The following is the full transcript (with minor edits for length and clarity) of Christian M. Chensvold’s interview with Fonzworth Bentley for his “Elegance in Black” article for the Los Angeles Times. The interview was conducted in December, 2004.
Q: Why do you think there’s been a revival of African-American elegance?
A: I look at this time period we’re living in as the Golden Age of Disrespect. It’s really sad. I just got off the phone with my editor at Random House. I’m working on a book about how to raise a lady and a gentleman. It’s going to go through topics from dressing appropriately to, you know… What I think is so important now is cell phone coverage, people on their cell phones. They’re not just anytime minutes, they’re any anytime. There’s nothing worse than being in line and somebody’s on the phone like, “Yeah man, I gotta go pay my child support after I leave here.” I don’t need to hear that. And the phone should just be off at the dinner table. I’m really gearing this book not just for adults, but for teens and young people. We live in this video age where people play video games and don’t read, and they don’t know our history. I’m really proud that it’s gotten to this point where you pitched a story and it’s worthy to be covered. And a lot of that has to do with folks such as Andre and myself being dressed. The reality is when you’re dressed in a suit and tailored clothing, you really have a different demeanor. You’re going to use less profanity. You’re going to walk with your back a little straighter. You’re going to inherently start opening the door for the lady. You’re just going to innately start to do these things.
Daddy Emmett, my great-grandfather, was a deacon in the church. And he was just the most elegant man I’d seen. He always walked with a cane or an umbrella, which is where my love of umbrellas has come from. On the elevator he’d hold the door open with the umbrella, run and get the door for a lady, get to the stairs and walk down before she gets to the stairs. You know, you’re supposed to walk in front of the lady or hold her hand so if she were to fall she would fall on you and not face flat with you walking behind where you can’t do anything. The reality is, hip-hop being a driving force in pop culture — if you look at the Grammys, the guy who got the most nominations was a hip-hop guy. Kanye doesn’t dress like a traditional hip-hopper guy. He’s wearing polos and flipping the collars up with cashmere sweaters. I just like being dressed, and I feel comfortable being dressed. You really dress for the type of success that you want to be. And the reality is, I want to be at the big table talking about the big deal and talking the big money. And this is the way I want to be dressed to be at those meetings. The way I’m dressed is the reason I got in the game. I was able to get past the velvet ropes in New York City because of the way I was distinctly dressed.
The club is a really good barometer a lot of times – I’m just kind of ranting — but when you’re in the club and everybody has on their white tees and jewelry and velour, and I have a suit on. Other men can hear and see when a lady is giving you a compliment, like, “Oh, you look so nice.” And that one time when [the men] put on their nice cardigan or dress shirt or blazer, not only do they feel different, they’re going to get compliments. I’ll never forget, I was in an elevator in New York City going to see my accountant, and I was with a friend of mine who had on sneakers, jeans and a hoodie, and this older woman got on the elevator and she was like, “Wow, you look so nice and so smart and so different than everybody else.” She felt she was giving a compliment, but the other guy that was with me, he didn’t look like it but he was with me, and he got offended kinda, you know what I mean?
Q: For what reason?
A: The reality is, he had on a $2,500 Versace hoodie, some $300 [inaudible] sneakers that come from Japan, and some decent jeans that cost $350, so technically he was — well I mean it wasn’t as expensive as my $2,500 custom-made footwear — he was expensively dressed, but he just disappeared. This is a guy who has kind of thrown away that type of stuff and now is putting on blazers because he gets a different level of respect from the status quo, if you will.
Hip-hop is growing up, for one thing. When I was running around with Puff Daddy and what have you, in suits and stuff, someone that was dressed and talks — people know that I went to Morehouse College and I’ve got a BS and a degree and whatever — someone like me wasn’t normally welcomed necessarily in “the ‘hood.” Someone like me would get smacked upside the head and get sent out, like, “You’re a nerd, you’re a cornball.” But because I was kind of framed with Puff, with the security, with this ghetto-fabulous energy… When he walks in the room, he has the celebrity girlfriends, he beat the trial, he ran the marathon, he’s walking in with all that energy, and his assistant is this guy in a suit and he talks with “formal English” if you will, and I was let in. It was embraced by the ghetto of the ‘hood, if you will. I started really pushing him to get dressed up in suits. I would always call him The Chairman instead of Puffy, because if you call him The Chairman, he’s going to walk with his back a little straighter and he’s going to be like, “Oh yeah, I really am the chairman of the board, not just Puff Daddy.”
Q: One of the things that’s come up in this story, talking to professors and writers about this, is this notion of upholding, especially before the Civil Rights Movement, a sense of black dignity, and often by having to look better than the mainstream in order to get respect. That must be part of your motivation as well.
