Richard Blackwell

Richard Blackwell
Richard Blackwell
Born Richard Sylvan Selzer
August 29, 1922(1922-08-29)
Brooklyn Heights, New York,
United States
Died October 19, 2008(2008-10-19) (aged 86)
Los Angeles, California,
United States
Occupation Journalist, fashion critic, actor
Years active 1938–1998
Partner Robert Spencer

Richard Blackwell (August 29, 1922 – October 19, 2008) was an American fashion critic, journalist, television and radio personality, artist, former child actor and former fashion designer, sometimes known just as Mr. Blackwell. He was the creator of the "Ten Worst Dressed Women List", an annual awards presentation he unveiled in January of each year. He published the "Fabulous Fashion Independents" list and an annual Academy Awards fashion review, both of which receive somewhat less media attention. His longtime companion, former Beverly Hills hairdresser, Robert Spencer, managed him. He wrote two books, Mr. Blackwell: 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos and an autobiography, From Rags to Bitches.[1][2]



Early years

Blackwell was born Richard Sylvan Selzer and raised in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. He was of Jewish descent and grew up in the tenements that housed the “working-poor” immigrant families of the early 20th century.[3] As a child, he claimed he was severely beaten by his stepfather, often resorting to sleeping in the alley beneath his fire escape with a broken bottle he used for protection rather than face further abuse. He only completed the third grade of elementary school.[4] When he was 11, he was the victim of rape by an older man while attending a boys’ camp.[5] He also worked as a prostitute in his early days.[6]



He began acting in theater in his teens, appearing in the original 1935 Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End. After relocating to the West Coast in the 1930s (where he went to school with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, among others) he adopted the name “Dick Ellis” and was signed by the studios to play small parts in the motion picture industry.[3] In-between acting assignments, he worked as a messenger at Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, California. Howard Hughes changed his name to Richard Blackwell when he signed him to RKO.[7] He returned to Broadway in 1944 for Catherine Was Great, which starred Mae West, but eventually left acting for a short stint as a Hollywood agent. He discovered a talent for design while making his client’s stage costumes.[8]

Fashion designer

The name "Mr. Blackwell" came in the late-1950s when he launched his clothing line. As with Valentino, Versace and later Richard Tyler, he and his line became synonymous. He was an important designer and during the 1960s he became the first in history to present his line on a television broadcast; and the first to make his line available for plus-size women.[9] His designer dresses sold for between $800 to $1,000 and were very successful.[3] During the nearly two decade existence of the "House of Blackwell”, he was designer to Yvonne DeCarlo, Jayne Mansfield, Dorothy Lamour, Jane Russell and California first lady Nancy Reagan.[10] At the height of his prominence, he openly declared his disdain for Women's Wear Daily and its publisher, John Fairchild.[11] During the 1980s, the emerging drift toward casual wear brought an end to The House of Blackwell.[12]

Fashion critic

In his beginning years as a designer he was asked to do a one-time article for American Weekly magazine of the “10 Best and Worst Dressed” people and developed the franchise from it.[8] Although best known for his “Worst Dressed“ list, he maintained a successful career as a fashion journalist. He was syndicated in The Globe tabloid and wrote features in newspapers and lifestyle magazines.[13] His "Fabulous Fashion Independents" often featured celebrities whom in prior years have been listed in his Ten Worst Dressed.[14]

Worst-dressed lists

The first “Ten Worst Dressed Women” list premiered in 1960, to moderate media success, but as the House of Blackwell became more successful, the list took off.[15] By its third year every television and radio network and virtually all news services worldwide began to cover it. Forty-seven years after first release, Blackwell annually spent a week after its publication on telephone interviews to fashion magazines, radio programs and news networks.[16] The list is a conglomeration of techniques from first letter alliteration: Martha Stewart – "dull, dowdy and devastatingly dreary" and consonant: “fabulous fashion independents”, to free verse: Cher – “A million beads/And one overexposed derriere”, and pun: Queen Elizabeth, “Was she the palace Christmas tree, or just a royal clown?” About Wynona Judd – "She looks like Hulk Hogan in sequins." Often, he simply quipped: Martha Stewart – “Dresses like the centerfold for Farmers' Almanac”, and other times combines forms: Dixie Chicks – “They look like a trio of truck stop fashion tragedies/ trapped in a typhoon”.[17] The list’s popularity has waned in some segments of contemporary culture, many feeling that it is mean-spirited. However, Blackwell has displayed personal missives from many celebrities including Dolly Parton, Mariah Carey and country singer Tanya Tucker expressing their thanks for being selected.[18] Other former list alumni like “Hollywood Beat” editor, Marci Weiner – “Why does Marci Weiner always dress like she’s auditioning for a Fellini movie?” – who was initially angered by her inclusion, now considers it an honor.[19] Still, despite its decline in universal acceptance, it was nonetheless published each year.[20]

