Joy Donnell answers the question:
What is the nicest thing a non-family member has ever done for you?
Well, I am a very lucky human being because I’ve had a lot of nice things happen for me. But when I was 19 years old, I was in New York and I was working on building my modeling career and I was getting very disillusioned. Modeling was something that I went into thinking that I was going to constantly be told how wonderful I was. And instead I was constantly getting told everything that was wrong about me — and usually right there to my face.
But sometimes it was even more dehumanizing because it was connected to things that were intrinsically me, that I actually was very proud of to inherit. And I was having a situation like this in New York. I was basically on calls going to meet possible clients. And I was right there in front of the client, possible client, with my book wide open. They’re looking at my book and they’re talking about me like I’m not there. And what they are particularly talking about is my wide nose. Why is my nose not thin like Iman’s? It’s okay that I’m this dark, but why aren’t my features more keen?
And I was so just... everything. Livid. Disgusted. Completely outraged. I was practically leaving my body. I can’t even tell you how I got out of the room and how I got into the elevator and how I got through the lobby and how I ended up out on the street. But somehow I did. And I was standing there basically questioning everything about my life. What was I doing? Where was I going? Why was I doing any of it? I had grown up in the South and I had experienced a lot of racist dehumanization, but for some reason I thought it would be different when I left the South, and now it wasn’t.
I really didn’t know what I was going to do and how I was going to go forward in that moment. And then literally out of nowhere, almost like a hallucination, Beverly Johnson appears. And if you don’t know who Beverly Johnson is, she was the first woman of color to ever be on the cover of American Vogue. She is a legend. She is a supermodel. She is an icon. She is a business woman. She is bigger than a brand. She basically levitates for a lot of people who were able to walk in her footsteps and come after her. And she just appeared out of nowhere with this entourage around her, and she was on her way to something important. She was moving in a way that was very important. But she saw me as she stops, and she goes, "Hey, beautiful." And I’m basically looking at her dumbfounded as if I didn’t even understand what she said, because I couldn’t believe my own eyes that I was seeing Beverly Johnson in front of me.
So then she kind of looks at me like, "Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you speak English?" And I was like, "Oh, yes. Hi." She’s like, "What’s wrong. You look so upset, what’s wrong?" And I basically told her everything that had happened upstairs. What those people have been saying to me right in front of me as if I wasn’t even there. She looks at me and she says, "Well, do you know who you are?" And for some reason, even though I was 19, I was able to look her back in her eyes and say, "Yes, I think I do." She said, "Well, that’s all that matters. You hold on to that." And then poof, she went on about her life, on to her very important things and just disappeared just as quickly as she had appeared in front of me.
But for the rest of my adult life, when I would have these moments that tried to jar me out of the essence of myself, I could remember that conversation with Beverly Johnson, where she just asked me to remember who I actually am. Remember my truth. Remember my heritage. Remember the glorious ancestry that existed before I got here, that I was able to stand on the shoulders of. And it just helped keep me grounded.
And one thing that was really amazing is that probably about three years ago, I got to actually thank her for that moment and interview her about it for AARP. And she actually remembered the moment. She said that one of the reasons why she stopped was because she didn’t understand why she saw this beautiful brown-skinned girl standing on the sidewalk, looking completely lost. And because a juggernaut before her, Naomi Sims, who was eventually her predecessor in modeling, had spoken love over her backstage one day. She knew to speak love over others. And so that’s just something that I will always carry with me in my heart and in my spirit. And it’s one of the nicest things that anyone who I’m not related to has ever done for me.
Many years later, on August 1, 2018, Joy had the opportunity to personally thank Beverly before an event called “Icons Speak: Models on Fashion Photography” at the Getty Museum.
Joy Donnell is the VP of Media for The Shift Network.