Monday, December 29, 2008

LEGENDARY: A Tribute to Eartha Kitt (1927-2008)

Feline, Feminine, Fantastical. Those are the words to describe entertainer extraordinare, Eartha Kitt who passed away on Christmas Day. She was 81.

Ms. Kitt (nee Eartha Mae Keith) was one of the grandest Divas of her time, not just because she oozed sex appeal sans vulgarity, and had penchant for the finer things in life, but because she dared to stand up for what she believed in at a time when that was not acceptable.

In 1968, Ms. Kitt was invited to a White House luncheon hosted by Lady Bird Johnson. What followed was the stuff of legends. When the late first lady asked Ms. Kitt for her thoughts on the rise of juvenile deliquency, Ms. Kitt said the Vietnam War was to blame. Here's Ms. Kitt's account of the event in an interview with the Philadelphia City Paper in 1997:

Do you feel the weight of the late-'60s blacklisting even now?
Not so much from the public, but behind the scenes, they feel that I did something that was not quite kosher even though I was right in telling the truth. [Robert] McNamara came out with his book saying I was right for saying we should not be involved in that war. It was alright for him to be responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of our boys because he wanted to keep his position. When you stand up and tell the truth, it will set you free, providing the truth eventually comes out.
Did you perform at the luncheon where you made the remark? Were reporters there?
No. Lady Bird Johnson invited me and 49 other women to give opinions about why there was so much juvenile delinquency in the streets of America at that time. The main problem was our involvement in Vietnam. She asked me a question and I gave her my opinion. There was no ranting and raving and screaming and I was not out there to sing songs.
What was your greatest setback due to this blacklist?
That I couldn't work. What could be more setting back than that? It stopped me from working because President Johnson said, "I don't want to see that woman's face anywhere. Out of sight, out of mind." And it locked the door to working at theaters and clubs. They didn't want me to work there because they did not want the CIA and FBI on their doorstep.
What is the greatest triumph you learned through all of this?
That we have to endure all the nonsense that the politicians are throwing at us all the time. You have to stand up and fight for what you know damn well is right. We happen to be living in a wonderful country, but if people are not willing to take care of business and be responsible for their own government, then [those same people] cannot be crying about what's happening.
Falsely branded by the CIA as "a sadistic nymphomaniac whose escapades and loose morals were the talk of Paris", it was ten years before Ms. Kitt was able to perform in the U.S. again. But it wasn't long before Ms. Kitt found herself embroiled in another controversy -- choosing to perform in South Africa during the reign of apartheid.

In 1974 and 1984, Ms. Kitt received a lot of criticism for choosing to perform before all white audiences in South Africa. This was a big no-no, especially among Black entertainers. However, Ms. Kitt wasn't phased by the attacks she received from her colleagues and friends. There was a methond to her madness. She believed that her tour in South Africa helped the anti-apartheid movement by bringing attention to the racism that was going on, as well as build schools for Black children in South Africa. From an interview with Jet magazine in 1972:

"I do not approve of apartheid. You do not curse sickness by ignoring it. Some Black stars say they will only play to nonwhites for fantastic fees and take money from the pockets of the poor Black people. I'd rather take the money from the affluent whites."
Despite being diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006, Ms. Kitt still remained active. She worked the cabaret circuit, successfully re-opening the Café Carlyle in 2007 and performing in cabaret engagements up until two months ago. Her friend and spokesperson, Andrew Freedman, said that she had planned to perform throughout 2009, having booked dates for the entire year.

Ms. Kitt endured rejection, both personal and professional, throughout her lifetime, but through it all, Ms. Kitt was able to persevere creating a legacy of that will resonate for years to come.

"When I look at my Eartha Kitt scrapbooks today, I think, 'You know, she did a pretty good job of herself. She didn't do too badly - for an ugly duckling." --- Eartha Kitt

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

LEGENDARY: Josephine Premice - La Bombe!

It would only be proper for WSOIC to officially kick off with a posting on the inspiration for the title of this blog, the late Josephine Premice.

If you were to look up the word "glamour" in the dictionary, you'd most likely find a photo of Ms. Premice dressed in one of her many Givenchy gowns next to the entry.