The list spawned a parade of imitators from TMZ’s In The Zone: Mr. Blackwell vs. TMZ[21] to the UK’s The Sun newspaper’s Sun Women Online: Celebrity Style Watch[22] and the less known such as “The Catwalk Queen”.[23] Not all are lists, but virtually all include jibes and jabs similar to those that Blackwell first used to capture media attention in the early 1960s. Harry Shearer's Le Show radio program has featured "Blackwell on Blackwell." Roger Stone, himself known for his taste in fashion, has taken up Blackwell's tradition of best and worst dressed lists (albeit with a greater emphasis on the best dressed) since Blackwell's death.[24]

Television and radio

Mr. Blackwell was a pioneer in television fashion and had been a fixture in the medium throughout his career as a designer and critic. Most recently, he appeared as himself on an episode of the ABC daytime soap, Port Charles.[25] He hosted a daily program on Los Angeles' talk radio powerhouse KABC from 1972–74, moving to KIEV 1975–1981.[26]

In 1968 he starred in his own KCOP two hour color television special,’’Mr. Blackwell Presents’’, with Anna Maria Alberghetti, Nick Adams and Rose Marie.[27] It was the first telecast in history in which a designer presented his line on television. He continued to be recognized as preeminent during his years in the field.[28]

He often participated in audience critique segments on daytime talk and variety shows. He appeared on The Mike Douglas Show on numerous occasions,[29] and on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, as a guest on the first broadcast after Carson moved the show from New York to Burbank. The May 2, 1972 episode also featured Rob Reiner, George Carlin and Johnny Mathis.[30] He appeared on a total of four additional Tonight Shows between August 1970 and January 1973 and is included in the series “Best Of The Tonight Show” DVD sets.[31]

Personal life

Mr. Blackwell at his home in Hancock Park in late 2008

Blackwell lived in the Hancock Park enclave of Los Angeles with his partner of 60 years, Robert Spencer.[32] In 1964, they rented their home to The Beatles for the English band’s first visit to the city. It was leaked to the media, however, and the group made other arrangements.[33] He was also an artist known for his avant-garde and he published several editions of his work, including his "Mother America" series.[34]

In 2001, Blackwell was diagnosed with Bell's palsy which causes limited to severe paralysis of facial muscles and can affect eyesight as well. Although treatable, Bell's palsy is incurable; however, it often clears up on its own. Blackwell was unable to unveil the 2000 list at a live news conference for the first time in its 40-year history and remained out of the public eye for six months. He came back for the 2001 “Worst Dressed” and returned to a full, normal social life.[35]

Blackwell died in Los Angeles on October 19, 2008 of complications from an intestinal infection.[36]

In pop culture

In the Seinfeld television series episode (No. 87), “The Chaperone” originally aired on September 22, 1994, the Kramer character becomes a chaperone for a Miss Rhode Island contestant in a national beauty pageant. In an exchange with Kramer (played by Michael Richards), Seinfeld exclaims, “Well, if it isn’t Mr. Blackwell,” as Kramer slides into the room. Kramer responds, “Oh, come on! … You’re pooh-poohing!” to which Seinfeld responds, “Yes, I pooh-pooh.”[37] He was played by Harry Shearer on the May 20, 1995 episode of SCTV’s, The Show Formerly Known as The Martin Short Show.[38] In 2006, CBS picked up an AP story about US figure skater Johnny Weir’s costume at the Olympics in Turin under the Headline: “Figure Skating Gets Ugly: Mr. Blackwell, You’re Wanted At The Olympics”.[39]

The Kiss concept album Music from "The Elder", includes a song about a villain named "Mr. Blackwell". The pre choruses include the refrain, "You're cold and mean, and in between / You're rotten to the core", which seems to describe various celebrities' opinions of the real Blackwell.

The animated television show The Simpsons had a parody version of Mr. Blackwell named "Mr. Boswell." A sample quote from "A Streetcar Named Marge": "Memo to Goldie Hawn: Cheerleading tryouts were 30 years ago – let's grow up, shall we?" Bart Simpson, watching him on TV, chuckled and said, "He's such a bitch!"

In the sitcom Two and a Half Men, Season 5, Episode 14: Winky Dink Time, Charlie Harpers exclaims to his nephew Jake, "Please, Mr. Blackwell, I want your opinion!"

In the 2001 film "Shallow Hal", Hal (played by Jack Black) tries to cheer up his best friend Mauricio (played by Jason Alexander) by telling him that he has "more style than Mr. Blackwell."[40]

In the television drama "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip", Matt Albie (played by Matthew Perry) expresses his dismay at his staff's appearance, remarking, "I'm not Blackwell or anything, but holy cow, what the hell are you guys wearing?"


