Mr. Blackwell, the acerbic designer whose annual worst-dressed list skewered the fashion felonies of celebrities from Zsa Zsa Gabor to Britney Spears, died Sunday of complications from an intestinal infection. He was 86.
Richard Blackwell was a little-known dress designer when he issued his first tongue-in-cheek criticism of Hollywood fashion disasters for 1960 — long before Joan Rivers and others turned such ridicule into a daily affair.
Year after year, he would take Hollywood’s reigning stars and other celebrities to task for failing to dress in the way he thought they should.
Among his catty pronouncements:
Barbra Streisand: “She looks like a masculine Bride of Frankenstein.”
Sharon Stone: “An over-the-hill Cruella de Vil.”
Bjork: “She dances in the dark — and dresses there, too.”
Surprisingly, the woman who topped his worst-dressed list for 1982 (announced in early 1983) was the newly married Diana, princess of Wales. He said she had gone from “a very young, independent, fresh look” to a “tacky, dowdy” style. She quickly regained her footing and wound up as a regular on Blackwell’s favorites list, the “fabulous fashion independents.”
Blackwell had started out as an actor himself, having been spotted by a talent agent while still in his teens. He landed a job as an understudy in the Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley’s heralded drama “Dead End.”
Although he got to play the role of the Dead End Kids’ leader onstage only one time, it led him to Hollywood where he landed bit parts in such films as “Little Tough Guy” (uncredited) and “Juvenile Hall” (as Dick Selzer).
He abandoned his acting career in 1958 and switched to fashion design. He claimed to be the first to make designer jeans for women, and his salon had begun to attract a few Hollywood names when he issued his first list covering the fashion faux pas of 1960. (Italian star Anna Magnani and Gabor were among his early victims.)
It quickly brought him the celebrity he had long coveted, and he became a favorite on the TV talkshow circuit.
He hosted his own show, “Mr. Blackwell Presents,” in 1968 and appeared as himself in such TV shows as “Matlock” and “Matt Houston.”
In 1992, he sued Johnny Carson for claiming that he had added Mother Teresa to his list, saying the comment exposed him to hatred and ridicule. NBC’s response was that the “Tonight Show” host was obviously joking.
During his heyday the issuing of Blackwell’s annual list was an eagerly anticipated media event.
On the second Tuesday in January he would assemble reporters at his mansion for a lavish breakfast before making a dramatic entrance for the television cameras.
By the turn of the millennium, however, the list had lost its juice and Blackwell took to issuing it by email.
Born Richard Sylvan Selzer, he was raised in a poverty-stricken neighborhood of Brooklyn. A persistent truant, he was in and out of boys’ homes and in his autobiography described an early life of thievery and prostitution.
He is survived by his partner of almost 60 years, R.L. Spencer. Donations may be made to the Roar Foundation at Shambala.org, the Actor’s Fund or Noonprop8.com.
— Associate Press and staff reports