Born in Haiti on July 21, 1926 and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Ms. Premice was a Tony nominated actress and one of the premiere calypso singers in the U.S. and Europe in the '40s and '50s. Some of you may remember her as Desiree Porter, the husky voiced landlord of Dwayne Wayne, Whitley Gilbert and Ron on A Different World, or as Louise Jefferson's sister, Maxine, on The Jeffersons, but Ms. Premice's career expanded way beyond special guest appearances on Black sitcoms.

Ms. Josephine's road to Divadom began as a dancer under the tutelage of Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham. From there, Ms. Premice ventured to Broadway with performances in various productions such as Blue Holiday in 1945 (which also starred Ethel Waters and Josh White), House of Flowers in 1954 (starring Pearl Bailey and her best friend, Diahann Carroll), Jamaica from 1957-58 (starring Lena Horne), A Hand Is on the Gate in 1966, and Bubbling Brown Sugar from 1976-77 just to name a few. Ms. Premice received Tony Award nominations for her performances in Jamaica and A Hand Is on the Gate.

Ms. Josephine was also an accomplished singer, recording her first calypso song in 1949. She went on to record two calypso albums: Josephine In Paris (Verve) and Calypso (GNP Albums). She garnered international fame performing in nightclubs in Europe and South America, affectionately known as "La Bombe" in Paris and "Madonna Negra" in Italy.

Now, Ms. Premice may not have fit the American standard of black beauty -- light skin, European features -- but she didn't let that stop her from being a fashionista. She turned the definition of beauty on its ear and became the muse to legendary fashion designers Jacques Fath and Hubert de Givenchy.

"I got over thinking I was ugly. A friend told me to stand in front of the bathroom mirror and repeat over and over, 'I am beautiful.' It worked. I began to feel beautiful, which is very important."
A connoisseur of luxury, Ms. Premice took great pride and pleasure in turning her family's humble Upper West Side apartment into lavish living. Josephine turned simple walls into works of art by simply using bed sheets as wallpaper! How's that for overcoming in couture!

It was during her stint in Jamaica that Ms. Premice met her husband, Timothy Fales. Ms. Premice's marriage to Mr. Fales caused quite a stir in 1958. You see, not only is Mr. Fales white, but he was a bona fide WASP coming from a long line of "blue-blood" stock which included wealth, prestige and Mayflower settlers. As you can imagine, this marital union didn't sit well with the Old Money Set and thus, Mr. Fales was removed from the infamous Social Register. Personally, I don't think he was too upset about it, seeing as though he shunned aristocracy, preferring to hang with the brothas and sistas.

Shortly after their marriage, Ms. Premice moved to Rome with her husband, where their children, Enrico and uber NYC socialite, Susan Fales-Hill were born. They returned to the States after a six year hiatus, where Josephine resumed her acting career.

Sadly, Ms. Premice passed away on April 13, 2001 after a long battle with emphysema. But ye though she walked through the valley in the shadow of death, Ms. Premice was not about to give up glamour! In her memoir about her mother, Always Wear Joy: My Mother Bold and Beautiful, Ms. Fales-Hill wrote that everyday Ms. Premice fought the disease like a true Diva Soldier: in "a silk blouse", "palazzo pants", wig and "full makeup".

Although Josephine Premice isn't a household name like other Black Divas of her generation, she still had a significant impact on the legacy of Black women in entertainment, and their roles as style icons. Thanks to her daughter's memoir, more people will learn about this extraordinary woman and how she couture!


Hello and Welcome to We Shall Overcome......In Couture!

The name of this blog comes from a quote by the late actress, singer and diva, Josephine Premice. At a time when racism led to a one-dimensional image of black women, Ms. Premice (along with fellow divas such as Diahann Carroll, Naomi Sims, Carmen De Lavallade, and Diana Sands to name a few) redefined the image of Black women. They showed that Black women are not the racist caricatures of mammies and maids that society tries to pigeonhole us in. That we are just as fashionable, sophisticated and glamorous as our white counterparts that are deified in society. These sistas used their style and elegance as weapons against racism. They overcame.....In Couture!

We Shall Overcome.....In Couture! is dedicated to celebrating sistas who continue the tradition of Grace and Stylish Sophistication Under Fire. We will take a look at divas of the past, divas of the present and divas-in training, as well as share tips and tricks for living and looking our most fabulous!

So sit back, relax and enjoy! :-)

Sepia Fashionista