Our Body Politic

Whose Vote Counts? Suspended Florida Prosecutor Worrell’s 2024 Run and Political Lawsuits

Episode Summary

From redistricting to Governors acting against the will of the people, we explore, whose vote counts? On this episode of Our Body Politic, host Farai Chideya, speaks with Elected Florida State Attorney Monique Worrell about being suspended by Governor Ron Desantis, and running for office again. Then Karen Grigsby Bates, founding member of NPR’s Code Switch Team AND Our Body Politic co-host, speaks with Michigan State Representative Donavan McKinney about suing over new state legislative maps. We round out the show with Farai speaking with fashion icon Bethann Hardison about her legendary career and her work to diversify the fashion industry.

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya [00:00:02] Hi, folks. We are so glad that you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcatcher of choice like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us and we read them for your feedback. Here's what one of you had to say about our episode “Our Nation's Enduring Public Health Emergency” from June. I love how this episode dug into the nuances of gun violence, women's health, and specifically Black people's health. The fact that Roe v. Wade is being turned over at the same time men are being encouraged to buy guns is no accident, and y'all did a great job of highlighting that overlap. I don't think the vast majority of people are making that connection. Well, you can also reach out to us on Instagram and X @OurBodyPolitic where you can also sign up for our newsletter. Just click on the link in the bio. We are here for you with you and because of you, so keep letting us know what's on your mind. Thanks for listening.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host. Farai Chideya. The 2024 presidential race is in full swing, but for this show, we're keeping our eyes on the states. We talk with elected officials in two key states about how voters are being undermined and whose vote counts. Let's start in Florida. On August 9th, 2023, Governor Ron DeSantis suspended Monique Worrell, the state attorney for the 9th Judicial Court of Florida. Here's a clip from ABC News of Desantis's announcement. 

Ron DeSantis TAPE [00:01:39] Monique Worrell's administration of criminal justice in the 9th Circuit has been clearly and fundamentally derelict so as to constitute both neglect of duty and incompetence. 

Farai Chideya [00:01:50] Worrell, who was elected in 2020. Immediately spoke out against DeSantis actions, calling the suspension a loss of democracy. She continues to fight against her suspension and is working towards reelection in 2024, and she joins us here now. Monique, thanks for being here. 

Monique Worrell [00:02:07] Thank you for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:02:09] So you were elected into office in 2020 with more than 66% of the votes, more than two thirds, which is more than a majority. What was your main focus in terms of you seeking this office? And when you assumed this office, what was your mission? What are you set to do. 

Monique Worrell [00:02:28] For 20 years prior to my election as state attorney? I worked as a defense attorney and a criminal law professor. And in those capacities, I became acutely aware of the injustices that exist within the criminal legal system. Prior to running for state attorney, I worked in the state Attorney's office as the director of the Conviction Integrity Unit. And there I learned that some of my worst nightmares about what was happening inside the state attorney's office as it related to wrongful conviction were actually true. I knew then that the only way to change the system was to change it from within. And that was one of the motivating factors in my running for state attorney, was to at least change the conversation because this had previously been a seat that was pretty much uncontested. One individual sat in the seat for more than 20 years and very rarely had an opponent. So I thought it was important that we had conversations that people would be challenged by. We needed to talk about mass incarceration. We needed to talk about police abuse of authority and brutality on the Black and Brown community. We needed to talk about incarceration of children. And even if I wasn't elected, it was important that the public and the people who were running ultimately were exposed to those conversations. 

Farai Chideya [00:03:52] So one of the things that strikes me is that you ran on a criminal justice reform platform in a state where obviously Governor Ron DeSantis is looking to make his name on battling what he calls a woke agenda. How did you win after you had an incumbent who had been in, you know, for two decades? And I'm not sure if you were running against that incumbent or against a different challenger, but how did you win in Florida today? 

Monique Worrell [00:04:22] So to be clear, there were two state attorneys in between myself and that incumbent who sat in that seat for so long. The one who beat him was someone who was in his office, most notably known for the Casey Anthony trial. He was the prosecutor who tried the Casey Anthony trial. My predecessor, Aramis Ayala, the first Black state attorney in the entire state of Florida in 2016. That's important because it was 2016 before Florida elected a Black state attorney decided that she wouldn't run again. So to your question, how did I win? I won because unbeknownst to. Me. When I entered the race, George Floyd would be murdered that summer. And because I had always been an advocate against police brutality, I knew exactly how to respond in that moment. It was the way that I had always responded. We took to the streets and we marched and we protested and we spoke about the injustices of police brutality in the Black community. And that was a place that was completely unfamiliar to the individuals who were my opponents at that time. And it was that situation that gave rise to me, taking the seat as the front runner in that election, because I was able to relate to the people and communicate with the people in a way that those individuals were not. And I became the people's prosecutor. 

Farai Chideya [00:05:52] Many elections at every level are decided by very narrow margins, and 66% is what could be considered a landslide. What did it feel like when you heard that you were being removed from duly elected office? 

Monique Worrell [00:06:08] So it's something that I've been preparing for since the removal of Andrew Warren the August prior to my removal. And I'd been preparing for it because in Andrew Warren's removal hearing evidence came out that they were also looking at my removal. But at that time, they didn't have an articulable basis for it. What would follow, though, were very targeted attacks on my office and lots of public records request lots of false media reports that made it clear that they were targeting me. So although I had been preparing for it, I don't think there was anything that ever prepared me for the actual moment. When I received first a phone call from one of my deputy chiefs asking me if I was okay. And I hadn't known anything about the removal at that point in time. So I said, Yes, I'm okay, I'm a little tired. But that's not unusual. I'm on my way into the office. And then immediately after finishing that statement, getting a call from my chief investigator in a very robotic tone, reading me a notification, advising me of my suspension, I was told not to come into the office. So I immediately turned around and went back home. I called my husband and I said, It's happened. I've been suspended. And then I came home and started making all the phone calls that were necessary at that time. But the feeling in the pit of my stomach, I don't think I'll ever forget the fact that this actually happened was surreal. 

Farai Chideya [00:07:43] So let's back up a little bit. You mentioned Andrew Warren, Hillsborough County state attorney, until he was removed from office for neglect of duty before you were removed from office. What are the allegations in both of your cases around neglect of duty? And how do you think they shake out in terms of what is required of government due diligence? You know, obviously politicians can be neglectful of duty. I might argue that a certain former president is now being put on trial for many different forms of dereliction of duty. But how do you make sense of what was alleged about you and how do you also make sense of what you consider your successes? 

Monique Worrell [00:08:30] Yeah, So let's be clear. There is no sense you can't make sense out of nonsense. These were political hit jobs. These were instances that the governor used to be a feather in his cap for his presidential campaign. He wanted to be able to stand on that debate stage and tout himself as a law and order presidential candidate and use us as, you know, political gamesmanship to say, look, I removed two elected state attorneys in the state of Florida, and instead of the country being horrified at the incredible attack on democracy that that presents, I actually heard an audience that cheered as though that was some sort of thing to be celebrated. And the reality here is this. Listen, more than 395,000 people voted for me. That means that this governor came into Orange and Osceola Counties and said to the 395,000 people who cast their vote for me that their votes don't matter. Neglect and dereliction of duty is something that has been designed by the Constitution for individuals who stop showing up to work, for individuals who engage in criminal activity, for individuals who are drunk or addicted, not for people who the governor disagrees with. And that is essentially what is taking place here. He has put a target on the back of elected Democrats throughout the state, and he has really. Moving us one by one. And the country should be alarmed because this is one of the greatest attacks on democracy that we have ever seen. The political hate mongering that is coming right out of the state of Florida. Look at the convictions in the January 6 insurrection. Many of those people came from Florida. Look at the hate related shooting that took place in Jacksonville. That's happening here in the state of Florida. And it's because of the governor and the hateful rhetoric that he is spewing. And he's getting credit for being some sort of hero when what he is is a tyrant. 

Farai Chideya [00:10:36] His presidential campaign is not doing well. In some ways, it seems as if this political theater is not working. But what are your areas of recourse now that you have been removed? You are running for reelection, but is there an appeals process? How does this work? 

Monique Worrell [00:10:54] So I want to say to your earlier point about Ron DeSantis failing in the polls currently behind Trump. The important thing to understand is that if by chance the justice system actually works, and when I say actually works, I mean typically the way the system is supposed to work is that it's equal justice under the law. But as a criminal and social justice reform advocate for my entire 23 year career, I know that for Black and brown people, it works. And they get convicted and they get incarcerated. And for rich and privileged white men, mostly they don't. So if the system works the way it's supposed to, I think that Ron DeSantis is banking on the fact that former President Trump will be incarcerated and he, by default, will win the Republican nomination and perhaps ascend to the presidency. We should all be very concerned about that. That's not something for us to take lightly, because the tyranny that he is raging upon the state of Florida will then happen throughout the entire country. However, to your question about what is my recourse in the coming days, we'll be filing a lawsuit against the governor based on the grounds that he didn't state any grounds that the Constitution identifies as a reason to remove an elected official, that he's violating separation of powers as the governor. He doesn't have the authority to just whimsically remove an Article five officer and that he has gone too far, that this is an attack on democracy, that he is disenfranchising the voters of the 9th Judicial Circuit. We'll hope that again, the system works the way it's supposed to. But of course, we have questions about that because we have a legislature who is conceding to the will of dictator DeSantis. And we have a lot of judges throughout the state who've been appointed by him. So it certainly raises concerns as to whether or not we can get justice in Florida. 

Farai Chideya [00:13:09] Monique, you have previously called Governor DeSantis a weak dictator. And Governor DeSantis was supported by the police union, which said that you're soft on crime. So how do you respond to that? 

Monique Worrell [00:13:21] Well, the police union's problem with me isn't that I'm soft on crime. The police union's problem with me is that I prosecute law enforcement officers who commit crime. It sounds very theatrical for me to say that. But if we look back to the case of the murder of George Floyd by defendant Derek Chauvin, that would have been swept under the rug. But for a bystander who had a cell phone video, we saw it in action. We saw them coming forward and saying, oh, he was on drugs, though. He was resisting. We saw that happening. And this is something that happens throughout this country every single day in the age of body camera. They cannot help themselves and they continue to act in ways that they've always done. But no one has ever said anything about it. And in my office, we did, we continue to say something about it. And when they didn't handle it, we handled it and we brought charges where charges were appropriate. But let me be also clear. We did not bring charges where charges were not appropriate. One of the things that I'm often accused of is she hates cops and she's just out to get cops. There were several situations where the community wanted me to bring charges against law enforcement that the facts did not support the law, did not support. And I declined to bring those charges, much to the chagrin of the community who elected me to do just that. They protested against me because they wanted charges brought, but because I did not have a case that was in alignment with the law, because I could not prove those cases beyond a reasonable doubt, I did not bring charges in those cases. 

