Beverly Johnson on Having 'Full Blown Menopause' at 47: 'You're Moist in All the Wrong Places'

Beverly Johnson
Beverly Johnson

Fadil Berisha

Menopause. It's something every woman faces at one time or another. And yet, many are reluctant or ashamed to talk openly about it and share their experiences. Which is why we at People Health decided it was time to start a meaningful conversation — and dispel the myths, misconceptions, and mysteries that surround menopause. Here, the frank, funny, smart and candid stories from women we've come to know and love.

When Beverly Johnson was 47 years old, she had a hysterectomy and went into "full blown menopause." She had the procedure in 1999 after painful uterine fibroids were causing internal bleeding. "It was a life changing moment," she says. "I went from my swinging forties to full blown menopause and I was not prepared."

The 70-year-old pioneering supermodel, the first Black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue in 1974, was diagnosed with fibroids when she was in her thirties. She first had a myomectomy, a procedure to remove fibroids. But the fibroids grew back, pushing on her uterus to such an extent that at one point, she menstruated every day for a year and became anemic.

That's when her doctor recommended a hysterectomy. "It was a major operation," says Johnson. "I didn't fully understand what the procedure entailed. The doctor didn't explain and I thought menopause would come on gradually."

Two months after the procedure, she woke up one night with night sweats. "My body changed," she says. "You start gaining weight in the middle. And I was still modeling. I felt tired. I remember talking to older women and when they'd break out in a sweat, I'd say 'What's wrong? Are you okay?' And the response was always 'You'll know about it soon enough.' I never connected the two. Well, I was that woman now. You're in the middle of a conversation with an attractive guy — I was single — and all of a sudden, there's a mustache of sweat, and he's saying 'Are you okay?'"

Her sex life was also affected. "You don't have the hormones that keep you nice and moist in the areas you want to be nice and moist in," she says. "Mentally, you still have a sex drive but physically, there were changes. You're moist in all the wrong places and that was a big shocker for me. There are all these unexpected consequences."

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Over time, she found balance with healthy foods ("low fat and low sugar,") exercise ("Kegels to tighten the pelvic floor") and mostly, with hormone therapy. "I was taking estrogen and testosterone. It's a cocktail," she says. "It took time to find the right mix."

Still, menopause wasn't something people talked openly about. "There was no Google," she says with a laugh. "My mom would say 'It's nothing. It will be over soon.' She downplayed it but she downplays anything that is kind of uncomfortable."

Johnson turned to older female friends. "I got more helpful information from girlfriends than my own doctors," she says. "As soon as you mention it to someone going through it, it's the topic of conversation."

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She finds it "empowering" now that more and more women are sharing their menopause stories.  "Why do we have to stay in the Dark Ages when it comes to this? It's life changing but it also causes some health changes so it's wonderful people are talking about it and we can read about it in places like PEOPLE and not just medical journals."

Looking back, it was a chapter that marked "a whole new beginning," she says. "First of all, it made me value myself and my health in a new way. And that wasn't something in the beauty and health books. Even the ones I wrote. So it's great we are having this conversation."

With over 500 magazine covers to her name, she's seen a lot of change in recent years. When she started modeling in the early seventies it was "a five or six year career," she says. "I was immediately preparing for what I would do afterwards — and then by the eighties, I was making good money and I thought I'm not leaving this career now! So I just kept reinventing myself."

She became an entrepreneur, developed a line of wigs and hair extensions, wrote three books, including her 2015 best selling memoir The Face That Changed It All, ventured into acting and was the executive producer of her reality show Beverly's Full House on the Oprah Winfrey Network. As she says, "The retirement thing went out the window."

She's also used her clout to speak out about the need for more equal representation and diversity in the fashion and beauty and business worlds. And later this month, on Nov. 19, she'll be honored with a Pioneer Award for Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations in New York City.

"This is our time," says Johnson, who is engaged to financial executive W. Brian Malian. "Women are talking about the things you would never really talk about before, from abuse to harassment in the workplace, to health issues. It's a sense of owning your power in your own life."  Something she learned anew in 2014 when she first shared her story of being drugged by Bill Cosby in the mid eighties.

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"That's the moment when I became more than a face and people learned I also had a voice," says Johnson, one of over 60 women who came forward to accuse the comedian of misconduct. (Cosby has previously denied all allegations and his sexual assault conviction was overturned in 2021.)

Johnson hopes her voice will continue to help others. "We don't know why African American women have an increased risk of fibroids and all the complications that come from that, and so for my African American sisters, it's important to share information about our experience," she says. "For all women, we've learned to advocate for ourselves. To ask your doctor. We have the power to say 'I don't understand.' Something I didn't do when I had the hysterectomy."

She's proud of the changes she's witnessed, for example, with her daughter, Anansa Sims, now 43 and the mom of four. "When she was giving birth, because of the baby's heart rate they told her, they're going to use suction to help take the baby out," Johnson recalls. "And she said 'Excuse me, you're going to have to explain that to me.' And she was stopping the whole process to make sure she understood. It's a different world now."

Says Johnson: "Advocating for ourselves, not only in health care, but in every part of your life, that's a beautiful thing."