Dinner with Bevy, Part I
Who: Bevy Smith of Bravo’s Fashion Queens, Dinner with Bevy, Dining with Bevy Life with Vision, Bevy’s Books (and whatever else she wants…
What: Food, Fashion,Identity
Where: Harlem’s Red Rooster
When: A bustling Saturday night
ME: Where are you from?
BEVY: Harlem, USA, 150th street and 8th Avenue, across the street from The Dunbar Houses, which is where the amazing Matthew Henson lived. He was one of the first men ever to get to the North Pole. So as a kid, I was always aware of the history around me. I was aware that Harlem River Houses was the first housing project in Manhattan. I was aware that 140th St. was where Sammy Davis Jr. was from. I was aware that Ralph Ellison was still living in Sugar Hill. I was aware of those things, so that gave me a really strong sense of self. All of these fabulous people were from here and lived here, so I was like, okay!
ME: Where did you go to school?
BEVY: I went to Norman Thomas for high school and NYU for college.
ME: Which do you prefer: Black, Afro-American, African-American or Negro?
BEVY: Black. When I’m mocking the blacks, I use the term “Upright Negro.”
ME: Why black?
BEVY: Black unites us.
An impeccably dressed woman sitting in an adjacent banquet interrupts us to compliment Bevy on her work.
BEVY: Thank you so much. I love you. You’re beautiful! Look how beautiful and chic they are!
BEVY: Love. That means the world to me. That an older black woman loves my show. In the words of Sheree Whitfield, “Who’s gonna check me boo?” She loves my show.
BEVY: You asked me about black. The reason why I prefer black, certainly over African-American, is because when you travel the world and meet other black people and you identify yourself as an African-American, you have no connection with those people. So if I’m black and I’m in Bahia, those are my folks. If I’m black and in Cuba, those are my folks. Wherever I am in the world … if I’m black and I’m in Sweden and I meet some black folk, we’re connected.
ME: Do they feel the same thing?
BEVY: In Bahia surely. I know what you’re asking and there are some nut jobs that try to deny the diaspora and pretend it’s not real, but that’s another thing too. I always tend to focus on the positive versus the negative. I’m a super optimistic person!
ME: That leads me to my next question. In my last column I addressed Eddie Huang’s critique of Red Rooster and Marcus Samuelsson’s biography. He argued that Red Rooster had no place in Harlem. Do you think that Red Rooster has a place in Harlem?
BEVY: Most assuredly. I love what Marcus has done for this community. I love the inclusive nature of Red Rooster. Marcus and I were both Target ambassadors when Target opened up their store in East Harlem, so that’s really how I met Marcus (before, through Thelma Golden and Kim Hastreiter at Paper). When [Target] broke ground, we had an opportunity to do so many things together. I did some of the first corporate dinners here. I did Dinners with Bevy here. And the thing I love about Red Rooster is that the bar is largely neighborhood. Ginny’s on a Friday and Saturday night is largely neighborhood. There are so many people that could own a restaurant like this and have Ron Perelman in the dining room and then have Colin Powell in the dining room and ignore the neighborhood or would make it known that “this ain't for you!” He does not do that and that’s why he’s been so successful. When Harlem first started to change, there were a couple of people that were here and they made the mistake of coming here really to service the new Harlem people, which is what goes on in Brooklyn all the time. People are there to service new Brooklyn. They’re not there to service the people who have been there forever. Marcus has not made that mistake.
ME: According to Eddie a restaurant that doesn't offer take-out, that doesn't offer traditional soul food like Sylvia’s doesn't speak to the community. The fact that Marcus doesn't have tablecloths and things of that nature is anti-Harlem.
BEVY: Then he is insulting, he’s pandering and he’s very condescending if he thinks we’re this monolithic creature. What does that mean?
We’re interrupted when the maitre d’ brings us two glasses of champagne on the house.
BEVY: Thank you, my love.
BEVY: We grew up going to Copeland’s.
ME: Where the waiters wore bow ties and tuxedos.
BEVY: That’s right. And the fashion as well. I don’t even know … who is this Eddie person?
ME: He owns Chinese restaurants in lower Manhattan.
BEVY: What does he know about Harlem?
ME: Well, he took care of that. He brought one of his rapper friends in to verify because he felt insecure about his knowledge of Harlem. I think the rapper’s a tangential member of Dipset.
BEVY: Those children don’t even know Countee Cullen. They don’t even know Schomburg. They don’t even know ... If you’re gonna look at it from that purview you’re not even really looking at Harlem. I mean if you’re part of Dipset, no disrespect, but your Harlem is the rap era Harlem. That’s only one view and that’s not my view. That’s not how I grew up. So when this opened, I was like “Yay!” and I love what he’s done for the other restaurants in the community.
ME: So there’s a rumor among New York City chefs that Marcus can’t really cook. That he’s gotten where he is today because he’s the one black guy on the scene.
BEVY: So this is really insane to me that people would be so petty. He’s obviously not Guy Fieri. Alright so he’s handsome and exotic because he’s black and he’s also Swedish. These are not things that he manufactured; it is what is. So why wouldn't we take the tools that are given to us and build a world? That’s what everyone should do. You should take what you have at hand. That’s a very Harlem thing to do.
ME: Do you think that affirmative action is still alive and well?