Farai Chideya [00:15:05] On a broader level, what do you think needs to happen in the criminal justice system where you do have a number of different vectors of tension and sometimes animosity between citizens, elected officials and police officers?

Monique Worrell [00:15:23]  So what has happened is that they have begun a culture war and you have people saying Black lives matter versus blue lives matter. We back the blue. One of the things that the governor said in my suspension is we support our law enforcement. I do support law enforcement. I support law enforcement officers who protect and serve, who uphold their oath, who do their jobs, and they do it respectably. I don't support law enforcement officers who commit crime. I don't support people who commit crime. And when law enforcement falls into that category, then they are among those people who have to be held accountable in the same way others are. So what has to happen? We have to stop the culture war. We have to say both are true and both are possible. We do not have to give up one for the other. Black Lives Matter and law enforcement matters. Black lives are to be respected and law enforcement is to be respected. We will hold Black people accountable and other people in our community accountable at the same rate that we hold law enforcement accountable. Everyone gets held accountable when they break the law. And we don't have to choose one or the other. And we call law enforcement out and we hold them to a high standard because we cannot entrust the lawless to enforce the law. 

Farai Chideya [00:16:56] As we wrap up, what is something that someone said to you since you have been going through this that sticks with you, that maybe gives you heart in these challenging times? 

Monique Worrell [00:17:06] I had the opportunity to attend the campaign kickoff for my dear friend, Representatives Anna Eskamani. And sometimes going to these political events is concerning for me because I don't know how I'll be received. But the amount of people who told me thank you for standing up. Thank you for fighting for our democracy. Thank you for speaking for the people. These are the things that stick with me. Prior to running for state attorney, I was a C-suite executive in a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform. I didn't need to run for state attorney, but my belief in justice, my belief in this system, my belief that we can have a better place for our children, for our community. That is why I ran. That's why I'm running again. And that's why I'm fighting. The fight is for the community. The fight is not for Monique. 

Farai Chideya [00:18:07] Monique Worrell, elected state attorney of the 9th Judicial Circuit of Florida. Thank you for joining us today. 

Monique Worrell [00:18:13] Thank you so much for having me. 

Farai Chideya [00:18:15] We reached out to the DeSantis administration, the Fraternal Order of Police, Orlando Lodge Number 25 and the Orange County Sheriff's Office for comment. The president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Orlando Lodge Number 25, wrote in an email that Worrell’s statements about law enforcement and the unions are, quote, completely false and without merit, end quote. He also wrote that Worrell's, quote, soft on crime policies have had a negative impact on the safety of the community and our officers end quote. The public information office of the Orange County Sheriff's Office wrote in an email that the quote unquote, repeated accusation of the sheriff colluding with the governor's office to have Monique Worrell removed is simply not true. You can read their full statements on our website and our social media. The DeSantis administration did not respond to our request for comment before publication. We'll update you once they respond.

As we head into the 2024 election cycle. Several states are in court over their congressional or state legislative maps with allegations that those maps disenfranchise voters of color. Karen Grigsby Bates, founding member of NPR's Code Switch team and Our Body Politic co-host, joined us to break down how this is playing out in Michigan. Take it away, Karen. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:19:37] In 2022, Michigan adopted new legislative maps, the first to be drawn by an independent redistricting commission. However, a lawsuit filed by a group of Black Michigan voters accuses the commission of diluting Black voting power in the city of Detroit. Joining me now is Michigan State House Representative Donavan McKinney, who represents parts of Detroit and nearby Macomb County in the 14th District. Representative McKinney's district is one of several named in the lawsuit. Welcome, Representative McKinney. 

Donavan McKinney [00:20:08] Thank you, Karen. Glad to be here. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:20:10] We're happy to have you. You are now in your first term and you actually won your seat under these new maps. So what's your take on the accusations in this lawsuit? 

Donavan McKinney [00:20:21] It's pros and cons to both. The pro is… first time in 40 years with the Independent Redistricting Commission. They drew fairer maps. So we have five independents on the commission, four Democrats and four Republicans. And they have the tough job of redrawing these districts. And so, you know, they had to take into consideration community interests and a whole plethora of things. And, you know, I really think they did a good job, so to speak, because they led to a Democratic majority, one seat majority in a House and Senate. First time in 40 years with a Democratic governor, which is amazing. But at the same time, it hindered representation in terms of Black representation in totality as well as representation out of Detroit. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:21:07] So it sounds like you support drawing new maps. What do you think that could mean for your district in particular? 

Donavan McKinney [00:21:15] I support drawing new maps because if you look at the total representation out of Detroit last year, we had, I believe, 15 districts in the House and Senate that represented some portion of Detroit. And now with the redistricting that happened, they split Detroit even more. We no longer have any district that solely represents the city of Detroit on a state level or the congressional level. And so that hinder representation out of Detroit. So if you look at the sheer numbers, that definitely hurt representation of my district in particular. I love it. You know, I get to represent both sides of the Eight Mile . I represent Eminem’s old trailer park where he grew up at, and I represent the Eight Mile  border where the 8 Mile movie comes from. Historically it's been an area to represent segregation. But in reality, in the era of 2023, in the day we live in today, it's not necessarily no longer a border, in my view. I mean, people are at play live and they travel both sides of Eight Mile on a consistent basis. And we have family members and I think we we can gravitate towards very similar issues, whether it's around economics. It's a strong industrial community. It's a it's a strong working class, blue collar community. And in my district of Warren Centerline in Macomb County, southern Macomb County, as well as Northeast Detroit, I think there's a lot more things in common than there are differences. So my district makes sense. But in reality, Karen, I'm tell you, there are some districts that do not belong together. Like, I have to call out one of my colleagues, Natalie Price, amazing individual, but she represents the House District five and incorporates, I think the most northern part of her district is Birmingham, the city of Birmingham in Oakland County, which is one of the wealthiest counties, not only in the state but in the country and one of the wealthiest cities, and also has parts of Detroit. With that respect, it doesn't make as much sense to put Birmingham with that portion of Detroit. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:23:28] But it should make the council meetings really interesting. 

