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One On 1: Betsey Johnson Lives Out Loud

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Betsey Johnson has long been known on the New York fashion scene not only for her designs, but for an act of athletic prowess. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

How would one start a profile of designer Betsey Johnson? How about the same way she ends every one of her shows -- with a cartwheel.

Budd Mishkin: First time you did it, was it a totally impromptu thing?

Betsey Johnson: It was totally impromptu. I was so excited I went out on the runway and I threw my cartwheel. But it's important I remember what side I do it on. Because when I did it once on the wrong side, I crashed and I ripped my hamstring.

The cartwheel stems from her high school and college days as a cheerleader.

"I loved cheerleading cause I was an aerialist. And I used to come out and do roundoff backs before the football team would be following me," says Johnson.

Betsey Johnson is 66 years old. She's also a grandmother. Clearly, this is not your grandmother's grandmother.

But she says age has advantages, like good press.

"When you get old, they know to be nice to you. They are not going to wipe me out after all these years," says Johnson.

She's designed for more than 40 years, and run her own company for 30. There are 61 Betsey Johnson stores in the United States, and 14 in Japan.

"I basically have designed thinking would I wear it myself? Do I like it myself? And that's it. Then I pray there were girls out there like me so if I liked it maybe they would like it," says Johnson.

"Every time I go by Central Park and I see those horses with the blinders I think that's how I did it and do it. Just keep a lot out that would bring me down," says Johnson.

In her Fashion Avenue showroom, the past is never really past, and all of her influences, from Marilyn Monroe to the Sex Pistols, live together comfortably.

She says that in down times, crazy fashion sells because girls want an experience.

"That's why the petticoat thing is working. Cause if you've never wore a petticoat before, I tell you your life is going to change if you wear one," says Johnson.

Her irrepressible spirit is one of her calling cards. But it has been tested, especially in 2000.

After having a defective breast implant removed, she noticed a lump.

Johnson had surgery and radiation, and then told her story at an appearance during Breast Cancer Awareness Week.

"I go by my deli the next morning and there is the ugliest picture of me ever," says Johnson. "On the cover -- 'Johnson Saved By Implant.' I thought that's really great."

Betsey Johnson doesn't hold back much in conversation about anything. Such as what she did after her most recent show.

"The next day I go see one of New York's finest doctors, Doctor Hidalgo and I'm on the table doing the nip and tuck, cut and lift," says Johnson.

The fashion designer with the rock 'n roll image grew up in a small town in Connecticut with a passion for dance and design.

"I taught tap to kids in the neighborhood. And in high school I had the only dancing school in Terryville," says Johnson. "I knew how to cut and sew from when I was little, helping my mother make costumes. So I could cut and sew like crazy."

Johnson realized a dream and came to New York, attending Pratt. But there was one problem.

"Pratt wasn't very supportive of cheerleading. And I was a cheerleader from the art school which was a huge embarrassment for the art school, probably," says Johnson.

So she transferred to Syracuse, fulfilling her need to perform by becoming head cheerleader.

After graduation, she came back to New York to work for Mademoiselle magazine and eventually connected with Andy Warhol, model Edie Sedgwick and the group The Velvet Underground, marrying one of its members, John Cale. Johnson says late nights were part of her lifestyle, but not drugs.


"I remember they'd turn the lights on at Max's at four o'clock and I'd be to work at eight," says Johnson. "Everybody older can admit what they were doing. I was always dieting. There were diet pills in my past. I was passionate about doing my work."

Early on, she worked for an independent boutique called Paraphenalia.

"I was the stubborn nonconformist, but my clothes sold," says Johnson.

Celebrities like Julie Christie wore her clothes. But there was no sense of security.

"I ran into Joplin I knew from the El Coyote Bar at the Chelsea and she wore a lot of my stuff. Just so happy but it wasn't like I can now afford an apartment for $200 a month. Instead of 100," says Johnson.

By the mid 70's her clothes were in the mainstream.

"I went to see Annie Hall and there's Diane wearing my sweater in a scene," says Johnson.

But Johnson worried that the working woman's wardrobe of the 70's meant the end of her career. And then came punk rock.

"I remember knowing it was the right time to go into business and do my stuff again. When I saw B52s at CBGB's and I'm going rock lobster, it's time for my paraphenalia mini things again," says Johnson.

Along with professional partner Chantal Bacon, Johnson opened her business in 1978, using some money she'd made by appearing in an aspirin commercial.

"I did bring my own thing to the business and it was always against the grain," says Johnson.

Along the way, she says she had three and a half husbands. The half? the father of her daughter, Lulu.

"I had very bad choices with men," says Johnson. "Nothing lasted over two years. My work always kept me going, no matter how bad or how good. It was always my main priority, cause it was me taking care of me, not too much else ever lived up to my work."

Where once she needed a road map north of 14th Street, Johnson now lives in the same Upper East Side building as her daughter Lulu and her two granddaughters, whom she frequently takes on stage at her fashion shows.

In her showroom, there are 40 years of influences and ideas. But even Betsey Johnson occasionally needs some outside help.

"If anybody has my old stuff, call me! I'm buying my old stuff. I saved nothing, so now I go on eBay a lot," says Johnson.

Her following is devoted and passionate -- same for the one time cheerleader who rocked the fashion world.

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