Ding-dong, "the bitch" is dead?

Evaluating the legacy of Mr. Blackwell, dead at 86, whose annual worst-dressed list inspired laughter -- and cruelty.

By Amy Reiter
Published October 20, 2008 7:40PM (EDT)

Poorly dressed celebrities can breathe a little easier and let their bellies muffin-top right over their unflattering jeans. Richard Sylvan Selzer, known to the world as list-maker Mr. Blackwell, died Sunday in Los Angeles of complications from an intestinal infection. He was 86.

Will he be missed? Well, that may depend on whether you're a famous woman unfortunate enough to ever wander down a red carpet -- or out to dinner or to the deli to pick up diapers -- without consulting a stylist. For nearly five decades, the bit-part actor turned clothing designer/critic with a knack for self-promotion issued his annual wisecracky list of famous women he contended were the world's "worst dressed." And often, his take-downs weren't just snarky; they were downright brutal. In 1963, for instance, he knocked Elizabeth Taylor for being "plump" and said her sartorial style looked like "the rebirth of the zeppelin." Of Barbra Streisand he once said, "She looks like a masculine Bride of Frankenstein." Camilla Parker-Bowles? "The Duchess of Dowdy." Sharon Stone? "An over-the-hill Cruella De Vil."

His recent victims include Lindsay Lohan ("From adorable to deplorable"), Britney Spears ("Her bra-topped collection of Madonna rejects are pure fashion overkill"), Renée Zellweger ("a painted pumpkin on a pogo stick"), Amy Winehouse ("part '50s car-hop horror") and Mary-Kate Olsen ("a tattered toothpick trapped in a hurricane").

Ha-ha-ha … heh-heh … ahem.

I'm willing to concede that Mr. Blackwell's list may have been deliciously irreverent -- his Brooklyn-born snap-snap bitchness excitingly brash and bracingly honest -- when he first launched it into a celeb-worshiping world 48 years ago. And of course he couldn't have predicted the cruel culture he would spawn. (The Associated Press today credits him with paving the way for Joan Rivers and celebrity fashion bashers.) And, to be fair, even Mr. Blackwell seemed to be experiencing moments of mercy -- if not outright pangs of regret -- in recent years, commenting in 1998 that he did not intend "to hurt the feelings" of the people he skewered and writing in 2008 that he was sure his targets were "all wonderful people beneath the deluge of dreck they drape themselves in." In 2000, he told Salon that he "abhorred the idea of being remembered for something 'so negative.'" He even spared Britney Spears from a spot on his final list because "I felt that it was inappropriate at this time to make comment, when her personal life is in such upheaval."

And though it may be inappropriate at this time to make comment, when his life is now completely over -- and it may be particularly rich coming from someone who wrote  about gossip for years -- I won't miss Blackwell's list. Yes, it was meant to be all in good fun (after all, he called his autobiography "From Rags to Bitches"). Yes, the list occasionally included men. And yes, Blackwell also named best-dressed celebrities and can't be blamed that no one remembers those. But in routinely ripping into women for having the audacity to age, to fatten (or to lose weight -- either way you couldn't win), and to declare a personal style at variance with accepted norms, he preyed upon our ugliest, sneering insecurities. And if his list faded in import because of the full-time, online chop shops -- TMZ, Perez Hilton and Gawker, to name a few -- he could at least be proud that they are all, in many ways, his own demon spawn. That's quite a legacy.

So here's to you, Mr. B. You gave us more schadenfreude-tinged laughs than Björk's Oscar-night swan dress.

Actually, no, you didn't.

Amy Reiter

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