Interview with Tim Gunn

Bravo cable network's biggest hit show, the American Idol-esque fashion competition Project Runway, has minted one bona-fide break-out star. And it isn't world famous fashion designer and contest judge, Michael Kors, or the show's emcee and hot, international model, Heidi Klum, or any of the slightly mad, over-the-top contestants. It's Tim Gunn: mentor to the designer hopefuls, truth-teller, and all-around decent guy. His Q rating in certain circles is so high that stars like Sarah Jessica Parker reportedly become giddy and starstruck when Gunn appears on the scene.

Gunn's sincere nurturing of the Project Runway contenders, as well as his fiercely candid, face-to-face assessments of their in-production designs, have made him the Bravo audience's favorite reality-show uncle. Bravo clearly hopes to capitalize on all this goodwill with Tim Gunn's Guide to Style, an umpteenth cable makeover show featuring Gunn's unflappable honesty to distinguish it from the pack.

Amidst a flurry of press in the run-up to Guide to Style's premiere, Tim Gunn gave an exclusive interview; giving us the dish on gay men and clothes, a frank run-down of his love life, and revealing the Project Runway contestants he'd least like to end up with on a desert island. First of all congratulations on the new show. I know it's going to be a great success.
Tim Gunn: Well let's hope it's a great success. I'm terrified.

AE: Are you?
TG: Yeah. I really am. As we get closer and closer to the premiere date, I keep – where can I go and hide?

AE: No. It's going to be terrific. Everybody loves you.
TG: That's why I'm terrified. Anyway, shut-up, Tim.

AE: [laughs.] I read that you're thinking of putting out a Gay Man's Guide to Style …?
TG: Well, men. They don't have to be gay.

AE: Oh, a Men's Guide to Style.
TG: The heterosexual community's the one that needs all the help. I'm not saying that there aren't gay men who do too. But, I mean, who are the style setters? We know.

AE: But do you think there are specific style issues for gay men? Sometimes the accent is so much on appearance in terms of sexuality that we don't tend to accentuate other parts of ourselves as gay men.
TG: Well, I think our responsibility is simply to look good. I mean, I'm a man of a certain age – but even when I was younger, I just wasn't into the whole Chelsea muscle boy scene – even though I live in Chelsea. I don't have a disregard for people who are accentuating muscles and various things – though I draw the line at emphasizing genitals.

AE: [Much laughter.]
TG: You know. It's just – okay. I assume you have something there; you don't have to show it to me.

AE: But do you think there's a way for gay men to dress that accentuates other parts of themselves? Not physically. If you're a gay man and maybe you don't have that going for you; is there a way to dress to accentuate your creativity, your intelligence? Can you show other parts of yourself with your clothes?
TG: Oh, I see what you're saying. You're speaking sort of metaphorically. What we choose to wear sends a message about how we want the world to perceive us. And I think the only way to do that successfully and to navigate the world comfortably is to be confident about what you're wearing and to feel that you look good. And I'm hoping that it's through interaction, engagement with other people that they'll understand other dimensions of you.

But if you look good – whatever that means, and it can be different for everybody – then you'll have carriage and bearing and the confidence to own the world in a manner of speaking.

AE: And do you think that can be especially important for gay men who, in some situations in this country, are really undervalued, and need to find something to hang onto to help build self–esteem?
TG: You know, you're so right. Because I recognize that I'm really spoiled living here in New York, because New York is so accepting. I mean, what is it to be gay in New York? And also I'm in the fashion industry, where I assume every man is gay unless proven otherwise.

And there are a lot of people who don't have these advantages and probably feel very marginalized. And I just believe being gay is simply part of our DNA, and it's inextricable from who we are. But I don't know that the way we dress – how do I say this appropriately – I don't know that the way we dress has to say that. I don't think that people look at me – people know I'm gay – but do people look at the way I dress and say ‘Oh, he's gay'?

AE: But this is sort of your corner of the market: style, fashion – do you think that that can be a part for gay men to help build self-esteem or a sense of self that maybe they weren't given from their families or communities?
TG: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely, yes. I firmly believe that that's the case. And I think that's the case for everybody. It is definitely confidence building. Just as I feel that we should live with style and taste and panache – whether it's a little one room apartment or it's a twelve room house.

AE: You said when we began that you were very nervous [about the premiere of Guide to Style]. And it must have been a shock to the system to become a star in a supporting role on Project Runway, and now suddenly your name is in the title? I think I heard you say that when Project Runway started airing, you would actually get under the covers and watch through your fingers.
I would. The same way I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz, from under the covers. Yeah, I was utterly terrified. I feel the same way [with Guide to Style].

AE: But people have just sort of fallen in love you, and think you're so great. How important do you think that is politically in this time, for visibility of gay men? There are a lot of people who don't say they're gay. And as someone who is visible in that way – do you think that's important?
TG: Oh, Absolutely. And I accept it proudly and with a feeling of great responsibility too. That's why when people come up to me on the street and say how much they love Project Runway, or just to talk about anything, I want to give them [pause] – I just want to give to them. And be warm and gracious. I mean that is who I am. … But many people are rather disarmed that in fact I take the time to actually talk to them.

