With the support of friends and family, 23-year-old Tattiana Johnson had already made it through two rounds of eliminations in the 2020 Maxim Cover Girl competition — an annual contest, ruled by popular vote (possibly encouraged by allegedly corrupt financial incentive, but that’s another story), that awards one woman a grand prize of $25,000 and a spot on the magazine’s cover.
Johnson made it to the top 1 percent in “a worldwide pool” of models (totaling more than 30,000 hopefuls last year) on her own steam — until a racist competitor-slash-heckler stepped in with bizarrely cruel Facebook taunts directed at Johnson. Still, grace has prevailed, as the trolling has prompted an unexpected result: even more support for Johnson than she’d already earned on her own, catapulting her into the semifinalists group overnight.
“It feels good receiving all of this love and knowing that people really appreciate what I stand for,” Johnson tells Yahoo Life about how the upsetting taunts backfired, leading to positivity and support.
— 🌎Ⓥ 🅳🆁🅴 ♡🌹#DemExit🗳 #FreePalestine🇵🇸 (@dre4earth) July 14, 2020
— Polly | 25 | she/her (@TheSagAquarius) July 13, 2020
The conflict began last weekend, when quarterfinalist Sadia Lynne Bukachiovitch, who is a white woman, shared a photo of Johnson on Facebook (on an account that appears to have since been deleted), captioned, “This is who's beating me in the contest... something is not right. She’s #4... I'm 5 or 6.”
She then posted her Maxim competition link, urging people to vote and saying, “My life matters” in an apparent swipe at Black Lives Matter. In the comments, fans of Bukachiovitch (who could not be reached for comment by Yahoo Life) continued to bash Johnson, accusing her of rigging the votes, being tied to conspiracy theories and comparing her to a dog, adding in some transphobic comments for good measure.
Before being deleted (but surviving in screenshots), the post went viral, garnering thousands of shares all over Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — and rather than prompting a pileup of racist support for Bukachiovitch, the whole mess kicked off a powerful online movement to both support Johnson and urge Maxim to disqualify the online bully.
— Polly | 25 | she/her (@TheSagAquarius) July 13, 2020
I hope @MaximMag takes Sadie Lynne Depta out of the competition. The fact that she made such hurtful and racist comments just because this woman was winning, proves exactly why she shouldn’t be in the competition in the first place. #maximcovergirl2020 pic.twitter.com/9y5R97q7LN
— ✌🏾🤏🏾🤏🏾 (@classic_grae) July 14, 2020
— Mercedes Williams (@sadie_williams) July 14, 2020
“I just think Sadie saw someone that was amateur, who didn’t have all the professional photos that everybody else had, and she tried to capitalize on it — pulling the race card in order to do so,” Johnson tells Yahoo Life. “She was insecure about her place [in the rankings] and she needed to project that insecurity onto me, so she tried to degrade me.”
Johnson says that she saw her campaign gaining more traction due to Bukachiovitch’s criticisms, but that she’d expected it to dwindle down quickly. Instead, the support grew, putting her in first place until the end of the quarterfinals round (which ended July 16) and securing her spot in the semifinals, which end on July 30. That would make Johnson — one of the rare Black contestants to wear her hair natural — an official finalist along with just a handful of other women.
Maxim did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment on the controversy.
@MaximMag so you're going to allow this racist woman to continue in the competition? Honestly, she deserves to be cut and not allowed to ever try out again. #maximcovergirl2020 pic.twitter.com/yLPPnxwW7h
— Me (@browneyed_N) July 13, 2020
— marTEA.mcfly (@McflyMartea) July 16, 2020
Johnson tells Yahoo Life that she rejects the notion that “a certain look” — as in the white-centric European beauty standards that have long dominated American culture and oppressed Black women — is supposed to win the Maxim contest.
“There is an illusion that the beauty standard is concrete and it’s imposed on all of us, all of the time, but I’m telling you now: There’s nothing concrete about it. You just have to be brave enough to go out there and change it. If you want to change the standard, don’t try to bend yourself to that standard. Be yourself and be unapologetic about it, because anybody who became the standard wasn’t at some point in time.”
An example of that very notion came a few years back, courtesy of an insightful essay by Lauren Dozier in which she wrote, “There were times in middle school that I longed for a thin pout, a delicate Cupid’s bow with a graceful arc. My nose felt bulbous and unrefined when before me, my mind dangled snapshots of the perky, narrow noses that daintily perched on the faces of other girls revered for their beauty at school and in the mainstream media.”
She says she never expected that the features she’d been mocked for would be seen as beautiful, adding, “never could I have predicted that a few years and a few lip injections later, celebrities and style icons would transform the fuller lips that have been mocked and caricatured for ages ... into something so coveted.”
Whatever happens in the contest, Johnson says she appreciates how this experience is bringing people of all backgrounds together in a positive way.
“One thing that has been really wonderful about this journey is the immense amount of people who are not Black, but have been supporting me as well. It’s not only the Black diaspora anymore — there are other people who are seeing [the racism] and realizing that it’s wrong, too, and then speaking up. We need that. A lot of people don’t want to admit that, but the truth is that we’re all in this together and we need to act like it. I’m glad to see all the positivity that’s going around because of it.”
One of her most notable supporters, fellow competitor Ashley White, who Johnson describes as “the sweetest person ever,” is also expected to advance to the semifinals. White, after seeing Bukachiovitch’s hateful post, changed her Maxim campaign bio to “Vote for Tattiana Johnson.”
Can we just appreciate that's she changed her bio to vote for Tattiana? That's some serious girl power🥰 #tattianajohnson #girlpower #maximcovergirl2020
Vote for Ashley White to be on the cover of Maxim Magazine https://t.co/GsZUiQfp9e
— Bobbi_Northedge (@happy_vibes94) July 15, 2020
Ultimately, Johnson says she is moved by the outpouring of support. “It feels a bit surreal because I’m being seen for the first time. People are standing up for me and with me and acknowledging me for being beautiful. Whether you want to be a model or not, we all desire to be acknowledged for being beautiful, just the way that we are. It’s very touching, and I’ve been crying a lot.”
Last year, Johnson relocated from Sacramento, Calif., to Dallas, Texas, in hopes of finding her passion, as she knew the traditional path from college to corporate was not for her. It was a struggle at first, she says, telling Yahoo Life, “It was pretty rough. I didn’t have anybody to live with, so I was homeless for about five months.” Around that time, the young aspiring model started dancing to get back on her feet, and, while her job, like so many others, has been impacted by the pandemic, the gig inspired her to begin conceptualizing her own lingerie line.
That’s when she stumbled across an advertisement looking for Maxim’s next cover girl. “I actually wanted to be a model since I was 9 years old, but I was really good in school, so everybody deterred me from that,” she says. “They told me I could never make it in modeling. For a long time, I just suppressed that desire.” Despite past naysayers and the fact that she’s inexperienced, Johnson mustered up the courage to join the competition, figuring that she had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Johnson says the power to shift the paradigm is in anyone’s hands — “anyone of any gender, color or size” — and that she’s sick of maintaining the status quo, noting, “I’m tired of people saying that we can’t change things because we’ve been doing this.” If she wins, she says she will invest in her mental health, self-care and future business endeavors.
Per the Maxim Magazine official website, the quarterfinal phase of the competition ended on July 16 and, after all voting activity is verified, will continue with the semifinals on July 20 at 3 p.m. EDT.
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