson’s modelling career.

Older models are not a new phenomenon – the legendary Australian model, Jennifer Hocking, was rediscovered in her 70s by Mario Testino; in 2017 Lauren Hutton, then 73, starred in an underwear campaign for Calvin Klein; earlier this year, Daphne Selfe, received a British Empire Award for a modelling career that is still going strong at 90. But those models got their starts young. Their reappearance in later life taps into a collective nostalgia. Johnson, by contrast, is emblematic of something new: a reflexive instinct of primarily young designers to think beyond the conflation of beauty with youth.

Runway reckoning: JoAni Johnson wears ecru blazer and trousers by acnestudios.com; silk shirt by equipmentfr.com and trainers by adidas.com. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Runway reckoning: JoAni Johnson wears ecru blazer and trousers by acnestudios.com; silk shirt by equipmentfr.com and trainers by adidas.com. Photograph: Heather Favell/The Observer

For Bethann Hardison, it would be a mistake to think of Johnson’s sudden ubiquity as just a trend for older women. “I give Rihanna more credit than that,” she says. “I think she’s smart and has good taste, and she just found JoAni attractive.” She pauses. “I find her attractive,” she adds. In other words, when people look at Johnson in campaigns for Fenty are they seeing an older woman, or just a beautiful woman? For Hardison, true success will be the day we refer to Johnson as simply a model, without qualifiers around race or age.

Every generation has its cultural reference points. For Johnson it was the Beatles and Twiggy; it was the beret sported by Faye Dunaway in Bonnie & Clyde; it was the mini skirt she rigged from her school uniform. “As soon as we left school we rolled them up so they were short and cute with our white blouse and little blazer,” she laughs.

At least the makeshift mini was more successful than her Beatles shag. “I took a bowl, put it over my head and cut off my hair,” she recalls. “My mother went crazy.”

Her mother is 94 now, and still a powerhouse who attends church every day. “She loves to dress,” says Johnson. “All my family were into dressing well – the way you looked played a very big part, especially if you were a person of colour.” It’s why Harlem has a storied place in fashion history. “You see photos of 125th street from the 1920s and 30s and everyone was dressed to the T.”

At college, Johnson studied biology and art. It was a restless era and she felt giddy on the atmosphere of protest and idealism. “We were looking for possibility and change,” she recalls.

“We were in environments where there were so many roadblocks, and the only way to get it changed was to do something, actively – so we did.” History was happening, but much of it was discernible only in hindsight. She saw Angela Davis speak before her name was synonymous with the Black Panthers and revolution. “I wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to see Angela Davis,’ Johnson says. “People didn’t know those names until they became who they were.”

Her first job after college was in New York’s garment district, before she moved on to ride the wave of designer jeans as a sales associate in the 1980s, briefly designing scratch ’n’ sniff clothes for children, including a T-shirt that smelled, alas, like a Hershey’s chocolate bar.

After taking time out to raise her child, she made her way back into the corporate world, one of very few black women to find herself in a senior marketing position, when she was struck by an anomaly. She and her colleague were the only employees working on a proposal in the office on New Year’s Eve. “I said, ‘Why are we the only people dedicated enough to make this happen?’”

Johnson knew the answer, of course. “They were going to question us about everything, because we were women and we were black,” she says. The sense of being scrutinised, of having to hurdle a higher bar, was not new. “It’s better today, but you are always challenged,” she says.

But that New Year’s Eve, Johnson and her colleague downed tools and left the building. “We went to the Plaza Hotel for tea and we had a marvellous time,” she says. They did it again the following year, this time with their daughters in tow. The next year their sisters joined in. “By the time we left the Plaza we were 18 people,” Johnson recalled.

Too many to continue sitting together, they began hosting tea meet-ups on their own. When a member opened a tea shop, Johnson seized her opportunity. “I found my niche in blending,” she says.

Today Johnson’s tea blends find their way into fancy New York restaurants where they are often used to create speciality cocktails. She misses drinking tea with her husband who died in November 2017, less than two months after she appeared in her first New York Fashion Week.

“He dressed impeccably,” she says. “He had a collection of shoes and he could tell me every shoemaker from the stitches they used.” The shoes are still at home in Harlem, all 150 pairs of them. Johnson can’t bear to part with them. She smiles, fondly, then recalls his giddy excitement for her first fashion week. “He debated for about a week what to wear,” she says. “He ended up in a pair of black jeans with his vintage peace scarf from the 1960s.” She remembers spotting him scuttling back and forth to take photographs. “He was fabulous,” she says. “Just fabulous.”

Recently, she attended a cocktail party and could not understand why she felt so discomposed. There was something at the edge of her consciousness that she only figured out as she was leaving.

“The place that the event was held was where my husband got down on one knee and asked me to marry him,” she recalls, before smiling her dazzling supermodel smile. “And then I felt joy.”

Makeup by Colleen Creighton using Fenty Beauty by Rihanna at Kramer + Kramer; hair by Koji Ichikawa at the Club NYC using Laicale; photographer’s assistant Lee Grubb; fashion assistant Peter Bevan

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