  • Juvenile Court (film) (1938) as “Ears” (Dick Selzer)
  • Little Tough Guy (film) (1938) as “Bud” (un-credited)
  • Promises! Promises (film) (1963) as Jayne Mansfield's wardrobe designer
  • The Mike Douglas Show (1967) – Guest appearance
  • Mr. Blackwell Presents (1968) TV special (Host, designer and producer)
  • The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1970–1973) – Five guest appearances
  • The Virginia Graham Show (1971) – Guest appearance
  • The Mike Douglas Show (1972) – Guest appearance
  • The Mike Douglas Show (1975) – Guest appearance
  • The Brady Brides (TV series) (1981) "A Pretty Boy Is Like A Melody" (as himself)
  • Matt Houston (TV series) (1982) "Deadly Fashion" as “Valentine St. Clair”
  • Matlock (1990, two-part episode) as the Art dealer
  • Civil Wars (1992) "The Triumph of DeVille" as himself
  • Blossom (TV series) (1991) "Blossom: A Rockumentary" as himself
  • Hollywood Women (miniseries) (1994) as himself (interviewee) in Segment 4 ("Fear and Violence")
  • Howard Stern (TV series) (1995, two episodes) as himself
  • Port Charles (soap opera) (1997, 1999) as himself (13 episodes)
  • Intimate Portrait of Marilyn Monroe (Lifetime TV documentary) (1998) as himself (interviewee)
  • Elvis Is Alive! I Swear I Saw Him Eating Ding Dongs Outside The Piggly Wiggly’s (film) (1998) as himself


  • Dead End (1935) – billed as Richard Seltzer
  • Catherine Was Great (1944) – billed as Dick Ellis


  • Blackwell, Richard (1991). Mr. Blackwell: 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos (First ed.). Pharos. ISBN 0886876257. 
  • Blackwell, Richard (1995). From Rags to Bitches (First ed.). Stoddart. ISBN 1881649571. 


  1. ^ Blackwell (1991)
  2. ^ Blackwell (1995)
  3. ^ a b c Mr. Blackwell: Information and Much More from
  4. ^ Peter Anthony Holder interview with Blackwell, June 3, 1995; CJAD 800 AM radio, Montreal. Captured April 9, 2007
  5. ^ From Rags To Bitches; Stoddart
  6. ^ . [dead link]
  7. ^ Monica Sullivan: Book Review; October 13, 1996
  8. ^ a b Peter Anthony Holder Interview
  9. ^ Colorado State University, Department of Design and Merchandising, Historic Costume & Textile Museum
  10. ^,0,7247295.story – January 9, 2007 Captured April 9, 2007
  11. ^ Book review, “From Rags To Bitches”;
  12. ^ Mr. Blackwell from
  13. ^ Blog Mr. Blackwell Justifies Existence for One More Year
  14. ^ Angelina Jolie was on "Worst" in 2000 and on the "Independents in 2006
  15. ^ Golden Needle Awards Captured 07, April, 2007
  16. ^ Rag To Bitches”
  17. ^ AP Article by Gustavo P. Secchi, January 18, 2000; from McSweeny’ in which the author calls Blackwell “a genius”. Captured April 16, 2007
  18. ^ Mr. Blackwell: 30 Years of Fashion Fiascos; Pharos, 1991)
  19. ^ From Captured April 10, 2007.
  20. ^ USA article Captured April 15, 2007.
  21. ^
  22. ^,,2006000000,00.html Captured April 9, 2007
  23. ^ Catwalk Queen: Fashion Police from the website April 14, 2007
  24. ^
  25. ^ Episode #506; Monday, August 2, 1999
  26. ^
  27. ^ Mr. Blackwell Presents (1968) (TV)
  28. ^ Colorado State University Historic Costume & Textile Museum
  29. ^ From The Mike Douglas Show website; 11, April, 2007
  30. ^ Rare Tonight Shows. Captured April 9, 2007.
  31. ^ Richard Selzer [sic]
  32. ^ Adams, Guy (21 October 2008). "Richard Blackwell and the great crimes of fashion". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2008-10-22. 
  33. ^ Rags To Bitches; pp. 223–225
  34. ^ ArtzDirect/ Blackwell avant-garde series serigraphs and posters “Mother America” Captured April 12, 2007.
  35. ^ USA article “Mr. Blackwell Dresses Down Bell’s Palsy”; September 25, 2001
  36. ^ Bob Thomas (20 October2008). "Fashion Critic Mr. Blackwell Dies at 86". The Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-10-23. 
  37. ^ From Seinfeld Scripts website; April 9, 2007
  38. ^ From SCTV Guide.
  39. ^ CBS Sports: Captured April 8, 2007
  40. ^;; Shallow Hal Script – Dialogue Transcript, Captured January 5, 2011

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