August 29, 1922 – Mr. Blackwell:
“God may have created man, but I created Mr. Blackwell, the ultimate mix of madness, marketing and media attention.”
Richard Blackwell, of “Mr. Blackwell’s Worst-Dressed List”, made a name for himself not with his own creations but by going after celebrities and their looks.
Blackwell was a barely known dress designer when he issued his first bitchy criticism of Hollywood fashion disasters in 1960, long before Joan Rivers and Kathy Griffin turned such ridicule into a daily affair.
Year after year, he would take showbiz’s biggest stars and other celebrities to task for failing to dress in what he thought was the way they should. Being dowdy was bad enough, but the more outrageous the fashion, the more biting his criticism. He once said a reigning Miss America looked “like an armadillo with cornpads.”
“Barbra Streisand looks like a masculine Bride of Frankenstein.”
“Christina Aguilera is a dazzling singer who puts good taste through the wardrobe wringer.”
“Meryl Streep looks like a gypsy abandoned by a caravan.”
“Sharon Stone is an over-the-hill Cruella DeVille.”
“Lindsay Lohan: From adorable to deplorable.”
“Patti Davis packs all the glamour of an old, worn-out sneaker.”
“Ann Margret: A Hells Angel escapee who invaded the Ziegfeld Follies on a rainy night.”
“Camilla Parker-Bowles is The Duchess of Dowdy.”
“Bjork dances in the dark – and dresses there, too.”
Blackwell acknowledged he had mixed feelings about appearing to be so catty. Most of the women he quipped about were people he genuinely admired for their talent if not their fashion sense.
“The list is and was a satirical look at the fashion flops of the year. I merely said out loud what others were whispering. It’s not my intention to hurt the feelings of these people. It’s to put down the clothing they’re wearing.”
In 1968, he told an interviewer that designers were forgetting that their job “is to dress and enhance women. Maybe I should have named the 10 worst designers instead of blaming the women who wear their clothes.”
The woman who topped his Worst Dressed of 1982 (announced in early 1983) was the newly married Diana, Princess of Wales. He said she had gone from “a very young, independent, fresh look” to a “tacky, dowdy” style. She didn’t stay on that list long. The princess became as a regular on Mr. Blackwell’s list of “The Fabulous Fashion Independents.”
Blackwell started his career as an actor after being spotted by a talent agent while in his teens. He was cast a member of the ensemble and as an understudy for a lead role in the Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley‘s Dead End. It premiered in October 1935 and ran for two years. It was the first project to feature the “Dead End Kids”, who would go on to star, under various names (Little Tough Guys, The East Side Kids, The Bowery Boys) in 93 films. The play and its 1937 film adaptation were grim stories set in a poor neighborhood in New York City, where the boys somehow looked at going to reform school as a learning opportunity, something Blackwell knew well.
He got to the play the Dead End Kids’ leader on stage for just one performance, but it got him noticed by Hollywood where he landed bit parts in films. He returned to Broadway in 1944, appearing in Catherine Was Great, written and starring Mae West.
He finally gave up on an acting career in 1958 and switched to fashion design. He claimed to be the first to make designer jeans for women, and his salon, House of Blackwell, attracted Hollywood types, including Yvonne De Carlo, Jayne Mansfield, Dorothy Lamour, Jane Russell, and Nancy Reagan. At the apex of his design career, he openly declared his disdain for Women’s Wear Daily. When he issued his first “Ten Worst Dressed Women List” in 1960, Italian star Anna Magnani and Zsa Zsa Gabor were among his targets.
As with Valentino and Versace, he and his line became synonymous. In 1968, he became the first designer in history to present their line on a television broadcast, when he aired Mr. Blackwell Presents, with guests Anna Maria Alberghetti and Rose Marie. Also in 1968, Mr. Blackwell released an album titled The Mr. Blackwell Show, a recording of show presented on stage at The Desert Inn in Las Vegas with The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1967. The album features Blackwell reciting fashion commentary over the music. I scoured the Internet to find a copy to no avail.
Blackwell was one of the first to make his line available for plus-size women. His designer dresses sold for between $800 to $1,000.
The announcement of his yearly list brought him the celebrity he had always dreamed about, and he quickly became a favorite on television talk shows. By its third year, most news services worldwide began to cover it. Each year, Blackwell spent a week after its publication on telephone interviews to fashion magazines, radio programs and news networks.
I appreciate that he enjoyed some of my writing favorite techniques, including alliteration: “Martha Stewart is dull, dowdy and devastatingly dreary“; free verse: Cher – “A million beads/And one overexposed derriere“; plus, puns: Queen Elizabeth II – “Was she the palace Christmas tree, or just a royal clown?”. There were times when he combined forms: Dixie Chicks – “They look like a trio of truck stop fashion tragedies/ trapped in a typhoon“. Sometimes he just wacked them over the head: Wynonna Judd – “She looks like Hulk Hogan in sequins.” Or Blackwell simply quipped: “Martha Stewart dresses like the centerfold for the Farmers’ Almanac“.
Many celebrities including Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey, and Tanya Tucker gave their thanks for being selected. Even as the public lost interest Mr. Blackwell still published the list each year.
He hosted his own show, Mr. Blackwell Presents (1968 – 1970) and he played a version himself on several television series. During his heyday the issuing of Blackwell’s annual list was an eagerly anticipated media event. On the second Tuesday in January, he would assemble reporters at his mansion for a lavish breakfast before making a dramatic entrance for the television cameras.
In 1992, he sued Johnny Carson for 11 million dollars claiming that Carson had added Mother Teresa to his list, saying the comment exposed him to hatred and ridicule. NBC’s responded that Carson was obviously joking. Carson:
“Did you see what he said about Mother Teresa? ‘Miss Nerdy Nun is a fashion no-no. Come on now, that’s just too much.”
By the end of the 20th century, the Blackwell list had lost its juice and he began to publish it via e-mail.
Blackwell was born Richard Sylvan Selzer in Brookyln. He claimed that he had a troubled, poverty-filled childhood and that growing up, he was a truant, thief, and a hustler.
When he arrived in Hollywood, Richard Selzer became the surgically improved “Dick Ellis”, and the boy-toy of Caesar Romero and Tyrone Power. Blackwell:
“The Hollywood casting couch was something you had to go through. I played the game.”
It was at the urging of bisexual Howard Hughes that Dick Ellis became Richard Blackwell.
Blackwell’ partner of 60 years was Robert Spencer, a hairdresser in Beverley Hills. They lived in Hancock Park, in a home that in 1964, they rented to The Beatles for the band’s first visit to the city. The Blackwell-Spencers were very, very close friends of actors Cary Grant and Randolph Scott; in fact, it was Grant and Scott who introduced Blackwell to Spencer.
Blackwell left this world in October 2008 at 86 years old; Spencer joined him in March 2014, gone at 94.
No one remembers the clothing line; it died a quiet death in the 1980s. We do, however, remember the insults: “Brigitte Bardot looks like a cow wearing a girdle“. “Elizabeth Taylor: “The rebirth of the zeppelin“. “Madonna: A bare-bottomed bore from Babylon“.
“I wanted to be known as much more than a nasty, acerbic bitch who crawls out once a year from his hovel to say nasty things.”
I wonder what he would have said about me when I sauntered up to the stage to accept my Emmy Award for Best Guest Actor for my turn on White Lotus as Armond’s older male lover?