The Tom & Lorenzo Archives: 2006 -2011

T Lo Interviews: Merle Ginsberg

Our girl Merle opens up about everything.


Darlings, we've been sitting on this one for a bit. What with fashion week and the Project Runway finale show and all the other balls flying at our faces, we're about a week late getting this one live.

In a move that's typical for her busy life, we sat down with Merle right after the finale of Launch My Line and just as RuPaul's Drag Race was starting so we could get her thoughts about both shows. She's as chatty as can be and we know we say this a lot, but we only say it when it's true: the minute she got on the phone we felt like we were catching up on someone we knew for years. In fact, transcribing this interview was such a pain in the ass because we all kept finishing each others' sentences.

She's not just a contestant on one show and a judge on the other, she's a writer and fashion journalist with a career that stretches back years. Right now she's the editor-in-chief of her site, Fashion Rules, and she's got a million other irons in the fire, so we thought we'd find out about them all.


How are you?
I’m good. I’ve had such an amazing outpouring of love and support in the last couple days.

We love you, as you know.
Well, thanks. I love you guys too. Your reporting on the show was so detailed. It was amazing that you were watching with such passion.

Well we love a good reality show that lets us sit on our couch and judge other people.
Who doesn’t?

It’s the great American past time. Okay, let’s get this out of the way: how did you feel about the judges’ decision?
Okay, well obviously since we shot the show in April, I felt differently then than I do right now. But, you know, of course I was disappointed. I really felt like we did something real and wearable and new for retail. Being in that industry I was amazed that we could execute it the way we envisioned it. I was very involved with it, in the middle of it, so I really wasn’t involved so I couldn’t see outside of it and I really didn’t pay any attention to what people did.

And now, looking at it months later, I can see that what Kathy did was very colorful and big and glamorous and we were trying to do real life. You know, we were really trying to walk away from the show with a deal and I really felt that this could be my entry into this business. We weren’t trying to please the judges and blow them away.

We thought the judges sucked pretty much. They had one point of view between the four of them.
Well, y’know…Lisa was all about sexy, sexy, sexy, although she changed her mind about that a couple of times. Stephanie kind of clung to whatever Dean and Dan said and I found that they kind of changed their minds too. I never could find a consistent opinion. One week they loved one thing and the next week it was some.hing else. I didn’t really understand where they were coming from, but, y’know.

If they didn’t like the whole convertible gimmick, why didn’t they say so at the beginning instead of telling you at the end that they hated it?
I know and there were actually plenty of times they said they loved it. But what’s interesting is when I’m watching the last show, and we didn’t know at the time what they were saying during their deliberations, and one of them says ‘Well, this is a joke,” I practically fell off my couch. I was like, “Are you kidding me and you’re saying this NOW?” But I’m a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race and I know that sometimes the producers make you say really negative things because they have to justify the choices they make. So I had a feeling there was a little maneuvering in there.

Which leads to our next question: What the hell was Eric doing there?
Oh, good question. I found myself wondering the same thing. I know his girlfriend was Jaime Pressly and she was on My Name is Earl, which at the time was a huge NBC show. Bravo is owned by NBC – this is obviously, by the way, speculation. I know nothing. So anyway, they knew they could get Jaime to come to the finale if Eric was in the finale. Not only that, I think they just wanted a guy at the end. And the hooker look is an American staple but you just don’t expect it on a show like this. For me, except for Donatella Versace, nobody’s been able to combine the hooker with real fashion. But I guess he made good TV.

Does the fact that the show was set in L.A. have anything to do with the way the judging went? Was the L.A. aesthetic determining the direction of the show?
I think that’s an excellent question and I didn’t even really think about that, but yes. I mean, Stephanie is in New York but Lisa’s shop is all about L.A. And I do think the producers of the show were very influenced by the L.A. aesthetic. And Eric, that’s a very L.A. club scene kind of aesthetic and in New York, it would never cut it.

A girl would catch pneumonia wearing his clothes in New York.
She should be more worried about crotch rot.