Donavan McKinney [00:23:30] Oh, yeah. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:23:31] So what's interesting about this case is that these new maps were drawn, as you said, by an independent commission, as opposed to in previous years when they were kind of divvied up by politicos, basically. Most groups support independent commissions as a more accountable alternative. But in your case, it went kind of left a little bit. Can you give us your analysis of what you think, what happened there? 

Donavan McKinney [00:24:00] I believe what they did was look at the general election turnout instead of the primary turnout. And if you look at the metro Detroit districts, the whoever wins the primary, because it's heavily Democratic districts, no matter how you draw them, whoever wins the primary is going to represent you on the Democratic side and represent you and probably win the November general election. So your primary is your general election in most cases in the metro Detroit districts. And so I believe what they did was look at the numbers in totality when it came to the general election, not necessarily look at the primary election results because certain people vote in the primary. And if you look at it, people of color, people that look like me from Detroit, Maryland, necessarily come out in numbers in the primary, but they will in a general. And so, you know, it's it's a harder choice once you get to the general election because you might not get to pick the person that you want that's from your community. They may have may look like you. And that's really the issue in my view. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:25:07] So, Representative McKinney, Michigan is a state where Democrats hold the political trifecta, where they control all branches of government for the first time in more than 40 years, as you noted. Now, as a group of Black Michigan voters go to court hoping to redraw state legislative maps. Do you worry that the new maps might jeopardize all that progress? 

Donavan McKinney [00:25:30] Not necessarily. If you look at the process that happened last year with the redistricting commission, we had some of our unions put together fairer maps without breaking Detroit up so much. So, you know, there's there's a possibility to draw more fair math because historically, Michigan has been a blue state when it comes to gubernatorial elections. But we'll get the most vote out statewide. If you look at the total numbers. But for some reason, you know, especially in the 2010 era and all the way to 2020, the Republicans will hold the trifecta, if you like. What why why does this how does this make sense? You know, like we get the vote out and then on top of that, it doesn't reflect in terms of the legislature and the makeup of the body. But like now, we have to protect not only communities of interest, but, you know, people of color and having, you know, people of color in those electeds having the ability to represent people in our communities. And so I think we need to do a deeper dive if they do change the districts up. You know, I wouldn't be surprised. I'll be supportive. But there's a way where we can keep, you know, keep it fair in terms of the partisan divide, but also keep it fair when it comes to, you know, Black and brown representation as well. And I'll tell you the truth, care, my district allowed me to be one of the first Blacks ever to represent Macomb County. It really puts us in a room together and it forces us to come together as a region, as a metro Detroit region, instead of out of. You heard the term Detroit versus everybody. But it's no longer, in my view, Detroit versus everybody or the suburbs versus Detroit. We all need to come together as one region because if we don't work together, we're going to continuously be left by the wayside and continuously be a forgotten communities. And I think because of the redistricting, it forces us to come together. I'm in rooms now, Karen, with a macomb County executive, Macomb County Commissioners, and and even Oakland County and people who represent the suburbs. And we're having this dialog and we're learning from each other, which is amazing. I have never seen this ever. And so it's some good things that come out of these districts. But it really did paint Black people and it paint Detroiters into a corner because, you know, they aren't able to pick who they actually want from their communities because there's no way. just based off the sheer districts and the way they're shaped, there's no way for them to win. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:28:16] So there's no trial date set in this case yet. Yet. But I'm wondering whether you expect this to be resolved in time for the 2024 race, which, as you said, you know, a few if certain counties win there, then that's a pretty good indicator of what the presidential race is going to look like or what the presidential what the outcome of the presidential race is going to look like. So how might this affect the 2024 election. 

Donavan McKinney [00:28:48] If they do change the districts, if the course do decide and they tell the Independent redistricting commission, hey, go back at it, give it another try. I would be personally hurt in terms of like my district changing, but I understand why they need to. And if it does change for the 2024 election, we're going to have to educate really deeply on it because people are already confused of the new districts. A lot of folks still don't even know what district they live in because of the redistricting process, and that's normal. But now if we change that again, we're going to have to do some serious education on people and in our communities again. Yeah, again.

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:29:31] This could go on for a while and the fight could escalate. Do you see this maybe going to higher courts after this? Could this get to the Supreme Court eventually? And what kind of effect might that have on redistricting, not just in the Detroit area, not just in the state of Michigan, but for the rest of the country. 

Donavan McKinney [00:29:53] If it does end up at the Supreme Court, I don't see it going to take effect in 2024. I think if they do end up changing the districts, it might have to get pushed back to 2026 election cycle or even in 2028. And by that time, you know, I think people are going to get used to the new districts. And so, you know, we're going to have to like, like I said before, educate and let people know what's really going on. But just so you know, I'm the only Democrat in the Michigan House on the floor that sits on the Republican side of the aisle. I represent that one seat majority. And so it's like a whole court with a lot of my Republican colleagues, a lot they tell me all the time how pissed off they are that they, you know, don't have any say. First time in 40 years, they have no say in state government and how is operating. And so they want the majority back. They're going to fight tooth and nail to try to get it back. And so I know they want the district to change because no matter what happens and no matter how many people come out to vote, it's going to be competitive because of the way the districts are shaped statewide. It's going to be a fight. 

