Frisky Q&A: Tim Gunn On Evil Gretchen, Martha Stewart’s Rude Kid, And Kissing Michelle Obama
Tim Gunn has a giant pair of balls.
No, I am not intimately familiar with the contents of Tim’s nattily tailored suits. I have read the “Project Runway” mentor’s latest book, a half-memoir/half-etiquette guide called Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons For Making It Work, and let me tell you, this man has chutzpah. The rude and ridiculous behavior of celebs and mere mortals alike — including his own family — are picked apart in the book; Gunn has already attracted attention for his scandalous revelations, from seeing Anna Wintour being carried down a flight of stairs by her minions to Andre Leon Talley being hand-fed grapes. For instance, he describes filming a Macy’s commercial with Martha Stewart and her daughter, Alexis, who referred to her mother as a “goddamned bitch” and called the products she was hawking at Macy’s “crap.” (He also describes the Stewarts’ relationship as “there’s something ‘Grey Gardens’ about the two of them.” Ha!)
But the craziest revelation to me was not about celebs, per se. Gunn’s father worked as a ghostwriter for J. Edgar Hoover, the former director of the FBI who was allegedly a cross-dresser. Well, Gunn strongly suggests that when, as a child visiting his father’s office, he was introduced to the “I Love Lucy” star Vivian Vance it was actually Hoover in drag. “I’m not saying at the age of eight I definitely met J. Edgar Hoover at his office in the FBI wearing a dress and makeup, only that I strongly suspect it,” Gunn writes.
ZOMG is right. After the jump, read all about Tim Gunn’s lunch with Michelle Obama, Gretchen’s “psychosis” this season on “Project Runway,” and how he has hidden this book from his mother all summer:
I loved the book. It’s one of those books where you just want to devour it in one sitting.
Oh, I’m deeply flattered. Thank you. And I’ll confide in you, I’m more than a little nervous to how people will respond to it. It’s wonderful to get some positive feedback. Thank you.
Gunn’s Golden Rules is packaged as an etiquette guide but, really, the book is more of a memoir.
It evolved into that. It began laying out the chapters that were the [etiquette] lessons, so to speak, and then starting to fill them and I kept telling myself, “Write as though its sports reporting: strictly the facts, very matter-of-fact.” And then I thought, Gee, I had an experience with X that tells so much about this particular lesson. And that’s really how it evolved. I just began filling it in with personal anecdotes because they resonate so much more powerfully for the reader and certainly for me. Some of [my stories] fall in the category of “emulate this” and others fall in the category of “don’t let this happen to you.”
There’s a lot of “don’t let this happen to you” stories, especially about celebrities with whom you’ve interacted. Aren’t you worried about some of the consequences of ratting out their rude behavior?
(laughing) Oh, for sure I am! I keep thinking Martha Stewart will never have me back on her show again. I mean, I love her. It’s her bratty daughter [Alexis] who troubles me so, and especially because Alexis is so willing to do this in public. Of course, at the time we shot that commercial for Macy’s [in which Martha and Alexis were hawking some of Martha’s products], she didn’t have that show, “Whatever, Martha,” where she picks apart her mother’s television show. That hadn’t even happened yet. So [Alexis has] taken it even further than when I saw her. Somehow, Martha has become an enabler; she may not be happy with the behavior, but she never once flinched during the whole outburst.
Is there a reason you refer to some rude celebs by name, but others you loosely veil their identity? You name-names with Anna Wintour, Martha Stewart and “The Countess,” but then you just obliquely refer to a glamorous TV host who used to be married to a famous writer. Everyone can easily figure out that’s Padma Lakshmi from “Top Chef.”
It was all the under the direction of the Simon & Schuster legal department, where some people were slightly described and some weren’t. I have to tell you, the Padma anecdote was printed [still with her identity loosely veiled] in Marie Claire magazine and I received the most gracious, grand, take-the-high-road letter from Padma, saying “I’m so sorry, I was between assistants and it fell through the cracks and I didn’t mean for this to happen.” I thought, Good heavens, here’s a lovely plus from this! Wasn’t that lovely of her?
Your book doesn’t just criticize the behavior of celebs — you write about your own family, too, including where you say that you believe your father may have been a closeted homosexual who was having a sexual relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. Is the Gunn family going to be happy about that?
[gloom-and-doom voice] They haven’t read it yet.
How do you think that’s going to go?
My deathly ill mother, if she’s still alive next Tuesday [today], she won’t be by Wednesday.
Oh, I’m so sorry!
