Richard Blackwell – the self-important bad boy of fashion whose nearly five decades’ worth of annual Worst-Dressed Lists could be counted upon to provide some of the meanest laughs of every new year – died Sunday of complications from an intestinal infection, said publicist Harlan Boll. Blackwell was 86.
Snide, sardonic and unrepentantly punny, Blackwell’s Lists – like “Mr. Blackwell,” as he always called himself – once inspired annual Hollywood target Zsa Zsa Gabor to hire him to design her an outfit. In one of his final assaults, in January 2007, Blackwell took aim at Britney Spears and Paris Hilton (who, coincidentally, just happens to be Zsa Zsa Gabor’s great-step-niece), and pronounced them “two peas in an over-exposed pod … style-free and fashion deprived.”
Other favorite punching bags over the years invariably included Anna Nicole Smith (“Don’t bother with a new designer, Anna,” he advised her in 2002, “just hire a structural engineer”) and Barbra Streisand (“She looks like a masculine Bride of Frankenstein”).
In a revealing PEOPLE profile in 1985 – marking the 25th anniversary of his notorious list – it was noted that in his lifetime Blackwell had attempted suicide at least three times, when he thought his career was over.
Born impoverished and illegitimate as Richard Sylvan Selzer in a seedy section of Brooklyn in 1922, the future fashion arbitrator only went as far as the fifth grade. His luck turned in 1936, when he was typecast as a Dead End Kid – as a character named “Ears,” given that his own protruded until he had them surgically altered – first on Broadway and then out West in Hollywood.
His film career, such as it was, was revived in 1944 by no less than eventual RKO Studio owner Howard Hughes, who renamed Selzer (then using the stage name Dick Ellis) Richard Blackwell and cast him as a swarthy screen hero.
The film career never took off, and Blackwell tried personal managing – until it was noticed, by 1957, that the clothes he designed for his clients often out-shined their acting.
With his then-business (and personal) partner Robert Spencer, Blackwell’s label was launched – and cagily promoted by his Worst-Dressed List, which he initiated as an alternative to the popular International Best Dressed List dispensed by legendary fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert.
Eventually, the outrageousness of Blackwell’s remarks gained him the publicity he sought – and the riches to purchase Renoir and Van Dyck originals.
“The year the list came out everybody was mad as hell. They said, ‘Who the hell does Blackwell think he is?’ They made me a name,” he would recall, adding, that when it would come time for his eventual funeral, “Everyone will show up to see if I am really gone.”
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