JOANI JOHNSON, THE 67-YEAR-OLD MODEL DEFYING EVERY FASHION STEREOTYPE

How a happenstance, only-in-NYC moment & tragedy led to her new life before the camera

JoAni Johnson has lived more lives than a bodega cat. A quintessential and stoic New Yorker, she was born and raised in Harlem, and hung out at Studio 54 during Warhol’s heyday decked out in Stephen Burrows. She’s worked every job from a receptionist’s desk, to sales, to running a showroom, to blending tea, and she pulls off a Norma Kamali sleeping bag coat like no one else. Now 67, she’s come out of semi-retirement for a completely unexpected modelling career.
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Johnson enters an industry unsure of what to do with her story. The odds would typically be stacked against her: She’s in her seventh decade of life, stands tall at 5’4” (and a half), is unsigned to a major agency and books jobs through Instagram directly. And yet, following a viral 2016 Allure video, she’s on the cusp of a breakthrough, walking for contemporary and emerging designers, modelling in a few editorials here and there, and building a social following. And it’s not just due to her striking appearance and sharp, easy personal style (she loves Rick Owens, Demobaza and others): it’s Johnson’s charisma, a star quality that’s impossible to manufacture, that has casting directors abuzz.
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If you ask her, she’ll tell you modelling is just a hobby; by day, she’s a certified tea-blender. But, as she opens up about her past professional and personal lives, her triumphs and her losses, it’s clear it means so much more.
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Despite what most people may deduct from Johnson’s outer appearance, most notably an endless river of grey hair (which she’s had for the greater part of her life), she’s not a conventional product of the beauty or fashion worlds. Though she initially majored in Biology and Art in college, Johnson’s path started in numbers. “I loved math. I loved it,” she says of switching to become a math major. “But after the first semester, the teacher advised me that I was maybe in over my head. But in my junior year, she got up in front of the class and said, ‘I made a huge mistake. I suggested that this person not major in math and she just proved me wrong.’”
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