THE STORY – Fashion revolutionary Bethann Hardison looks back on her journey as a pioneering Black model, modeling agent, and activist, shining a light on an untold chapter in the fight for racial diversity.
THE CAST – Tyson Beckford, Stephen Burrows & Naomi Campbell
THE TEAM – Bethann Hardison & Frédéric Tcheng (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes
When Bethann Hardison came onto the modeling scene in the 1970s, she was one of few Black supermodels working in the fashion industry, and over time became one of the most beloved. She could have simply enjoyed all the riches and fame that came with that, but she knew early on that her role was to be a change agent whose work would shatter norms and revamp the industry. After all, it’s nice to be one of the first to do something, but she certainly didn’t want to be one of the only ones.
“Invisible Beauty” is a personal memoir of Hardison’s fight to make the modeling world a more diverse and inclusive space for people of color. Teaming up with Frédéric Tcheng (“Dior and I,” “Halston”), the two dive into this icon’s journey navigating the fashion industry while talking head interviews further showcase her decades-spanning influence.
It’s hard to know exactly how and where to start a film, as a phone conversation between Hardison and Tcheng on that very topic introduces us to the documentary. Naturally, they choose to go back to Hardison’s childhood and upbringing. As a young child and teenager, she was very active and started breaking barriers, such as being the first Black cheerleader at her mostly white school in New York. She also had family in North Carolina, where Jim Crow segregation could be seen everywhere she went. She witnessed racism and differences being forced upon people but never understood why it had to exist – something she carried throughout her career.
Once she entered the modeling world, Hardison thrived. She had an androgynous look to her that intrigued fashion houses everywhere, and designers needed her on their catwalks. As her fame and talent grew, Hardison always led by example and never lost sight of her values or kindness. That’s seen in several interviews with icons and pals in the industry, such as models Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Tyson Beckford, who share anecdotes of how she championed their careers, supported them, and tried to protect them from the toxic environments she encountered as one of the first Black models.
Racism and exclusion have plagued the modeling world for decades, and Hardison had to pave the way for many changes in the industry. The turning point of her career was the Battle of Versailles, where French and American fashion designers battled it out in the famed palace. While French designers focused on the clothing they were presenting, the Americans included 11 Black models in their show, an unprecedented feat that made the crowd go wild. That moment made Hardison realize she could do more to diversify the modeling industry from the inside, leading her to open her own agency.
If audiences don’t realize how much of a pioneer Hardison is, the documentary doesn’t hold back from showcasing all of her achievements. With her agency, she recruited models from marginalized backgrounds and gave them a chance at success. In 1988, she and Iman and Campbell formed the Black Girls Coalition to support Black models. Even when Hardison took a step back from the modeling world and saw how easily it reverted to utilizing mostly white models on runways, she held town hall meetings with all industry types to further make a change. No one ever expected any of this from Hardison, but “Invisible Beauty” shows that she was born to take on this trailblazing role. But it’s difficult for one person to handle so much, as several interviewees say they don’t know how she did it all and if she ever found time for herself. Even at 80 years old, she’s still meeting with up-and-comers in the industry and encouraging them to be changemakers.
With Hardison involved as a co-director, “Invisible Beauty” has a much more personal feel compared to other documentaries on icons. Hearing personal anecdotes from the documentary subject and gaining an inside perspective on everything they went through enriches the viewing experience so much more than relying on other people’s knowledge. Quite a bit is covered in the film, leading to a lengthy runtime and a bit of repetition. Some storylines are underbaked or left vague, too, such as her relationship with her son as well as her life outside of her activist work. This leads to more questions than answers. Regardless, “Invisible Beauty” is a deeply interesting documentary of the great Hardison. Whether or not people are familiar with her name or work, they will gain a valuable perspective on this icon and all the passion she brought to the modeling industry.