Mary Wilson Talks New Book 'Supreme Glamour,' Finding The Supremes' Gowns Around the World & 'DWTS' Fashion

Mary WIlson
Sherry Rayn Barnett /Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Mary Wilson performs at Amoeba Records on Nov. 18, 2015 in Los Angeles. 

It’s not a secret Mary Wilson loves beads and sparkles. The Supremes, which fluctuated members constantly with the exception of its founding member Wilson, were draped in any given color, pattern, material and style: sage green taffeta thick-strapped dresses with gold beads on the bodice, halter periwinkle sequined gowns, and creamsicle-colored outfits with silver stripes and a feathered trim. Now, she wants to retell the group’s story through their couture with her fourth book, Supreme Glamour, coming out tomorrow (Sept. 17), which features 32 of their most eye-catching matching outfits exclusively photographed at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

But such a lavish presentation by Wilson isn’t just reserved for a hardcover: She’s coming to the television screen for season 28 of ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, which premieres Monday night (Sept. 16). It’s just one of the many achievements Wilson pockets away: The Supremes racked up 12 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive years from 1964 to 1969, making them the Hot 100’s No. 16 act of all time in celebration of the chart’s 60th anniversary in 2018. 

As the Cinderellas of Motown in the 1960s -- “We were princesses,” Wilson recalls -- Supreme Glamour cultivates their rich legacy through fashion. 

Wilson caught up with Billboard before her DWTS rehearsal to talk about gearing up for her upcoming television appearance and book documenting The Supremes’ black girl magic era of elegance.

What was the process of curating and retelling the story of The Supremes through style over words? There are over 400 pictures included in the book.

The process of actually putting this together started way back when I wrote my other two books, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme and Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together. So basically, the bio of The Supremes was already kind of set because of that. And so the gowns, the illustrations were something that was also pretty easy to decide upon because we kind of did that chronologically as well. So whichever designs were first, which was LaVetta [Forbes] here in Los Angeles. She was one of the first couture designers we used -- a black woman here in LA. So that was fairly easy, we started from there. However, initially, we The Supremes bought all of our gowns. We bought them from places like Saks 5th Avenue, and of course we still lived in Detroit, so a lot of the boutiques were still not as huge as how they were like Saks, which is national. 

But that was pretty easy. So it took [Mark Bego and I] about a year when he and I started. However, as I mentioned, it had already started years ago because I had this huge collection. I have my gown exhibit as well, so that was fairly easy because the gowns were already listed at an exhibit in museums around the world.

What was that like working with Mark? He's written a lot of biographies for a lot of stars (Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Michael Jackson). But he's worked with you on your other books. 

Working with Mark is great because Mark and I have been friends since I think back in the '70s. I think it was the '70s or may have been the '80s. I forgot, he told me the other day. [Laughs] So we have been friends, we've traveled the world together as well, and I've helped him write many of his books…. So working with him is fun because he knows the history, where a lot of writers don't know the history so they have to do research to come up on it whereas he doesn't. So that makes it easier for me to explain things, and it's easier for him, then, to actually get my voice into whatever we're writing.

Whoopi Goldberg wrote the foreword for Supreme Glamour. How did she get to be chosen for that?

Well, because I love Whoopi! [Laughs] I have been loving her since the first time I saw her. I did see her perform earlier, when she first started out, but I've seen things about her in TV shows and things about her play and those kind of things. And I just kind of admired her outlook in life…. She loved what she was doing, it was a gift, and she used it. And that's pretty much why I chose her because I knew that about her, and every time I've seen her, she always kind of liked me in terms of... I guess she went to me. A lot of people say, 'I'd go with Diana [Ross].' Some of them Florence [Ballard], some of them was Betty [McGlown], some of them was Cindy [Birdsong], you know. But her kind of went to me. I remember one time she was on this show. She was doing this first opening, and the song was Diane's. [Vocalizes] And she had the hair and everything, and her back was turned and then she turned right, 'Yeah, I know y'all think I was Diane, but I always wanted to be Mary.' So I fell in love with her again all over again because I'm like, 'Somebody likes me! Yes!' Well, not someone who likes me, but someone saw something in me that maybe that sparked something there, a love for them, you know, of life. 

How do you feel about being chosen for this coming season [of Dancing With the Stars] that you're on? 

Well, basically, I am so thrilled because this is another area for me. It's almost like people think of me coming back. But I'm not really coming back, I've been doing the same thing for years. This is the first time I'm doing something that everyone sees what I'm doing. Our fanbase of The Supremes, they know what I'm doing because they come to all the shows around the world, this and that. But here in LA and in the States, a lot of times they don't because I'm not on TV. It's really difficult for people to know what you're doing. So Dancing With the Stars for me is really huge.

Part of the jazz behind DWTS is the outfits that you get to wear. What would you love to wear this season? 

As I've said before, glamour is something we've always loved. So I mean anything glamorous I'm going to love. The more beads and sequins and fringes and all that stuff, I'm totally in for. And I will not try to be sexy, but showing my legs. I've always had pretty good legs. Couple other parts of my body have dropped. [Laughs] The other parts are still good, so there you go. 

You said you love lots of beads and sequins. In your book Supreme Glamour, are some of your favorite dresses the ones that have the most beads and the most sequins, or did you love the dresses that were the most colorful and more vibrant with patterns? What were the kinds of dresses that you gravitated toward the most?

I have 11 grandchildren, 4 children, and so you can't say which one is your favorite. [Laughs] But there are some that I love more and some that I don't like, but it's not something that I can say, 'This is that, and that's facts,' you know? I just like the things to look good on my body.

I was reading how some of the gowns that The Supremes wore just disappeared after you wore them. Like one fan found one in a garage sale in France and returned it to you.

Yes. Well when we were traveling so often, we had to store the gowns in various places. And a lot of times, it was all done by different people. We had robe managers and we had wardrobe mistresses, we had chaperones, we had managers, we had all kind of people…. When everyone left, when Diane left, when Flo' left, and I took over the group, I didn't know where certain things were. And so they ended up in certain places that they shouldn't. A lot of times I've bought some off of eBay actually, but also things went to various museums that should not have gone. And then I donated a couple to like the Smithsonian and places like that. So they were all over the place, and I just ended up trying to gather the mess because obviously they belong to us. 

Is it ever weird to think about how parts of your legacy can just be scattered literally all over the world?

I've taken it upon myself to take care of our legacy, to make sure it doesn't become all squandered all over the place, and it has. And it hurts. I really feel bad that people can have things that belong to you and then you can't get it back. You mentioned the lady in France. Amber, her name, she's in England actually. And she found the gown someplace in France at a garage sale. And I was fortunate enough to meet her in England when I was there, and actually she gave the gown back to me. That's really wonderful. I had one fan, Tony Daniels, who called me up and said, 'Mary, I saw one of your gowns on eBay. What should I do?' I'm like, 'Buy it!' And he bought it for me. Of course, I paid him back…. But it's like losing a child, you know? It's losing one of your children, you know, trying to find out where your child is and where your parents are.