(laughs uproariously) She’s not going to like it.
Does she read your books?
She’s been after this book all summer. She doesn’t know that I’m sitting with several copies from the publisher. (sighs) I was asked by Simon & Schuster’s legal department whether I wanted to share this with my family before it went to print, before we even went to galleys, and I said, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t say to them directly and it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” Once you open that door, you’ve had it.
You’re a WASP, right?
Well, technically. (laughs) I don’t know if spiritually I am, but technically I am.
Even though you criticize your mother a lot in this book, your family still sounds like it’s filled with love.
I don’t go after people’s character. It’s never something about “they are a hateful, horrible person.” It’s really about “look at this behavior — you decide, dear reader, what you think about it.”
I actually had a debate of the most bizarre, surreal kind many months ago. It was shortly after the White House State Dinner with those horrible party crashers, the Salahis — (groans) the “Real Housewives” — and I was meeting with some bloggers and a number of the bloggers were mothers, so they have kids. One of them said to me, very defiantly, that she thought the Salahis were absolutely entitled to have gone to that State Dinner. And I said, “What?! They weren’t invited.” Well, that didn’t matter. [The blogger said] “If you want to go, you should go.” But then the whole fabric of our society collapses! People can’t just do whatever they want just because they want to do it. I said, “But you have children. Is that the message you want to give to them?” And she said, “Most definitely. That’s what I do give to them.” I thought, I don’t know, I smell anarchy. My position on whether this is good or bad behavior in all these cases [in the book], obviously, can be debated. Not everyone will be in agreement.
You’re also willing to critique your own bad behavior.
Absolutely. I can have the maturity of a gnat and be really bratty and petulant and sulk and pout and give people the cold shoulder. It happened only a few days ago. (laughs) I have to discipline myself and say, “Stop it, Tim, you’re acting like a brat! Stop it!”
Do you think fame has changed you at all?
Oh, “fame.” You flatter me!
You’re Tim Gunn!
I didn’t come into the spotlight until after I turned 50. I mean, I still don’t think of myself as famous. Whenever anyone comes up to me on the street because they recognize me and they know who I am, I’m stunned by it: “You know who I am?”
Oh, you’re being modest.
No, I’m stunned by it. I take the subway every day. [I have seen Tim Gunn on the subway. — Editor] I don’t navigate the world any differently than I did 10 years ago. Well, [fame] has changed me, because it has allowed me to have access to other parts of the world that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Like, I was backstage at the Emmys on Sunday! It was thrilling! So, yes, it has opened doors that wouldn’t have opened otherwise and given me incredible experiences. I mean, I sat next to Mrs. Obama at lunch at the White House on July 21. I’ll never get over that as long as I live!
Ooo, what was it like to have lunch with Michelle Obama?
Oh, it was just the most thrilling, incredible moment. She was speaking at the podium and then she came to the table and I stood up and, you know, I was the only man at the table who stood up? For the First Lady of the United States? I was stunned by it. So I stood up and extended my hand to shake hers and (voice becomes high-pitched with excitement) she leaned over and gave me a hug and a kiss! I was just so flabbergasted and her graciousness and her whole aura. She was wearing this spectacular shocking pink, Isabel Toledo jumpsuit. She was amazing. I’ll never, never, never get over it as long as I live.
So [fame] has changed me. That wouldn’t have happened to the old Tim Gunn! (laughs) But I also have to say, it has been access to these other worlds that has provided a lot of content for this book. Boy, do I see a lot of bad behavior. There’s tons that I didn’t report. I’m really soft-pedaling things in this book; this is really just the tip of the iceberg. (laughs)
Can you share a juicy story you left out?
I don’t even know where I’d start. There are many, many, many, many.
What I don’t understand, and I blame the individuals as much as I blame the people exhibiting the bad behavior, I don’t understand the enablers. I don’t understand the people who surround these other people and enable the behavior that they witness. I don’t get it. I would take the person aside and say, “You know something? We shouldn’t be doing this.” Or, “No, I’m not going to count the number of ice cubes in your Diet Coke glass.” It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous.
So, let’s talk “Project Runway.” So far this season, Gretchen has been really cruel to the other designers, talking behind people’s backs and saying that she would stand up for her group-mates during judging, but then totally selling them out. I was so happy in the last episode when you raised your voice with all the designers and demanded they stand up to Gretchen’s bullying behavior. She totally deserved to get called out! Was that the first time in “Project Runway” history that you injected yourself into the designers’ social drama?
