Thousands of miles away from her Manhattan home, B. Smith looks perfectly comfortable sitting astride a horse in the middle of the Ojai Valley, a cowboy hat on her head and worn western boots on her feet. The former model is on autopilot posing for a magazine layout, knowing exactly the moves the photographer wants.
A voice is heard from out of camera range: "Power, honey, power," says Smith's husband, Dan Gasby. Immediately Smith's 1,000-watt smile brightens a shade more, and her head tilts a little higher, revving up the energy.
Gasby is Smith's head cheerleader, helping to propel her beyond successful restaurateur to lifestyle maven. Together they are on the cusp of the big time, with a weekly syndicated TV show, "B. Smith With Style" (seen locally Sundays at 10 a.m. on KNBC), books and their newest venture, B. Smith Style magazine.
Smith, who shortened Barbara to "B." during her modeling days, is one of many in a crowded field of lifestyle experts, but she is most often called--and somewhat maddeningly--the black Martha Stewart.
There have been other more annoying labels and stereotypes Smith has had to deal with during her multifaceted career.
"When you're a woman and/or a minority," she says, "you get discounted no matter how far you've come. And also as an ex-model, you get discounted. So for me now, everything is pulled together, and we've got that foundation."
On-screen, Smith is upbeat and optimistic, the best friend who's always up for something fun. Off-screen there is the infectious smile and enthusiasm, but she occasionally lapses into a more subdued persona, often lost in thought, a million miles away.
At 50, she looks trim and youthful, the result of a careful diet and consistent exercise. Her seven-year marriage to the 44-year-old Gasby appears to be a solid one. His background in television production and ad sales and marketing for TV companies King World and Petry Inc. made it easy for him to segue to becoming publisher of B. Smith Style magazine (he sold 60 pages of ads in the premier issue); partner in her three B. Smith's restaurants in Manhattan, Washington, D.C., and Sag Harbor in New York's tony Hamptons; and creator of the show. Gasby's easygoing manner and quick wit counterbalance Smith's occasional intensity and help lighten up situations from meetings to television shoots.
They first met at Smith's restaurant when both were married (she to former HBO exec Don Anderson). They started dating when both were single and married in 1992. The couple share custody of Gasby's 13-year-old daughter, Dana, with her mother.
She calls Gasby "the most intelligent person I've ever met." In 1995 came Smith's first book. By 1996, she had a TV show and three years later a magazine.
"I have a unique opportunity to be part of helping her realize her full potential," Gasby says, "and I take that very seriously. It's also good for my daughter, and for all the little girls out there who need to know that there's a possibility that there's going to be somebody to support them."
She Learned Importance
Smith grew up as part of a working-class family in Everson, a small town outside Pittsburgh. Her father was a steelworker and her mother a part-time housekeeper. In other interviews she has emphasized their do-it-yourself abilities by calling them "the original Bob Vila and Martha Stewart."
Her parents instilled in her a sense of self-sufficiency.
"My father said, 'You should never marry anyone who can't take better care of you than I have.' But I twisted it around to where it meant that I had to take care of myself."
Her mother wanted to be an interior decorator, but, says Smith, "being African American, she wouldn't have had a career. But I turned that around and thought, I never wanted to say I wished I had done something."
Her father disapproved of his teenage daughter's desire to go to modeling school but relented when she recast it as a finishing school. Modeling took her to Ebony Fashion Fair shows, representation by Wilhelmina, several commercials and some acting work in film and TV.
As one of few African American models of her day--and the first to appear on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine--Smith fought hard for jobs in the 1970s, breaking barriers in a world that favors blond hair and blue eyes.
Modeling also favors youth, and eventually Smith felt it was time to move on. An accomplished cook who was fascinated with restaurants, Smith did a 180 and worked as a hostess and floor manager at America, a popular New York spot owned by the Ark chain of restaurants, which also includes Manhattan's legendary Lutece.
Her stint there was successful enough that Ark backed her first B. Smith's eatery in Manhattan in 1986 and her second in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station in 1994. Smith and Gasby recently bought out Ark.