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- August 10, 1992
- Vol. 38
- No. 6
Like Mother, Like...
After a Nasty Custody Fight, Beverly Johnson Forges a Model Life with Daughter Anansa
And no wonder. In August 1974, Beverly became the first black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue; she graced some 500 other magazine covers, becoming not only a '70s supermodel but a pop icon and darling of the gossip columns. Anansa, who has just signed with the prestigious Wilhelmina modeling agency (which also represents Johnson), has yet to grab a solo cover, but she has had inside shots in Self, Seventeen and Essence. Next month she will head for South Africa, where she will cut an album of rap songs with her father, music publisher Danny Sims, who introduced the late Bob Marley to the U.S.
Yet this remarkable mother-daughter success story didn't come easy. For nine years, Beverly retouched reality, telling the press all was "fine," even as she engaged in a bitter custody dispute over Anansa that drained her earnings—the cost ran over $500,000—and rocked her emotional health.
In 1979, Johnson and Sims separated after only two years of marriage—her second, his third. Both sued for custody of Anansa, born in 1978. Sims won, an outcome Johnson attributes to the Kramer vs. Kramer climate of the time. "Mothers were no longer being given custody automatically," she says. "It wasn't because one parent was fit and the other was not, and I was going up against a man who was much older, wiser, stronger, richer." Sims, now 55, sees it differently. "I was in a more stable situation, living in New York, while she was working and traveling around the world," he says.
While Johnson disputed the court finding, she tried to visit her daughter daily at Sims's imposing Fifth Avenue apartment until he obtained an order restricting her to regularly scheduled visits. Sims says Johnson behaved as though they were still married, dropping in constantly, much to the discomfort of his guests and dates. Johnson counters that she faced a "hostile household," in which everyone from the doorman to her ex-husband's guests perceived her as the "bad mother. I had to swallow any pride for years," she says. "When I got over the initial blow, I had some kind of breakdown for at least a six-month period afterward. I felt very depressed and victimized."
In 1988, nearly a decade after Johnson's initial plea for custody, the Supreme Court of New York County upheld the decision favoring Sims. But soon after, he moved temporarily to London for business reasons, and Johnson, who had relocated to Los Angeles in an attempt to build an acting career, was able to fly Anansa to California for lengthy visits. "I had to extend myself, because it takes time to build a new relationship," recalls Johnson, though Anansa says, "We were close automatically."
Finally, Anansa told Sims she wanted to live permanently with her mother. Immersed in his new life, and by then traveling frequently himself, he agreed. Today, Sims says, "I like Anansa being with her mom. She's doing great. And Beverly and I are close friends." Johnson agrees. "Finally, we both grew up. We just laugh at each other now—the money we spent fighting. Maybe it had really all been about youth versus the male ego," she says, then adds, "I loved him more than I've ever loved anyone." As for Anansa, who now spends summers and vacations with her father at his Johannesburg home, she says her parents "are good friends now...but I can't imagine them as husband and wife."
Raised by the wealthy Sims with a succession of nannies and maids, Anansa had to adjust when she moved in with Beverly in 1990. "It did not enter her mind to take her plate off the table," says Johnson, laughing. "I had to tell her, 'There's just me here. And guess what? I'm not the maid!' " Anansa concedes, "I might have been a little spoiled."
Mother and daughter clashed over more than dishes. Their biggest standoff: modeling ambitions. Anansa had them; Johnson tried to squelch them. "It's so rare that a young girl goes into this business and continues to live a happy life," she says. "You live in a dream world, and when it's over, it's a hard tumble." Finally, Johnson offered provisional consent: Modeling was fine, as long as Anansa's grades didn't suffer. Instead, her grades at the exclusive Buckley School in Sherman Oaks soared to a near perfect A average. "Modeling gave her incentive," says Johnson. "She proved that she's able to handle the school, the modeling, her ego, her friends. I've watched her blossom."
Beverly's own career and life are also in flower again. After a period in which "everything was stagnant for me," she has featured roles in director Robert Townsend's forthcoming comedy, Meteor Man, and in National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1, a Lethal Weapon spoof starring Emilio Estevez and William Shatner. For the past four months, she has been steadily dating Law & Order's Christopher Noth, 37, whom she met at a dinner party thrown for Ivana Trump by Johnson's close friend, socialite and businesswoman Nikki Haskell. "He's very exciting," says Johnson, "and besides being terribly handsome and a brilliant actor, he's terrific with Anansa."
Haskell, who calls Anansa her unofficial goddaughter, says, "She and Beverly have a beautiful mother-daughter relationship. It's a common bond of trust and respect. Beverly takes Anansa everywhere." Everywhere recently included Hollywood Boulevard, where Johnson, Noth and Anansa, brooms in hand, joined the cleanup effort after the riots that followed the Rodney King verdict.
Johnson, who was one of the first celebrities to become involved in the AIDS cause (after losing such friends as designers Willi Smith and Halston to the disease), considers activism part of Anansa's education. "I have tried to prepare her to cope in the world as a responsible human being," she says, "to be a woman with all a woman's advantages and to know what it means to be an African-American woman in America."
Two decades after her mother added color to the glamor biz, Anansa believes it's classic California girls who may now be discriminated against. "They're looking for more exotic girls now," she says. Though Anansa—who uses only her first name professionally—would appear to fill that bill perfectly, she stills plans on earning a law degree. "Just in case my modeling career doesn't work out," she says, "I can always fall back on being a judge."
LOIS ARMSTRONG in Los Angeles
- Lois Armstrong.
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