Amy Winehouse’s Dad Gets Candid In Exclusive Interview

Tonight, The Amy Winehouse Foundation Inspiration Awards and Gala will be held at The Waldorf Astoria. Tony Bennett, Nas, Salaam Remi, and Elhadj "Moe" Kane will be honored. Jennifer Hudson, Wyclef Jean, and others will perform. It’s red carpet. It’s black tie. Celebrities abound.

Here’s what the Amy Winehouse Foundation is all about:
“The mission of the Amy Winehouse Foundation-US is supporting and empowering children and young adults in need through music therapy and music education and works to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people. Special honorees will receive an Amy Winehouse Foundation Inspiration Award for their work in helping to inspire greatness in others.

The Amy Winehouse Foundation was formally established in the UK in 2011 by Amy’s family in honor of her memory and her passion for helping children in need. To date, the UK Foundation has allocated over £500,000 to various organizations.”

The Amy Winehouse Inspiration Awards and Gala will be the first of what Mitch Winehouse and Janis Winehouse Collins – Amy’s father and mother – plan to be an annual event raising awareness and resources for the Amy Winehouse Foundation in the US. All money raised in the US, including from this event, will go to US programs.

I caught up with Mitch Winehouse yesterday and asked him about the event and Amy. 

What’s going on and why is it going on?
It’s hopefully going to be the first of the annual Amy Winehouse Inspiration Award galas. We’re honoring Tony Bennett, Nas, and a couple of other people, and we have Jennifer Hudson performing.

How did you get from a time of grief and wrapping your mind around it, to the point where you’re devoting your time doing good?
That’s a good question, and I’m really not quite sure. When I think back to 18 months ago, it was a very bad time for me and my family, but we spoke about it, and we decided to turn this very bad thing into something good. It’s been very difficult, but we’ve managed to do it.

What were the last several years of Amy’s life like?
Amy was clean for two years and 10 months. The last six weeks of her life – the last five weeks and five days – were spent without drinking. In the last two days, she drank quite a lot, but she had been moving toward abstinence and never made it. The last two years of Amy’s life was far from being a hopeless situation. We were in a very, very good place, and Amy told me she was moving toward abstinence.

Quite frankly, had she died in 2007, 2008, I would have put my hands up and said “fair enough” because she was very ill, and there was a sense of helplessness then. But she proved that she could deal with her drug addiction, and we felt she was moving in the same way with the alcohol as well, but it just wasn’t.

How about her achievements, the fact that people are still talking about her and will forever? What is her legacy?
Her musical legacy really takes care of itself. She’s a six-time Grammy winner. The five times she won in 2008, I believe was a record, the first time a female artist had won five Grammys in one go. She was a fantastic achiever, a great person, and we’re very, very proud of her. But we feel her musical legacy will really look after itself. What we want to do now is highlight the work that she was doing; she was very philanthropic when she was alive, she was very charitable, and we need to carry on her charity with this foundation. She created the foundation herself, so we’re just carrying on the work she was doing.

What is the one thing that people don’t know about her that you wish the whole world knew? 
The way she was with people. When Back to Black had just come out, we went for a stroll through London, and we popped into shops she frequented, where everyone knew her. But she too knew everything about these people, asking “How’s your mum? Your sister? Did she have the baby?” She was fully engaged with other people. There are a lot of young ladies in her position who wouldn’t be like that. That’s what I want people to understand and realize about her. She didn’t really get that she was a superstar, which was wonderful. She was a normal kid with an astronomical talent. 

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A Look at the Women Behind This Weekend’s First Time Fest

Johanna Bennett and Mandy Ward are the co-founders of the First Time Fest, a brand new film festival that offers a staggering opportunity for the first-time filmmaker: a distribution deal. Partnering with Cinema Libre Studios, the twelve films in competition this weekend in New York City will vie for the honor of having their film released in the U.S. as well as get the chance to meet some of their cinematic heroes. Darren Aronofsky will be on hand to receive the John Huston Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinema, an award being presented by none other than the great Martin Scorsese.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Bennett and Ward as they began to shape the festival and, in just a few months, the pair has grown their “two-woman team” into an all-star cast of participants and collaborators. I spoke with them about the impetus for starting this wonderful new film festival, which has already attracted the attention of the best in Hollywood.