Since we’re talking about the L.A. aesthetic, we wanted to talk about your site Fashion Rules.
Mm-hmm.

It looks at fashion from the Los Angeles point of view, does it not?
It does. It absolutely does.

Do you consider yourself the, sort of, cheerleader for the L.A. style?
You know, because I’m a New York person and because I’ve been looking at high fashion my whole life, I definitely think of myself as a high fashion New York person who’s in L.A. But I’ve always, it’s kind of been my lot in life to be like an interpreter between New York and L.A., something I love to do. I’ve been meaning to write a book called "Apples and Oranges" for a very long time, because I live in both and I understand both, how they communicate with each other. Fashion Rules is definitely trying to bring a little culture to L.A. fashion and also to explain L.A. fashion to people outside of L.A.

What is the L.A. aesthetic as opposed to the New York aesthetic , can you sum it up?
I can! New York is about people on the street, people walking from place to place. And it’s about making sure people see you wherever you go. And the way people communicate with what they wear. On top of that, you have a lot of …reality; professional reality, weather reality, so you have people dressing in a really theatrical way, but there’s a lot of practicality involved. Whereas in L.A., nobody really sees you on the street so people can look really, really sloppy during the day. So people can wear leggings and big sweaters. But the history of the L.A.aesthetic is all about—

Sorry, you’re breaking up, Merle.
Oh, sorry. There’s a lot of noise here. I’m in the nail salon getting my nails done.

You were saying, the history of L.A. –
Oh. The history of L.A. fashion is all about movie premieres, sexiness, Jean Harlow…so when I first got here in the late ‘80s it was all about blondes with big boobs wearing the tightest clothes people. Thank God, people from New York and Europe moved here and it’s much more real world now. But it’s still a body culture more than a clothes culture.

So what did you think when you heard the judges describe your collection as gimmicky?
At first when I heard that word I got really insulted and upset because I wasn’t trying to do anything gimmicky I was trying to do something commercial and very real when it comes to retail. Because I want to do this for real. And I’m not John Galliano and I’m not Alber Elbaz and I’m not going to compete with them, you know? I’m not going to try and make better evening gowns than Valentino. But the one thing I do know is about real life and how women want to look good but they’ve got a lot of work constraints and economic constraints, so I wanted to fill a niche in the market that isn’t filled.

Also, I wanted to please me more than I wanted to please anybody else. I’ve been wanting to do this for a very long time, it’s why I did the show. I had this idea and I thought, “I’ve been trying to make it happen for years, so I’d love to be on this show and make it happen there. “ So, I just kind of felt, well “gimmicky,” that’s a very easy way to write it off, when in fact I did something very commercial and retail-ready and in fact, people have already approached me about it.

At first, when they were writing it off, I was like “Oh my God, maybe I did really go off on some sort of weird tangent,” but now with the response I’m getting, I feel like, “Okay, I stuck to my guns.” People are responding really well and it might actually go to retail. It’s very easy for DSquared2 to sit there with their 8 thousand dollar jeans and go, “That’s gimmicky.” I think 8 thousand dollar jeans are kind of a gimmick. And don’t tell me all of Kathy’s clothes were exactly wearable, and Eric’s were hardly wearable. You can apply the work gimmick to just about anything.

You and Thai made such a great team. Tell us a little bit about that.
Well, we shot the commercials before we shot the show so we had like two and a half days to check people out and I approached Thai on the commercial shoot and he was wearing this really amazing jacket, and I said, “Did you make that jacket?” and he said, “Yeah, I make a lot of women’s clothes but I make jackets for me,” and I thought, “That’s the guy I want to work with.” Because he had such an understand of tailoring and avant garde, he just gets it. When they told me I was working with him I was so happy.

There were so many people there trying to get attention and acting out and he really wanted to just make beautiful things. We talk almost every day, 6 months after we shot the show, we’ve been involved in a couple of projects already, I’m producing his L.A. fashion show for his own collection at the end of March.

