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2011 December 23

Memories: Betsey Johnson, Forever Indie

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We chatted with so many people over the course of 2011, but our July visit to Betsey Johnson's Hamptons abode was a definite highlight. Take another look...

(NEW YORK) If you’ve ever seen her in the flesh, you’re not likely to forget her. But designer Betsey Johnson, 68, tends to go under the radar when she’s in the country. Who knew that the ultimate indie spirit is right at home in East Hampton?  EDDIE ROCHE

When did you first start coming out here?
The Sixties. I was going out with John Cale from the Velvet Underground, and I came out with Edie [Sedgwick] and Andy [Warhol] and the troops. Edie was my fit model at the time. I think the Velvets came out to play a gig in somebody’s mansion. I wasn’t a Factory Girl, but Edie and Andy liked my silver clothes and blah, blah, blah. I’m very unlike Keith Richards in the sense that I don’t remember everything. Coming out to the Hamptons at that time was a very uncomfortable experience, like, “Look at the freaks!’ Almost like segregation. It was the very rich, and very elitist. Andy, of course, was adored, respected and honored. He had made it, but for his kids, like us, it was a little rough. I bought this house about 10 years ago, and now, when I go through town and see a real hip-hop, rapper type with a mohawk or tattoos, it’s like, ‘Whoa! East Hampton?!’

What would Andy think of the Hamptons culture today?

He probably wouldn’t have said much, as always—maybe something like, “Yup, that’s the way it is!” I’m sure he would have done a piece with Botox and retinol.

Would Andy have gotten Botox?
Probably. He knew he was photographed a lot and liked to look as good as he could.

Did your first experience in the Hamptons turn you off?
I didn’t come back for years. 

Obviously, you gave it another shot. 
The first summer I came back was right after my nightmare former husband and I had just split, thank God. My daughter Lulu and I spent the summer here together and really calmed down. We went to Judy Licht’s house a lot.

Do you shop here?
No, I don’t like shopping or the social thing. I’m out here for the green, the flowers, the lack of schedule. I get on the damn train on Thursday at 4 p.m. and go back on the bus on Tuesday morning.

Let’s talk about the house.
It was so perfect for me when I was alone, and now it has to be cleared and clean for the kids [her grandchildren]. It’s not worth the energy of screaming, ‘Don’t draw on the walls!’ It’s easier to clear the tchotchkes away.

OK, enough small talk. How old is your sexy new boyfriend?
Oh, my God! I think he’s 46, 47 or 48.

Good for you!
I was so over guys, but he’s the real deal. It’s quite amazing. We connected immediately. I’ve never been happier living with anybody. I keep thinking, ‘How come I really like being with this person?’ For me, nothing lasts for more than two years, and the second year is always painful. With the last guy, I knew I was making a huge mistake going down the aisle, but I didn’t have the strength to say no at the altar.

Are you guys spending July 4 together?
I’ll be out here with the kids, and if my former partner Chantal (Bacon) and her husband Phil are out here, we’ll watch the fireworks in Amagansett with them. It’s a ritual every Fourth of July: We walk down these long stairs and see the fireworks on a wooden pier. Last year, I got the date wrong and I missed it!

In the spirit of July 4, what’s the most indie thing you’ve ever done?
In 2002, I showed my collection right here at my house, on August 10, my 60th birthday. I worked on the house for a year for that party. Two buses filled with press that I love came in from the city, and there was champagne, a margarita station, and even a tequila booth. We had models standing in vignettes, and Little Miss Muffet made an appearance. A girl in a beautiful chiffon sequined dress was watering the plants in the garden with acid plant killer. It was real Gaga!

Sounds like it!
I also feel it was a very independent move to not tell anyone that I had breast cancer except (my daughter) Lulu when I was diagnosed. I thought it would ruin my business. 

Did you do chemo?
I didn’t. I was really lucky—I had implants, which I never liked, but one day, when I was having a massage—here, actually—I felt a little bump in the scar tissue. I caught it so early. I went into the hospital at Cornell two days before Christmas to get it treated. I was supposed to go to Mexico with Lulu, but we secretly came to the Hamptons after the lumpectomy. I needed to crash. The house was in total demolition, though. There were no floors, so we went to the Maidstone Hotel for two weeks. Didn’t answer the phone, didn’t use the phone. The Hamptons have been major.

What’s it like to be a grandma?
I never thought I’d see the day. The happiest times of my body, mind, my everything is when I’m with the kids. I do like having babysitters around, though!

What do your granddaughters, Ella and Layla, call you?
Grandma! I’ve read some of those “Glamma” articles, but I like good ol’ Grandma.

You have a super tight family.
Really tight. Lulu’s father and I split a couple months after she was born. She and I are wonderfully close.

You’re quite a character. Would you ever do a reality show?
The idea has come up here and there, but I don’t like the immediate invasion. My boyfriend Bobby and I go out to dinner or I go out to dinner alone and watch old movies.

How’s it going with Steve Madden?
He bought the licensing part of my business, not the retail part of me. I’ve known Steve for years. I think he’s a smart, kickass mover of a guy. Totally upfront. That guy calls a spade a spade. I’d run into him now and then over the years, and he always loved my work and my stories. I’m in my retail world and he’s doing the licensing thing and it’s working out great. I’m very happy with the collaboration. I am not happy that my own company had to blow it. We couldn’t survive the recession, we just couldn’t. I made severe mistakes with a couple of designers that I had, but I think I’m OK now. I did the fashion show two falls ago and I was literally out of business. I was begging Steve to please keep me in business. I couldn’t fathom that I’d go out of business. I can’t fathom it to this day! The good side is that we’re in business. The down side is that the money of the business is gone.

That sucks.
Yes! That sucks! After all these years... But I am here!

On a scale from 1 to 10... 
I love “on a scale of 1 to 10!” That’s how I communicate with my daughter!

…how would you rate your happiness?
Oh, 10!

Because of all of it! You are either a 10 or zero; life is great or it’s horrible. I’m very lucky. Most people have a life of, eh, a life. I’m very spoiled. I am extremely happy. I’m not happy about turning 69 this summer, but it’s fine. At least it’s a funny number. 

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