Fashion's perpetually childlike Betsey Johnson has known the dizzying peaks of popularity and the wretched valleys of despair. Yet the designer, who set fashion trends for more than 40 years, is rising again with her own reality show, "XOX Betsey Johnson," premiering May 12 on the Style Network.
Known for her Pippi Longstocking hair, her over-the-top designs and kooky vivacity, Johnson shares the camera with her daughter, Lulu, in an intimate look at her work and their mother-daughter relationship.
Having overcome breast cancer, Johnson saw her empire - including 63 retail stores - slip into bankruptcy last year. But she remains unbowed as the creative director for her brand, specializing in accessories, swim wear, a dress collection and soon an aerobic line.
"I didn't ever want to do a reality show that came into my personal life because I need my separate, personal, alone downtime," she says, jangling the five bracelets on each wrist and slipping on a silver, crocheted sweater over her ruffled pink bustier and black pedal pushers.
"But I was very excited about a realty show that would show - especially my fans - what I do in fashion. Then Lulu, in the last year, has been about the changes she's going through. We're both still in a very changing place and it's been a fascinating eight months of recording our lives."
And what a life she's had. Johnson never wanted to be a fashion designer. "That was the last thing," she says, "because I grew up learning from my mother and the neighbor how to sew. I loved making things and sewing and artsy-craftsy, Girl-Scouty things ... I never took a fashion course. It's the perfect category for me now because it involves showtime and artsy stuff, and I've been designing prints and creating prints. That's very 'art school.' It was art and knowing how to sew and growing up in leotards in dancing school - costumes that fascinated me," she says.
The middle child of three from Connecticut, she admits that she was always a bit hyper. "You're born with different energies and whatever. I've always had this good but bad drive. I don't love it. Because it's living in a world of kind of like panic and worry. Worry warts - everybody in Connecticut are worry warts. You want to be liked, so you worry. I'm a worrier, and I have a lot of energy and I like to do things. Lulu wakes up smoooooth. I wake up, 'OK, what am I going to do? Where am I going today? 'What is the duh, duh, duh?' So I wake up kind of anxious, in a way. I love deadlines. I'm good with deadlines. When I was a little girl in dancing school I got the discipline part."
What she didn't get was the marriage part. Johnson, 70, has been married three times. Lulu's father was not one of them. She says she's not willing to do it again. "Too much paperwork," she sighs.
"I just was incredibly in love and optimistic and went for it. In terms of paperwork, my first husband - pssssst, he didn't care. It's over, it's over. My second and third, it was difficult. The third was really difficult because he was such a brain child. And the second one died. We met, we married and divorced in three months. Nothing in my work life is creepy like my private life. My private life gets kind of mixed up. That's why my work comes along and directs me and saves me and grounds me and keeps me going."
In spite of her optimism, she does have regrets. "I wouldn't have had such a long-distance relationship with my last husband. Soon as we got married and lived together for three weeks, we were divorcing. We never got the opportunity to live together. I was in New York and he was a computer guy so he had his own company in London, then he was in Palo Alto, and he had ex-wives and the kids out there. And he loved San Francisco and I didn't."
Her career began when she won a design contest fostered by Mademoiselle Magazine. The win swept her to London. "That was the summer of '64, mods, rockers, Beatles, Rolling Stones. Everyone was just on the verge. The'60s came from London and it was just like spring beginning to pop. And Mary Quant and Biba. And the women at Mademoiselle were extraordinary, wonderful women. I was there for my guest editorship and we stayed at the all-girls' - no men allowed - Barbizon Hotel. It was a whirlwind and we worked on the college issue.
"But I couldn't pay my rent. After the Barbizon I lived in a five-story walkup under the Brooklyn Bridge. And I thought, 'What can I do to make more money?'"
What she did was design a T-shirt made of crocheted material topped with a velvet ribbon. Everyone was surprised when mail orders began pouring in. "I had to go home every night and make four of them and on the weekend had to make 10 of them. After 300 yards of fabric, I was done. ... I liked doing that, then I realized maybe I'll do my four or five favorite T-shirts and T-shirt, flippy, mini things. I make a little drawing. It was very logical. Nothing brilliant. I threw my college portfolio away."
Premieres 8 p.m. Sunday on Style Network