As you know, he made all of my clothes for RuPaul’s Drag Race. And I just think he’s an incredible talent. He watched the show and he was just “I’m too quiet, I’m too low-key,” but I think his talent really came to the forefront. We were very lucky. And I think Kathy and Emil had a similar relationship. It is interesting that the people who did have the best relationships and were matched the best, did end up doing the best on the show. It could have gone a different way. I could have been paired with someone who didn’t get, couldn’t do it, didn’t want to do it, and it could have been a disaster. That’s why I felt really sorry for Patrick, actually.

Yeah, just imagine if you’d been paired with Roberto.
All I know is, if I had been paired with Roberto, I don’t even know what the contract says about this, I probably would have walked off the show. You probably realize that Patrick is a very sweet person and too polite to just storm off, whereas I would have just said, “I’m not doing this.”

We were surprised how well-behaved Coco was when she came back to help you out in the finale.
You know, while the whole Coco and Marilyn drama was going on, people were emailing me and going, “Oh my God, Coco Kliks is a nightmare!” I knew her clothes before I met her, and I thought her clothes were really cool, and some of the things she wore on the show were things she made for her collection and they were really cool, and I knew she had a really good understanding of clothes, and I knew she was smart. At one point, the person was interviewing me on the show, and I was asked, “Is Marilyn torturing Coco?” And I said, “I’m not paying enough attention to answer that question. I can’t really tell.”

But then I started paying attention, and Marilyn was torturing Coco. Marilyn is an incredible bully who wanted to win at all costs. Coco isn’t that kind of person, she moves in her own, y’know, biorhythm or whatever. She’s in her own world and she’s very, very talented but you kind of have to let her do it her own way. And you could tell that within minutes of meeting her. She’s kind of dreamy and in her own world. So I was very excited to be working with her because I loved her clothes. She’s a kind of “kid gloves” kind of a person, a little fragile. But you just have to figure out how to deal with her and she’s amazing.

How was it working with Dean and Dan?
You know, they were on one side of the show and we were on the other side. They would come around and look at things and kind of make little jokes, but we got to know them better as the show went on and more people got home and they got more relaxed. On the last show, we actually got to hang a bit and drink some Champagne and they’re a lot of fun. But they had a job to do which is very different from what they normally do. I think it was a real challenge for them, to do the TV thing.

How did you get started in fashion journalism?
Okay. Well, my grandmother was a seamstress, my mother actually made clothes when I was growing up and so, the minute I got to do Home Ec, and I don’t know, whatever age you are when you start to do Home Ec, 12 or 13, we did patterns and stuff and it came very easily to me. I started making all my own clothes. From the time I was like 12 or 13 to the time I got out of college, I made all my own clothes. Because I didn’t have any money and I loved clothes, and I read fashion magazines. If I’d had a little more wherewithal, I probably would have gone to design school. But I was also very academic and wanted to write, so I went off in that direction.

I didn’t start writing about fashion until I got to W Magazine in the mid-nineties. I had worked for Rolling Stone, I was a music critic, I wrote for the Village Voice, and I had a whole career before that. But then the minute I got to W that’s when fashion took over a lot of my life and I got much more involved with it. And I freelanced for a lot of magazines, New York Times Magazine, The London Times, you know like that. And now I have my own web site, Fashion Rules. You know, fashion is not the only thing I care about in the world. I do love it, though. You know, the one thing I l do love about fashion is that it’s like a personal art form every day. You have to get dressed and sort of show a persona to the world, you know, and it certainly helps if you have a lot of money but even if you don’t, you can be really creative. I really love that.

You’re also an author several times over.
Yes. I wrote Paris Hilton’s book, Confessions of an Heiress, which was a New York Times bestseller. I wrote a book called Hip Hollywood Homes, which is a L.A. kind of design book about homes in L.A. and I just wrote a book with RuPaul that just came out.

You’ve had a hell of a career.
You know, I’m single and I don’t have kids. All I can say is I’ve been trying to get married for years, and it hasn’t worked. [Laughs] And while I sit around and wait for the love of my life, who may or may not appear, I like to be really productive and stay interested.

