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On the surface, Isabella Blow and Jean Grillo couldn’t have less in common. Blow was the eccentric, upper-crust British Vogue editor whose penchant for outlandish chapeaus and patronage of Alexander McQueen secured her bold-faced status in the fashion industry until her suicide in 2007. Grillo, meanwhile, is a 65-year-old, former television critic with a sensible salt-and-pepper hairdo and a faint New England accent who found a second career in local politics as district leader for TriBeCa.
And yet Grillo says she felt such a kinship with the fashion icon that she was compelled to pen “Blow by Blow: A Reinvented Real Life Play,” a 60-minute play based on Blow’s life premiering today as part of New York’s International Midtown Theater Festival. “Isabella never got the credit she deserved,” says Grillo. “It’s universal. Women generally do get devalued. They don’t get front and center.”
Certainly that’s what happens to Blow in the play, a collection of scenes that focus on the many disappointments leading up to her suicide — her infertility, her several suicide attempts, her financial troubles, her dissatisfaction with her looks (“I’m ugly, I know it,” she wails in one part). “To me, it was one blow after another, all the blows that she took,” says Grillo.
Grillo encountered her unlikely protagonist four years ago when her daughter, Aria, then an assistant at Prada, would bring home English glossies such as Tatler and British Vogue from the office. “I saw this woman who had all these crazy hats and was covering herself up,” recalls Grillo. “As a journalist, I knew there was a story there.”
After Blow’s death, Grillo, who had been participating in playwriting workshops as a hobby, decided to do a piece about Blow, despite the lack of reference material. “I had to invent a lot of this [play],” says Grillo, whose main and almost sole source was a 2002 interview with Blow by Tamsin Blanchard in The Observer — incidentally, also titled “Blow by Blow.” (Some lines in the play are verbatim from the profile.)
According to Grillo, research wasn’t the only difficult part of the writing process. “When I first started work-shopping this play, people hated her,” says Grillo. “It’s hard to root for someone who you know is going to take their own life and was determined to do it.” She says she found a “deeper, much richer version” by developing the character of Detmar, Blow’s patient and loving husband. “In order to know Isabella, you have to know him.”
One person Grillo worked hard not to include was McQueen, who killed himself while “Blow by Blow” was in its final rewrites. “I didn’t want to give him the time. This is all about Isabella,” she explains.
McQueen’s designs do not appear in the play either. “We don’t even have the budgets for old McQueen on eBay,” says Grillo of the show’s costumes. “But we’re going to create McQueen-esque looks so the audience can see what Isabella saw.”
Grillo is aware of the uncanny number of other Blow-inspired projects in the works (see sidebar) and chalks the trend up to credit long overdue. “I always thought that [the recognition] would come to her,” she says. “It’s what Isabella deserved.”