AE: Do gay fans come up and show gratitude to you for being visible and being a role model in that way?
TG: Yes. I have had it happen. Especially among younger men. And I just take it as the greatest compliment in the world.

AE: And what about older men? I mean I feel like most of the visible gay images are very, very young and wear very, very little clothing. [Gunn laughs] And it's really terrific to have a mature gay man be so visible – and to have it happen to him when he was mature? .
TG: I know! The whole thing's totally surreal to me. I keep pinching myself thinking when am I going to wake up from this dream. It is – it's surreal. If I were to read a script that had all this in it, I'd say this is preposterous – fire the writer! But it's happening. Weird. And that's also why I'm so nervous about Guide to Style. I just want people to continue to respond well. We'll see.

AE: Now there was one thing I read that I'm a little perplexed by. It's the idea that you are not dating, and have not dated in a long time. Is that correct?
TG: A long time.Yes.

AE: Now, this is the part that I don't get. One of the best things about being famous is – I would think – getting hot, fascinating boyfriends. Yes?
TG: [Much laughter.]

AE: I mean, am I missing something?
TG: You flatter me by even using the word famous. You know, I have the greatest respect for people in relationships and people who are married. I do. I have to say this though … If I were going to have a relationship, it requires time. And I don't have any. So in order to have a relationship, I would have to give something up, and I don't know what that would be.

But also just to give you a context, I had been in a relationship and a very intense one. And it broke up after quite a number of years. And it broke up abruptly – didn't break up from me. I was cast aside. And it was just, just at the advent of AIDS. And I found out he had been sleeping with a lot of people. And thank God I'm healthy. Because I didn't know and it had been going on for a while. So when we broke up, there the world of AIDS is spread out before me, and I thought ‘I can't do this. I don't want to be selfish, but I care too much about my health'. And the person I loved more than myself had been cheating on me and lying to me. So if that person is doing it, what about total strangers? So I just got used to being alone, very used to it.

And I have to add too, I mean being in the industry that I'm in, when I reflect upon what AIDS did to the fashion industry and how it devastated it. We forget about that and what happened during that decade of the ‘80's, and how men were wiped out from this industry. And now there's a whole new generation here, and it's not even in their vocabulary. They don't recall it. I do. And I'm not saying that it's an AIDS awareness that keeps me out of dating land. But I just got very used to being alone, and used to my own company – and I don't feel a void. I feel great going home late at night, or whenever it is, and just closing the door and having the world to myself. Again, it sounds rather selfish, but to have a relationship, as I said earlier, would take time. And I don't have any.

AE: Everything you've said makes total sense. But a lot of people who are incredibly busy somehow find time to fit in a social life. Do you see that happening in the future? Do you really hope for a time that you can fit that in?
TG: Can I tell you something, I don't think I've ever even told anyone before. There are side-effects to all the things that I'm doing. And the side-effects are profound for me. Mental and physical exhaustion. And I find that the best way for me to heal and repair is to just go home, close the door, prepare dinner, watch Bravo, have a nice glass of wine, and go to bed.

AE: So it's really been like a psychic shock what's happened in the last three years [since Project Runway debuted]?
TG: It is a psychic shock. That's a wonderful term to use. And I have to tell you; socially I only do things that are absolute obligations. I don't do anything else. I don't go out to dinner. I had lunch with [fashion designer] Catherine Malandrino last Friday; it was the first time I'd been out for lunch in months and months. I don't even do things like that. But I will say we taped Guide to Style and Project Runway back to back and I felt like a sequestered juror for about three months. [Laughs]

AE: Well, doesn't anyone come up and say ‘Tim, you are hot! Let's go to dinner.'?
TG: No. To be honest with you James, no. People keep thinking that I'm getting offers and that I'm getting love notes, and things of that sort. I honestly don't. And I never even think to ask gee, ‘Why am I not?' I never even think about it unless somebody asks me.

AE: But I mean clearly don't you think – because you are hot, and you are famous, all the stars are aligned for you to be having tons of offers. So do you think it's about you're just not in a place where you can be open to it right now?
TG: You're absolutely right. It's got to be a signal that I'm sending. You're absolutely right. And I am sending that signal.

AE: And do you hope for a time soon when you can be sending different signals?
TG: I just don't see it happening. I'm really the happiest guy in the world, and the luckiest guy in the world. I don't feel any sense of something missing. At all.

AE: Well before I let you go – you sort of alluded to this in another interview – but never answered it, so I'm going to nail you down. Which of the Project Runway contestants would you not want to be trapped with on a desert island?
TG: There's one from every season. Should I give you the list?

AE: That would be terrific!
TG: Season One: Wendy Pepper. Season Two: Zulima. Season Three: Vincent. And it remains to be seen who for Season Four.

AE: Well, Tim, I can't thank you enough, and I wish you much, much success.
TG: And I love the AfterElton website. And I just have to add, it's beautifully designed.

Tim Gunn's Guide to Style premieres Thursday September 6 th at 10pm on Bravo.