In person, Mr. Blackwell proves it's not just his 'list' that makes him popular

March 18, 1992|By Tracy Achor Hayes | Tracy Achor Hayes,Dallas Morning News

DALLAS -- Last week, the 800 or so general contractors' wives were listening to George Bush bash the "do-nothing Congress" and promise to "prove the pessimists wrong again." Then, they went across town to dine on chicken and mushroom crepes and hear a speaker of another sort entirely.

George Bush for breakfast. Mr. Blackwell for lunch.

The event was billed as the American General Contractors Ladies' Luncheon. And Mr. Blackwell was hired to entertain the wives while their husbands attended various convention exhibitions and seminars. A fashion show and two makeovers were on the agenda. But none of the ladies seemed quite sure what to expect.

"Who is Mr. Blackwell exactly?" Romaine Moran of Newcastle, Neb., wanted to know. But soon enough, the three-piece band played a little flourish, and Mr. Blackwell bounded out from behind a curtain as if he were on the "Tonight Show," and Johnny himself was host. He wore a dark suit, rimless glasses, pancake makeup and a diamond earring. His first joke ended with the punch line: "Yes I am" -- long pause -- "Jewish!"

Then he set the rules. "Everything I do today is in jest. If I tell you I don't like your hair, it's in jest. If I tell you your dress is terrible, it's in jest. If I tell you you look great ... it's in jest." Almost everyone laughed.

Mr. Blackwell was born Richard Selzer. In Brooklyn. "Sometime in the '20s." His official bio notes stints as a child actor who appeared in the popular "Dead End Kids" movies, and as a costume designer whose client list ranged (widely) from Nancy Reagan to Jayne Mansfield.

But Mr. Blackwell is famous chiefly -- and possibly entirely -- as the creator of the annual Worst Dressed List.

The list is Mr. Blackwell's raison d'etre. It is a people-page perennial that's appeared every year since 1960, when American Weekly asked the young costume designer to create a piece for their Halloween issue on Hollywood's worst and best dressed personalities. In his own words, "Little did I suspect I would still be wreaking havoc on a seething Seventh Avenue 30 years later."

"What the list does, on some sort of sequined level," Mr. Blackwell has written, "is to chronicle pop culture, comment on current trends, poke fun at pomposity, ridicule arrogance and point the finger at those who deserve it most."

Mostly, though, it's a forum for his campy Catskills one-liners: Cher -- "a bag of tattooed bones in a sequined slingshot." Kim Basinger -- "Barbie goes punk!" Sinead O'Connor

"the -- bald-headed banshee of MTV." Roseanne Barr Arnold -- "a bowling ball in search of an alley."

Madonna is another veteran target. But for someone described as "helpless, hopeless and horrendous!" she manages to hold her head up. "I think I always make the Worst Dressed List," she told Rolling Stone in 1988. "It's just silly. But it's kind of nice having something you can count on."

Reliability also earned Madonna a place (ninth, tied with Jayne Mansfield) on Mr. Blackwell's Top 10 all-time worst-dressed list, which appeared last year in the trade paperback "Mr. Blackwell's Worst -- 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos" (Pharos Books, $14.95). In addition to the annual lists, the retrospective is replete with photos, trend recaps and such stirring directives as "Say no to the outrageous demands of the fashion potentates who scheme up new looks to fill their coffers!" The dedication reads: "To my enemies -- who made me famous."

When Mr. Blackwell isn't listing, he's making appearances. He has taken his show to shopping malls, and even climbed onstage to do his schtick for inmates of the Sybil Brand Institute for Women -- the California prison Manson-family member Susan Atkins once called home.

The Dallas audience, with their bright dresses and careful coiffures, are more "Regis and Kathie Lee" than Vogue. Yet they laugh in all the right places. And when Mr. Blackwell asks, "Can I be myself, or do I have to clean up the show? DO WE WANT TO HAVE FUN?" the "YES!" rises up like a chorus.

They were equally enthusiastic about the fashion show, greeting each onslaught of sequins and ruffles with appreciative "oohs" and applause. "We call it 'Cat Lady,' " Mr. Blackwell says of an especially sultry black catsuit with beaded illusion neck and sleeves. "And we love the feather boa with it."

We do indeed. "He's much better than I thought he would be," says Evie Theisen of Omaha, Neb. "I thought he would be obnoxious and haughty, but he's very warm. And the clothes are certainly fun."

Moments later, when one of Mr. Blackwell's models flings yet another boa around her neck and breaks into "Cabaret," Evie leans conspiratorially close and whispers that the spangled singer "looks just like the transvestites you see on 'Oprah.' "

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