Transcript of the interview with famed fashion designer
Mr. Blackwell
Blackwell is best known for his Ten Worst Dressed List
He recently wrote his autobiography entitled
The interview aired live on Friday, June 3, 1995 at 10pm eastern
with Peter Anthony Holder, the evening open-line talk show host on
CJAD 800 AM, Montreal.

CJAD: Mr. Blackwell, thank you for being on the program with us.

MR B: Well it's a pleasure Peter, how are you?

CJAD: I'm doing very, very well.

MR B: You sound great.

CJAD: Thank you. As I mentioned off the top, a lot of people are familiar with the list that you put out, but there is a lot about your life that I'm sure a lot of people are not familiar with and to a certain degree there's quite a bit of a hard luck story there, isn't there?

MR B: Well there's a story there of a man that was not born with a great silver spoon in his mouth and a crystal chandelier over his head. And someone who didn't drive a Rolls Royce to the nearest bistro gardens. There's a story of survival. There's the story of a man born in Brooklyn, who did not have even a home to sleep in. There's the story about a man who never knew his father. There's the story about a man who had three years of grade school education, and that goes on to Broadway, and that goes on to Hollywood and all of a sudden the whole world seems to open up and there is something wonderful and fantastic to talk about. But there's a message here that I think really, really is important. It's a little thing called survival. It's a little thing called "have a little faith." It's a little thing about saying, "okay, it happened." It wasn't bad, it was only an experience. There's something here about a man who says, "I needed love", and took it any place it came. It's a man who did a lot of things that other people might have been ashamed of or embarrassed about, but it did not embarrass me. It's the story about a man who lived every alternative lifestyle you can imagine and now you would probably say why did you write the book? Why do you reveal yourself when you already have a rather opulent reputation.

CJAD: Well, why would you do that?

MR B: I'm glad you asked, (laughter). Because it must be....and I remember when I was a much younger man, I remember looking for someone who would listen to me. I remember wanting someone to listen to me. I remember sitting in an alley under a fire escape crying my eyes out saying, "isn't there anyone who would love me." I remember wanted someone just to hold my hands and say, "I'm so glad you're here." I remember having to pay a price when I was in the dress business for an order by having to have a relationship with buyers that would absolutely nauseate me. I remember having wonderful romances in Hollywood with people that would probably say, "oh really!" But these people held out their hand and they said, "we love you, even for a moment, we love you!"

CJAD: You bought up on several occasions the idea of love and I'm wondering if a lot of your success and the things you've done in life has been driven by your desire to be loved.

MR B: I think a lot of my success has been driven by the desire to be accepted. If you've ever been alone and never knew your father and never knew where a meal was coming from, all you really wanted was someone to need you for something. And then love became something that was probably the most emotional need you had. And you were absolutely willing to accept it under any condition, under any term. And I don't want people who feel the same way that I did, to be ashamed or embarrassed. I don't want those people to say, "is there something wrong with me?" No there's nothing wrong with any human being that has any desire, different as it may be, there is nothing wrong with any human being who says, "alright, I live this way, but I will do it well. I will do it with class and I will do it with dignity." You know, we had terrific times. I worked with Mae West. I have wonderful stories about Mae. I worked with Howard Hughes. I had the most incredible story about Howard Hughes, being under contract to him. You know, I was with THE LITTLE TOUGH GUYS, which was another group of the DEAD END KIDS, which really changed my whole life. It was from that point I came to Hollywood. And coming to Hollywood was the big difference in my having survived. I honestly believe that if Sidney Kingsley Scout, he was the author of DEAD END in 1937....I honestly believe, Peter, and I mean this will all my heart that if I had not been discovered, I would have been gone. I don't think you survive in that environment. If you make another day, you're lucky. You know how we used to live under a fire escape Peter? I'm not asking the question, because you couldn't possibly, possibly in your wildest dreams imagine this. We would break a milk bottle and hold the neck by the hand. And if anyone came towards us in our sleep, we would reach out and jab. And if we didn't jab, we would probably be killed.

CJAD: How does someone in that situation get discovered in the first place? A lot of people don't

MR B: I was very lucky. The show DEAD END, was the show about boys from the Bowery. Boys from very underprivileged neighbourhoods. I was extremely lucky they had that show going on Broadway at that time. Because any other show would have never, never in a million years have even accepted me. I mean there was nothing to accept. There was a slum kids. But when they took a look at me they said he looks the part. People will look at him and understand his emotions. That was the main thing. So I went into a road company of DEAD END itself. I played Tommy, the leader. I forgot 95% of my lines, but as Sidney Kingsley said, "we're not interested in the exact words, what we're trying to show people is there is a society that lives in this manner." Well from there I went Hollywood. Thank heavens things did turn around a little bit. Mother got a little odd jobs. It was after the crash and we were able to survive it. We got to Hollywood and the Andrew Sisters' mother was the first one to get me my first job at Universal Studio. Then I had the most wonderful story, Peter, about falling madly, madly infatuated with a girl called Frances Gumm. Do you know who that would be?

