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2012 September 11

The Nine Lives Of Betsey Johnson

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(NEW YORK) Out of business? Not so much. The rumors of Betsey Johnson’s demise have been informing the blogs (and the trades) for years, but despite a few corporate setbacks, including the shuttering of her retail stores, this 70-year-old designer is still in charge as creative director of her company. She’s even filming a reality show! BY EDDIE ROCHE

You’ve had a tough year.
There was a f*ck up with my business. Everyone will say that when you sell your business, things change…and they changed! My world of retail lived a happy, 37-year-old life. The experience, the clothing…there will never be anything else like it. It’s as if Disney or Barbie died. But I don’t think it was meant to go on longer than it did. The story is very similar to what happened in [Valentino documentary] The Last Emperor. The business is now more about volume, and competition is fierce.  Life seems pretty nice, sitting here on my patio, but it’s a bitch out there.

Are you stressed?
As I get older, I want more happiness, more fun, and more airline tickets to exotic places. Luxury is not dealing with the sh*t that’s really hard. There was a point where my daughter, Lulu, and granddaughters were the only things that made me feel good. I’m so f*cking healthy that pressure and stress will kill me before anything else!

Was it difficult to let go of your staff?
It felt like a guillotine at the moment the knife comes down. We knew the night before, and I insisted on making the announcement with champagne and a big thank-you. I took video—I learned how to work a video camera—and I hugged everyone goodbye. On my birthday, I threw a big party for my company at our favorite bar, and we celebrated.

Did you cry when you had to bid your team farewell?
No. I only remember crying twice in my life—when my mother hit herself on a cabinet and when my doggy died.

What is your new role at the company?
Now, I’m Queen Bee. I’m the big boss apple sauce. I’m the creative director of a $200 million business, in charge of product, platform, and presentation. Nothing goes without my approval. Steve Madden is the best. My life is in his hands. I don’t know if I could ever tell him that.

Are you enjoying the new gig?
I’m overworked and very happy. The biggest problem is that I can’t stop working! I’ve had extremely great luck in my life [runs off to find the nearest piece of wood to knock]. I came to the city because I won a contest! Then I happened to be around the most incredible Warhol-esque performers and artists, even the weird ones, like Joplin.

Why are you doing a reality show?
It was Lulu’s idea! There was talk of doing an Ozzy Osbourne kind of thing, but that felt too 24/7. On this show, I’m basically Grandma, mommy, business Betsey, the mother/daughter relationship, la, la, la, la. I hope we do good!

You’ll be just fine.
It’s the most wonderful birthday present to celebrate my life with my daughter, family, and fans. Now this, I could kind of cry about. It’s huge!

What advice would you give younger designers?
Have a dream, put on blinders like the horsies in Central Park, and go full speed ahead. 

What are you most proud of in your career?
Everybody’s liked me! It’s a very wonderful feeling to know you were a good, nice, and honest person. It makes other people believe that you don’t have to be a bitch to get anywhere. You don’t have to have lunch and be tall and skinny. Now, I’m very proud that I don’t look like a fashion designer. Back then, it was a nightmare that I didn’t.

Have you always been this joyful?
I really have no memory, but I do remember a happy childhood. No fighting, yelling, or screaming. I sold lemonade on the street, and I was surrounded by really good people. My business partner Chantal [Bacon] and I chose a really good family to work in our company, too. But I’m over the past. I’m full speed ahead, rock and roll. Now I finally see it, and it all makes good, happy sense to me.

Should we expect a post-show cartwheel?
I’m aiming to do three this year for health, wealth, and happiness.

You’re certainly in shape...
I’m exercising with a cute trainer. I met him at the pool in Turks & Caicos. He has his own training studio in the Southamptons of New Jersey. I don’t exercise at all. I hate it. I don’t eat much except for champagne, cheese, and a hot piece of fish at dinner.

How do you get to his studio?
I take New Jersey Transit out there, which I love. I run into a lot of my fans on the train. I say hello and take some pictures, and then I hide.

How does it feel to be 70?
Not great. I’m going to die soon. I’d love to live! I’ve loved every minute of it. There were a couple of husbands....

What about your most recent boyfriend, Bobby?
Grandma’s moving on. We’re not friendly at the moment, but sh*t happens. On the reality show, they have free Grandma and free Lulu to set up. Two hot chicks!

Maybe you’ll find love on reality TV.
I don’t know. I hope Lulu meets Mr. Go to the Bank, though!

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