The sky hadn’t fully opened, more dew than rain, but the dapper Fonzworth Bentley urgently descended the steps of this South Beach club and returned, parasol in hand. It was a most Gene Kelly moment, Bentley, all braces and bow ties, lithe, gently twirling his signature umbrella then delicately shielding the wetness, now officially rain, from above. A classic gentleman’s move, he says later, in the dry and quiet confines of a limousine where he alternately eats Rice Krispie Treats and answers the jingle delivered from a phone covered in fur.

So here comes Bentley, 30, impeccably dressed, hoofing in music videos, ubiquitous in his newfound stardom, entering pop culture between the dawn of metrosexuals and the onset of five queer guys with eyes for straight guys, a time when America alternately evolved and devolved.

Because this is a man who has carved an entire career out of civility, Southern pedigree, sartorial style and fancy footwork. He has created a character, Fonzworth Bentley – really, some would argue, a caricature – of a fine and especially cultured man who dares to be different in the crass landscape of droopy jeans and throwbacks and mouths of gold. This is a man who has two-stepped in Outkast videos but made the largest splash of all as P. Diddy’s umbrella-toting personal valet. That alone gave him entree into boldfacedom.

"Surely you are not surprised?" he asked earnestly, a bit wide-eyed, about his microwave metamorphosis, which he brilliantly choreographed without the tackiness of self-promotion. "I want to be seen as a great artist. I want to inspire people to be free."

Looking back, Bentley was never really suited to the humdrum of a regular gig, never cut out for the normalcy of desks and cafeteria breaks and 401(k)s and the highly anticipated annual vacation. So after graduating from Morehouse University with a biology degree, he did what any self-respecting dreamer does: He headed to New York.

He decided well before it mattered that his natural inclination toward haberdashery style and his outsized personality was particularly marketable in the entertainment industry. So he dropped his alter ego (the exceptionally normal and currently dormant Derek Watkins), finagled his way into the hot circles inhabited by people like P. Diddy and Leonardo DiCaprio, and set about the business of blowing up.

His was a unique strategy: He pitched his personality and penchant for the cultured gentility of another era. Thus the uniform of two-inch cuffed slacks, dress shirts, bow ties or four-in-hand knotted ties, tailored suit jackets, hard-toe shoes and suspenders or braces.

It worked, if you’re judging him based on pop culture standards.

Bentley now stars in Tommy Hilfiger’s Tommy Jeans commercials; he is the face of Courvoisier’s new national marketing campaign (arbiter of good taste is the exact title). This fall, he is set to launch his own upscale bejeweled umbrella line – Bloomingdale’s is likely to carry; it’s part of his larger movement to bring back or, in some sectors, introduce, civility to the hip-hop generation. He has an MTV reality series in the works (they aren’t commenting) and more offers than he can handle to do his signature umbrella two-step in music videos; and a few collabs up his sleeve with hip-hop heavyweights, including of-the-moment rapper Kanye West. And, there are plans to write an etiquette book for children.

All in three years. It started with a photograph, a freeze frame of a particular choreographed moment in St. Tropez that was imported to the United States. It is both haunting, damning and brilliant.

Captured: the cosmo P. Diddy strolling along a French beach one July afternoon three years ago. Bentley walks in step, holding a parasol over Diddy, shielding him from the sun.

In New York, the photograph first ran in two dailies. One referred to him as a personal valet, a title with which he was comfortable; the other a manservant. The term still angers him, along with criticism that he has no place, as a refined black man, being subservient to any man. He brushes off that criticism but still struggles to reconcile the role race played in the photograph.

"People ran with the term. I come from an educated family. I could have been a scientist. My family wanted me to quit, to walk away from this. The next day Bill Cosby called and told me I had to finish what I started," he says. "I am still here."

But long before Bentley entered our world, he was making fans of his preppy style and big personality as a child in southwest Atlanta. He grew up in a self-decribed "Cosby" world, in the middle of the black middle class. He went to school with the members of Outkast.

His fashion inspiration – beyond the Fred Astaires, Duke Ellingtons, James VanDerZees of the world, is one great-granddaddy Emmitt, an original gentleman who never left home without a pocket square or a fedora. As a right of passage, Granddaddy Emmitt gave Fonzworth his first fedora at age 25. It is a family tradition.

But all that great fashion lineage was too big for Atlanta. With degree in hand, he went to work at the Ralph Lauren on Madison Avenue. A chance meeting with P. Diddy led to an exchange of business cards. When Diddy was on trial for gun-possession and bribery charges stemming from a nightclub shooting, Bentley e-mailed him almost daily.

"I sent him Bible verses to try to be supportive. It was a difficult time for him," he says. "Then one day I sent him an e-mail that said, "Please don’t make me go back to work on Monday," he says of his restaurant job.

Diddy didn’t, and Bentley became his assistant that next day. Diddy later christened him Farnsworth, which was later changed to Fonzworth to sidestep copyright problems. The job included waking Diddy up, helping him make fashion selections from his epically proportioned wardrobe, managing the phones, and carrying the now-famous umbrella.

Last year, Bentley played chaperon to hip-hop group Da Band on Diddy’s MTV reality series "Making the Band 2." That project also included his own single on the group’s 2003 debut album, "Too Hot for TV."

In September, Fonzworth will debut his pricey umbrellas – handles will be made of wood, platinum or alligator, the umbrella adorned in jewels, stripes or polka dots – during New York Fashion Week, just another step in his mission to soften the edges of hip-hop, to take the ghetto out of ghetto fabulous.

© 2004, The Miami Herald.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.