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It seems like only yesterday that Fonzworth Bentley was introduced to MTV watchers as the latest colorful character in P. Diddy’s entourage, an umbrella-toting, two-stepping snappy dresser who provided shade to Diddy while occasionally starring in music videos on the side. Cut to a few years later, and Bentley (a.k.a. Derek Watkins, a.k.a. the Penguin) has more than backed up his fanciful image. He’s the author of Advance Your Swagger: How to Use Manners, Confidence and Style to Get Ahead and, beginning tomorrow night, he’ll host MTV’s Jamie Foxx–produced reality show, From G’s to Gents, wherein he will attempt to transform fourteen thuggy guys into members of his Gentleman’s Club. Bentley spoke with Vulture about the show, his own experience with etiquette school, and his own ongoing infatuation with the indomitable pocket square.
We’re not going to lie — this show looks amazing. There are so many tears in the trailer alone…
There actually are. But even with all the blubberin’ the idea is to laugh with them, not at them. A lot of these guys, for the first time really, realized their self-worth, and that’s a very emotional thing.
And what will we be seeing in each episode?
We start with fourteen guys, who are pledging membership to my Gentleman’s Club, where respect amongst your peers is incredibly important. Every couple days I bring in some A-lister to teach the different lessons to be a true gentleman, and we give them a challenge to test them on that. And then for the last half of the show, each gentleman comes in in their navy blazer and they get to cast a vote as to who they think does not best represent the club. And that’s where things get kinda hairy.
I watched the MTV special about celebrity G’s gone gent. Who do you think has made the top celebrity G-to-gent transformation?
Jay-Z. Here’s this guy from Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, we know he started with one of the primary economies of the street. But at the same time, he decided to name his company Roc-A-Fella — he was thinking big, much larger than Brooklyn from the get-go. My mama always said know where you are, use what you have, and do the very best you can. He did that. He has truly advanced his swagger.
Have you always been a gent?
You know, I didn’t really have much G-dom, if you will. But I can tell you a quick story about how I ended up in etiquette school. When I was young it was a habit of mine to push my food onto my fork. My mama said, “You know if you keep doing that, you’re going to etiquette school.” Sure enough, she sent me to class, and it was freakin’ horrible. Now fast-forward to my sophomore year at Morehouse College. Evin Cosby [Bill’s daughter] was a freshman, and she invited a group of us to her house. Towards the end of dinner, Bill looked over at me and said, “I like the way you use your cutlery.” Man, I didn’t even know he was watchin’! I got up from the table, called my mama, and said, “Mama. Thank you for sending me to etiquette school that summer!” You never know who’s watching.
You were very into the pocket square for awhile. What item does every gent today need to be wearing?
Definitely the pocket square — I’m just going to continue to mass this into culture until it sticks. You know, everything in fashion is derived from some function. There’s a pocket there — it ain’t there just to look cute. Put a pocket square there. If you waste something on yourself, if your lady wastes something on herself, or if you’re not a gentleman for the day and you’re having to make a cry, you’re prepared for that.
Who do you think you’ve helped realize their gent potential?
I would definitely say I’ve had some influence on Sean Combs, and he would agree. He’s had some influence on me as well. Y’all saw Diddy before I worked for him. Ya saw him after I worked for him. It is what it is.
Why do you call yourself the Penguin?
I’ve always been with the penguins — I wrote a song for my upcoming album called “The Penguin.” The way I look at it, the penguin is the flyest bird — he wears a tuxedo every day, but he can’t fly! But what if he tried? I’m gonna represent that penguin that can really fly. Two years after I wrote the song, March of the Penguins came out, and let me tell you, I was there opening weekend! I was one of the few, I was one of the few. But I was there, first row, for March of the Penguins. That was confirmation for me that things coming up in my writing, subject matter, made sense. —Rebecca Milzoff