04.06.12

Beverly Johnson’s Eureka Moment Triggers Reality Show on Oprah Network

The pioneering supermodel parlays a penchant for talk, an Oprah connection, and a troubled relationship with her daughter into a hit reality show for OWN—and says she’s bullish on the struggling network’s future.

More than 30 years ago, before Beverly Johnson landed the reality show, Beverly’s Full House, on the Oprah Winfrey Network, she and the talk-show icon wandered the streets of Manhattan interviewing random people and snapping photos with Johnson’s slew of star-struck fans.

This was the late 1970s and Johnson—now 60—was one of the world’s most celebrated supermodels while Winfrey was a virtually unknown talk- show host building her audience seat by seat in Baltimore. On the surface, the two women appeared to have little in common.

“My agent told me one day that this reporter wanted to interview me for her show,’’ Johnson remembers over dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “ He told me her name, and I was like, of course I want to talk to her. I wasn’t familiar with her but I was game to do it.’’

Johnson laughs as she recalls how she and the future queen of daytime television darted around the Big Apple for hours one day, laughing, talking, and ‘she-bonding.’

Oprah and I pretty much connected immediately,’’ says Johnson. “Just as women in the world, with all that entails. It was clear to me even back then I could see the star power she had. She was so sincere during our interview and picked up on every little thing and every word. Nothing got by her. She had a passion and drive that made it clear she was going to make it big.’’

A solid friendship with Winfrey was formed that day, leading to Johnson’s tie with John Travolta for the guest with the most appearances on the Oprah Winfrey Show by the time it ended last year. “I tried to beat him, (Travolta) but we ended up with 12 times each.

It was during one of those visits to Chicago that Winfrey shared with Johnson her plans for a new network called OWN.

“She mentioned her network and I’d done some television and really wanted to do more from behind the scenes,’’ said Johnson. “So that had me thinking about ideas and of course I told her I had a few.’’

In between Johnson’s love of golf and paid contract as the face of a successful hair company (she now owns her own), the first black model to grace the cover of American Vogue jotted down television idea after idea to share with her dear friend.

Confident her pal’s network would have some measure of elegance and reserve that many others lacked, Johnson wasted no time getting in touch with Winfrey’s staff to pitch a host of scripted and reality shows.

“When I actually pitched the ideas to her people, I had my little reality show in between the other ideas at the bottom,’’ Johnson says with a laugh. “I love reality shows, and watch all the housewife shows because my daughter insisted. I wasn’t quite sure that’s I where I needed to start, though.’’

Winfrey and others felt otherwise. Johnson’s full disclosure to Winfrey and her staff of her daughter Anansa’s plans to move into Johnson’s Palm Spring’s home with her husband and new baby caused all at OWN to have a eureka moment.

“They knew immediately that was the show for me and I did too on some level,’’ said Johnson. “But I was hesitant. Not sure why given my brothers and sisters always complain I talk too much. The last time I was on Oprah, my brother called afterwards and said, ‘Can you keep anything to yourself?’ ’’

Johnson’s relationship with her daughter and only child has long been plagued by the reality that the supermodel lost custody of Anansa to her ex-husband some 20 years ago. Johnson refers to the moment as the Kramer vs. Kramer years—a nod to the 1980s movie that starred Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep as a divorced couple fighting for custody of their only child. In the film the mother lost custody because of her long work hours.

“It was kind of the same situation given how hectic my life was back then with modeling,’’ says Johnson. “Losing custody was the worst time of my life and the worst thing to happen to me in my life. It’s still hard thinking about it.’’

Airing on Saturday nights, Beverly’s Full House chronicles the mother and daughter living together and realizing aspects of one another they never thought they would or could see.  One episode even features Anansa asking her famous mother for a contract before moving in.

“Moving in with my mom was a huge deal for me at this age,’’ says Anansa Sims Perry, who is 28. “I know how overly protective my mother can be. I needed something written that talked about boundaries. She would still give me a curfew if she could.’’

Beverly’s Full House debuted to high ratings last week, behind the network’s only other breakout hit, Welcome to Sweetie Pies.

Both shows are the first African-American-oriented series to appear on OWN and both appear to be refreshing additions to the OWN lineup after months of low ratings, cancellations, and major criticism of Winfrey’s helming of the network.

“The last time I was on Oprah, my brother called afterwards and said, ‘Can you keep anything to yourself?’”

“I think Oprah didn’t want to do the type of stereotypical programming that so many networks do without thought, particularly about people of color,’’ said Fred Mwangaguhunga, editor of the popular website MediaTakeout.com. “I think it was important for her to wait to find the right programming and not feed those stereotypes. That took time.’’

Winfrey’s brainchild debuted in 2011 with strong viewership, but lost a chunk of its audience as the year continued. Some attributed the low ratings to the network’s somewhat awkward programming choices (Ryan and Tatum O’Neal and Sarah Ferguson all had reality shows) and lack of diversity. Heads began to roll shortly after the network began, and continue to this day—comedian Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show received the ax just last month.

This week, Winfrey decided to go on the offensive and freely admitted that many mistakes were made in the launch of network. “Had I known it was this difficult, I might have done something else,’’ Winfrey told her bff, Gayle King, on CBS This Morning.

Close friends of the talk icon say they’ve never seen Winfrey as depressed as she’s been over the public failure of this project. Even the disappointing ticket sales of her 1998 film, Beloved, didn’t hit as hard, say some who know her.

“Her film Beloved flopped and that depressed her tremendously and for a while,’’ said a close friend. “It took a long time for her to get over that—but she did. But this network not doing well has been worse for her in many ways. The movie flops and goes away. People forget that. But the network’s low ratings is a weekly reminder of something you’re not doing right.’’

The friend added that he and others encouraged Winfrey to wait before entering the network-ownership business. “I told her to take some time off and go around the world or take a long nap. Take a breath and refresh your mind. But today is about staying in front of the camera at all times. No one can just go away like (Johnny) Carson did.’’

Johnson, for one, says she’s not worried about the network’s future, the longevity of her new show, nor the many trials her good friend is currently facing in the business world.

“I actually think this is great for her. This is a growing period for both of us,’’ says Johnson. “You can’t grow if you don’t step out of that comfort zone and face the real world of something different. It can be pretty scary and you may face some setbacks and failures like now—but who doesn’t? But that’s how you grow and branch out into what your next purpose is. That’s the only way.’’