Interview: Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng (Invisible Beauty)

For over five decades, Bethann Hardison has been turning the spotlight on the lack of diversity in the beauty industry. First as a black model, then as a model agent. She mentored famous supermodels such as Tyson Beckford, Naomi Campbell and Iman and ensured that every person of colour saw them represented in the fashion world. The highly inspiring but maybe also unknown Bethann now stands in the spotlights in Invisible Beauty. We sat down with her and co-writer/co-director Frédéric Tcheng and spoke about this stunning documentary and the fashion world.

A young Bethann Hardison in Invisible Beauty // CREDIT: Bethann Hardison

Liselotte Vanophem (Big Picture Film Club): Congratulations on the amazing documentary. How did you guys meet?

Frédéric Tcheng (Invisible Beauty): We met because we made a short movie together for the CFDA in New York. They needed a 3-minute film to introduce her on stage, and I was approached to make that 3-minute film, and that’s how we met. I didn’t know who Bethann was because I’m not much of a fashion guy, even though I’ve made a lot of fashion movies. We sat down to interview for that short film. For a 3-minute film, I interviewed Bethann for like 5 hours.

FT: There’s much to discuss, and I said, “Well, this is a very special person.” And we kept in touch. Bethann told me about the feature film that was more about the industry. And then, over the years, we started talking about making a new film that was more about her, the people in her life and her influence. Three and a half years ago, four years ago, we started working on that.

LV: You mentioned that you interviewed her for five hours for the three-minute video. How long did you film to make this movie?

FT: We wanted to make a documentary representing her life. A great woman like her deserves a great documentary. The first cut we had was a documentary of around 7 hours.

Bethann Hardison (Invisible Beauty): I like that first cut of 7 hours. That’s when he had to get into it and cut it to something he could present to me.

FT: After that, we got it down to four hours.

BH: Four hours was so good!

FT: Sadly, we had to cut even more. The result may be a bit longer than most, but that’s because people sit there watching this movie and want to see more. It was just a lot—a lot of stories to tell. We had to make choices about what thread we were following. The thread in the film would differ from the one in the book. It was the thread of advocacy. And you know, that’s how we saw it. It shaped the art of the story. All the collaborators and fashion people in this movie did something interesting and amazing.

LV: Because you had all the footage, were there any ideas of turning it into a limited series?

FT: Well, we did talk about making a series. But we got shut down by our producer, Lisa Cortez, who said that our investors had signed up for a feature film. So we had to deliver a movie. It’s good to have that constraint. We have to make choices about how we tell the story. It was a long path. But I was already very happy that Bethann was proud of what we had made. She always tells the truth, and if she was not going to like it, I would have felt like I had let her down. I didn’t want that. And so when she saw the four hours and said, “You made me a believer in my own story”, that was like a huge relief.

7-year-old Bethann Hardison in Invisible Beauty // CREDIT: Bethann Hardison

 LV: Did the writing of the book influence the film and vice versa?

BH: No, not really. They’re both about two different things. The book had nothing to do with the film. Because I have so many relationships, it helped me to tell my story in the movie.

FT: There were so many stories about, for example, the relationships with Jean-Michel Basque, but we couldn’t fit that in the film. That’s because we had to stick to Bethan’s story. It was important.

BH: But those stories could be included in the book. I need to finish my book because everyone is now seeing the film.

LV: Does that put more pressure on you?

BH: Yes, there was no pressure when they started to film, but because of the documentary, the audience wanted to see more, and I can feel the pressure. Not sure if the book will be as good as Invisible Beauty, though.

FT: It will be. I’ve read some pages. I can’t wait for everyone else to read the book. I told Bethann that I like her writing. She’s a writer. She didn’t need a ghostwriter. I told her not to get one. She has a voice of her own.

LV: This documentary highlights the beauty industry and the lack of diversity. Do you think the revolutionary things you did are also the perfect way to see even more inclusivity? Let’s say seeing models with a disability or models that look more like the women we see in the street.

BH: That’s where I have a problem. I give so much more credit to the outside world than to the little island of fashion. On one side, you have the world, and on the other, this stupid little island of fashion. That little island represented how a model looked in my day. People have so much style and personality, and it’s nonsense to want to become like the model you see. I believe the fashion model should be something we don’t want to be. That island is them. When I go around the world, I meet many young people who say they want to be a model. What a model is, is so broad these days. So many people can be a model.

LV: What can we do as consumers to show the fashion industry that we want more inclusivity and diversity?

BH: That change is already happening. The voices for change are here. You see mixed-race families. You see, same-sex marriages.

LV: Invisible Beauty was screened during the Sundance Film Festival London. Are there any other festivals the documentary is going to?

FT: We have had a nice festival run so far. We were in Toronto, Tribeca, Seattle, San Francisco; you name it. The film will be out in the US on the 15th of September. It’s very exciting for us to get a theatrical release.

Also Read: Review: Invisible Beauty

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