Bethann Hardison on Winning Over the Battle of Versailles Crowd

Bethann Hardison.
Bethann Hardison. Photo: Benjamin Lozovsky/ NYC

Bethann Hardison, the longtime model agent and founder of the Diversity Council, was one of the models in the American portion of 1973’s Battle of Versailles fashion spectacular. More than 40 years later, she recalls that historic night for the Cut.

We all went over with great intentions, but as it started to get closer, people started getting beaten down. [They thought] it made no sense for them to be going, because it made no sense for them to compete with the French. How could they, design-wise? But it was already a done deal. It was happening. Everybody was onboard.

But when those programs went up in the air, it didn’t happen for [the French designers]. It happened when I came down the runway. It happened for us.

We came out clean, and it was rustic and raw. The French thought we were going to be like The Ed Sullivan Show. They had come to compete and outdo what we were going to do. And in the end, we were much more simple, much more Zen. So it was very surprising to them, but also, they learned a lot. Because they’d never seen models walk [in time] to music. There was a whole spirit, the way the girls sashayed, the colors, the way one designer flowed in and out of the other. It was a very cohesive production. It was like a small, tiny musical.

During the rehearsals, I couldn’t nail it. I couldn’t nail the feeling. And Halston kept saying to me, “Come on, Bethann. We need you now, come on.” And they knew I was a really well-known walker. That yellow dress and the fact that it was Stephen’s homage to couture and that I had gotten there — it was just that moment. It was like being a child again. I was defying them.

Every step I took, I was talking to that audience. I was very aware of them. It was a fierceness because I was talking to them, I was defying them. It was an intention; it was like acting. My modeling — because I had been a child tap dancer — was much more stage-driven. When I stopped and decided to throw down the train, I stared at the audience for so long that they then started to stamp their feet. And the longer they stamped their feet, they started to scream, “Bravo, bravo!” And then their programs — like Indianapolis — started going up in the air and that’s when you knew. You could see Halston and Liza running down the side of the stage, and they were screaming, “Stephen, come here!” And then all of a sudden you saw Oscar [de la Renta], and everyone was holding hands. And that to me was the most significant moment, after everybody not feeling together and not feeling equal, to watch them all bracing themselves together, oh my God. That moment for me, it just told me so much. You know, every time I tell that story I get emotional, because it was such an extraordinary moment. I knew I nailed it.

For all that said, we got back on the plane, and there was a Women’s Wear Daily photographer taking pictures of us as we got off the plane. But at the end of the day, that was it. We went on with our lives.

A ’70s Supermodel on Winning Over the French