Richard Blackwell; Scathing Critic of Star Style

Washington Post's Robin Givhan remembers Mr. (Richard) Blackwell's annual worst-dressed lists and infamous criticisms of celebrity style. Audio by Robin Givhan/The Washington PostPhotos by AP
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Richard Blackwell, a fashion designer who went by Mr. Blackwell and was known for skewering Hollywood royalty with catty put-downs in his annual list of worst-dressed celebrities, died Oct. 19 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles of complications from an intestinal infection. He was 86.

After failed careers as an actor, talent agent and manager, Mr. Blackwell refashioned himself as a costume designer in the 1950s and became a couturier to the stars. He didn't become a household name, however, until he began in 1960 to issue his annual lists, which mocked the pretensions of Hollywood and the fashion world with merciless sarcasm.

Decades before snarky tabloid TV shows and bloggers, Mr. Blackwell was poking fun at an empire with no clothes -- or at least with tasteless and ill-fitting ones. Starwatchers eagerly scanned his pronouncements to see which celebrity balloons he would puncture.

The bigger the name, the more scathing his critiques. Barbra Streisand, Cher and Queen Elizabeth appeared on the list year after year, and other targets of his withering scorn included Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Demi Moore, Madonna, Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone.

Taylor's appearance, Mr. Blackwell said in 1967, reminded him of "two small boys fighting under a mink blanket." Later, after she gained weight, he described her as "the rebirth of the Zeppelin."

Streisand looked like "a masculine Bride of Frankenstein," Cher was "a bag of tattooed bones in a sequined slingshot." Roseanne Barr was "an over-the-hill bowling ball in search of an alley," and Martha Stewart "dresses like the centerfold for Farmer's Almanac."

Few of the stars caught in Mr. Blackwell's sights resented his mockery, and some sent him fan letters. Only "Golden Girls" star Bea Arthur -- "wears leftovers from a marked-down garage sale" -- seemed genuinely angered by his comments.

"I merely said out loud what others were whispering," Mr. Blackwell told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. "It's not my intention to hurt the feelings of these people. Where are they going to get that much publicity unless they murder their mothers?"

Richard Sylvan Selzer was born Aug. 29, 1922, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and dropped out of school after the third grade. He wrote in his autobiography that he was raped at 11 and performed sexual favors in Central Park for nickels and dimes.

After working as a child actor on Broadway, he moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s, changed his name to Dick Ellis and attended the same acting classes as Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. He appeared in Mae West's 1944 Broadway play "Catherine Was Great," then returned to Hollywood as a bit player at RKO Pictures, where studio chief Howard Hughes renamed him Richard Blackwell.

When his acting and managerial careers stalled, Mr. Blackwell turned to fashion and opened a couture house in 1958. He made clothing for Jane Russell, Dorothy Lamour, Ann Miller, Jayne Mansfield, Eartha Kitt and Nancy Reagan, when she was California's first lady. His clothing often featured feathers and sequins, and he was among the first couturiers to design for larger women.

In 1960, the Sunday newspaper supplement American Weekly asked Mr. Blackwell to devise lists of best-dressed and worst-dressed celebrities, and a tradition was born. For years, Mr. Blackwell invited journalists to his 28-room Los Angeles mansion to unveil his annual roll of dishonor. It proved to be a publicity boon for his own fashions as well as for the celebrities he ridiculed.

"I like women to be pretty," he said in 1983. "Maybe I should have named the 10 worst designers instead of blaming the women who wear their clothes."

He retired from designing in the late 1980s but continued a flourishing secondary career as a fashion columnist for magazines and newspapers. He often appeared on talk shows and gave frequent talks on cruise ships and at luncheons across the country.

Although it wasn't as widely known as his worst-dressed rankings, Mr. Blackwell also released an annual list in which he praised the fashion sense of, among others, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Garner, Oprah Winfrey, Tippi Hedren, Beyoncé, Sarah Jessica Parker and Reese Witherspoon. Several stars, including Taylor, Minnelli and Midler, made both lists.

The "all-time best-dressed woman," in his view, was singer-actress Diahann Carroll, whom he called "possibly the most perfect woman."

In his 1995 autobiography, Mr. Blackwell claimed that he had affairs with several of Hollywood's top leading men and had spent thousands of dollars on plastic surgery.

"I am actually a tired, sensitive man who can no longer stand the pressure of being evil-tongued all the time," he said.

Survivors include his partner of 59 years, Robert Spencer of Los Angeles.

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