A Blackwellian nightmare

On the 40th anniversary of the worst-dressed list, a writer recalls the acerbic designer -- and a beauty magazine assignment that went terribly wrong.

Published January 11, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

And now, for the announcement that has celebrities everywhere quaking in their Manolos: Mr. Blackwell's 40th annual worst-dressed women list.

For four decades now, the alliteratively acerbic designer and self-appointed arbiter of taste has gleefully chronicled each year's fashion flops and tops. This is the guy, after all, who once likened Diana Ross to "a Martian meter maid," called Elizabeth Taylor "a boutique toothpaste tube, squeezed in the middle" and dubbed Linda Tripp "a sheepdog in drag."

When Blackwell announces his latest list of fashion victims, I'll take a moment, as I have for four years now, to recall the surreal afternoon I spent with him on a beauty magazine assignment that went disastrously (though hilariously) wrong.

"Hey," my editor at Allure had said, "we think it'd be funny for you to go to L.A. and hang out in a mall with Mr. Blackwell. Get him to comment on what real people are wearing! Take a few pictures, have him toss off a few quips. It'll be fun!"

When I phoned him to suggest the idea, Blackwell gushed that he'd be honored. As it happened, he'd be signing copies of his autobiography at a mall the following week. Why didn't I join him for a stroll and dinner beforehand?

So there we were, Friday afternoon at a Santa Monica mall: the 70-ish Blackwell; Robert Spencer, his genial partner of 40 years; a photographer and me. And things weren't going well. Not at all.

The mall, it turned out, was a terrible shock to Blackwell's senses. Gaping at the passersby, he suffered one Maalox moment after another. He winced, gasped, then held out his hands helplessly, as if begging for me to make it all go away. Shaking his head in disbelief, he muttered slowly: "These people ... are ... pigs!" Moaning "This is an army of garbage!" he threw up his hands and turned away, wailing, "I can't do this!"

Now I was the one feeling queasy, as I pictured the big blank space in the magazine where the story was supposed to go. Mercifully, Spencer pointed to his watch and suggested we get some dinner before the book signing. I closed my quipless notebook and followed them into a deli, quietly panicking over how to explain to my editors that their swell idea had fast turned into a Blackwellian nightmare.

As soon as we were seated, Blackwell launched unbidden into an account of his bruising childhood in a Depression-era Brooklyn slum and his years as a teenage prostitute.

"How could I be ashamed of it?" he shrugged, his eyes misting over. "I was hungry, and it was a way to get a quarter." His voice cracked. "Mother used to ask me where I had gone. I'd tell her I was out walking the rich people's dogs, and they gave me a quarter. What was I supposed to say -- that I was over in Central Park?"

I didn't know. What I did know was that this was not exactly what I'd expected to be chatting about with a glitzy designer-to-the-stars. But then, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, I'd just finished reading his autobiography, "From Rags to Bitches." Now out of print, the book was at once jaw-droppingly candid and unapologetically egomaniacal. And, like the catty curmudgeon himself, it was also weirdly compelling.

It's hard to pick a favorite passage from a book packed with gems like: "World War II had been raging for two years, and I had been so self-absorbed I'd hardly taken conscious note of it."

Or, on the day JFK was shot (Blackwell was scheduled to host a fashion show in Tampa), "I couldn't help but think, how could a beaded bodice possibly make a difference in these troubled, deadly times?"

Star-struck since childhood, Blackwell moved to Hollywood and landed several bit parts at Universal Studios in the 1930s. Although his on-screen talent carried him only so far, his talents on the casting couch were appreciated by some of the biggest names in the biz, including, he claimed, Tyrone Power ("the attraction between us was instantaneous, electric, unforgettable"), Cary Grant and Randolph Scott. ("Neither man was possessive, and I had wonderful relationships with both of them.")

He once auditioned for a bit part on Broadway by performing a sultry striptease for Mae West ("I felt Mae's eyes scan my body, sliding down my thighs"). He also moonlighted as a male escort ("I became a human vacuum, as empty as the women I slept with").

In the 1950s, he got his start in the fashion biz with a short-lived job designing elaborate toilet-seat covers. (Customers returned them in droves when the ill-placed rhinestones proved uncomfortable.) Still craving stardom, Blackwell decided he might as well script himself a role to play in real life: the part of a flashy, loud-mouthed designer so outrageous he'd be impossible to ignore.

To that end, he began wearing tight pants and loud silk shirts unbuttoned to the waist. (He later concluded that his hairy chest projected too much "truck driver virility," so he switched to turtlenecks with gold chains and scarves.) Blackwell began consciously modulating his speech, running words together like "warm, melting caramels" -- all the better to craft a persona that would be "the ultimate mix of madness, marketing, and media attention."

In 1960, a weekly magazine asked Blackwell for a list of the year's top 10 couture catastrophes. He obliged with a few caustic comments and promptly forgot about it. When another magazine called to see who'd made his list the following year, Blackwell knew he'd found the gimmick that would make him a household name.

As we finished our sandwiches, Blackwell assured me that he never meant the list to be "mean," adding that he was always careful to include only women he genuinely admired. (Just because he once dubbed Madonna the "Bare-Bottomed Bore of Babylon" and dissed Roseanne -- "Clothes by Michelin, Body by Sara Lee" -- doesn't mean he doesn't like them.)

In fact, Blackwell said, he abhorred the idea of being remembered for something "so negative." He claimed to loathe the character he'd created for himself, which had come to overshadow his fashion career. He called it, with typical modesty, "my crown of thorns."

At this point, Spencer suggested they'd better get going. I tagged along, thoroughly confused as to whether the character of "Mr. Blackwell" was a case of the actor becoming his role or pure typecasting.

We stepped out onto the mall where we were besieged by yet another wave of armies of garbage. To distract him from this fashion armageddon, I asked Blackwell about his own attire. The tassled loafers and plaid shirt: Armani. The suit: Hugo Boss. The neon red socks: Sears, Roebuck ("No, really, Sears, Roebuck"). In his lapel, a tacky jeweled pin spelled out "Big Mouth" -- a gift from Worst-Dressed Listee Barbara Mandrell. In his left ear he sported a huge diamond. Nearing the bookstore, he cheerfully confirmed that he'd had four facelifts.

Then another letdown: The part of the bookstore where he'd be autographing books was empty except for a huge public address system. Blackwell immediately started fiddling with the mike and complaining about the sound.

Thankfully, one of his longtime models arrived wearing a Blackwell creation - a strapless, rhinestone-sprinkled black evening dress with elbow-length black gloves. He'd enlisted her to hold up a copy of his book while he addressed the as yet nonexistent crowd.

Slowly, a few fans began to appear: Two white-haired groupies, a youngish man, a large woman in a tight black pantsuit. Others straggled in as Blackwell took the mike, and in a gravelly purr, started in on his favorite subject: "I was born in a ghetto ..."

Just as he had over dinner, he described hustling in Central Park and related a story about the time he was briefly imprisoned by the Persn regime for inciting a labor strike in Argentina. Hitting his stride, he relived his career as a Hollywood designer, dropping names like so many sequins from a cheap gown. More than once, gauging the lukewarm reaction of his handful of listeners, he apologized, "Well, some of you might not remember her, but ..."

His soothing patter was a mesmerizing mix of stale Hollywood gossip, talk-show confessional, New Age psychobabble and the rambling reminiscences of a kindly old uncle. His book, he emoted, was about "standing naked in front of you, totally exposing myself and the truth, so that other people who have the same problems won't believe they're alone. I want them to know they don't have to commit suicide."

An attractive young woman who arrived alone piped up adoringly then. "I saw you on Howard Stern, and I just had to come and tell you I thought you were so cool!" she gushed. "You were so warm and honest and sincere. I didn't give a hoot about the Worst Dressed List, but what you said actually gave me a lot of love as a person."

Blackwell beamed.

Then a store employee who needed the microphone for a guitarist about to perform in the coffee shop downstairs broke up the brief lovefest. Flustered, Blackwell quickly wrapped up his talk, signed a couple of books and collapsed into a chair, still fuming about his hijacked sound system.

At last, he looked up at me wearily.

"So," he said gently, "maybe after this you have a different viewpoint? I think you understand me now. This is the real me."

He invited me to join them for breakfast at home the following morning ("C'mon, I'll make you oatmeal"). Later that night, Spencer would call me to cancel. The sparse attendance had left Blackwell too despondent to bear the thought of company.

But as I asked about his long-range plans, Blackwell momentarily perked up.

"I want to tell the story about this man. You saw me," he says, gesturing at the empty chairs around him. "I could talk three hours with no trouble! Have some screens, project pictures ..."

Wait, I said. You mean you're planning a one-man show about yourself, starring yourself?

He nodded, a faraway look in his eyes. "It will be a wonderful day," he sighed, smiling beatifically, "the day I do this on Broadway."

By Martha Barnette

Martha Barnette is a contributing editor at Allure and the word maven at Martha Barnette's funwords.com.

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