BEVY: I don’t think that he was an affirmative action hire because I know that food, like fashion, is never PC. We’re not PC people. People will walk away from it if it does not work for them darling! That’s why fashion refuses to kowtow to doing anything, speaking to black people, having a diverse team. Their way of diversifying fashion is through the Asians. And we all know that they’re what people may deem a safe minority. Fashion, food, they don’t care.
Someone stops by to say hello and apologizes for not stopping by earlier.
BEVY: Good to see you, my love!
ME: Speaking of fashion, I was surprised to learn that you addressed the Fashion Queens criticism on Facebook. Why bother?
BEVY: So I really actually didn't address the full criticism about Fashion Queens, because I really don’t give two craps about the actual criticism of the show. It doesn't have to be everybody’s cup of tea. That’s fine. What I did address is when someone said, “None of them have any fashion credibility. None of them have ever worked in fashion.” Well, I’m sorry, I made my bones in fashion. My entire career has been in fashion. I've never worked in any other industry except fashion via advertising, marketing and then from an editorial point of view. So that’s what I addressed.
ME: Do you think that part of the reason why some people might assume that you haven’t been in the industry is because of the perception that black people don’t belong in fashion?
BEVY: I’m acutely aware that I don’t look like a traditional fashion person just by virtue of the fact that I’m black, just by virtue of the fact that I’m not a [size] 0 or 2. So that part, yeah. I’m aware that I don’t look like the stereotypical fashion person, but that has never hindered my career. I just move on through and do my work. So I’m all about doing the work. The work speaks for itself. So, if you’re so worried about how am I being perceived and what are they thinking, that’s going to hinder your work. And then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then they’re like, “We were right. You don’t belong because you failed.”
ME: I remember you telling me a long time ago that you felt like the material you had been offered in TV was going to make you look like a minstrel and you weren't into it. Where did those comments come from?
BEVY: I was just reading the New York Times Magazine cover story for this week about the Today Show. One of the things that was really interesting about that was that TV is still really dominated by white men. So folks have preconceived notions. That’s why diversity is so important to the workplace. If you don’t have any other viewpoints coming in there and you think your viewpoint is the only one, we all know that ain't the case. A lot of times I’m meeting with people and they’re making these assumptions about me and they think that they can just drop me in this space. And the thing I love about Fashion Queens is that yes, I get to be a kiki good time, but I also get to show that I have knowledge about fashion and about culture in the middle of being highly entertaining.
ME: What do you say to the people who wish they could see a more diverse representation of black people in fashion and that Fashion Queens is everything they've seen before as far as stereotypes of black gay men on TV?
BEVY: I don’t remember the last time you saw two fashion flexible men on TV with their own show. I don’t remember when that happened. This is what these men choose to do. This is how they express themselves. So while I get that you might be uncomfortable with that visual, who are we to suppress what they feel? Something that Lawrence always points out is that, you know, who would choose to be ridiculed and stared at every single day? Obviously this is something that he feels in his spirit to do. So while I understand that it might make a certain part of the population uncomfortable, you can’t please everybody so you gotta please yourself. And those guys are pleasing themselves. So are they setting back black gay men? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I think they are doing is that there are a lot of little gay boys all over the country that maybe feel like they want to wear women’s clothes and that’s how they want to express themselves. And now they know that they can do that and they don’t have to be a drag queen to do it. It doesn't mean that you can’t have a fulfilled life. It doesn't mean that you can’t do something that you love to do. Both of those boys have real ambitions and they really do want to move the conversation forward. They really do. And I hope that people will give them an opportunity to explain who they really are.
When the show first started I said to the boys and to the producers, “We’re gonna have to explain what’s going on here. We’re gonna have to put some kind of a title on it. We can’t just pop up on the screen and you boys don’t give an explanation as to what it is that you’re doing.” And then the term “fashion flexible” was born. And so we say that every episode: “my fashion flexible friends.”
ME: Is there such a thing as black fashion?
BEVY: So it was really interesting for me. When I had the VIBE opportunity, I wasn't into it because I was just like, for me, I've never been a casually dressed person and urban fashion was very casual. As a kid I wasn't even into jeans. Not really. I wear heels.
ME: Is that how you define black fashion?
BEVY: That was the first time we ever had a classification: urban fashion. Otherwise, Stephen Burrows is not black fashion. Patrick Kelly is not black fashion.
ME: So you don’t consider them black designers?
BEVY: Yes, they’re black designers but what they make is not black fashion. Not just for black people. It’s not like it’s got a larger rear end section because black girls got more booty or something. I mean how is it different from other fashion that’s really amazing and well designed? I don’t think it is. Obviously, every designer brings their own cultural experience into their designs so in that way, yes, it’s different, but no, it’s not black fashion.
ME: Would you consider the “tribal” trend that was happening last year black fashion?
BEVY: No, inspired by Africa. Like art, Picasso. All that stuff is African.
ME: But no one would call Picasso’s art black art.
BEVY: Right, because it’s not black. I don’t know that we need a classification like that, “black fashion.” If a female designer was heavy set, would her line be considered plus size because of her weight/size? What sense does it make that a designer’s work be assigned a classification based on how they look versus their design aesthetic? That only happens to black designers; it’s racist and limiting.
To Be Continued….