Known simply as ‘B’, B. Smith is a consummate sales woman. Her answers to our questions were polished, and at times, carefully non-committal. She deftly sidestepped a question that would have revealed her exact age, although she is actually beautiful and ageless. She’s packed her life with a variety of careers ranging from former fashion model through to her current work as a designer of a furniture line and a range of soft furnishing products for Bed, Bath and Beyond. She has also hosted shows on television and, together with her husband, Dan Gasby, a former television producer, owns and runs three restaurants. Her very first restaurant on 47th and 8th Avenue, which opened in the 80s, (and has since relocated to Restaurant Row) hosted Cindy Crawford’s 21st birthday party—both Richard Gere and the young John Kennedy were in attendance—something we could imagine B. taking completely in her stride. She’s a natural extrovert with plenty of energy to keep her show on the road for some time to come.
We met at the Le Cirque party for the Milan Furniture Fair … do you like going out or would you rather stay home?
No. You do get a few good things out of going out. Well, I would like just a little bit more time at home. That party was kind of interesting…
Out of all the things you do, if you had to pick just one, which would engage you the most?
[Her husband Dan buts in and says: Sleep!] He is right but out of all the things I do, my family really comes first. I’ll see my daughter tonight [she is away at college] and I’ll make sure I get a room that has double beds in it and we’ll spend the night talking.
What will you talk about?
We’ll talk about her summer and what’s she going to do, and we’ll talk about her 21st birthday party.
I have to ask this question, I’m sure everybody does and it sounds really stupid but are you related to Bessie Smith?
No. But a lot of people ask me if I’m her daughter or granddaughter.
There’s another Barbara Smith who was a leader of the African-American women’s movement wasn’t there?
Yes and she’s not a relative. But I am related by feminism.
What sorts of things are you reading right now?
Right now I’m reading two political authors. I’m reading Charlie Rangel’s new book and I’m reading Barack’s new book.
What do you think of Barack Obama?
I think that he’s very intelligent, that he really cares. I think that he sees this country from a few different perspectives, having grown up in a multi-racial home, having had a stepfather who was Indonesian, having an African father, and having lived outside of the country. And this country is supposed to be a melting pot … but there a lot of pots. The melt hasn’t really happened, and I don’t know that it ever will.
You were once a model, what was that life like? It looks awful to me.
I loved it! It was what I wanted to be. I loved fashion. The big part of it is you have to treat yourself as a business. That’s the real part of a model, and being able to sustain it. At the time if I earned $60 an hour and I was five minutes late, I earned $55. You learned pretty quickly to be on time. When I first started you had to have everything with you … we changed in limousines. We changed anywhere! You had to be prepared, hairpieces, wigs, stockings. You’re like an actress … ‘I can be whatever you want me to be.’ And I loved the parties.
So you still do love parties.
Absolutely! I’m in the party business! But I don’t go to parties the way I did then. Now I go to fundraisers.
I want to know how you get out of conversations at parties.
Walk away. I think you get to a point where you say ‘Well it’s really nice meeting you. Do you have a card?’ And then you keep moving.
What did you like about your husband when you first met him? Did you meet him at a party?
I actually met my husband at my first restaurant. I had a brief [first] marriage and after my brief marriage, I worked out what I was looking for in a mate. We ran into each other and he was [also] in a marriage that was breaking up. I said I know what you’re going through and he said did I want to go to the movies but we ended up not going. That was in the December. Then I didn’t see him again until May and I was out with a girlfriend on a Sunday afternoon, looking cute, the two of us. And I ran into him. His show had just got cancelled and he was having mimosas—the bottle and the pitcher. He said ‘Can I go with you girls?’ and I said to him ‘No.’ Then I whispered to him: ‘But your life would be a lot better if you made a phone call.’
And that was 17 years ago. What do you still like about him now?
He is the most decent person that I know. And I could tell by the way he talked about his parents that he was a good person.
It’s an extremely good indicator, the way people talk about their parents.
It really is!
What, do you think, is involved in ‘selling oneself’, if that is what it takes to be successful?
Umm… identifying what it is you’re selling, why you’re selling it and who you’re selling it to. Whatever you’re selling you’re selling yourself. You know I’ll tell you what trains you to be able to sell yourself—having been a model, number one. I also did trade shows in Pittsburgh, selling for other people. You know, you’re standing out there [she picks up pillow from the couch, and ‘sells’ it to us by widening her eyes and looking slightlyflirtatious] … I literally got paid to learn. Not only to be a pretty face but to talk to people. You hire me to sell this pillow, I am going to sell this pillow one way or another.
When I left home, I knew I was never going back to depend on my family. It had nothing to do with my family. It had to do with my personality.
What does money mean to you now?
A lot a people say ‘freedom’.
Well, because there’s no real security. I mean you are free to move about in the world, free to reinvent.
It sounds like you really can reinvent, but how does one reinvent oneself and still stay true to something at the same time? I’m a bit mistrustful of someone like Madonna and the way in which she locks into some aspect of the culture and options it for herself.
What Madonna is the ultimate theatrical producer. That’s good. It’s given her longevity. She’s putting on a production. See I think they’re two different things. I think reinventing is actually learning a new business, actually moving into something totally new, even if there is a thread.
You’ve got lots of things around your apartment that are African. Have you been there?
I haven’t. Only in my mind. And I will get there.