Madison Avenue Shopkeepers Weep for CNN Style Diva Elsa Klensch

These days, when fashion journalist Elsa Klensch strolls into the tony boutiques near her home on West 54th Street, store managers take one look at her and their mascaraed eyes begin to mist.

“When I go up Madison Avenue, they are weeping, ” Ms. Klensch said on a recent afternoon. “They say there is no one . They say, ‘We sold so much through you.’ The customers don’t come in and say, ‘ I saw such-and-such on Elsa Klensch . Have you got that in stock?’ That now is a thing of the past.”

It is indeed. Last February, Ms. Klensch’s 21-year run as the host of CNN’s Style With Elsa Klensch abruptly came to an end. Though Ms. Klensch officially resigned, hers was seen as one of the more symbolic, hurried departures amid the tumultuous restructuring of the cable network, now part of AOL Time Warner Inc. Ms. Klensch, after all, had essentially invented fashion television–and then suddenly, like a Fendi baguette, she vanished.

It was a civil but rather unceremonious end. A print veteran whose résumé includes stops on three stations of the couture cross– Women’s Wear Daily, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue –Ms. Klensch built a program that became the fashion world’s must-see equivalent of Monday Night Football . (Her very first CNN show featured interviews with Halston, Martha Graham, Andy Warhol and Liza Minnelli.) Also known for her airy Sydney accent, firm shoulders and that memorable, upside-down wok of thick auburn hair, Ms. Klensch gave viewers a close-up of the temperamental world inhabited by eccentric designers, hard-to-please editors and breadstick-thin models.

“She’s kind of the Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite of fashion television rolled into one,” said Judy Licht, co-host of Full Frontal Fashion Weekly on New York’s Metro Channel. “Before anyone in television really thought there was a hunger for it, she went out and said, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ And you know what? They did.”

But Style With Elsa Klensch is gone, and the reformatted CNN has drastically reduced its fashion-news coverage. Today, ex-viewers do double-takes when they spot Ms. Klensch on the street, as if they’ve seen a friendly, tastefully dressed apparition. “It’s amazing,” Ms. Klensch said in an interview in her apartment, which overlooks the Museum of Modern Art. “People stop me and say, ‘Oh, what happened to your show ? When are you coming back?’ It’s very, very pleasant … but I don’t think the show is coming back.”

If she has any residual bitterness about her parting with CNN, Ms. Klensch disguises it well. This is not particularly surprising. In a catty business, Ms. Klensch was always unabashedly positive: Instead of skewering designers whose clothes she didn’t like, she simply kept them off her program. And even as CNN was crumbling around the reporter and rumors occasionally surfaced that her future with the network was in doubt, it was ultimately her decision to leave, she insisted.

“I don’t think any ending is exactly as one envisions it, but I was very happy with the way it all ended,” Ms. Klensch said. “I mean, I wanted to stay there 20 years, I wanted to get to the new millennium, and they [CNN] were very nice to me.”

Still, Ms. Klensch acknowledges that her business has changed–and not necessarily for the better. Whereas she brought a journalist’s serious eye to fashion, many of her successors are bubbly chatterboxes with great teeth but little expertise. Much of today’s fashion television consists of flashy segments filled with throbbing beats and quirky camera angles, making it virtually indistinguishable from a Missy Elliott video; by contrast, the comparably staid Style looked like the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour .

Ms. Klensch is unashamed. “I don’t think fashion needs another thing like celebrities or supermodels to hang the story on,” she said. “I sound like a snob saying this, but when I came to fashion, I came with a really great background: John Fairchild, June Weir … Grace Mirabella, Polly Mellen. I worked with all those people. I knew one hell of a lot about fashion, so my reports were more in-depth because I really understood. I used to sit in Geoffrey Beene’s studio and watch him fit and go through the fabrics, look at the new things … not many of the people who are covering fashion today have had that opportunity.”

Ms. Klensch’s admirers say her absence from the airwaves is glaring. “Elsa was pretty much single-handedly responsible for training women to go to their TV’s at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning to see Valentino’s fall collection,” said Women’s Wear Daily deputy editor Janet Ozzard. Added Robert Verdi, another Metro Channel fashion correspondent: “She’s the Obi-Wan.” To people in fashion television, Mr. Verdi said, Ms. Klensch is “not unlike what Diana Vreeland is to the editing world.”

But Ms. Klensch hasn’t disappeared entirely, not by a long shot. Earlier this spring, she did a series of fashion reports for WNBC Channel 4, and she said she’s in discussion with other networks (“We are talking, but you can’t say anything until the deal is signed”) and penning magazine articles. She also does work for the jewelry Web site Gem.Net, and there is a fashion-world mystery novel she longs to finish writing. “If you knew how busy I was!” Ms. Klensch said. “My life, really, has started all over again.”

But the former cable star maintains her discretion, along with her trademark bangs. Ms. Klensch was asked if her freedom from CNN gave her more liberty to speak her mind, to plunge some daggers she may have withheld in the past.