Karen Grigsby Bates [00:31:04] We have been talking with Michigan State House Representative Donavan McKinney about redistricting. Thank you for joining us today. This was really valuable and interesting. And we'll be watching. 

Donavan McKinney [00:31:14] I just appreciate being on Karen. 

Farai Chideya [00:31:17] And our thanks to Our Body Politic co-host, Karen Grigsby Bates.


Farai Chideya [00:31:38] Welcome back to Our Body Politic. I'm Farai Chideya. With so much heaviness in politics, we are switching it up for the rest of the show and turning to joy… in fashion. Before there was Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, there was Bethann Hardison. 

FILM CLIP [00:31:55] She's the godmother of fashion. 

When I started, I was the first Black, Black looking model on Seventh Avenue. 

There was no people who looked like me. I knew the difference. Segregation from childhood. These people thought that we were less. I let them know we are here. 

Farai Chideya [00:32:14] That's a scene from the new documentary Invisible Beauty, which looks back at Bethann Hardison’s groundbreaking career in fashion. Since the 1973 Battle of Recife fashion show, a legendary showdown between European and American designers. Bethann Hardison has been at the center of diversifying the fashion industry at every step. Bethann, welcome to Our Body Politic. 

Bethann Hardison [00:32:38] I thank you so much for having me on. 

Farai Chideya [00:32:40] So I first have to start with a little personal story. I was at an event and everybody was dancing, and I don't know how long ago this was probably 20 years ago. But you had the flyest moves on the floor. You just broke it down. You were like a take no prisoners dance floor queen. And I was like, Who is this woman? I mean, I knew who you were, but who is she? In her forcefulness… you just bring energy. And that same is true in the documentary. Where do you get all that energy? 

Bethann Hardison [00:33:13] Oh, my goodness. I say that to myself even these days. Like, where do I get all the energy? But I think it's just a natural thing that I have. And yes, we're dancing and it's one of my most favorite things to do. And everyone clocks me for being this great dancer because I don't even need anyone on the floor. I just, I'll start the party. I'll start the wedding. I'll just go out there solo. I love to dance. Yes, that's true. 

Farai Chideya [00:33:37] That's fabulous. So congratulations on this documentary. I thought it was incredibly revealing about you as a woman, you as a mother, and you as a fashion icon and changer of industry. So early in the film, you say when you grow up in a certain place, that becomes your foundation and it can become your limitation. What were some of the foundations and limitations of how you grew up and where you grew up? Give us a little taste. 

Bethann Hardison [00:34:05] I grew up in Brooklyn and Bedford-Stuyvesant for the first 12 years of my life, and the things that was so great about my childhood is that I was a latchkey kid. My grandmother, my mother both worked, so I had freedom from the time I went to school. So I came home and until they came home. So I tend to go and get involved in many things. I don't think there was any real limitation because in hindsight I was already successful by the time I was 12. I had done so many things. You know, we used to say when when they would tell us in school that we were lower, low income bracket. We didn't even understand that because none of us felt like we were poor. And so I think growing up the way I did, it was just more… it was more encouraging. 

Farai Chideya [00:34:47] And you also spent time in North Carolina with your grandparents family. What was the difference being in these two cultures? 

Bethann Hardison [00:34:54] It was a gift. It was a true gift. You know, the idea that I could actually spend every sum of my life from 18 months old to 18 years old in rural, rural North Carolina was really wonderful in many ways. Also because North Carolina at that time was the most Jim Crow state. Everybody knew what they had to do and and towed the line. They were just a little bit more civilized about everything. But to have the juxtaposition of being and from a city to rural North Carolina where, you know, it's just a dirt road, that was so great for me to see what it was like, live that life in North Carolina, in the country with everything from outhouse to going out to get the chicken that you had to kill. I learned to tie tobacco. I learned to grade tobacco. I learned to do a lot of things. And so, you know, I feel the same way where I live now in living in Mexico, I would say you're a little bit more sensitive about who you are, opposed to who they are, and they help bring certain things to you that you don't feel so privileged. 

Farai Chideya [00:35:53] I love it. You were discovered by the streetwear pioneer Willi Smith. Tell us what happened. 

Bethann Hardison [00:36:01] It was the late sixties. Willi was an up and coming designer. He hadn't finished fashion school, so he wound up getting a job. So he was a designer of the company was the company was called Digits. And Willi had seen me in the neighborhood and he was desperate to know who is this person. He thought I was a designer. He had someone contact me. I work for a junior dress company, and they told me that Willi wanted me to come and work with him as a model, and I had no interest in modeling. I liked the idea of being in the garment industry because I knew I liked something about clothing and all. But that's how it came to pass. And I'm happy that Willi came into my life because Willi’s a very special human, you know, and this is some people who are really going to so on their he's one then I think that the idea that we truly were meant because they we we got together. But I'm really very grateful for my experience with Willi. 

Farai Chideya [00:36:53] And you mentioned that he was gone too soon. He died in 1987 and he had created, you know, WilliWear grossed over $25 million, which is no small feat for anyone. That's right. Let alone for a Black man. Yeah. What was your relationship like? You were his muse. 