CJAD: Judy Garland.

MR B: How do you like that. You do know! Madly in love with this girl. There was absolutely nobody like her. I watched her destroy her own self by the studio. I watched her go from one level to another. I have a lot of this in the book. I thought Deanna Durbin, one of my better friends, who then saved Universal Studio from bankruptcy, would you believe it? Who today lives in Paris and married to an extraordinarily wealthy man. And then I went on and on, and the biggest and most exciting experience I had as a young man probably was going to Broadway and being on Broadway itself in a show called CATHERINE WAS GREAT with Mae West. That was really, I think, the major, major growing up turning point. There are so many stories in here, that you really just can't keep going on about them.

CJAD: You've gone from literally the streets of Brooklyn, New York into the world of Broadway and Hollywood, and that is a major monumental leap on its own.....

MR B: But you've got to remember, we got there through an alley.

CJAD: Exactly.

MR B: We did not get there eating at Club 21.

CJAD: And then on top of that the acting career goes okay to a certain degree, but you decide, for one reason or another, that maybe this is not what you should be doing and you go into the world of fashion, which is an entirely different direction, and become successful there. That in itself is another leap that's sometimes hard to believe.

MR B: Well do you know sometimes people don't let doors open for them. Sometimes people turn things away. People say, "well I could have done it if..." or "I could have done it, but..." And that's not the case. There's a lot of things, by the way, that happened in between that. Going in the dress business was the result of doing costumes for a girl that I was managing. That girl was a nightclub singer. Well the reviews of her clothing was far better then that of her voice, so when the girl totally bombed out, I took those reviews downtown to a manufacturer and looked around for somebody who would give me a job. I had no idea. I mean, I wasn't bright or brilliant I was just following very ordinary common, I suppose, street gut feeling.

CJAD: So where did your sense of fashion first come from.

MR B: Where does a boy at five years old learn to play Chopin? How does that happen? I think maybe God gives us a wonderful gift and the ability to do these things and we don't question them. And the most important thing is that we simply go ahead and we do them. The first year I was a designer, I became almost the rage of the fashion industry, because I dared defy everybody else who was doing clothes that I thought were not as pretty and did what I believed was beautiful.

CJAD: That must have annoyed your contemporaries at the time?

MR. B: Well they blacklisted me. As a matter of fact the very first ad we ever did, and we did the ad figuring this. I can admit it now. The ads at that time, believe it or not, were $3,000 a page. We were very new in business, so we decided to do an ad in both HARPER'S BAZAAR and VOGUE MAGAZINE. The accountant had told us we were bankrupt unless something major had happened. That we just simply didn't have the accounts and we didn't have the money. So we decided on taking the ad figuring, well what if I can't pay for it? I mean, what are they going to do? They're going to take a cutting table? You know, they can come and take the cutting table. It wouldn't have made any difference. But I did something so unusual that I became almost the conversation of 7th Avenue.

CJAD: Was that when you used the ad and just had your own face?

MR. B: The big portrait of me.

CJAD: The big portrait of you.

MR. B: Yeah, which was a very heavy looking portrait. I mean very tough looking. Very vendetta. I forgot to tell you that Howard Hughes had been the one to change my name from my acting name, which was Dick Ellis to Richard Blackwell. Following Howard Hughes is when I became a dress designer and that's who gave me my name. That whole story is in the book itself too.

CJAD: Not only have you become a dress designer. You are basically the fashion police with your Worst Dressed List. How did that come about?

MR. B: Well in 1960, having been known in Hollywood as a not all together dynamite performer and then they knew I had gone in the dress business, they said to me, "would you do a list of the ten best and the ten worst dressed people in Hollywood?" Now this was never intended to be an annual.

CJAD: How was they?

MR. B: The AMERICAN WEEKLY. It was a Sunday supplement in newspapers all over the United States. I don't believe Canada got the AMERICAN WEEKLY at that point. It's very similar, if you want to think about it, to PARADE. Are you familiar with that?

CJAD: Yes I am.