“No,” she said firmly, “I’m still Elsa Klensch .”

Tonight, it’s up to fashion maven Lou Dobbs to discuss the latest Dior saddle bag on Moneyline . [CNN, 10, 6:30 p.m.]

Thursday, June 14

Was that God-fearing-Broadway-star-turned-NBC-sitcom-star Kristin Chenoweth at Seth Rudetsky’s Broadway Chatterbox last Thursday, June 7, unabashedly recalling the time when she, then a high-school cheerleader, “smashed her cooter”?

Sure was! Appearing before a packed house at Mr. Rudetsky’s giddy footlight-biz chatfest–held weekly in the Don’t Tell Mama cabaret room on West 46th Street–Ms. Chenoweth told of sitting atop a cheerleading pyramid when a weak-backed co-rooter’s spine suddenly caved, jettisoning the future Tony-winner back to earth, her legs splayed in a most unfortunate manner.

“I landed on the floor like this, ” Ms. Chenoweth said, spreading two fingers to make an upside-down T. “They heard it …. For three months, I had to sit on a pillow.”

Uck! Ms. Chenoweth said she actually broke her coccyx, which is no joke. Still, “I call it the ‘ Cooter Smash ,'” she said.

That wasn’t the only scandal unearthed by Mr. Rudetsky that night. Ms. Chenoweth also revealed the secret behind her stunning transformation at the 1999 Tonys, the night when she managed to perform “My New Philosophy” (her big number as Sally in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown ), then race off the Radio City stage to morph from a curly-haired tyke in a pink dress into a sexy mama in 25 seconds flat so she could take the hardware as that season’s best featured actress in musical.

The big secret: Ms. Chenoweth wore a wig! Since she had to wear a curly wig to perform as Sally, Ms. Chenoweth didn’t want to run back onstage with her real hair in a greasy, sweaty ball. So she just slipped on another wig, this one resembling her real-life mane, to make her acceptance speech.

“You’re in the know now,” Ms. Chenoweth told the stunned audience.

“Where did you get the wig?” Mr. Rudetsky asked.

” Steel Pier ,” Ms. Chenoweth said, referring to another short-lived musical in which she’d starred. “Precious [Ms. Chenoweth’s character] had one of those, and I straightened it out.” No one noticed. “All the press was like, ‘Kristin, your hair is so long ,'” she said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah !'”

Ms. Chenoweth also talked about her new sitcom, Kristin, in which she plays a God-fearing singer trying to navigate hedonistic Manhattan. Kristin performed surprisingly well in the ratings for its June 5 debut, despite getting some, well, crappy notices.

But the bad reviews weren’t even the biggest insult. “We got preempted in most of the Midwest by Billy Graham,” she said. “How ironic is that?”

Tonight on NBC, Three Sisters. Deliver us, Billy! [WNBC, 4, 8:30 p.m.]

Friday, June 15

Comedy Central’s latest attempt to tickle edgy sophisticates’ funny bones is Primetime Glick , an ersatz Hollywood interview show hosted by Jiminy Glick, a character created and played by Martin Short. You might remember the bit from Mr. Short’s recent ill-fated turn as a daytime talk-show host. A fat-assed, perk-loving junketeer, Mr. Glick can barely keep the names of his real-life subjects straight and regularly wanders off, mid-interview, into diatribes about dead starlets, glazed doughnuts, etc.

Mr. Short, speaking by phone to reporters from Los Angeles, said that Jiminy isn’t based on a single journalist, but is a composite of the hacks he’s encountered in 20 years of showbiz junkets. “There used to be a guy, I can’t remember his name–I think he died, actually–who used to come in. Let’s say his name was Bill … and he had a sign that he put on his lap, attached to his chest, so that you, in your side of the five-minute interview, would keep referring to him as Bill, as if he’s an old, old friend.”

Hmmmm . Are we sure we’re not talking about Politically Incorrect here? Actually, cranky Bill Maher is a guest on the June 20 debut of Primetime Glick , as is Steve Martin. Tonight on Comedy Central, it’s the really highbrow stuff: Porky’s Revenge . [CMDY, 45, 10 p.m.]

Saturday, June 16

Tonight, the Fox Family Channel shows Scariest Places on Earth . Here’s a scary place these days: the chair in front of New York Post editor in chief Col Allan’s desk. [FOXFAM, 14, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, June 17

It’s summer, and no one cares about TV anymore. How do we know? Because ABC is showing four straight episodes of My Wife and Kids ! [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Monday, June 18

Did everyone enjoy The Times ‘ “Talking Money With” profile of Bob Costas in the June 10 business section? What about Mr. Costas’ G.E. stock, which is surely plunging with fare like Fear Factor fouling the airwaves? [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, June 19

Tonight on HBO, Chicken Run . Run , Chicken. [HBO, 32, 8 p.m.] Madison Avenue Shopkeepers Weep for CNN Style Diva Elsa Klensch