Monday, June 20, 2011
8912: B. Smith B Back.
From The New York Times…
B. Smith, a Renaissance Woman, Comes Home
By Lola Ogunnaike
Before B. Smith found success as a fashion model, restaurateur, television host and cookbook author, she was a struggling lounge singer and actress. “I worked all the small clubs throughout Manhattan and the Catskills,” she said. “Anywhere that would have me.”
After a three-decade absence, Ms. Smith recently returned to the stage, starring in the hit Off-Broadway play “Love, Loss, and What I Wore” by Nora and Delia Ephron. Based on the best-selling book by Ilene Beckerman, the play examines the monumental role fashion plays in women’s lives, weaving together tales of Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses and frumpy maternity gowns, tacky prom get-ups and classic black turtlenecks.
The show features a star-studded rotating cast (everyone from Rosie O’Donnell to Brooke Shields), and in its most recent incarnation, Ms. Smith joined Anne Meara, Conchata Ferrell, Minka Kelly and AnnaLynne McCord.
“Being on stage at this age, with all that I’ve done, makes me feel like, ‘wow, I’m back home,” said Ms. Smith, 61, perched in her sprawling sun-drenched apartment on Columbus Circle. “It’s where I’m supposed to be.”
Though the women had only a week to rehearse before previews, they quickly grew close. “We’re like a professional sports team in many ways,” she said. “Everybody has their position and we’re really there for one another. It’s a love fest.”
That much was evident at the show’s opening-night party in late April held, of course, at B. Smith’s, her jazzy Southern-themed restaurant in the theater district. As Ms. Smith swirled about in a curve-hugging Herve Leger cocktail dress, cast mates and partygoers marveled at her staying power, her enduring beauty and her uncanny ability for self-reinvention over the years. Asked why Ms. Smith was chosen for the play, Nora Ephron pointed to her and half-jokingly declared, “Um, look at her.”
They’ve been saying that for years. Ms. Smith grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where her multitasking got an early start. “I inherited a paper route, I sold magazines, had lemonade stands, I was a candy striper and into fund-raising,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed being busy.”
She was also a trailblazer for African-Americans. “I was the first to bring a black D. J. to our school,” she recalled, laughing, about her high school years. “That’s still one of the first things people bring up when they see me at the reunions.”
It was a similar tenacity that led her to become one of the first African-American women on the cover of Mademoiselle, in July 1976. After reading an ad in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a modeling school, Ms. Smith begged her parents, a housekeeper and steelworker, to allow her to attend.
Upon graduating, she moved to New York with dreams of being a big-time model and relentlessly pursued editors for work, at a time when many were hesitant to hire a black woman. “I used to make calls to magazines all the time,” she said, sighing. “I wasn’t discovered. I made them discover me.”
Landing the Mademoiselle cover brought her steady work in fashion capitals, and for several years this was enough. But Ms. Smith couldn’t quell her entrepreneurial spirit. She’d always enjoyed cooking and hosting dinner parties, so in 1986 she opened the B. Smith restaurant. Two more in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and Washington soon followed.
In 1994, she added cookbooks to her burgeoning business with “B. Smith’s Entertaining and Cooking for Friends.” The glossy tabletop work shared bits of her life, recipes for Southern favorites like pecan pie and tips for the perfect beach picnic. Her second book, “B. Smith Cooks Southern-Style,” released in 2009, offers a healthier spin on calorie-laden classics. “Obesity is killing us in the black community,” she said. “We have to make better choices about what we’re eating.”
Although her return to the stage ended a few weeks ago, this renaissance woman has more than a few projects to keep her on the run. Tour her office, a cozy apartment one floor below her home, and you’ll find copies of her lifestyle magazine (which hit shelves in 1999, a year before Oprah’s), pieces from her home collection for Bed, Bath & Beyond (which started in 2001 and includes duvets and dinner plates) and samples from her furniture line (which she describes as “Afrasian” for its combination of African and Asian influences).
Last year, she branched out into food, with a line of olive oil, now selling in more than 2,000 stores. And later this year, she plans to expand with a jewelry collection. The line will be affordable, “but look expensive,” she said. “I’ve used sterling silver, white topaz, turquoise. These will be feel-good pieces that you can keep forever.”
She also wants to restart her television show, “B. Smith With Style,” which began in 1997 and was broadcast on NBC stations. Through her show, she hopes to spread the gospel of holistic living. “I’m not a perfectionist and I don’t want to force anything on anybody,” she said. “But if I can preach to a few people and they get it, that’s how movements start.”
And, she said, she’d like to appear on stage again in the near future. “I’m sure one of these days I will be inviting you to ‘An Evening with B. Smith,’ because I also want to get back to my singing,” she said. “Betty White is my hero. There’s absolutely no reason to slow down if you can keep on doing your thing.”