MR. B: Well very, very similar to that. Well I did the article. Outraged half of the people in the world. The other half of it loved it. And that began the image of the man who does the top ten worst dressed women. Now the first year after it, nobody would touch it. The second year, the people began to get curious. By the third year more then five people showed up at a press conference. We tried it every year the same time, but it took three full years for it really to take hold. And by the time it took hold, it just exploded wide open. Now nobody thought of me as a dress designer. Nobody thought of me as a kid who ever been an actor. Most of them didn't even know it. They thought of the man who does the list. And that's what I was basically known for. Just the guy who did the list. They thought I crawled out from under a rock once a year, made a few very acerbic statements and crawled back under a rock. In the meantime, I had to go back and do a collection four times a year. And I love the lines in it. I think that's what made it. It's not that I criticized their clothing, by telling you I didn't like it because it was green or blue and it had a bow and it had a deep neck, or it didn't. I did impression lines. I did lines that in a way told you what I thought about their clothing without ever mentioning the clothes. Do you remember in 1992 Geena Davis, when she wore that dress with the mess hosiery, and that big tail behind it.....

CJAD: At the Academy Awards.

MR. B: Yes, the Academy Awards. Remember that dress?

CJAD: Oh yeah!

MR. B: Okay. I put her on the list. She was number two. But I never mentioned the color of the dress. All I did was I said, "Big Bird in heels. A Follies Bergere fiasco." And that answered it best.

CJAD: You can envision it without having seen it.

MR. B: That's right.

CJAD: Now one of the things that....

MR. B: Do you remember.....I'm sorry.

CJAD: You were going to say....let me were getting to Cher.

MR. B: Cher really buried herself completely when she did the navel bit. Frankly Cher's no longer on the list. Cher hasn't been around for a long time, so we really don't get into her much any more. But what I did....I did other people that are still here. Remember, you've got to talk about people that you can see. If you cannot see them in your mind, then you don't dare talk about them. You remember Demi Moore when she did VANITY FARE when she was pregnant?

CJAD: Right.

MR. B: Okay, what can I say about the vamp of VANITY FARE. Moore is less, period. I mean, that well explained it.

CJAD: One of the things that is very controversial about the book is that it talks about some of the people you have had relationships with. And this would come as a surprise to quite a few people. I'm wondering if you've heard from any of the families, friends and relatives of those you have had relationships with and you talk about in the book. And if they have anything negative or positive to say about it.

MR. B: No, and do you know something, I really don't believe I'm going to. They began to lead completely different lives. You know, we're talking about a good many years ago. I was 20 years old and they were new in the studios. They were not married. It isn't as if they were married and lived a second kind of a life. These people were never married at that point and then the studios demanded they get married in order to save their career.

CJAD: We should mention for those who are listening who have no idea what we are talking about that you have had some relationships with some prominent male actors.

MR. B: Alright, and we can even tell you who they were. It was Tyrone Power, it was Randy Scott, and I will tell you here and now. I am neither ashamed or embarrassed about it. You see, I had no father. I had nobody how ever gave a darn whether I was standing, sitting, dead or alive. And when these people offered me any sense of love, any sense of affection, I grabbed it. I was delighted that somebody cared I was alive. I didn't look at it as anything I had to be ashamed of. And one of the things this book is going to do is it's going to tell a lot of kids that you can live any life you choose, just do it well. It's going to tell a lot of people, it's okay. No one's going to set the rules for you anymore. The rules are "do it well, have respect for who you're with and love."

CJAD: This story is just that. Quite a story. It's a life that has so many twists and turns in it, that it could make an interesting movie. If you were making this movie, who would you cast as Mr. Blackwell?

MR. B: At the very end? I have never thought about the beginning. At the very end of the book maybe the last 25 years, I would choose John Malkovich.

CJAD: Why's that?

MR. B: I think he's an incredible actor. I think he has many faces. I think he can look any way you would choose him to do. And I think he is the ultimate in class. I have no idea who would play me before that. Remember, we would need three or maybe four people to play the entire life. You'd have to have me as a child, me as a young man, and then another one between, let's say, 25 and 40. That would be enough span for him. Then we would need a man to play me from 40 until now, which is, you know 41, (laughter), or there abouts.

CJAD: It certainly is quite the story, as I mentioned, and you have managed to fit quite a life into one book. I thank you for talking with us this evening and continued success with all you do, sir

MR. B: Peter, tell everybody they can have everything in the world they want. Just see it and don't say I could have had it, but.

CJAD: The book is called FROM RAGS TO BITCHES. It is written by Mr. Blackwell and published by General Publishing Group. Thank you for being with us.

MR. B: Thank you Peter. Bye-bye.

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