B. Smith Becomes Face of Betty Crocker Cornbread Model, author, restaurateur and lifestyle expert Barbara "B." Smith recently became the face of Betty Crocker's cornbread mix. But for some, the move has revived old ideas about racial nostalgia. B. Smith talks with Farai Chideya about the comparison to Aunt Jemima and her career.

B. Smith Becomes Face of Betty Crocker Cornbread

B. Smith Becomes Face of Betty Crocker Cornbread

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Model, author, restaurateur and lifestyle expert Barbara "B." Smith recently became the face of Betty Crocker's cornbread mix. But for some, the move has revived old ideas about racial nostalgia. B. Smith talks with Farai Chideya about the comparison to Aunt Jemima and her career.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

For all the tensions of race in America, African-Americans have been used for decades to market products to both black and white consumers. Today, the people who were the face of the good life are entrepreneurs, like Barbara B. Smith.

B. Smith rose to fame in the 1970s when she became the first African-American model to grace the cover of “Mademoiselle” magazine. Later, she opened several upscale B. Smith restaurants and wrote two books on entertaining.

Some folks call her the black Martha Stewart. Recently, she became the face of Betty Crocker's cornbread mix. The change has increased sales of the corn muffin mix more than 20 percent, but it also raised some eyebrows.

After all, well before using black celebrities to market their wares, American companies used characters like Aunt Jemima on their packaging. Earlier, I spoke with B. Smith about whether there's any comparison. But first, she describes her transition from modeling to entrepreneur.

Ms. BARBARA B. SMITH (Entrepreneur): I always treated myself as a business when I was a model. At the time, if I was making $60 an hour, if I was five minutes late, I made $55 an hour. And we didn't talk about the word branding then, but I knew that I was my own business and that, you know, I had to grow my business and I segued from the modeling business into the food business. Now people say food and modeling don't go well together.

But I grew up in Western Pennsylvania and I learned to cook with my family, and food was always important in my life. And when I came to New York, I always entertained the other models, so it was a natural progression.

CHIDEYA: There are very few people who can sustain so many different types of brands. There's Oprah who's got, you know, television magazine, radio. And of course there's Martha Stewart who is operating in the world of home and home design. What do you feel when people compare you to Martha Stewart?

Ms. SMITH: Well, first of all, I think that if Martha Stewart and Oprah had a daughter, it would be B. Smith.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SMITH: You know, the comparison to Martha Stewart allows people to understand what I do. Martha has done a great job of creating and helping people to understand the importance of, you know, being creative in your home, whether it's cooking, whether it's gardening, whether it's decorating. And we have definitely different audiences, I think. And we share some audience.

There is crossover, so the three of us really are about bringing information to people. You know, teaching people to be more creative.

CHIDEYA: Clearly, other companies want to make use of how you have structured your life and put yourself out in the world. So General Mills, maker of the Betty Crocker corn muffin mix, said that they wanted to appeal more to African-Americans. They specifically said, quote, “they wanted to target African-American consumers through packaging.” What did you think when they approached you and how did you move in to that decision?

Ms. SMITH: Well, you know, my background, having been a model and a spokesperson, I deal with products that I think are fit to my brand. And people see me on television with my iron skillet, you know, with cornbread long before Betty Crocker and General Mills came to me.

And I thought it was a natural fit. Of course, the product really speaks for itself. It's a great product. It's very affordable. In the African-American community, you know, we probably over-index on eating cornbread.

No, I think it was a great idea. I think that it was brilliant of them to come to me.

CHIDEYA: Well, it's certainly been working. I know that their sales have gone up at 20-plus percent. Did you ever worry, though, that, you know, decades ago images of black women were used to sell everything from soap to pancakes. Were you worried about comparisons to the past?

Ms. SMITH: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I don't think there are any comparisons to the past. What I mean, people know and respect what I do. I'm in the food business. I think that it was a really good fit. And there is no comparison. I mean, years ago when you saw those images on products of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and other derogatory characters that you would see.

Today, it's totally different. I mean, you know, you see us in commercials. I just don't think that anybody ever thinks twice about it. Although, I do think that people who understand me and understand the brand and the quality that I stand for, when they see me endorsing a product, I think they want to try it because they feel comfortable with me.

CHIDEYA: Well, you've mentioned audience before. Who is a B. Smith woman or a B. Smith man who really aspires to some of the things that you put out there?

Ms. SMITH: I've always had crossover appeal. You know, people come into my restaurant. Men, women, you know, young people, older people, couples that have, you know, met in my restaurant, of all colors and all nationalities. What B. Smith's brand is about is bringing people together.

And I, you know, was raised in Western Pennsylvania. It was a very mixed community. I came to New York. New York to me is the center of the universe and we're such a melting pot. So I have a huge following across, you know, all nationalities.

CHIDEYA: What other ambitions do you have, because it seems as if whatever you're touching you manage to make a wonderful effort out of it?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I like the way you said that, a wonderful effort. Because everything that I have touched has not turned to gold. And I work very hard. I try to, you know, map out that path as much as you can and go in directions that I think really are fit to my brand and to my personality. So I see more of what I'm doing, more of being involved with home products. I also see in the future radio and, you know, sharing even more of what I do with the general public.

CHIDEYA: Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was lifestyle expert Barbara B. Smith. She joined us from our New York bureau.

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