You can turn blue in the face hearing stories about people stepping out on faith to pursue their dreams, but in the case of Fashion Queens’ Bevy Smith, it’s all really true.
As a former fashion advertising exec, Smith would educate an array of high-end fashion designers and luxury good manufacturers on the media landscape. Nowadays, the Harlem native has refashioned herself as an in-demand urban socialite (via her Dinner With Bevy event enterprise) and a sought after fashion maven. She’s also one of the hosts of the Bravo series Fashion Queens, which made its return just this past weekend.
For the weekly gabfest, Smith joins popular Atlanta hairstylists Derek J and Miss Lawrence to dish dirt on fashion trends and break down celebrity culture. In each half-hour episode, the jubilant trio brings much gaiety and a very necessary dose of Black fabulousness to the fold. History has shown Black people to be arbiters of fashion trends and contributors to the culture, yet very few have been called upon to commentate on it regularly. Until most recently, that is. Last spring, Fashion Queens’ six-week test run became a ratings juggernaut for the network.
“Oh, I’m so excited abut the new season,” Smith says, in a drawl that’s uniquely hers—a hybrid of Uptown girl meets Southern griot. “I’m most excited because this time around we know that we have a full season. So that gives us a sense of comfort; we can get our pacing and show out. We don’t have to worry about [whether] will we get any more episodes. We know that we are slotted for 28, so we’re going to go out there and have a great time, try to coin more catchphrases and give accolades to people who look fabulous. And pan those who don’t.”
Smith herself has an eye-popping persona that would lend itself well to the rapidly growing reality TV genre, but she want no parts of it—even refusing many offers to be cast on one.
“If it was a show where I can help people, a show about me really giving guidance to people, that’s one conversation,” Smith, who says she mentors up to 10 young people at a time, declares. “But something that’s salacious about me and my girlfriends being fabulous and shopping and drinking and traveling, I’m not really interested in something like that.”
As a vivacious 18 year-old temp worker for a now defunct advertising agency, Smith impressed a budding executive who took her under his wing and became her mentor. “[Jeff McKay] was the secret to my success,” she reflects about her wonder years, learning the fashion media business inside out. From temp worker to receptionist to media planner, Smith got a chance to see the world in more ways than one.
When McKay left the company to start his own firm, he brought her along with him, as his media director working on accounts for The New York Times, Shiseido Cosmetics and the legendary Bill Blass. “He wont allow me to give him credit because he says when I came to him I was fully formed. He always said, ‘Your parents did an amazing job with you, and you were funny as hell.’
“I was always very in tune with who I was. So even working in the very lily white fashion industry, I was very clear about my place in it, and that I deserved a place at that table,” she adds.
Smith, a New York University alum, is credited with bringing high-end fashion brands into Vibe magazine when she oversaw accounts for Gucci, Prada and Dolce & Gabanna during the publication’s heyday. At rock music’s storied Rolling Stone magazine, she was the only person of color in the ranks as its senior director of fashion advertising. It was there her epiphany came, to flip the script and do TV.
“I have always thought of myself as a businesswoman first and foremost,” she explains. “The fact that I actually had what some might call a sparkly personality and a quick wit, it was always something I’ve used to my advantage in my business. But then over the years, people kept saying to me—especially when I would be in Milan and in Paris— ‘You should be on TV.’ I started to give it some thought and said, ‘Wow, maybe I should be on TV,’ and decided to give it a go.”
Her career reshuffling led her to plum writing assignments for coveted fashion magazines like Glamour and Interview, and a prime-time red carpet hosting gig with Fonzworth Bentley for the Vibe Music Awards.
She had a chance encounter with Bravo’s programming chief, Andy Cohen. He cast her on Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, but the deal wasn’t desirable and she passed on the gig. Another deal with Oxygen gave way for another planned show (Bevy: Queen of Shops), but ultimately Smith went on to garner a contract with Black Entertainment Television for a proposed mentorship/networking vehicle.
And then Cohen called again.
“He’s always kind of kept a close eye on me and wanting to work with me,” Smith says. “When Fashion Queens was being developed, he said, ‘Oh, I know the perfect person to work with the boys.’ He called me. I had a deal at that time with BET and he said, ‘Let’s not let that stop us from trying to make it happen.’ And we worked it out with the lawyers and the agents and voilà, I was on TV on Fashion Queens.”
Calling her a “bevelation,” Cohen says Smith is “made for television. Her personality is electric and so fun. She’s someone you want to be around.”
All that glitters isn’t platinum, however. Fashion Queens has been met with some criticism. The show, produced by Embassy Row, has been called a “knock-off” or “Bravo’s answer to” E’s wildly popular Fashion Police talk show, headlined by comedian Joan Rivers. Some even consider it “the Black version” of Fashion Police. “I get that comparison, but I’m pretty colorblind,” Cohen says. “What makes this show unique is its stars, and they are totally unlike anyone or anything anywhere else on TV. They make me smile for a half hour, and you can’t bottle that.”
Another opprobrium heard: Derek J and Miss Lawrence portray negative stereotypes. On the heels of the show’s debut last spring, an op-ed on the Black gay website Mused noted: “Archetypes of Black people, like the mammie, ‘girlfriend,’ or vixen are prevalent to this day. And the archetype of ‘gay man’ hasn’t changed much either, especially when it comes to Black gay men. We are still given Black gay men that are all dressed up in expensive cosmetics and high heels, with hairstyles that are even more of a statement.”
Smith, who says she’s embraced the gay community and gay culture since she was an adolescent, rebukes such remarks. “I think it’s interesting that a lot of those criticisms actually come from Black gay men. I think it’s a real sad state of affairs because I feel like a lot of times Black gay men may not be so comfortable with all spectrums of the sexuality and homosexuality. And they kind of feel like these guys are making it harder for them to be whoever it is that they are,” she states.
“On that same vein, if you’re penalizing them for being who they are, then what’s the difference between what you’re doing to them and what people are doing to you? I don’t think my boys are putting on a show for a TV show. That’s them, and that’s their natural state of being, so should we want them to butch it up a little bit? Should we want them to say that they’re not hairdressers and that they’re construction workers? I don’t know what people want, but I do know that they have to live their truth, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Smith remains a testament of someone living in truth… and stepping out on faith.
“It feels like wow, I stepped out on faith when I quit my job eight years ago at Rolling Stone, which [was] a very lofty gig. And when I quit, everyone thought I was crazy to pursue such a very tough profession. But I did it. I have my faith, and it actually turned out well.”
Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Playbill, Essence and Uptown. His website is www.karudaniels.com.