Q + A With Isaac Mizrahi

When Isaac Mizrahi visits Indianapolis in a few weeks, he won’t be here to talk about fashion. The award-winning designer is coming as the star of Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?, an edgy cabaret-style show on October 12 and 13 at The Cabaret, 924 North Pennsylvania Street. 

You may know him only as a fashion designer, but Mizrahi’s entertainment career precedes his success in the fashion industry. While he was busy winning fashion’s highest honors in the 1980s, the 56-year-old designer also performed comedy and satire in nightclubs near his home in New York City.

A multi-talented artist who is drawn to every kind of self-expression, Mizrahi has had his own talk show, made films, written books and costumed productions. Although his namesake fashion brand still thrives, he has a business apparatus that frees him to pursue other creative interests like performing on stage and television. His new memoir, I.M., comes out in February of 2019.

Does he miss the world of high fashion? “I was so wrapped up in that for so many years, and I was good at it,” Mizrahi says. “Fashion is a young person’s game. To notice the tiny little things that make one skirt the right skirt and another the wrong skirt, you have to be on it every waking minute of your day.”

PATTERN connected with Mizrahi to discuss his creative life and his forthcoming show at The Cabaret.

Crystal Hammon: Tell us about your dogs.

Isaac Mizrahi: I just returned from Europe last night. We were only there for five nights. Literally all I thought about was my dogs, wondering how I could possibly leave them and how freaked out they must be. Meanwhile, every time I was in touch with my assistant, I heard, “Your dogs are sleeping. Your dogs are fine.” All I could think about was how much I missed them. It is exactly like having a child.

CH: The New York Times makes it sound as if you practically invented alternative cabaret. Is that true?

IM: I was as surprised by that review as I was by the review of my first fashion show.

I’ve been doing this for quite some years, a little bit under the radar in tiny clubs in the city, really since I was in my 20s. I guess when you get to the Café Carlyle, you get reviewed by The New York Times

This is something I was working on for a long time in the same way that I worked on a one-person show I did in the Village in 2000. And I had worked on that show for three years before. So you understand, it’s a long road to hoe.

It may seem very surprising to people that I do this, but it should be more surprising to them, if they really knew me, that I made clothes all those years. As a kid, I was an actor. I went to a performing arts high school. I was actually in the movie, Fame. The most informative detail about my life is that I got through that school, which was probably the best time in my life.

I came from this very parochial background. Up to that point, I was in the Yeshiva. It was a very hard childhood. I felt very misunderstood, and then suddenly there was the culture shock of being an actor at The High School of Performing Arts on West 46th Street in the early 1970s. You can only imagine what that was like. I think if others knew that, they wouldn’t be so surprised.

CH: The name of this show is Does This Song Make Me Look Fat? Why did you name it that?

IM: It [weight] has run my life since I was a little kid. It’s the key to my personality. It’s how I perceive my physical self. I was a fat kid. At the age of 13 or 14, I lost 75 pounds, and I was actually thin. In my 20s I may have had a little bit of a disorder, but it wasn’t as scrutinized in the 1980s. I don’t think I quite landed on it as a dangerous disorder, but there was definitely a problem. It had to do with the culture I was around at the time. I never perceived myself to be thin or presentable physically, so the name of the show is just to lighten up and think about it in retrospect.

CH: You’re doing this show in other cities. Does the content change from one place to the next?

IM: Absolutely. I can’t stop myself from changing it. That’s what I love so much about doing cabaret. It’s not like you do the same exact show every time. I have such a great band. We’ve worked together for 20 years, we know each other and we have so much fun.

The crowd kind of makes the show. It’s a delicate thing to describe, but you just feel something when you enter a room. I’m not going to do a show that isn’t going to work in the space.

I started performing when I was seven. I had this giant puppet theatre in the garage and I would write my own shows and make puppets. At a young age, I learned how to gauge an audience. Besides applause, you can always tell when there’s a rapt kind of attention that’s really good. It’s a bunch of different cues you get from an audience that make a show. That’s what I feel like my show is all about.

CH: Do you think the mores of your generation had any influence on your desire to update cabaret into a more freewheeling form where no subject is off limits?

IM: I think that’s right. I think it is about my generation looking and saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Really? Are you people serious?” I’m assuming there’s a little liquor involved at this venue. Cabaret is theatre plus liquor. What could be bad? The minute people have a little spirit in them they’re okay to talk about certain things. I’m such a conflicted guy. I have such anxiety and such dark thoughts half the time. I think they [the audience] perceive that from me, and they cut me a lot of slack. All I do is present a very honest kind of face. The show is my show, and somehow, there’s a way that I ingratiate myself. I’m not exactly sure what takes place with the audience, but I get very comfortable with them very quickly.

CH: We’re living at a time when even families are divided by politics. How does that shape the way you perform the political satire in your show?

IM: Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. All I’m doing is laying it out and telling it like it is. What I say about the political thing is very personal, and I think the audience gets that. I’ve got to tell you, at Café Carlyle for example, you don’t know what kind of audience you’ll get. It’s a very big cross section of New Yorkers. There are people who have to disagree with me in that room. I don’t know who to expect at my show—who is going to be there to cheer, or who is not going to like it. But I can’t imagine that they aren’t going to laugh because the observations I make are just funny. It’s my own personal experience of what I’m going through, but I try to stay away from judgments.

CH: When you speak about your life, you’ve said that you do a lot of creative things, but you don’t do all of them well. You sound as if you’re not that concerned about results. Is that true, and do you think there is a lesson in that for anyone who wants to be creative—whether they are working in a creative field or not?

IM: This might be cliché, but I’m going to say it: The minute you act for the sake of a result, it’s not a good thing. If you’re thinking about an end result—don’t. I promise you, when I was making collections, I was going on my instinct. I was going from collection to collection, just making the clothes I thought were great. Sometimes people loved it, and sometimes they didn’t. It didn’t matter to me because the process of doing it was what I was most focused on.  

And, when I started doing these cabaret shows, it was the same thing. It didn’t matter if I was performing at a little tiny club or the Carlyle. I do it because I really like it. It’s fun for me—and by fun, I mean terrifying. I mean enriching. It has to exist.

I know people who are not necessarily creative types, and they do things that they must do, too. Maybe they must move to a new apartment, and then they move and it changes their lives. Or they must have a baby. Or they must cook dinner. There is no difference. I cannot not do it.

Of course, like anyone else, I want what I do to be a great success, but that’s often when it goes wrong. That’s what makes me nervous and anxiety ridden. When I’m actually just there, doing it, it’s easy. I would be superhuman not to think about success. I have those thoughts, but that’s not what makes it happen. What makes it happen is being inspired.

My advice for creativity is to broaden your experiences. Keep looking at things, keep reading things, keep going to shows and museums. The more you go and see and do and read, the better you will be as a writer, performer or artist. It just opens up the blocks in your head.

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