Bethann Hardison [00:37:11] Oh, this is, like, interesting. When we first started, he wanted me to do appointments. If he needed a model to show the club. At some point, I lost the job that I had when he first met me. So they said, Well, don't worry, just come in as my assistant. So then I started going to the showroom and maybe trying things on. Then I started open up his mail. A lot of people asked for his autograph. I did just the most anything that just he wanted these just keep me around. So I was basically trying on clothes and doing fittings. And that went on until I had this calling that that's he wanted me to do be a model. So I went off to Europe and I wound up doing that too. And you know, we wound up doing Versailles and all these kind of things sort of happening to me as well. As my life changed, our relationship changed. And at one point I had a model agency. Then I was supplying him with models and making sure he got the right one. That was something I helped them do too. As we grew up and we got older and moved on. 

Farai Chideya [00:38:03] What was the Battle of Versailles fashion show and how did you appear in it? 

Bethann Hardison [00:38:09] The battle of Versailles was actually supposed to be a benefit where Eleanor Lambert, who was the publicity for each of these designers Halston, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, and Stephen Burrows. Her idea was to bring American designers to Paris and put on the show. The show was really basically to benefit the Marie Antoinette Theater that was in need of repair. So they came up with this idea and it was announced to the press that that was going to happen with five French designers. But what wound up happening many months down the road of this preparation while we're still in America, the French media started calling it a battle, suggesting that it was silly that American designers would be coming to France, to even think they could compete against the French. And all of a sudden the word compete came up. There was no word like that before. They weren't supposed to be competing. We were just all doing a kumbaya fashion show. But then it turned into a battle and they… they coined it the Battle of Versailles. Well, it was frightening to a lot of people who was in the press that was going to support us from America because they felt we were going to go and embarrass ourselves, which we all began to feel a little nervous. But anyway, we had no choice. Then we went and of course, we became girl, We say, I say, anyway, probably victorious. We wind up winning the whole thing. But it really was something that was magnificent for me because we wind up, of course, walking away from there, influencing at least a couple of designers. When it came down to realizing that we were much more advanced than them in how we presented our collections. We had music. Our girls were animated more, they were more freer. They saw more girls of color than they had ever seen in one show. So it was really wonderful for, you know, Mr. Givenchy and a couple of designers to see that. And he embraced a lot of the girls of color. His cabinet became girls of color. So it was really great. And when we walked away from there, we felt like, great, We had done it. It wasn't it was not an easy achievement, but we achieved it and we were recognized very well by the throwing up the program from the air. When I came down the runway, that was that first moment where we knew that that was brilliant. When they threw all the programs up in the air and everyone sort of screaming, Brava! So it was great. 

Farai Chideya [00:40:22] And it's amazing. Well, you are someone who, you know, worked the runway, worked behind the scenes as a fit model, as an assistant. And then you started bethann management in 1984. Among other distinctions, you discovered Veronica Webb, who was the first Black model to land a major cosmetics contract at Revlon. You discovered Tyson Beckford before all of that success, what made you decide that you could start a management company? 

Bethann Hardison [00:40:53] Oh God, that was one of the hardest things that I ever had to do. Yeah, it was. It was something because I was being poached. You know, there was a French agency owner. She came to me and she wanted me to help her start an agency in New York City out of Paris. And I, I decided to do it, and she was going to make me a partner. But by the time I had my accountant reach out to as I found the space and off he discovered that she wasn't going to make me a partner, that she had just intended for me just to work for her. Well, that wasn't the intention. And of course, I wasn't leaving the company that I did know respected me and, you know, felt bad that I was leaving them. I wouldn't leave them the. I work for somebody who was not advancing me. And because I had models who were waiting to come with me, I then had to step forth and do it because I had already found a space and do it on my own. I was scared to death because I didn't want to have a model agency. I was just doing it because I didn't know what else to do. And everybody kept saying, But you're so good. You should do it on your own. You need to do this. And I just was like, Oh God. But in the end, I was really something that it was meant for me to do. 

Farai Chideya [00:42:08] Yeah. And there's so much great footage of you with your incredible models, and there's this wonderful, like, kind of den mother vibe that you give off where they just admire and respect you so much. And then let's talk about Black Girls Coalition. You know, you were well entrenched at this point with your management company, and you could have certainly just kept doing that. But there was more to be done. So with supermodel Iman, you co-founded Black Girls Coalition. Tell me about that and about your 1992 press conference. 

Bethann Hardison [00:42:44] Yeah, I was just watching so many girls of color beginning to become successful. And and by being successful, that MC, which I had never happened before. So many of them started doing editorial and that hadn't happened for The Girl of Color and the magazines of Condé Nast. So these girls liked to work, and I thought, I got this idea that we should celebrate that. Then eventually I could see that there was a problem with advertisers reflecting their consumers. So we held a press conference and we brought Mark Green in, who at the time was the head of Consumer Business Affairs, and they had been doing a study on the fact of the consumer not being recognized in advertising. It was a really wonderful thing that we did because that was the beginning of us trying to go up against something that was becoming systemic, white, systemic, because you never even saw anyone like driving a car that was Black. Every thing that you saw, anybody that was holding a product, it was usually a cleaning product. So it was a Black woman, but that's it. 

Farai Chideya [00:43:48] Yeah. And that study found that only 3% of consumer magazine advertisements had Black people in them, even though Black people were 11% of the readership of the magazine. So it's not like Black people weren't putting their money down to get magazines but were not respected as consumers. It also reminds me of how in managing Tyson Beckford, he became the face of Polo Ralph Lauren, which was really unprecedented. What did that say? 