Yes. That absolutely is. I have never done that before and I will be honest with you, I asked permission to do it. I have a role in that scene [after the judging] saying “Go to the workroom and clean up your space.” That’s why I said to A.J. [the designer who was sent home last episode instead of Gretchen], “I want you to hear this.” Because I also wanted the whole team to know that I was disappointed in all their behavior. They allowed Gretchen to bully them and direct everything. When I saw how the teams lined up and who the players on the teams were, I thought, Oh, God, it’s so easy to say it’s going to be the Christopher-Gretchen-A.J. team that’s going to win and the other group is going to be the biggest losers. And then to watch it all happen — this is why I say truth is stranger than fiction. You can’t make this stuff up. I was just so disappointed that they allowed Gretchen to design/direct the entire thing and basically not allow them to be who they are as designers. The behavior that Gretchen demonstrated on the runway during that Q&A with the judges is about as close to psychosis as anything I have seen on the show.
But I have to tell you something, too. I’ve learned to really love and adore her. I’m extremely fond of her. There are multiple dimensions of her. [But] you’re quite right, I’ve never done it before. Part of the constraint that I have in terms of my interactions with the designers when we’re taping the show is that I can’t speak to them off-camera. I learned that season one. So, it’s not as though I can have a private moment with them. [When it came to my disappointment at Gretchen’s behavior] there was the fact that I wasn’t going to see A.J. again and I really wanted him to know I thought he was the sacrificial lamb. Michael Costello had immunity, not that I thought he should have gone home either. I would have sent Gretchen home! I probably would have been mistaken but that’s what I would have done. That was the only moment that I would have had to say anything of that kind. The producers could have edited it all out, but they didn’t.
I’m glad the producers didn’t edit it out. I was sitting there cheering.
Oh, thank you. Some people said I was really inappropriate. But I thought, No! I was being the dad, saying “Listen, kids!”
Anyway, back to your book: You describe Christian Siriano as the first “fashion prodigy” that you’ve ever seen.
Are there other designers who you think aren’t as famous as they should be, though?
A lot. A lot.
Personally, I think Daniel Vosovic should be a household name.
I hate to sound like some Pollyanna, but I really do think things happen when they should. I think that Daniel, for instance, is ascending right now and he will continue to ascend. I will say this about all of the “Project Runway” alumni; their level of success after the show corresponds to their ambitions and their resources. Christian, I took him aside when I did the home visit. We taped the whole thing and [the producers] didn’t use it. I was so worried that he would end up being in a position like Daniel Vosovic. When Daniel and the other finalists were being questioned after the Fashion Week show, Michael Kors for one, and Nina [Garcia], said, “You’re too young, Daniel. You’re too young for this.” And I wanted to say, “Well, why did we put him on the show?” I was really perplexed by that comment.
But it was still in my head when I visited Christian because I know how incredibly talented his is and I know how young he was at that time. He was 21 also. And I said, “I am anticipating that this question [about your age] is going to be delivered and I want you to have a response to this. I want you to work out a business plan, I want you to work out a strategy, for how you will move forward after the show. You’ve got to work all this out. You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ll figure it all out later.’ No. If you’re able to do this, it will, just like your design work, betray your youth. It will say, ‘I really am an old soul. I really do have a lot of maturity.'” And that’s exactly what he did!
I’m glad to be a coach when I can be. I am always available for the designers whenever they want or need me. It’s not like “American Idol” where you can go to a theater and have your name on a marquee and sing. [Putting out a collection] is such a collaborative process and it takes time to develop the sourcing, resources, the production resources. Uli Herzner from “Season Three,” I get a call from her every six months. She wants to be bigger. She wants to expand her brand. But she won’t let go of production. “Uli, we’ve had this conversation half a dozen times now. Unless you’re willing to let a factory produce your clothes, you’re not going to get any bigger because there’s always so many hours in a day and there’s always so many stitches you can make.” Fashion designers are, for the most part, very serious control freaks and they have to learn how to let it go.
Do you want to weigh in on Christina Hendricks’ gown at the Emmys?
God, I was at the Emmys. Did I see it? I don’t think I ever saw it. I spent most of the night distracted by January Jones’ dress and wondering how is she going to sit down. (laugh) She definitely managed.
It’s too bad you missed Christina’s dress. It has been so controversial!
I’ve been in hiding. I spent two full days on the “Gossip Girl” set [after returning home from the Emmys]. It was thrilling to be there. It was not thrilling to lose again, but it was thrilling to be there.
Well, go to Google and search “Christina Hendricks’ Emmys dress” right now!