Bob Mackie never met a sequin he didn’t like — or a paillette or marabou feather, for that matter.
Over the course of a nearly 60-year career, he’s designed jaw-dropping gowns for performers including Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. He survived the scorn of Seventh Avenue, which dismissed him as Mr. Hollywood, created outfits for the drag queen RuPaul, appeared in two episodes of “The Love Boat,” and most recently re-created the iconic gowns for “The Cher Show,” a jukebox musical on Broadway based on the client with whom he’s had the longest and most complicated relationship.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Fern Mallis, as part of her “Fashion Icons With Fern Mallis” series at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, the designer lifted the curtain on the talented, glamorous and ill-behaved. Sounding like an octogenarian uncle who believes he’s earned the right to speak in uncensored sound bites, Mackie scrunched up his face when Mallis rattled off his credentials designing for “Aretha Franklin, Reese Witherspoon, Kourtney Kardashian, and of course, Diana Ross.”
“A lot of those people are pains in the a–,” Mackie said, raising his shoulders toward his ears in a gesture that seemed to say, “I know I shouldn’t have said that, but what the hell.” It’s a pose he repeated frequently throughout the night.
Mallis began by asking Mackie about his parents. “What did my dad do?” he asked rhetorically. “He got in trouble a lot. He was in the Canadian army and he thought he was quite hot in his kilt in Italy. He was one of the 48 Highlanders and thought he was a hero. He didn’t like me much. He didn’t get me.”
Mackie didn’t get much emotional support from his mother, either. “My mother was a flapper in the Twenties and when she was 18 she had to get herself out of the town where she lived, so she got married and pregnant and had my half-sister. She wasn’t very happy.”
When he was a child, his mother got sick and he was sent to his live with his British grandmother, who “believed that children should be seen and not heard. My mother was my favorite aunt. She could still have her dates during the week and buy me clothes on weekends. I know that sounds bitter, but I needed the structure.”
Growing up in Southern California in the Fifties in a dysfunctional family not surprisingly sent Mackie to the movies, where he’d escape into the lives on the screen. He got a scholarship to art school but didn’t graduate. “You got married to Lulu Porter, a singer and actress. What happened?” Mallis said.
“I’m in touch with her all the time,” Mackie said. “We had a son named Robin, who was a makeup artist and who died of an AIDS-related illness. He had a drug problem.”
“You found out that you have a granddaughter,” Mallis said.
“I have a granddaughter and two little girls, six and 10, who are great-granddaughters. I was already middle-aged, and I thought ‘Oh, my god,’ and Lulu said, ‘I hope they’re not sleeping in a car.'”
Mackie found his life partner and got his first break in one fell swoop when in 1963 he was hired at age 23 to assist costume designer Ray Aghayan on “The Judy Garland Show.” He and Aghayan collaborated and lived together until the latter’s death in 2011.
“Judy was a big handful,” Mackie said. “What I loved was when you went to her house for dinner on Sunday, and I went often, ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ would come on and she’d say terrible things about the singers. But when her show came on, she loved it and would flap her hands and laugh at her own jokes. There were [times] where nobody was sure what she’d do on the set. She rose to the occasion when other talent was there. She had one show with Ethel Merman and Barbra Streisand and I stood there; you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Mackie then worked on “The Carol Burnett Show,” which was a high point. “We had Ella Fitzgerald…and all the comedy. It was like doing the perfect show.”
In 1967, Sonny and Cher were guests on “The Carol Burnett Show,” part of an effort to get “young acts that will bring in a young audience. Cher was a goth girl, but nobody knew what that was then. She looked like a New Age cavewoman. I liked her and thought she had a good figure, not thinking we were going to show it all.” Cher told Mackie she wanted a nude gown with beads in all the key places. “It was a huge hit,” he said.
“Cher didn’t get nominated for ‘Mask’ [the 1986 film] and was quite upset about it,” Mackie said. “She was quite good in it. But nobody in Hollywood wanted to see this biker woman who has a deformed child. That doesn’t sound like fun.” She wanted something subversive to wear to the Academy Awards that year and wore a Mohawk headdress and dress with a tiny loin cloth. “She was never intimidated by anything I put on her. She never poses like a poser. It’s as if she’s in her T-shirt and jeans. She’s not showing off, she is a show-off. She can’t help herself.”
Mackie got some respect in 1999 when FIT mounted a retrospective of his work, but there were dark times before then, and after.
“Cher in the Eighties was doing movies and someone said, ‘Do you want to come to New York and make some clothes.’ I didn’t know how hard that would be.” Bob Mackie Originals launched in 1982, but Seventh Avenue gave him the cold shoulder. “I was called Barnum Bob and all these funny things. They always make fun of me. They didn’t get it. A lot of fashion people don’t really understand.
“I had to do those horrible trunk shows all over,” he added. “You’d go down to Texas to a store, the models would come in and all these rich Texas farm girls. The models would go to change and their husbands would stand by the door and watch all the models getting dressed. It was the worst experience of my life.”
Other quips by Mackie included:
• Elton John: “I’m not sure Elton knew what he was looking at when he was looking at sketches.” He asked Mackie to do for him “the things you do for Cher, including a jumpsuit with mirrors he wore when he had Mr. World holding him up on stage like he was Liberace on acid. He had a Minnie Mouse outfit and Donald Duck outfit.”
• Diana Ross: Mackie designed costumes for a 1968 TV special “Diana Ross and the Supremes and Temptations.” “It was always Diana Ross and the Supremes. I also did [the movie] ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ She was the Motown legend, just ask her!”
• Cher: “They were giving me awards for being best designer in America [in 1981] and what was I doing? Making drag queen clothes for Cher.”
• Refusing to design costumes for Cher’s tour a few years ago: When she asked Mackie at the last minute, he said no. “It was horrifying. People were saying how dare he, she made him into a star. I kept telling her no, and telling her no, and she cried. I’m in touch with clients only when they need clothes. I never want to be their best friend. I don’t want to sit at the end of the bed and hear all their woes.”
• RuPaul: “I’ve been on his show [‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’] a couple times. It takes too long. I just can’t sit there all day and listen to those people.” “That’s going to get you in trouble,” Mallis said. “He asked me to do some stuff recently [for his show] and I turned him down because drag queens aren’t easy.” “In case you thought they were,” said Mallis.
• Pink: “She’s an amazing performer and she has to go up on her trapeze and they dunk her in the water. I don’t think she likes me doing clothes for her. I think she likes to go shopping.” Cringes.
• An actor who played the Bob Mackie character in “The Cher Show”: “I said please don’t play me like I’m a vicious old queen. He was playing it like he was flying off the ceiling and with his arms sweeping…Besides that, he weighed 100 pounds more than me.”