Now, RuPaul’s Drag Race. How was it going from a judge to a contestant and then back to being a judge?
It couldn’t be more different. The reason I wanted to do Launch My Line is because I had such a fabulous experience on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I loved the cast, I love Ru, I loved the producers and you know, you’re treated very indulgently as a judge. You got very nice meals, people were doing your hair and makeup; it’s really a fun and delightful experience. There’s no downside. Then when you’re a competitor, first of all they kind of make you feel like a leper when the crew’s around. Whenever we had to use the bathroom and walk through the space where the crew was, it would be like, ‘CAST COMING THROUGH!”

And there were very specific rules; you give up your phone at 8 AM and you get it back at midnight. You keep crazy, long hours. There’s no time to look good, I think I looked like shit on half of the show. You can’t eat when you want. You’ve got this big mic on you, so you’ve got no privacy. I felt very trapped and paranoid. It was very intense. And then you go back to RuPaul and it’s like, Oh my God! I get to speak up, I get to look good. I get to wear hair pieces, I get to eat when I want. It’s just very different.

We had a chance to interview RuPaul last year and we just loved him. He’s really amazing, isn’t he?
RuPaul is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life and I’m really grateful I got to know him and work with him on the book. Because he’s one of those people who’s an entertainer, but he’s also incredibly soulful…enlightened. He has an amazing effect on everyone around him. The book has a real insight into who he is. I think Harper Collins wanted a jokey book and he gave them a real serious and evolved book. In a way, he’s kind of like a real-life guru. He taught me that life is an illusion and that gender is fluid and we decide who we want to be. The most startling thing he told me is that drag for him was an accident. He was sort of modeling and doing stuff in nightclubs as a kid and he got up one night in drag and everybody loved it and he realized this was a vehicle for him to communicate with the world.

You’re part of history being on the first drag queen show on TV.
I know the show has really put drag back on the map as an art form. It’s about so much more than being a drag queen. I tell people to watch the show and I hear, “I’m not gonna watch a bunch of drag queens,” and I always say, “Actually, there’s a whole lot more going on there.” Watching somebody switch genders, that’s an amazing experience. Knowing that Ru’s real personality and insight comes through on the show, it’s got a real zen feeling to it.

While we were shooting it for the first season, we thought if people could just get past the content and watch it with an open mind, they’re just gonna be blown away by the whole idea of the fluid nature of gender. Drag queens kind of got written off as society’s jokes and weirdos and these people make real money and have real careers doing this stuff. BeBe, Nina and Ongina had major careers before they came on the show and they’re fascinating people. I adored them.

I know you can’t give away much but which ones from this season caught your eye early on?
Well it was trickier this time because the first season we had 8 or 9, but this season we had 12. Something about Raven’s whole Dark Lady air, I thought she was fascinating. Tyra is magnificently beautiful. She totally passes as a woman but then she really has this deep voice which she doesn’t change. I just thought that was a hoot and a holler. And I really liked Pandora – well first of all, the name Pandora Boxx just kills me – I just thought she’d be hysterically funny, so I couldn’t wait to see that. And I like Morgan and Jujubee a lot too.

What’s up next for Merle Ginsberg?
I’ve always got a lot going on. The show was great for me. I’ve always had a bit of a career in TV and now I’ve got people wanting to put me in different venues for TV. I did a big project for the Golden Globes with NBC.com and Facebook where I was the fashion expert on their internet broadcast. I’m talking with some people about more web TV stuff. I blog every day on my site, Fashion Rules, and we’re doing a project coming up with Neiman Marcus, and another project with Harvey Nichols in London. We're in the process of talking about another book with Paris Hilton. I’m producing Thai’s fashion show at the end of March in L.A. We’re looking for money for a line and I’m teaching myself how to write a business plan, and I’m not a business kind of person so it’s not easy.

You are one busy girl.
Well, you know. I don’t like to be bored.


[Photos: bravotv.com/logoonline.com/wireimage]


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