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Interview by Jada Jackson/
Photograph by Makeda Sandford
Joyce Walker-Joseph appeared on the November 1972 cover of Seventeen—the first Black model to get the full cover of the magazine. (Though, as Walker-Joseph points out, it wasn’t actually her first time on the cover; in her previous appearance, she was “postage-stamp size” above the logo.) Walker-Joseph soon became an icon of the “Black is beautiful” movement, and a major role model to young Black women. In 1997, she and her husband, playwright, poet, and former Black Panther Jamal Joseph, co-founded the IMPACT Repertory Theatre, a Harlem-based youth theater company and a key expression of Walker-Joseph’s lifetime of being, as she calls it, an “artivist.”
Jada Jackson: Can you tell me about how you came to be a model, and in particular what led up to being on the cover of Seventeen?
Joyce Walker-Joseph: Well, I’m one of those who didn’t always want to be a model. As a matter of fact, I didn’t want to model. I went kicking and screaming, you can call it. I had just graduated college with a degree in philosophy, and I was a member of NEC, the Negro Ensemble Company, and had been in a play called The Penny Wars on Broadway, and so I was an actress, really. I did a film in Europe called Welcome to the Club.
Everything was happening at the same time. I came back to the States and a friend of mine took me to a photo shoot and I started modeling. I really didn’t want to model; I was told that I wouldn’t be able to model unless I cooperated on the casting couch, as it were, and I said no way would this be possible for me. I went to a second agency, and they told me they already had a Black girl. Then I went to Ford and they put me on the boards. Within a week, I got Look magazine—and this is not a modeling, a fashion, magazine. They were doing a “Black is beautiful” issue, and I got the centerfold. I had a short, cropped afro then, and they took a shears and they just zzzzzz with my afro because they didn’t know what else to do with it. They made a poster of it and it became an international success in Europe, and all the magazines saw it and were clamoring for me. My agency, Ford, took me aside and said, Well, they’re looking for you, and I advise you to go with Seventeen because they’re the youngest magazine, and you can always grow into the other magazines.
JJ: I saw in all of the cover shoots that you had your natural hair. Was that something that you wanted to make a statement with, or was it just something that was already a part of your style, just you being you?
JW: That’s my personal style. That’s something that I always wanted to do. Because I was always teased as a child about my hair, about my kinky hair, and I couldn’t understand why people had straight hair. I didn’t understand how everyone around me had good hair, as they called it, and why we had to go through straightening it every two weeks and burning our hair. I just didn’t understand it. Growing up, I investigated National Geographic, looking at it in the doctor’s office. I was seeing our beautiful African queens with their beautiful hair and their afros, and their locks, and the dung in their hair, and I just was very influenced by that. And then I saw Cicely Tyson on TV with her beautiful hair, and I said I want to do that. So back in ’67 I just wore an afro. I just washed my hair.
I didn’t allow hairdressers to mess with my hair after a few months, because all they did was use sheers for my hair. As a matter of fact, I had them hire a young lady to come on set with me, and come on trips, and she would do African styles and cornrows for my hair, so that we would be able to inspire Black girls to put other kinds of hairstyles with natural hair and put different color parts in their hair.
JJ: Did you have issues with discrimination on set?
JW: In the beginning they didn’t know how to light us. And you’d be shot on the end of a shoot. There would be a line of models and you’d be put on the end so that they can cut you out. So they could send the shot to the Midwest. Especially for catalogs.
JJ: That’s horrible.
JW: But you get paid. I mean, it’s a business. Give me my money.
JJ: Did you ever feel that the industry was exploitative toward you as a Black woman? Or was it just something that was inherently exploitative just to women in general, of the time?
JW: I never felt exploited. I guess I rose too high. If anything made me feel uncomfortable, I walked off the set. It was my prerogative. I said, Talk to my agent. That’s what they’re for.
JJ: What kind of advice would you give to someone who is now a young Black model or creative person trying to get into the entertainment field?
JW: Stay true to yourself. All of what I did was a surprise to me. I was very shy. I never had a goal to be on a cover of this or do any of that. It all happened and that was so glorious. I was full of joy, and it opened up for me and I really appreciated it. And I think, because I had that attitude, it came to me, and it came true, and that, to me, was what it was about.
JJ: When you look back, how does it make you feel to have been a part of Seventeen magazine’s legacy of breaking through barriers?
JW: It feels amazing, especially since I see people really want what I achieved. I was on more than one cover of Seventeen. The first, it was a postage-stamp size, above the letter E, and I had a couple full pages inside of just me. And then there was a full-size cover. I had so much fan mail. So much Black and white fan mail.
JJ: Throughout your career and lifetime of being in the media, how did that transform your life, and how did it influence your activism?
JW: Well, I was called too political in my life because I was always writing, and I married a Black Panther. I was always writing. I was always doing something else. I was never just a model. I can relate to Breonna Taylor when they knocked on her door because of being married to a Panther. They didn’t even knock on our door. They battered our door. About 40 SWAT team members came in our door and took a M16 to my head. I was four months pregnant. And I was terrified, but not terrified, because something comes over you when your adrenaline comes in. They don’t want to hear you, and you want to just save your baby. And my baby came out OK. It was just a horrible experience. A prison wife. An activist. It’s been an experience.
JJ: Through those experiences, how did they shape you to be who you are right now?
JW: Well, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut. And to keep on with the struggle—and it never ends—and to keep strong. My kids—I have three kids, and my son is very involved in the struggle. We are the founders of IMPACT Repertory Company, which is an Artivist group in Harlem, teaching Black girls arts and entertainment and giving back to the community.
JJ: Having lived through the 1960s and 1970s, what is it like living through that experience and still seeing these kinds of inequality and injustice emerge in this era that we are in right now?
JW: Well, it’s painful and it’s hopeful. It’s painful that we are, 56 years later, we’re still going through that. And it’s hopeful because people like you are coming to the elders and asking questions. I’ve gone through such a metamorphosis, so to speak, and now it’s a new generation and it’s a new language, almost. It’s a new generation of revolutionaries. Or I’d like to see it as more of a renaissance.
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This story was created as part of Lift Every Voice, in partnership with Lexus. Lift Every Voice records the wisdom and life experiences of the oldest generation of Black Americans by connecting them with a new generation of Black journalists. The oral history series is running across Hearst magazine, newspaper, and television websites throughout 2021. Go to oprahdaily.com/lifteveryvoice for the complete portfolio.
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