Bethann Hardison [00:44:16] So when Ralph chose to put Tyson in the red polo hoodie, which really appeared like what? You know, every young Black man has a hoodie. I think being that Ralph Lauren was like one of the, you know, top advertisers in the world. It really and in many young Black boys always wore polo. They were already, you know, so it was just something that sort of like it was a gift to the culture. I would say it was more like that. And I think that was it. Just put Tyson on the map for sure. But Ralph also knew he saw he saw what it was and how it was affecting and how was selling the image of Tyson in the product. And then I had the vision that Tyson should be not just the model, he should come in front of the brand because people were coming to see him when they went to the stores. And Ralph understood that as well. And Ralph was a great partner. Still is. 

Farai Chideya [00:45:14] So by 1996, you sold your agency. You moved to Mexico. But you are not retired. It took Naomi Campbell to persuade you to come out of retirement. So what was the conversation and what did you do then? 

Bethann Hardison [00:45:30] Well, truth, I didn't move to Mexico. I just went to Mexico. 

Farai Chideya [00:45:34] Ah I see.

Bethann Hardison [00:45:35] I was still I still had my office on North Moore Street. I just, you know, had gotten rid of my staff pretty much. I narrowed down the models because I knew I didn't want to have models anymore. And so I played some of the other places where I could, and I just needed to get out of that business. I never wanted to be in it. I never want to have my own agency. But I get sort of stuck. Once you start to be successful at something, you've got to keep going. And then it also gives you reward when you work hard and all of a sudden you get something or you find a discover kid that's really good. And so I just basically knew that at some point, I think in my 12th year I told my assistant that I needed to end and she was very supportive of that. And so I, I wound up just saying, okay, But then they wrote in The New York Times when they knew I was closing my agency about how important I was, and I was like, oh, and how what was who was going to do what? Now that I was gone, because they they felt that I kept people on their toes, so to speak. And I was feeling like, please don't make me any further responsible. I just want to just take a siesta. And but, you know, things start to change in the mid-nineties. And the fashion models of color started disappearing. And I would get calls from Naomi and she would tell me, You need to come back. And then when I did go back, Kim Hastreiter the founder of Paper magazine said it was, you know, the reason why things were going back was because of me not being there and not being around. I wasn't trying to buy that because I sound like I had to come back and save the day. I kept thinking, Oh my God, everything's on my back. But it took me a few years to settle back in and to approach the industry. I just it was timing, you know, I just had to watch what was happening. Watch what was happening. And then, of course, I. I eventually, quote unquote, blew the whistle. 

Farai Chideya [00:47:22] And so tell me about how you blew the whistle and tell me about the diversity coalition. 

Bethann Hardison [00:47:29] What I had started to do after I started getting the calls I needed to come back was 2007. I held a press conference in the Bryant Park Hotel and their screening room, and it was full. The room was full. I had some press there. I had everyone in the industry representing some area of it, whether it be model, model agency, a casting director, hair and makeup. So this was something that I just wanted to discuss with everyone that the industry was had gone into a rabbit hole and they were saying, nope, too often, I'm sorry, we're not hiring Black models this season. 

Farai Chideya [00:48:11] I'm laughing ruefully. You know, we're not hiring Black models this season. Like, that's an acceptable thing to say. 

Bethann Hardison [00:48:18] But in my industry it is. See, that's the thing. It is. You know, like I say, when we we talk definitively about someone's physicality, people now say, oh, that's that's wrong. In order to describe someone you do describe describing by the way they look, because that's the industry. You're talking about a model. So instead of, you know, someone's design is esthetic, depending on what he's designing, might not really he thinks he doesn't want a person of color. And I can understand that. I understand when you what you choose to represent you. What I couldn't understand is that it's no longer just happening, maybe two or three seasons now it's going on for years and then we know we have a problem. And so in that first press conference after I spoke on the fact that they say no Blacks, no ethnics, they've never said that ever again in the history of time. They've never repeated that. That went off the table. Didn't mean that they still wouldn't do it. They just weren't sending the message out and sending it around saying it. So, truth be told, the Black fashion model, runway model, she was successful. So we had to really make them understand that. And so what I did, but it went up and down, up and down. It was getting better, you know, But at some given point, I could see that it kept sliding back. So by 2012, I called a few people and asked them, because they're out there running around, going back and forth to Europe, they could see what's going on in the international market. They can also tell me what's happening in the national market in New York. And I needed to, you know, make it a like a coalition once again. That was like a secret society, but use them because they are working with everything and at the same time never identify who they are so that they can be free to be part of this inner sanctum. And so we did that for a while, and then I was able to see that they was going up and down, sometimes three steps forward, two. That's theft. And then I wrote letters to the international fashion community, to each council of fashion in New York, London, Milan, as well as Paris, citing all the designers that consistently at three or four seasons would use one or two or no models of color. Every season would indicate whether there's their intention or not. The result is racism. And that letter went out naming all these companies to each of the thousands of fashion. And I sent it also to the press, which was our paper newspaper, which is Women's Wear Daily. That's our trade paper. And they identified it and of course, reached out to every one of the houses of fashion that I had sent it to for a statement. So that's when it took movement. It affected so fast, and I did it right before… London was starting and Paris…Milan and Paris. So by the time the letter went out and went to the press, everybody responded very well. And they started to right away putting a Black girl in there. I mean, you know, it was funny how fast that it changed, because I knew in my heart that these designers don't want to ever think that they're being considered as racist. And that's what I didn't say that they were racist. I said, no matter what your intention is, if you continue to use no, then it is the result is racism. And and they really adhered to it very quickly. 

