(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Richard Blackwell played a number of roles, but the one he played most conspicuously –– and deliciously –– was creator of the "Worst-Dressed Women List." For over 40 years, he skewered the rich and famous each January, releasing scathing and funny comments on their fashion failings.
Mr. Blackwell died five years ago today at 86. He was born Richard Sylvan Selzer in Brooklyn in 1922, the son of a working class printer. How he became the arbiter of what not to wear is not a pretty story. He wrote in his 1995 autobiography, From Rags to Bitches, that he grew up abused, poor and hungry. He left school in the third grade and by the time he was in his teens, stayed alive through stealing and prostitution.
He found his way into acting and was cast as an understudy in Sidney Kingsley’s Broadway production of Dead End in 1935 before moving to Hollywood, where as Dick Ellis he played some small film parts. He worked as a messenger at Warner Bros, and became Richard Blackwell when Howard Hughes signed him to RKO.
While doing work as an agent he designed costumes for some of his clients and began designing dresses under the label House of Blackwell. As his design business took off –– Jane Russell and Nancy Reagan were among his clients –– so did his take on fashion.
It was the "worst" part of his best- and worst-dressed lists that attracted Blackwell media attention from around the globe.
The first list came out in 1960 and featured Brigitte Bardot and Lucille Ball. His final list in 2007 included Amy Winehouse and Kelly Clarkson. Here is a juicy handful of his snarky, often alliterative, pronouncements:
Camilla Parker Bowles: "The Duchess of Dowdy."
Paris Hilton: "Paris’ ‘designer’ is obviously on vacation ? this is one Hilton that should be closed for renovation."
Courtney Love: "When push comes to shove, no one’s fashion is tackier and wackier than funky, punky Love!"
Lindsay Lohan: "Overhyped and underdressed, what’s happened to Lindsay? When it comes to fashion, she’s in a schizophrenic frenzy!"
Jessica Simpson: "She’s a global fashion curse."
Mariah Carey. "Shrink-wrapped cheesecake."
Madonna: "The Bare-Bottomed Bore of Babylon."
Barbra Streisand: "She looks like a masculine Bride of Frankenstein."
Christina Aguilera: "A dazzling singer who puts good taste through the wardrobe wringer."
Meryl Streep: "She looks like a gypsy abandoned by a caravan."
Sharon Stone: "An over-the-hill Cruella DeVille."
Martha Stewart: "Dull, dowdy and devastatingly dreary."
Cher: "A million beads. And one overexposed derriere."
Mr. Blackwell/(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Wynona Judd: "She looks like Hulk Hogan in sequins."
Patti Davis: "Packs all the glamour of an old, worn-out sneaker."
Britney Spears: "Her bra-topped collection of Madonna rejects are pure fashion overkill."
Britney Spears topped the list the most times –– three –– while Paris Hilton, Cher, Barbra Streisand and Zsa Zsa Gabor each were two-time winners.
Mean-spirited? According to his Associated Press obituary , Blackwell said in 1998 that he actually admired most of the women on his lists, if not their style. "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."
Blackwell was a respected fashion journalist and appeared regularly on talk shows as well as being an icon of pop culture. There were references to him on Seinfeld and Frasier and even a Kiss song, "Mr. Blackwell."
When he died, he was survived by Richard Spencer, his partner of almost 60 years.
Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief."