Ordinarily, a 72-year-old contestant on Dancing with the Stars wouldn’t be considered a favorite to capture the Mirrorball. Then again, Betsey Johnson is no ordinary 72-year-old!
The famously eccentric designer has the fun and flirty personality to win over the show’s viewers — and, as it turns out, the moves to impress the judges. “Betsey studied all forms of dance when she was young, so there’s nothing she won’t be able to handle,” a friend tells Star. “And don’t be fooled by her birth certificate; she’s got more vitality than someone half her age. Betsey’s one in a million!”
A native of Connecticut, Betsey graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Syracuse University, then had her fashion breakthrough when she landed a job in 1965 as a designer at the hip NCY boutique Paraphernalia, where she began to develop the trademark style she describes as “pretty funky punky comfy, rock and raggedy roll.”
She soon became a member of the ’60s Youthquake crowd in Greenwich Village: living at the notorious, party-central Chelsea Hotel, making clothes for and hanging out with the King of Cool, artist Andy Warhol, at his studio, The Factory, and marrying bassist John Cale.
Their wedding date was postponed after Cale, a heroin user, “went straight into quarantine with hepatitis and a nonexistent liver,” Betsey has said. After their marriage, John recalls, “Betsey took amphetamine every day — diet bills, black bombers. She was a little overweight and very sensitive about it, and she would sit up all night making clothes.”
Her work ethic paid off big time in 1970, when Betsey left Paraphernalia to assume creative control of the sportswear brand Alley Cat, and was hailed as “the most important young designer in America” by Newsweek in 1971. Her marriage to Cale ended that same year — the first of her three divorces — after John realized “[we] were both interested in our careers to the exclusion of personal relationships.”
In 1978, she launched the now world-famous Betsey Johnson label.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Betsey on her journey from college cheerleader to international style icon, though. “I had breast implants,” she says. One day in 1999, “I noticed that my left boob deflated…I had them both taken out and in the healing I noticed an extra lump next to the scar tissue.” Diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a lumpectomy and endured radiation treatment. She’s been cancer-free since and always gives her time in support of fund-raising events for research.
Betsey dodged another bullet when she filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012, forcing her to close her retail outlets. But her brand lives on as a top seller in department stores and on the web.
Now Betsey — who performs a trademark cartwheel at the end of her runway shows — will be putting that energy to the test on DWTS. Though she modestly says, “I just hope I make it through the first round,” (she did!), her friend tells Star: “My money’s on Betsey. She’s a force of nature!”