Race and gender in TV and fashion

Thursday, September 21, 2017 - 6:00pm Wallis Annenberg Hall (ANN), Forum

Former model, agent, fashion activist and CFDA Founders Award winner Bethann Hardison and award-winning television writer and producer Mara Brock Akil (Being Mary Jane, Girlfriends, The Game) swap stories and perspectives on everything from gender and race to religion, activism and feminism through the lens of their careers.

This event is sponsored by the Institute for Diversity and Empowerment. Reception to follow discussion.


Bethann Hardison

Bethann Hardison, founder of the modeling and management agency that bears her name, has long been a groundbreaker in the world of fashion, as both a model and a businessperson. She has helped guide the careers of some of the most prominent models of color in recent times, and is the founder of a watchdog/charity/networking group of models called the Black Girls Coalition. In 2013, Hardison also founded the Diversity Coalition promoting diversity in the fashion industry. She has challenged and helped change common notions of beauty.

Bethann grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Upon entering New York City’s garment district in search of a job, she started in a custom button factory. She eventually became the first Black salesperson in a showroom. In the late 1960’s, a young designer named Willi Smith encountered Bethann on the street, and he immediately asked her to model for him. Bethann’s start as Smith’s fitting model soon led to runway and print work for Smith along with other designers such as Anne Klein, Oscar de la Renta, Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis, Issey Miyake and Ungaro. Along with Beverly Johnson, Iman and Pat Cleveland, Bethann became one of a handful of Black models in the early 1970s favored by top European and New York designers, appearing in fashion spreads for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and breaking new ground for Black models in the industry. Concerned with the politics of the fashion industry, Hardison changed her focus from modeling to activism in 1988. 

Since her modeling days she has worked at Stephen Burrows, Valentino couture, and Click Model Management before forming Bethann Management Co. Inc. One of Bethann Management's early successes was Veronica Webb, a teenager from Detroit who went on to work the runways of top designers. She again made fashion history by signing her client, Tyson Beckford, to an exclusive contract with designer Ralph Lauren. It was the first contract of its kind ever to be given to a Black male model. 

Bethann’s contributions in modeling and advocacy have earned her several awards throughout her career. In 1996, Hardison received the BRAGG Business Achievement Award. In April of 1999, she was honored with the First Annual Vibe Style Award. Later that year, the Magic Johnson Foundation presented Hardison with a Distinguished Service Award. The Black Alumni of the Pratt Institute honored Hardison with a 2003 Lifetime Achievement award and was named Vogue Italia editor at large in 2010. In 2011, she received a Woman of Power Legacy Award from Black Enterprise, and Jaguar’s Diversity Influence Award. In 2013, she was a Frederick Douglass award recipient, for her work in promoting diversity in fashion and then interviewed by The HistoryMakers on July 15, 2013. 

In 2014, Bethann Hardison was honored with the Council Fashion Designers of America Founders Award. 

Mara Brock Akil

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Mara Brock Akil returned to LA to pursue her passion for writing after receiving a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She was first staffed on South Central, and then went on to write for Moesha, before quickly ascending to supervising producer on The Jamie Foxx Show. It was during that time Mara developed her first original series, Girlfriends, which aired for eight seasons on UPN and the CW. She then developed the hit spin-off, The Game, which ran for three seasons on The CW before being cancelled and brought back to life on BET, where it debuted to a record-breaking 7.7 million viewers. 

Earning historic ratings in a television landscape where few other shows featuring black leads existed, cemented Mara’s industry powerhouse status. 2011 marked a pivotal stage for not only Mara, but also her husband and producing partner, Salim Akil, and their company Akil Productions. It was a banner year with the release of Jumping The Broom, followed by 2012’s remake of Sparkle.

The success of both films and the continued draw of The Game, led to an unprecedented multi-year overall deal with BET. Mara used the opportunity to create her passion project, Being Mary Jane, the first scripted drama in BET’s 30-year history. The 90-minute movie debuted to over 4 million viewers, and was immediately commissioned for a full series order. The show that Mara once thought could never be made helped launch the network’s scripted programming. After serving as showrunner for the first three seasons, Mara transitioned to series consultant. 

Named by the Hollywood Reporter as one of the top 50 Showrunners five years in a row, Mara’s profile continues to rise. Most recently she was named as one of The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment Power 100. She’s also been featured in the New York Times, honored by Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood Awards, and winner of multiple NAACP Image Awards. With the flood of media attention and a loyal fan base, Mara and Salim have set their sights on larger platforms, signing a three-year overall deal at Warner Bros. Television in 2015. Their series “Black Lightning”, which is based on one of the first African American DC Comics characters, is currently in production in Atlanta and is set to air in early 2018. The Akils will executive produce the series, while Salim serves as Showrunner. Additionally, it was recently announced that the Akils partnered with Oprah Winfrey to create “Love Is_”, a new original one-hour series for OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network. The show tells the love story of a modern-day power couple and will premiere on OWN in 2018. Mara will serve as Showrunner under their Akil Productions banner.  

As an active philanthropist and mentor, Mara dedicates much of her time to numerous charities and non-profits including: the Underground Museum in Los Angeles, the Studio Museum in Harlem, LAXArt, the Samburu Project, and the Dance Theater of Harlem. In 2014, Girls Inc. honored Mara for her work inspiring and advocating for girls everywhere. In addition to being a board member on Northwestern University’s School of Communication National Advisory Council, Mara serves on the advisory board of the Humanitas Prize and the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, West. Mara will be inducted into the Medill Hall of Achievement for the positive impact she has made in television and film, this fall (2017).

Her greatest accomplishment is raising two smart and confident sons with Salim.