A: It is. I get so many compliments from older black people who go, “I really love what you’re doing. It makes me proud.” You know what I mean? The reality is, I haven’t really cut out much art yet. My umbrellas hopefully are going to come out at Bloomingdale’s, been doing some recording…
Q: Let me ask you some specific stuff, and a little bit tougher stuff: You were talking about the name The Chairman you gave Puff Daddy, and I believe he’s the one who gave you your nickname. But in your New York Times Magazine profile, they wrote, “How seriously can you take a guy who’s name is Fonzworth Bentley?” Why are you a public figure under that name, rather than your real name, and is it a barrier to being taken seriously?
A: I don’t think so. The thing is, it’s kind of like in hip-hop you’re gonna get a nickname, that’s just the way it is. His name is not Puffy.
Q: Right, but they’re also making records under their names. And you initially came into the public light not for being a dancer, singer or actor, but as a style icon with a name that isn’t your real name.
A: First of all, if you look at the roots of where “Farnsworth” comes from, it comes from a Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby old black film. It’s something that’s kind of funny and kind of quirky, and I think it almost allows me to get into your heart. When you sit and talk to me, there’s a whole bunch of serious stuff I’m talkin’, and there’s a lot of experience I’m coming with. I’ve studied the Harlem Renaissance. You look at the way Andre and I walk around — I look like a James Van Der Zee photograph, you know? Which is real serious. Even with my “How to Raise a Lady and a Gentleman,” I’m not doing a very preachy-preachy book: This generation don’t want no preachy-preachy book. They definitely don’t want to hear nothing preachy-preachy from an adult. They’re gonna listen to me because I’m fun, I’m in the cool hip-hop videos, they see me dancing and doing my thing, but they know there’s definitely something very different about me when they hear me speak. The bottom line is I want you not to be intimidated to the point where you don’t want to get the information. I’m also going to be doing a lot of poems. For instance, here’s one to teach someone how to use their silverware: “When you see a lot of silverware no need to be confused/You’ve just received an appetizer, the outer silver’s used/Just ‘cuz you’re a left-hander and the drinking glass is closer/The water glass you should be using is always on the right corner.” So really Dr. Seuss-it, if you will.
Q: Also in your New York Times Magazine profile, you corrected the way the reporter was spooning her soup. In this day and age, with so many things ailing the black community, how important is choosing silverware when people aren’t getting an education, there are drugs on the street, and the whole litany of things that are far more pressing? You’re saying this is the foundation? What would Al Sharpton say? Would he care?
A: He may not, but I have some issues with him. How seriously can you take him? A lot of people… He’s a very serious man, and he has a very serious history, you know what I mean? I always knew I wanted to be part of hip-hop in some capacity. Some people drop out of school, go buy equipment, because we’re in a technological age right now. You buy equipment and you can do all this stuff at your house. You get a demo and get it to an executive the best way you can. What I decided to do was work on being the best Derek Watkins that I could possibly be, and find a more creative way to get in the game. Why? Because everybody is doing that. Everybody has pro tools. Everybody is working on a clothing line. Everybody’s doing it. But I was like, “If I could be the assistant to a mogul who’s doing all of the above, then I can really sit back, while helping him improve himself and his brand, and sit back and see what I think I can lend myself to first.”
Q: I just read your Houston Chronicle profile, and I know you have the umbrella line and a part in “Fat Albert,” and you talked about your book deal, but what do you really want to do?
A: I want to inspire artists to be the best they can be, across the board. And to dream big.
Q: Like a Tony Robbins motivational speaker?
A: Inspire people through my art. I’m from Atlanta, Georgia. I went to Morehouse College. I didn’t know a single person when I got to New York City. But because of the way I dressed and was working on being the best person I could be, I got myself in the position where Sean Combs wanted me to be his assistant. Because he wanted to dress like me. He wanted to work on his wardrobe. I wasn’t really capable of being an assistant. I wasn’t organized enough, necessarily. But I forced my way and made myself be able to do that so I could get the other things. The bottom line is, I humbled myself. I had no problem getting the coffee and packing the bags so that I could get myself in the position to do something better. I’ve got assistants coming up to me all the time, literally all over the world, like, “I never would have wanted to be an assistant until I saw what you did with being an assistant.”
Q: You want to inspire people with your art. What form do you see this art taking?
A: Well Kanye West just signed me to a record deal, you know what I mean. I just acted in “Fat Albert,” and I’m about to close a UPN television deal. I’m going to be acting.
Q: Can you give details on the UPN project?
A: It’ll definitely be a sitcom.
Q: And you’ll have a lead role in it.
A: Yeah. It’ll be about me, basically.
Q: Will you be playing yourself or a character?
A: I don’t know if I can talk about that yet. It’s not bad, you know what I mean? The genetics project got published in JAMA, but it looks like I veered off far from that and I’m doing pretty well.
