Supermodel, restaurateur, magazine publisher, designer and lifestyle maven Barbara Elaine Smith (known as B. Smith) died from complications of younger-onset Alzheimer’s in February 2020 at the age of 70. Here, we honor her legacy.
B. Smith had something special about her that set her apart, something more than just the bright eyes and dazzling smile that made her a magazine cover star. With a passion for building her brand as a lifestyle guru — long before the term was even coined — she broke barriers as one of the first Black women to land a major fashion magazine cover with “Mademoiselle” in July 1976.
Her list of accomplishments doesn’t stop there. B. shared her passions with the world through her syndicated television show, which reached more than 40 countries. She even sang the show’s theme song. When she opened her Washington, D.C. restaurant in 1994, it was one of the city's few Black-owned fine-dining restaurants. She ran her string of iconic restaurants for nearly three decades, specializing in elevated comfort food and southern classics she called ‘polished soul food.’
B. also served as a spokesperson for a variety of products and brands, including her own. Before the dawn of celebrity chefs and lifestyle bloggers, she invited TV viewers to join her as she cooked in her Hamptons home kitchen, or talked with designers in their studios. B. was constantly breaking barriers while blazing her own trail, and Black female viewers were inspired by her drive as a self-made Black entrepreneur.
B. continued to use her drive and her voice throughout the last decade of her life, sharing her diagnosis with younger-onset Alzheimer’s, which she disclosed alongside her husband in 2014.
Early Days & Growing Her Empire
B. wasn’t born into a world of glitz and glamour. She sold magazines in her small Pennsylvania town long before gracing their covers. With a steelworker father, housekeeper mother and close knit family to lean on, she chose to leave Pennsylvania for a modeling career right out of high school. During her time with modeling agency Wilhelmina, she was featured on the covers of dozens of publications, including “Ebony,” “Essence” and “Mademoiselle,” later shining brightly on the cover of her own magazine, “B. Smith.”
After enjoying a prolific career in modeling, B. took on her next passion: restauranter. B. opened her first restaurant, self-named “B. Smith,” in Manhattan's theater district in the late 1980s, with two more restaurants following quickly upon its heels in Long Island’s Sag Harbor and in Washington, D.C. She would later break another glass ceiling as the first Black woman to sit on the board of the Culinary Institute of America.
“Whatever you do, do it with style!”
After marrying her second husband Dan in 1992, they worked together to grow her empire. Along with B.’s restaurants came her bestselling cookbooks and “B. Smith” lifestyle magazine, later joined by a home goods and furniture line. In 1995, the success of her book “B. Smith's Entertaining & Cooking For Friends” helped pave the way for more books of its kind to be published by Black authors. When her television show, “B. Smith With Style” debuted in 1997 — featuring a variety of home decor and cooking segments alongside special guests like Eartha Kitt — it further solidified B. as a lifestyle guru.
Facing An Alzheimer's Diagnosis
In 2013, B. was presenting a cooking demonstration on “The Today Show” when she got lost in the moment and seemed confused by the steps of her recipe. That was when she went to see a doctor and received the devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
But as she had so many times before, B. kept going, kept moving, kept creating. She bravely faced the disease, living her life as well as she could, approaching each day with a positive outlook.
Educating the public about Alzheimer’s became her next goal, in hopes of destigmatizing the disease. She also discussed the prevalence of Alzheimer’s in Black women, later writing “Before I Forget” with husband Dan, a book about their experiences in facing the disease. Among the topics in the book is the focus of living with Alzheimer’s with dignity, and encouraging families, caregivers and the public to never lose sight of the person living with the disease.
B. passed away at her Long Island home in 2020, having paved the way for people with Alzheimer’s to share their diagnosis without shame, and inspiring young Black women who saw magazine covers with her likeness: a face they could relate to, that looked like theirs. Her signature tagline, “Whatever you do, do it with style!” epitomizes a woman who brought her inner and outer beauty and grace to every project she touched, the same grace she brought to her brave battle with Alzheimer's. She is remembered as a woman who was 100% proud to be herself and share her life with the world.
About: In addition to her many firsts, B.’s Style Home Collection with Bed Bath & Beyond was the first line from a Black woman to be sold at a nationwide retailer. In 2012, Smith was inducted into the American Chef Corps, part of the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership with the James Beard Foundation.
I HAVE ALZ: Overcoming Stigma