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TLC’s Tastemaker

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What Not to Wear’s Clinton Kelly writes a how-to book for those seeking style and class

Photograph by Gabrielle Revere

New Year’s is the perfect time to usher in personaltransformation, and one resolution New Orleans Living magazine will happily oblige is adhering to the stellar advice of ingenious style maestro Clinton Kelly!

Thanks to TLC’s immensely popular reality television show What Not to Wear, the former fashion writer and editor and his co-host, Stacy London, have become largely responsible for turning lackluster wardrobes into upscale, chic and downright wearable ones by teaching participants how to decipher the clothing and accessories that work perfectly for them. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that America’s favorite makeover man has penned a gorgeous new book, Freakin’ Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate, and Generally Be Better Than Everyone Else, a must-have manifesto of taste for anyone looking to improve important personal and social aspects of their life. The book is just as fun, informative, colorful and hilarious as Kelly himself.

And if image revamping of the masses through What Not to Wear and Freakin’ Fabulous wasn’t enough, Kelly, a spokesman for the 150-year-old Macy’s department store chain, came down and hosted an outrageously fun style seminar, fashion show and question-and-answer session for a packed house of enthusiastic style masters (and disasters) at Lakeside Shopping Center. To the delight of the crowd, the sassy vicar of vogue offered outfit critiques to audience members brave enough to request them, and introduced optimal clothing available at Macy’s that fits perfectly into a stylish repertoire. Without a doubt, New Orleans Living believes that the wildly witty and highly knowledgeable Kelly is the perfect kick-in-the-pants catalyst to push everyone to become even more freakin’ fabulous than they already are in 2009!

Clinton, your new book, Freakin’ Fabulous, is truly freakin’ fabulous! It’s fantastic to see that you shared not only your fashion expertise in the book but good manners and social graces as well, and you didn’t do it with flowery Miss Manners–type prose. Emily Post needs to move over!

I felt very strongly that manners don’t have to be as boring as people assume. Modern etiquette is incredibly relevant. The world is becoming increasingly lowbrow and sometimes it’s hard to take the high road, because people don’t want to be seen as fuddy-duddy or old-fashioned, but I think it’s important that we hang onto what civility is left in today’s society. I feel like we’re devolving instead of evolving.

I love how your lively personality graces each page, making it completely interesting and absolutely hilarious to read about lessons in decency.

Right, it’s not about teacups and grandma necessarily; it’s about how you live in the modern world. Being prepared for any situation is an important thing to take away. If you’re having pizza with your kids, you don’t have to worry about the “elbows on the table” rule. However, if your boss invites you to the nicest restaurant in town, you need to be prepared. I’ve gone out to dinner with people who have no clue how to eat in a nice restaurant!

It must amaze you that you had to state the obvious on behavior in your book, thanks to the people out there who continue to floss in public!

[Laughs] It is amazing! People say to me, “Doesn’t everybody know all that stuff?” and I say, “Are you kidding me? Who have you been hanging out with?” It used to be that people with money went to finishing school to learn etiquette, but in today’s society anyone can make a million bucks and that doesn’t give them class by any stretch of the imagination.

And I guess once someone goes through a complete re-wardrobing on What Not to Wear, the natural continuum would extend into their entire personal transformation, right?

Absolutely! On What Not to Wear, we talk about the power of clothes to change lives. And if you change your clothes, you realize people treat you differently because you’re presenting yourself differently. People get promotions or they meet the loves of their lives, and they can find themselves to be a fish out of water because, although they’ve got an upscale wardrobe, they don’t always know how to handle themselves in a more upscale environment. “Fabulous” isn’t just about the way you look, it’s about the way you behave. I hear kids all the time saying things like, “I’m so fabulous! Look at the bag I carry!” Well, if you butcher the English language or you’re a pig in public, then you’re really unfabulous. You have to work at things, and this is part of the evolution. You have to learn the rules of grammar and etiquette. You have to know how to cook a chicken! The book isn’t filled with recipes so difficult that you feel like you must attend a Culinary Institute of America so you can whip up a soufflé! It’s about knowing some basic things in the kitchen so you can get by.