Farai Chideya [00:51:43] Yeah. And among other things, what you were doing was data journalism. They didn't know that you had that in your back pocket. You were you were counting and you were speaking up. So as we wrap up here, it strikes me that fashion and representation of models is one of these things that has really deep connections to all of the broader issues of self-definition, civil rights, human rights. But it could be seen as something that's just sort of icing on the cake. What I think you did, among many other things, is that you showed how the representation mattered on a large scale, and you also used your connections in fashion to do good in other ways. How do you feel now? You know, in the documentary we see you writing your memoir. How do you feel now about your choices in life and where they've taken you? 

Bethann Hardison [00:52:42] No it’s all good. Look, you know, many people when they see the story because a lot of people know me and they've known me 20, 25 years. They never knew what what they find out in the film. They never knew the whole back back story. I say that's it, the back story. So seeing it becomes sort of like, Wow. But how did you how you know? So now this makes everybody feel like they're not doing it enough. I keep saying, believe me, you're doing fine. All you have to do is just I always tell everybody, just go vote that if you do that, no, that'll just help change the day. But I think it really is something that you recognize. Once you've literally gotten through and you go through hindsight and you sort of say, Oh yeah, look at the time you're doing it, you know, it has to be done. Someone can do it who can do it. You know, you can because you respect your industry. You really do. I in order for me to do it the way I did it, I had to believe that they were working out of ignorance and not working as racist. So you take that approach, things work out a little bit better for everybody because you're not slamming them. And I think what really sort of impressed me also is to get recognized by the the Council of Fashion. That really was a nice surprise because I never thought I would get recognized by the same people who maybe you slapped the hand a little bit and yet they still say, you know, hey, you know, you did good girl, you know. So I was very impressed with that because people kept saying, Oh, you're shaming people into doing things. So I'm not shaming anything. If they and ashamed to show it, I'm not ashamed to say it. It's like the you know, the little boy with the emperor's new clothes, you know. 

Farai Chideya [00:54:21] That's right. 

Bethann Hardison [00:54:21] You're just reporting the news. And so I'm very proud of all of that. And I think, like I said, you know, you look back at it now, seeing the film has really reminded me a lot of things like making the film and then seeing the all the footage and everything put together and realizing the story you really had all along. You would have never. I know, I know. I need to write a book and I always want to do a documentary. I always like to tell stories. I always want to in my mind, I'm always been a documentarian. So I was very blessed to have Frederick, who came along and said, You know, I want to do this, but the only way I'll do it is if you if you co-direct it with me. And so it was a great experience for me, at the same time, I lived in it like I was directing it and how I would want to have that result. I couldn't stand in my way or his way too much because then we wouldn't tell… have a legitimate story told. 

Farai Chideya [00:55:15] Yeah, I mean, this this is diverting from where I was going to go. But why did you decide to move to Mexico? You know, we're thinking about doing a story on the show about all of the Black folks, particularly Black women, who've decided to just not spend most of their…yeah, most of their you know, I would I would call it retirement years. But you're not retired. But you know what I mean? But but many of their years outside of the U.S.. Why did you decide to?

Bethann Hardison [00:55:41] Well, Mexico was a calling for me. I mean, it was like I might as well be between thinking I'm Berber and thinking I'm a Mexican in some way in another lifetime. It was just a calling. I mean, you know, I my first airplane ride was to Mexico City outside of leaving New York City and my first time ever left in this country to go to another country. And the relationships that was built some kind of way, it was just a seed that was dropped into my soil that I really had to just sort of like nurture, prune, water. So in some way it was just this Mexico and you want to be in a place…

Farai Chideya [00:56:18] It's a homecoming. 

Bethann Hardison [00:56:19] Yes, It's a place that you also you want to be around people who are more cultural. And I wouldn't want to go and live in Europe. I really want to be places where people feel very you feel religious, that they they believe in a higher power. So they they moved to the earth like that. We're not talking about the Bandidos. We're talking about the general population of Mexico. And so I think for my wanting to be there was when I decided I wanted to give up my model agency and I needed to take a sabbatical, which I thought, who affords a sabbatical? But I was able to do it and I chose this place, San Miguel de Allende. But that was in 1996. So that was still kind of early compared to what's going on now. Yeah, it's a good balance and it just I like being around culture and that I've also around people who really basically have such a simplistic life that it reminds you to keep that in mind. 

Farai Chideya [00:57:14] Well, I cannot tell you how much I've enjoyed this conversation and I enjoyed the documentary so much. Beth Ann Hardison, former model agent, advocate and co-director of the documentary Invisible Beauty. Bethann, thank you for joining us. 

Bethann Hardison [00:57:31] Thank you so much, Farai. 

Farai Chideya [00:57:34] Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. We'd also like to invite you to sign up for our newsletter, where we share additional insights and resources for the OBP community. Check us out on Instagram and X @OurBodyPolitic and click the link in our bio. 

Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. 

I'm host and executive producer Farai Chideya. Nina Spensley and Shanta Covington are also executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Andrea Asuaje and Maria Ward, Natyna Bean, Morgan Givens, Emily Ho and Monica Morales Garcia are our producers. Nicole Pasulka is our fact checker. Our associate producer is David Escobar. Our technical director is Mike Garth with engineering help from Harry Evans. 

This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, The Pop Culture Collaborative, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.