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Fashion’s Mr. Mean : Mr. Blackwell, Famous for Ripping Celebrities to Threads, Takes His Stylish Shtick to the Stage, Where Audiences Eat Up His Put-Downs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has called Roseanne Barr “a bowling ball in search of an alley” and New York socialite Ivana Trump “a cross between Brigitte Bardot and Lassie.”

And most of the time, Mr. Blackwell, the machete-tongued fashion designer, gets away with it.

A strange thing, considering that the man best known for his biting worst-dressed list stopped designing three years ago and no longer has celebrity clients. His dresses aren’t even available in stores any more.

But mainstream American women don’t care, he says. They embrace his “bitchy” persona; his message that fashion is codswallop; that good clothes never go out of style, and, hey, it’s OK to be something besides a Size 5 squeezed like Italian sausage into fanny-hugging designer jeans.

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Long sniffed at by the haute couture as the Wayne Newton of fashion, Blackwell couldn’t care a crumb.

Working from his Los Angeles home, he’s a perennial hit on cruise ships, at carnivals, luncheons, conventions and other gigs, such as one held recently at the Yorba Linda Forum in Orange County. About 250 women showed up for “An Evening With Mr. Blackwell.”

Part lounge act, part glitzy fashion show, part mondo coffee klatch--his 80-minute act is strung together with trademark Blackwell zingers. He sings a couple of torchy songs, tars a few stars, makes fun of himself--his $32,000 cosmetic surgery bill, for instance--tosses in some campy boob jokes and critiques the audience’s outfits.

“The average woman in America is a Size 14,” he tells them as they shriek in disbelief. “Yeah, there are some potato packers out there.”

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They love him for it. Even the older woman begging for his autograph backstage--she of the bead necklace that Blackwell had said all but rode her ample chest horizontally, exaggerating her girth as it eventually dropped off like a waterfall.

“I think he’s incredible! He just makes you feel comfortable,” said another starry-eyed fan, Linda Caffey, a mid-30s Yorba Linda resident who squeezed in line with other fans backstage.

Days after the Yorba Linda show, Blackwell explained his appeal, and how he has shifted from designer to traveling showman.

“Many years ago I had to decide, did I want to be the darling of Seventh Avenue, or did I want to be a man the public laughed with, enjoyed with, felt safe with. That night you saw that,” he says, his deep radio voice rising and falling for dramatic underscore.

“These women think I come to look at them. But I come to be with them. I would never hurt them. Occasionally, I get a little snit of the nose, and then I pull away. But I make fun of myself, too. That makes me vulnerable. People really do like to laugh at themselves.”

Nevertheless, fashion’s Mr. Mean has resigned himself to the realities of his successful gimmick. Quoting the irascible late actress Bette Davis: “If you haven’t made at least a dozen enemies, you haven’t done the show, baby.”

Every January for 31 years, Richard Blackwell--"under 100 years old and over 39"--attracts a full-court press to his art-filled Hancock Park home, where he releases his now-famous Top 10 tally of the past year’s worst-dressed women.

He can’t even remember who made his first list in 1960. The idea was not his but that of his longtime partner and housemate, Robert L. Spencer, who runs the Mr. Blackwell business.

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The targets have usually been celebrities or British royalty, chronic victims of his barbs. (He likes to tell audiences that he’s jealous of the marriage of one-time target Princess Di and Prince Charles because “that was my last chance to be a queen!”)

This year’s list was topped by shaven-headed Irish singer Sinead O’Connor: “Nothing compares to the bald-headed banshee, a New Age nightmare.”

It’s hard to imagine O’Connor, with her nonconformist looks and attitudes, fretting much about a Blackwell dress-down. Some of the dubious honorees have actually enjoyed the attention, perhaps realizing that, in a business where exposure is everything, even negative publicity may be better than none.

Of all the women he’s dinged over the years--from Elizabeth Taylor to Barbra Streisand--Blackwell says Bea Arthur took it the worst.

He can’t remember his precise fashion critique of the silver-haired actress, a star of the highly rated television show “Golden Girls.” But “I said something like, ‘someone kicked her off of a covered wagon and forgot to go back and get her.’ ”

Ouch. Guess she was peeved? “I don’t really care, but she wasn’t very thrilled,” he says casually.

He’s not all bad guy, however. Each year Blackwell also releases his lesser-known “atta-girl” list, on which he names “Fabulous Fashion Independents.” Among the winners this year were two former members of his worst-dressed list, Elizabeth Taylor (“she finally got a dress that fit her”) and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, whose duds he now dubs “beautiful.”

Blackwell knows, however, that it’s the salty salvos that grab the headlines. The masses like the idea of knocking down someone famous, a practice best illustrated by the popularity of copycat lists in People and other magazines.

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Being associated with negative vibes for so many years does take a personal toll, however, even if it’s part of the shtick he has crafted like a sculptor.

“I always knew I had to have a negative to make a positive, but at some point you have to sit down and deal with it,” he admits. “But if I ever thought I really hurt someone, I would die.”