On What Not to Wear, can you break certain wardrobe habits that come with living a particular lifestyle, like those of a ranch hand who is always in jeans and boots and nothing more dressy?

It’s difficult. Ranch hands who live in jeans and boots get a bit of a break. But I don’t have patience for anybody who says, “Oh, it just doesn’t matter!” Somebody who opts out bothers me! I think “fabulous” is about working hard at being the best person that you can possibly be. That’s the whole Freakin’ Fabulous thing: You don’t give up or settle for less, and that’s why I love to yank people and give them a little figurative slap across the cheek and say, “Wake up! What you’re doing is a cop-out, and you’re doing it because you’re too lazy or too scared. You need to learn how to dress your body, and I’ll teach you how to do it.” I like someone who says, “Okay, maybe I’m in a rut, but I’m going to get out of it.” Dressing well is a great way to snap out of a rut because nothing boosts your confidence more than someone saying, “Look at you! You look fantastic!”

It’s great when the epiphany happens on the show and people “get” what you and Stacy are doing for them personally through their wardrobes.

Well, some weeks it’s just like pulling your own teeth out of your head! [Laughs] It’s just such a pain in the butt! Sometimes getting to that point is just exhausting. But most really do come around at the end. And Stacy and I have a lot of fun on the show, so it’s all worthwhile.

A friend of mine once wore a pair of “Richard Simmons” white sneakers while attempting to get into a trendy club in New York City. After she was denied entrance, we had a riveting hot chocolate night at a Dean & Deluca Café! I even got mine made with full-fat milk, woo-hoo! But is it possible to talk to a friend about curbing this sort of fashion faux pas without hurting her feelings, or should I just chunk a copy of Freakin’ Fabulous at my friend?

[Laughs] You are hilarious! That is a good question! I actually have friends who don’t dress very well at all, and I’ve never mentioned it to them because I don’t think it’s my place. I do what I do on What Not to Wear because that’s my job and because the people on the show have consented to receive my advice. Your friend probably learned her lesson because she didn’t get into the club. But if I had a friend who was very depressed or had told me that she wasn’t meeting the right guys or she wasn’t able to get the job she wanted and if her style was awful, I’d say, “Oh, how about a makeover, maybe that’ll be fun,” and maybe that will spark some change.

Did you enjoy filming What Not to Wear in New Orleans pre-Katrina?

People from New Orleans love to have a good time, so those were definitely fun shows to do. I remember that two of the four of the women participants we filmed made voodoo dolls of Stacy and me! I got the best psychic reading of my life back then in the French Quarter; it was 100 percent correct. When I was down for the Macy’s grand opening in October, I went to that place again, and then I had a little wig-out and felt weird and was like, “Well, maybe I don’t want to go in!” [Laughs] The psychic was so accurate that I was afraid if she said something bad, then it would happen!

Right, quit on a high note! I attended your style seminar at Macy’s Lakeside Shopping Center in October and it was extremely informative, plus I laughed myself into a tizzy! I heard you call out a woman in the audience who was wearing purple fuzzy slippers. She didn’t wear those!

Oh, yes she did! I remember her! People sometimes show up like that because they think I’m going to choose them to be on What Not to Wear, and what they don’t realize is that we get 52,000 nominations per year. You have a better chance with a scratch-off lottery ticket! And it also amazes me when someone comes up to me—and this happens all the time—and says, “Oh, my God! Clinton! I can’t believe I’m meeting you! It’s such an honor! I watch your show every day! It’s changed my life!” And then I look at them … [laughs] … and I think … are you sure your watching my show? Are you watching it with the sound on? Why do you still look so terrible? [Laughs] Have I made no impact at all on you? If I get just one woman out of sweatpants and dumpy T-shirts and into a decent pair of jeans, then good for her. I might not have turned her into a style icon, but at least she’s a little bit better off than she was before.

