These days, a diverse, 40-shade foundation range is the standard for beauty brands — but Rihanna shouldn’t get all the credit. A big part of that goes to Veronica Webb, the boundary-breaking model who set the stage for inclusivity in the industry when she became the first black spokesperson for a cosmetics brand in 1990. Webb took a career-defining turn as the face of Revlon and pivoted into beauty blogging at age 54 with her site WebbOnTheFly.com — but not before she managed to charm Azzedine Alaia as his official muse. Obviously, “iconic” doesn’t even begin to cover Webb’s influence.
Even though much of the (gorgeous) former model’s career has focused on the superficial — fashion, beauty — don’t let that fool you. Webb has substance in spades. Read on to discover her unexpected approach to mental wellness, her inside insight into why the beauty industry is finally catering to women of color, and the self care practice she considers a nécessité.
Where were you born and raised?
How were you discovered as a model, and how old were you?
I was a college freshman working as a cashier in a swanky home accessories boutique in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, when a famous hairdresser and makeup artist I was waiting on while they were shopping encouraged me to try modeling. I crossed my fingers, got up my courage, and went to see agencies a week later. The stars aligned and my career took off — next thing I knew, I had made my way to Paris. I was flat broke and couldn’t speak the language, but the City of Light welcomed me, and I was one of the lucky ones who made it to the top. It was a lot of hard work to transform into a professional model — you have to have the stamina and muscle tone of a pro athlete, and learn how to be a businessperson. There were as many tears and disappointments and there were good times and triumphs.
Self-Care is a nécessité. What is your self-care regime?
Great beauty comes from great health. I have to workout a minimum of three times a week, for my mental health first and foremost. How you handle challenges and frustration in the gym mirrors the way you handle obstacles at work. Personally, I learn a lot about problem solving through working out.
You’re an avid fitness lover — have you always been like this? If not, what is your motivation that keeps you dedicated to working out and eating healthy?
The demands of modeling put me on a serious fitness track. Having kids and the changes my body went through after two difficult pregnancies and C-sections made me cherish my health more than ever. I expect to live a long, healthy, and active life — my retirement plan is to become a fitness instructor in my 70s, 80s and 90s. I mean, I think it’s really simple to motivate yourself with one basic question:
“Don’t you always want to feel strong and healthy and live as long and as pain-free as possible?”
If your daughters (Molly, 14 and Leila, 16) wanted to be supermodels, what would be your advice to them?
I think being a professional is the opposite of being a kid, and childhood is so very short — I would never want my girls to miss a moment of it. As a mother, I’m just not comfortable with a young teenager being sexy for the camera. My mother never wanted me to model, and she stopped me from doing it until I was 19. The day I left school, my parents cut me off financially and told me to get a 401k for my retirement and learn how to take of my business. Tough love, but it paid off, and I would do the same for my girls.
The lovely and talented and deeply missed Azzedine Alaia was like a father to you. You were his muse, and you had a very close relationship with him. What was it like to be the must of one of the best designers in the world — did you realize what an opportunity it was at the time?
Azzedine and his partner Christophe Von Weyhe were my everything. They are like parents to me. I love the craft of fashion — my mother made all my clothes as a child — so to me, patternmaking, fittings, cooking, and storytelling are what family life is all about. Azzedine, besides being a paterfamilia, was at the nexus of the fashion world. I met some of the greatest talents of our time through him. Azzedine dressed them all, and he dressed me, too. Heads turn whenever you walk into a room wearing Azzedine! He gave me a father’s love and taught me how to use fashion to control and conquer any situation.
What are some of your favorite Alaia pieces that you’ll never give up?
There are so many — I have sweaters I’ve been wearing for 30 years now from Alaia. My husband gave me a white shearling jacket which was one of Azzedine’s favorite pieces from his final collection before he passed away in 2017.
Do you think the beauty industry today is addressing the needs of women of all skin tones?
Things are changing, that’s for sure. In 1990, when I became the first black model to get a cosmetics contract with Revlon, it was the first time that a brand with mass distribution made a formula specifically for women with dark skin. The current beauty landscape has changed so much, it’s literally unrecognizable from then til now.
What one product or brand do you think does a good job of addressing all skin tones?
Why do you think it took so long for the beauty industry to recognize the full spectrum of skin tones?
It’s all numbers when it comes to business. When the census reports started showing that America’s consumers were increasingly people of color, that turned the tide in the consumers’ favor.
Walk us through the feeling of being the first WOC to land a major beauty contract.
Honestly, I was as much apprehensive as I was elated. I was so afraid to fail, or for the product to fail; I was scared that no other models of color would ever have the chance at the fame and financial rewards, or that black women wouldn’t have access to quality, affordable products made specifically for their skin tones. I was elated because after a decade in the business, I had won the penultimate prize: an exclusive contract. Best of all, every other mass cosmetics company within two years followed suit and signed black spokesmodels. My kids have grown up in a world where race, size, and sexual orientation do not limit the definition beauty in advertising cosmetics. In some small way, I’d like to think I was part of helping to create that change.
How did you get your foot in the door, to eventually make your mark in the beauty industry?
With the help of all the photographers, designers, and magazines who took a chance on me and published my pictures. Every designer who booked me for a fashion show and said, “This is the kind of beauty that sells” — that’s how I made my way to the top of the business.
What does it take to build a beauty brand from the ground up in today’s market?
As someone who writes about beauty for my blog WebbOnTheFly.com, from a product standpoint, people want effective products with simple ingredients a beautiful package and a great story.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
Everyone you meet is going to say “No” to you. Would you expect to walk into a bank and just be handed money? To me, I look at every casting call like l’m going into a bank to ask for a multi-million dollar loan — everything has to be in order before you apply. If I know I’ve dotted all of the i’s and crossed all the t’s, then I take the rejection less personally.
What’s been the biggest surprise or highlight of your career to date?
That at 54, I’m still working and enjoying what I do.
Where does your passion and drive come from?
Sharing ways to use fashion and beauty to build confidence and empowering people to pursue their dream life.
What are the common challenges you’ve seen amongst models today?
Managing money in this feast or famine industry. Planning a financial future.
When you hit a roadblock in your career, how do you find a new way to move forward?
That happens all the time! I sit down and make a list of my skills so I can sharpen the ones I have or figure out how to use my skills in a different way.
That’s how I started my blog WebbOnTheFly.com. How could I use my skills as model and writer to create a freedom-based, financially profitable lifestyle? I didn’t really have the technical skills at that time to build and run the blog, but I learned. My passion for sharing what I’ve learned about the power of fashion and beauty to enhance your life with women 40 and over pushes me to grow and be better every day.
Whose career really inspires you?
Tyra Banks! She’s such a big picture thinker!
What’s next for you in 2019? What can we expect from the VW brand?
More partnerships with great fashion and beauty brands for WebbOnTheFly.com. Next-level wellness and beauty news, and more interactive videos to bring those features to life.
Image Courtesy of @Standamerhout