Despite his generally sunny disposition on stage, Blackwell can be “quiet” and “introverted” in private, he says. He admits to a few suicide attempts during periods when he doubted his choice of career or wondered if he should take it a different direction.

“The moment I get off stage, I’m a totally withdrawn man,” he says, suddenly serious.

He often feels misunderstood by the media, which tend to take his cue and stick with his self-designed caricature of a witty tart-mouth who speaks in glorious sound bites. So he volunteers a revelation of who the real Mr. Blackwell is.

“I think,” he says slowly, “that I am a wonderfully veiled caricature of a man I created, but only using truths. And it worked.”

Mr. Blackwell is many things and prominent among them is self-promoter.

“Multifaceted as a Cartier diamond, razor-tongued as Noel Coward, volcanic as Vesuvius erupting, wickedly controversial as Paris in the ‘20s,” his biography begins. “He is many men wrapped into an internationally famous package.

“Designer. Critic. Child star. Stage sensation. Television tempest. Author. Society’s fashion seer. And the voice behind the most celebrated and reviled 10 Worst Dressed Women List of our time. He’s loved, hated, feared, admired--but never, ever ignored. He’s Mr. Blackwell.”

Is he serious?

“I think it’s pretty true, except they missed one thing,” he says of the biographers. “They should have also said that, basically, I’m a very sensitive man.”

If not for his 30 years in fashion, some might dismiss Blackwell as another Zsa Zsa Gabor, someone famous mostly for being famous. Many teen-agers well-versed in his list of fashion failures might not even know he had his own line of dresses for many years.

Sold at department stores and priced from $300 to $2,500, his creations have varied from conservative suits to frilly evening wear.

Three years ago, Blackwell quit designing all but the glamorous beaded and sequined ball gowns modeled at his shows. The buyers seemed to be younger and less interested in his designs, he says.

“Thirty years in any acid bath is enough,” he says. “I love designing; I hate the business.”

But that work and, probably more significantly, his annual list of “fashion flops” are clearly what have driven fans--mostly women--to his appearances nationwide.

Fashion writers rarely cover his appearances. Never did, he says, except in “little towns” where the fashion critic “also does the obituary column.” No matter, he says easily, because he “was never a Women’s Wear Daily guy.” He has always considered himself a showman who uses his dress designs as one of many stage tools.

Born Richard Selzer in Brooklyn, N.Y., “sometime in the ‘20s,” Blackwell grew up poor and has told some interviewers that by his teen-age years, he lived on the streets. His show business career began on the stage in a traveling version of the Broadway play “Dead End.” After moving to Hollywood as a Universal Studios stock player, he played many bit parts before Howard Hughes, who he claims gave him the name Blackwell, placed him under exclusive contract for the movie “Vendetta.”

That flopped and Blackwell began managing other performers. To save money for his clients, Blackwell says he concocted onstage outfits that often “got better reviews than the women wearing them.” A designer was born.

But first, to practice, he made toilet seat covers with rhinestones for Sears, Roebuck & Co. Other weird objects followed until finally, in 1958, Spencer got the Mr. Blackwell business launched.

Two years later, the list was born.

Because he never designed anything but women’s clothing, Blackwell says he doesn’t consider himself much of an authority, and, consequently, he has never compiled a men’s version of his worst-dressed list. But men do attend his appearances, Blackwell says.

“Men adore me, mostly because I say what . . . they’ve often wanted to say to their wife about her clothes,” he says, laughing.

Although his audiences are generally women ages 35 to 50, the promise of a few pointed celebrity blows drew a few men and teen-agers to Yorba Linda.

On the first weekend of the Persian Gulf War, Blackwell--hair the color of a tweed cap, trim and handsomely dressed in an elegant black-on-black suit--opens his show with the singing of “God Bless America,” backed up by a three-piece combo. For the next 1 1/2 hours, the audience sits bewitched as the devilish Blackwell wanders the stage, his pinkie rings throwing occasional light beams.

He asks: “How many of your husbands this morning woke up and asked for a divorce?” Silence. “How many of you wished they had?” Lots of laughs. He espouses his fashion philosophy--women should look beautiful regardless of the latest fashion rage. He jokes about designs like the chemise, which “makes you look like a wiener.” The audience is so comfortable that when he asks, “is there a woman in the house with a 40 C” bra, a bevy of hands fly up.

Of some of his designs on stage, he tells the audience, “these aren’t going to make a lot of noise. In fact, they’re boring as hell!”

For the duration of his performance, Blackwell maintains a steady dialogue with his audience. They talk back. They gush over his stunning beaded dresses, giggle at his off-color jokes. He speaks freely about how every part of his body has been made over thanks to cosmetic surgeries.

Later, after a model in a vampy purple number sings ‘40s Broadway tunes, Blackwell closes the show with a melodramatic version of “For All We Know” that Bill Murray might envy. Then he patiently greets a line of women backstage who want to shake hands and get the once-over on their outfits.

“I wonder how old he is,” one woman asks her friend. “I mean, gawd, it’s weird how you can’t tell.”

“I don’t know what my age is. I look good,” he purrs slyly. “Don’t you think? And if you squint, I look twice as good.”


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