In less than a year, these women and their growing team have created a new way that filmmakers and audiences both will be challenged. Their festival jurors are the legendary producer Christine Vachon, Fred Schneider from the B-52s, and none other than you, the third juror: the audience itself. Do not miss this incredible film festival this weekend in New York. Get your tickets to the films and panels here.

Tell us about the creation of the First Time Fest, and what inspired it:
Johanna Bennett:We were talking about how hard it was to move up. We were sort of lamenting our own stuff (laughs) and Mandy, who had just left Radioactive Films, had really been talking about film festival stuff…
Mandy Ward: I was going go to a lot of festivals, you know, promoting films that I had produced. And I was so lonely at these festivals! Like, really lonely! You go for work, you see people, but they’re always going to something else.You’re just lost in this mass waterfall of people that’s spread out everywhere. You don’t quite know where you’re going, there’s no intimacy, so you just feel like a lost little puppy all the time.
JB: And I had not really been involved in the festival circuit, unless it was to buy a ticket for the New York Film Festival or for Tribeca. I knew nothing about something Cannes. Mandy explained to me that people go to Cannes for the market, that that is what also makes it such an exciting festival. And in New York, there all these little festivals, and I asked her, “Well, why aren’t these festivals attracting more attention?” She said it was because there’s no market—there’s no celebrity attachment. So I asked, “If there was a festival that had no real celebrity attachment, how would it attract attention?” And Mandy replied, “I don’t know!Maybe attach some crazy prize, like distribution!” So we thought maybe we could put something like that together! So we cleaned out this “barn” of the Player’s Club [the historic actor’s club in Gramercy Park] and put on a show! We thought it would be easy—that we’d create a budget, like a movie—but it was so difficult!

It’s a brilliant concept—attaching a distribution deal for the Grand Prize Winner.
I reached out to the first people I know, the ones I had a personal relationship with and trusted, and that really [were those at] Cinema Libre Studios: Phillipe Diaz and Cristian Butler. Jean-Jacques Bieneix [director of Betty Blue] is a friend of mine in Paris, and Cinema Libre re-released all of his films. When we approached Phillipe about it, he said, “That sounds like an amazing idea!” They are one of the biggest distributors of documentaries in the world, and this is something they were into immediately, and [they’ve been] super supportive. Phillipe Diaz is a very big director and producer in France; he started Cinema Libre to distribute in L.A., and he is a nurturer of independent films. He did The End of Poverty, so he’s also an activist. I mean, people teach that film in schools now. He was ready.
JB: [Other film festivals] had also been trying to do this for years—Sundance, etc—but nobody really wanted to rebrand.
MW: To restructure something that big like Sundance…it would be really hard.

How did the collaboration with the historic Player’s Club come about?
JB: I was going to some event, a very fancy one, for a snazzy friend of my dad’s, [Tony Bennett] named Iris Cantor. I was in the car with my dad, and telling him the idea, and he just said, “Why don’t you just call the Player’s Club? They’re actors, they’ll understand what you’re doing.” And so I did, and I talked with John Martello, the Director of the Players, and a week later, he said that going forward with the festival was the first unanimous decision their board has ever come to since he could remember. For as much stalling and difficulty as we had, we also had everything fall into place.
MW: They opened their doors to us. We could feel the energy happening.

What is your submission process like?
We accept submissions through Without A Box, and we have David Schwartz as our head of programming, and he is the Artistic Director and Head Curator for the Museum of the Moving Image, so he goes around to every festival. He’s going to be curating films for us. We really want to reach out to Tribeca and Sundance, and say to them, “What didn’t get picked up?”

