Move Over, Tim Gunn

Move Over, Tim Gunn

In the new CW reality show Stylista, young men and women compete for an internship at Elle magazine. But to get there they must win the favor of Elle fashion director Anne Slowey, who you would think had seen the film The Devil Wears Prada one too many times.

In their first challenge they are asked to prepare a breakfast they think she might like, only to be met with criticism, like “I only eat almonds if they have been soaked overnight” and “I only drink my coffee iced and through a straw.” But if she is playing the part of Meryl Streep, then Elle’s creative director, Joe Zee, is Stanley Tucci. Benevolent but stern, Zee gives helpful criticism to guide the protogés on their way and counteracts the more dour Slowey. Interns must style looks, lay out magazine pages, and find hot spots to write about. But the real drama happens when they get home to their shared apartment.

Zee takes us behind the scenes and shares his experience of making the latest fashion reality show.  

Advocate.com:For people who don’t know how magazines work, what is your job as creative director?Joe Zee: Well, Anne's in charge of all the work and finding the stories and breaking the fashion stories and really profiling people and really covering people for the magazine. I’m in charge of everything you see. So, really, all the visuals: everything from the cover subject, how that cover’s presented, what she’s wearing, the photography, the art direction. Also the point of view of fashion: Who is this Elle girl? How are we going to represent her by using the fashion available and the fashion on the runway? 

How did you end up at Elle? I had known Roberta Myers, the editor in chief here, for a while. She was actually one of the people I had interviewed with for a job back at Seventeen when she was the managing editor and I was a kid at school. We’ve always stayed in touch. I just love what this brand is about and what it could be. For me, it’s this huge sleeping giant that could just be opened up a bit. We’ve been really working on that in the past two years. 

I know the cover looks so different. Yeah, we redesigned the cover last September. This September issue marked the one-year anniversary of our redesign. It’s been fantastic, you know, knock on wood. It’s a bad economy and bad for publishing. But for us, we’ve been doing really well this year. Our newsstand [sales are] up; we’ve had three or four issues that beat Vogue, which is absolutely amazing. 

And now you’re on a TV show. How did that happen? I give them a lot of credit here. Elle knew from the beginning how to champion a brand. They knew that way back when -- magazines can’t exist as magazines alone. In order for the brand to reach more people you have to do it in different ways. And they understood the power of different mediums, whether it be TV or Internet. So they were the first people to take a risk and a chance on something called Project Runway. And that idea for Runway was shopped around every magazine, and people wouldn’t touch it with a six-foot pole. It was reality, it was cheesy. And fashion as an industry sits in a bubble. They think it’s not chic. And these guys sat back and said "That’s not true. We can make it chic." Carol Smith, the publisher, and Robert really sat down and said "Let’s just do it." And they took a chance. And Stylista is another risk that they are taking again. The wheels for that show were already in semi-motion before [I came on]. And when I got here Robbie said, "Will you come with me to a meeting with the producers about the show?"

Were you excited? Or reluctant? I don’t know if I was excited or reluctant. I’m a huge pop culture junkie. I grew up on television, and I watch close to 60 hours of TV a week anyway, so I was excited about the process. When I was doing it I was so fascinated with every aspect of the show. I was more interested in what was going on behind the scenes as well as in front. 

I’ve seen two episodes, and you come off really reserved, highbrow, and smart, not bitchy. Well, that’s good. I think when I went into doing this, I had a good friend of mine who gave me advice and said, "Whatever you do, just always be yourself. Don’t be someone you’re not." And she said that to me over and over again. And it’s true. I watch all these other shows and wonder if that's really them, or are they playing a character? In a way, people play up to the cameras. All I was called upon was for my expertise. So I have no reason to be other than myself.

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