Q: Do you worry at all about overexposure? Paris Hilton became an icon despite not doing anything. You have a lot of projects going, but if you want to be like the Rolling Stones and rocking 40 years from now, you have to give the public something. It really is about making art that makes the public want you and not get tired of you. There are so many one-hit wonders in every genre. Is this a concern for you? How do you plan to find your longevity?
A: That comes with how I position myself. I have a younger brother at USC Film School doing exceptionally well as a director. This is a dream we’ve always had. Him learning that from the arguably the best school in the world, I feel I’m always going to be able to write, do films and television shows as long as I live. It all really has been a plan, and it’s working well. You look at a lot of artists that we’ve gotten tired of, and I think it’s a concern of all people. You’ve got to be concerned. The reality is with the paparazzi the way they are, and people doing reality shows. Somebody shoots you with a camera and you’re on TV and you don’t even want to be, you know what I mean? I don’t go out as much, and just try to pick and choose good things. For instance, I could basically do a whole bunch of stuff for “Access Hollywood,” but what I’ve chosen to do is just the big events. I’m just going to do the fashion for the Golden Globes, Oscars and Grammys. You ain’t gonna see me on “Access Hollywood” every day of the week, because that’s just too much.
Q: How did the masses respond on your Courvoisier tour, when you went into nightclubs for the “gentleman’s makeover”? Did they just go along with it, or do you think you really enlightened some young men?
A: I really think I did. We had manicurists set up, and we’d give everybody a smoking jacket, and we’d see that they learned how to tie an ascot or bow tie. I would walk over to the guys while they’re getting a massage or manicure and say, “Are you cool? Are you comfortable? Have you ever had anything like this before?” They were like, “This is kinda cool.” Before I ever got my first manicure, it was intimidating for me to be going in there to get somebody doing that, because first of all it’s all women in there. And then the smell’s kinda funny. But all the guys went away with learning how to tie an ascot or a bow tie, and doing a little bit of “luxury” something that they haven’t done before. The bottom line is you gotta start somewhere. Yeah, there’s a whole bunch of work to do. There’s a lot we have to do about education.
I try to be as well read as I can, but I only get to the [NY] Times like twice a week. I don’t read the Times everyday, I just don’t. And there’s some things, a lot of times, I definitely don’t understand. And a lot of people get intimidated by that, but you really have to read and see… Like, when the candidates, during that time, I would read all the different columns and read the editorials, and I would get a highlighter pen, and the stuff I didn’t get, I would go ask somebody.
Q: When I first became aware of you, there was talk of the “Gentleman’s Movement.” Now the press seems to be focused more on you as a person. Is there really a movement happening?
A: I would say definitely. Let me tell you, no one wants to put an album out, get on the stage and rock more than I do. I want to do that real bad. That’s not going to happen till ’06, because I’m really taking the time to focus on this book. Trust me, I want to. And I literally had to go pray over this one — I’m keepin’ it all the way real with you. I can’t go with what’s necessarily going to make me hot, or what’s going to be the most fun thing. This book is more important to the community.
Q: Again on the tough side, there was talk around town that it’s really not about the movement with you. You’re in it for yourself, for self-promotion. How do you respond to that?
A: Again, I would have to answer with what I just said to you. I just signed a record deal with Kanye West who’s one of the biggest producers in the game right now, and he’s very excited about my project and working with me. And I was working on songs and records before I got to him, and I’m not doing that until ’06. Why am I not doing the album first, and then pushing the book?
Q: And the book ties into your being a social reformer. Are you comfortable with that term? You want to bring about change, right?
A: I definitely want to bring about change. And the reality is, I think people in the public eye don’t want to embrace that they’re role models. When I sign an autograph, I never just put my name. I always put “Follow your dreams,” “Stay focused in school.” Just find somebody with an autograph of mine and you will see that. And it takes a lot longer to do that, trust me. The people that say I’m in it for self-promotion? Whatever. They should be the first people to get my book.
Q: What about pretension? People who say they’re tired of the umbrella, the bow ties, the ceremonious door-opening and rising when a woman enters the room?
A: Black people love to celebrate. I think it has to do with our roots. And it’s so funny, because one of the only restaurants I’ve been in where I’ve seen a woman walk to the dinner table and all the gentlemen stand up, is at Cipriani’s. I’m not sure if that’s some Italian culture thing. I’m from Atlanta: I grew up with white folks and black folks and that was it. Which is why I chose to go to New York. And there’s something just very classy about that. And it’s not just on the men. A lot of the problem is the women. Women help men treat them not so well. In the days of old, when there wasn’t as much integration, if you will, and everybody kind of checked on everybody’s kid. Like somebody down the street might spank your kid. I think it’s about everybody doing checks and balances on each other. And to those that say they’re over the… you know, tell ’em to grow up.