Pull out Your Checkbook: Nude Lady Gaga Sketch by Tony Bennett for Sale

Are you an extremely wealthy person with terrible taste and a penchant for celebrity memorabilia? Were you devastated by the news that Michael Jackson’s hair is no longer for sale? Before you spend that hair money on something stupid like life insurance or medicine for your kids, take a look at this charcoal portrait of Lady Gaga, sketched by crooner and George Bush confidant Tony Bennett–now available at an online auction.

As we reported a couple weeks ago, Bennett sketched the portrait during a Vanity Fair photo shoot with Annie Lebowitz. “I walked in and said ‘Well Tony, here we are,’” Lady Gaga recalls, “And I dropped my robe and I got into position. I felt shy and thought ‘It’s Tony Bennett, why am I naked?’” (Oddly enough, the first thought most people have when meeting Bennett is: “It’s Tony Bennett, why am I wearing clothes?”)

The sketch is available on eBay Celebrity, Billboard reports, and bidding starts at $5,000. All proceeds go to Bennett’s Exploring the Arts charity and Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. You have until December 19th to enter the winning bid, and if you do, be sure to buy a frame. A nude portrait of Lady Gaga sketched by Tony Bennett would just be tacky without a frame.

Lady Gaga Strips Down for Tony Bennett

While The Big Bang Theory brought in the most viewers on Thanksgiving, Lady Gaga held her special on CBS. She visited her old school, made fried turkey pancakes, wore insane outfits and of course, performed several musical numbers. Tony Bennett showed up to sing their duet Lady is a Tramp, with Gaga later revealing that they’d had a Titanic-style sketch session.

Gaga and Bennet decided to take their relationship to another artistic level at the suggestion of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.

“I walked in and said ‘Well Tony here we are,’ and I dropped my robe and I got into position. I felt shy and thought “It’s Tony Bennett, why am I naked?” she told Katie Couric during an interview portion of the special.

The sketches will run in Vanity Fair’s January issue. The preview shot has the Mother Monster posing with her front facing the floor looking demure. No giant hats, no sunglasses, no 12 inch heels; only Lady Gaga can shock by toning things down.

Eat your heart out Jack Dawson.

Tony Bennett Says George Bush Admitted the Iraq War Was ‘A Mistake’

Tony Bennett has an impressive resume: 15-time Grammy Award winner, Kennedy Center Honoree, Japanese eyewear spokesperson. He might now get to add “investigative journalist” to that list. The 85-year-old crooner was on the Howard Stern Show Monday, where he revealed that while sitting next to George W. Bush during the Kennedy Center Honors in 2005, the president admitted to him that he regretted going to war in Iraq. “He told me personally that night,” Bennett said, “‘I think I made a mistake.’” Interesting, we always thought celebrities conducted lighthearted small talk during those types of functions.

Since launching combat operations in Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush has never even hinted that the war was a mistake. The bulk of his memoir is about deciding to invade Iraq and sticking to that decision. (Remember, he’s a decider!) So did he really undo two terms of unwavering commitment to the war in a conversation with Tony Bennett? A spokesperson for Bush told NBC News, “This account is flatly wrong … President Bush never said that to Tony Bennett or anyone else.” Tony Bennett, a World War II veteran, is outspoken against the war in Iraq. In the same interview, he told Stern, “But who are the terrorists? Are we the terrorists or are they the terrorists? Two wrongs don’t make a right.” Concerning 9/11, he believes U.S. foreign policy is as culpable as the terrorists themselves. “They flew the plane in, but we caused it,” he said, “Because we were bombing them and they told us to stop.” (Update: Bennett has since apologized for his 9/11 remark.) Could Bennett, who’s so vehemently opposed to the war, have had selective hearing when he thought George W. Bush told him it was “a mistake?” Possibly. Considering Bush is already denying the remarks, it will be his word against Bennett’s.