Well, I confess, the other day I was about to trot on over to the grocery with a blimpy white Underdog sweatshirt on …

What!?! [Laughs]

Well, Underdog has been my hero since I was a child! But then you came to mind, and I thought, “I’m wrong for this.” So I changed into a cute pair of jeans and a streamlined shirt. See, you saved the day for me!

Well, thank you! That really makes me feel better.

What is life like for you now that you are a true fashion barometer for people across this country?

Most of the time I’m happy to talk to people, and it’s always nice when somebody says how much they love your work. But it is a little overwhelming at times. The show has become so popular that I don’t have much privacy anymore out in public. Lots of women come up to me in the airport and say, “Do these jeans make my butt look fat?” [Laughs] I never ever expected that one day complete strangers would be asking me what I thought of their butts! Also, sometimes I just want to throw on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and run out and get milk. I don’t want to dress up and brush my hair every time! Once a month I might run to the store without putting myself together and that’s the one day I’m called out on the street by some woman who screams, “That’s what not to wear!

My mother likes to drag out this green-and-white-checkered two-piece outfit that she wore on her first date with my dad in the ’60s and laud it over all our heads! [Laughs] What do you do with that kind if thing?

This is a really good question, because I think our clothes are often representative of our emotional baggage. If somebody’s a size 12, but she used to be a size 4, and I go into her closet and see a bunch of size 4s, I say, “Okay, look, these 4s are going to charity—if you become a size 4 again, good for you, but you don’t need to be reminded every day about the fact that you used to be a size 4.” However, if something in your closet brings you immense joy, like your mom’s outfit, I say keep it! Keep it in a hope chest, but don’t wear it, especially if it’s not in style and not flattering.

My mom can’t wear her outfit, it’s stiff with rigor mortis!

Our clothes are these wonderful walks back in time. My mom was in this girl group in the ’60s and every once in a while she’d pull out a cool mini-shift-type dress, sequined from top to bottom, and my sisters would freak out! That was really fun. However, she didn’t go to the supermarket in it, either!

You’ve been a spokesman for Macy’s for three years now.

It’s been a wonderful experience! Macy’s believes in my message about buying the best-quality clothes you can afford and how to dress for your body type, from petites to plus sizes. It’s been a great partnership, and they’ve allowed me to travel all over the United States, and I don’t know if I would have had the opportunity to do that without them.

Macy’s recently turned 150 years old, and she looks great for her age! What did you think about the brand-new Macy’s Lakeside Shopping Center, where you hosted the style seminar?

It was beautiful! It was well lit and the ceilings were nice and high, and it felt like a very civilized place to shop. You can’t say that about a lot of stores; sometimes they just suck the energy right out of you! It’s a great place to get both your classic pieces as well as your trendy pieces. And it’s affordable for the family. Macy’s is America’s store!

Tell us what you love about New Orleans.

New Orleans is one of the greatest American cities of all-time because it’s got a culture all its own. Lots of cities can’t say that anymore, they’ve become homogenized and clones of each other. The culture of New Orleans is alive and strong, and people are proud to come from New Orleans with good reason, because it’s a fun place, where the people are very welcoming and love to have a good time. It’s a wonderful town. When I’m there, I always think, “Oh, I could live here!”

We’ll have you anytime, Clinton! So tell me, how freakin’ fabulous is it to be Clinton Kelly?

It’s pretty damn freakin’ fabulous! I am living the exact life I always hoped to live, and it’s not because I’m on TV. I’m lucky to have a beautiful apartment in New York and a beautiful home in Connecticut and a closetful of wonderful clothes, but what really matters is that I’m surrounded by great family and friends. It really is all about the people in your life and whether you’re capable of giving and receiving love, and I’m lucky because I seem to have it all!