Amy Winehouse’s Final Video Is the Tony Bennett Duet ‘Body and Soul’

Today would’ve marked Amy Winehouse’s 28th birthday, and in celebration, there’s now a full-length music video of the late singer’s “Body and Soul” collaboration with Tony Bennett. The video, shot at Abbey Road Studios in London, is one of the rarer glimpses of Winehouse from the past year, finding her in good spirits and delivering a great performance.

“Body and Soul” is one of the singles from Tony Bennett’s new Duets II album, which includes songs with Lady Gaga, Aretha Franklin, and Mariah Carey. But according to Bennett, none turned out as good as the one with Winehouse. “Amy Winehouse was my favorite to perform with on the whole album,” he told The Guardian back in July. “Everybody just said, ‘Ooh I don’t know if you’re going to handle her,’ but I felt completely different. I said, boy, she really loves to perform.”

Last month, he even told Billboard that the chemistry between himself and Winehouse might be a shocker. “It’s on film…and I think it will surprise everybody as to how well we ended up getting along,” he said, also adding that he’d had separate talks with her prior their recording session, “I was convinced I would be able to help her and talk her out of… taking drugs.”

Once in a Lifetime: Tony Bennett at Chocolat Au Vin

Last night, the guests of Chocolat Au Vin — a decadent evening of dancing, dessert and dreams benefiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — were fortunate enough to experience a once-in-a-lifetime performance by 15-time Grammy-winning legend Tony Bennett. Indeed, extravagance was abundant; with Kristin Davis, smartly dressed in Oscar De La Renta, working the red carpet as the Honorary Chair, guests enjoyed a tasting menu prepared by Daniel Boulud, Godiva Chocolatier truffles, and Artisanal premium cheeses to pair with the Napa Valley Vinters. Gossip Girl’s Connor Paolo, The Sopranos’ Michael Imperioli and Tony Siricio, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Jessica Hart, Eric Trump, and Cuba Gooding Sr. (who also performed) were on hand to show support as well. But extravagance aside, the work that St Jude does was apparent as young cancer survivors took the stage to share their stories, and I assumed the role of humbled journalist, shocked to have been invited to such a momentous event, and feeling extremely honored to be in the presence of so many who were supporting an incredible cause.

It’s no secret that we writer kids get invited to beautiful affairs — galas, black tie benefits, insanely decadent dinners, selling our ink for a night in which we can put on our own Oscar De La Renta and have drinks for a comp ticket price. I am always in awe of such exorbitant affairs, spending the evening wavering between pondering my lucky star and trying to get a couple of casual quotes from boldface names. Most of the time the level of cheesiness radiating from some of the guests, socialites, social lowers, and demi-celebrities who attend such events outshines the artisanal cheeses and hors d’oeuvres. These social climbers were wholly absent from this event. The people perusing the silent auction items (tennis lesson with Andy Roddick, original signed painting by Tony Bennett himself), participating in wine tastings, and stuffing themselves with the Godiva raspberry chocolates were for the most part invested in raising money for St Jude’s. The outcome of this kind of support was apparent, as Michael Swart, who at one was time told he had only three months to live, told his story years after he was first diagnosed with cancer, reporting total remission. Little Jake Marshall came to the podium and read a laundry list of things he was now able to do, long after his family was told Jake was not going to live past his third birthday. He finished his list with an emphatic “I will survive.” Reader, there were tears.

Then of course there was Tony. Expecting him to do a single song set, my jaw dropped when he played for what seemed like an hour. At 82 he was still as emphatic and sharp as he was years ago, eliciting impromptu slow and swing dancing from couples in the crowd, and giving us a night that should go down in our own personal history books.

There are events that people buy tickets to because they want to be and be seen — to bask in the glory of their money in a showy way, hoping to make it to the pages of New York Social Diary; then there are events of this caliber, where the people involved have no ulterior motive other than a stringent belief in the work — in this case the work that St. Jude’s does, giving these kids a life, a chance — a once-in-a-lifetime experience that outshines this one simple evening.

image Tony Bennett