Move Over, Tim Gunn

By Corey Scholibo

Originally published on Advocate.com October 21 2008 11:00 PM ET

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.

  Stylista Joe Zee x390 (The CW publicity) | Advocate.com

Which brings me to my next question. How much is
Anne Slowey really like this?
I think definitely there is a heightened element
of Anne. But Anne’s hysterical
and definitely eccentric. But at the same time
there’s also a satire part of Anne in that. I
think her character is a little bit more of a cross
between heightened reality and true reality. 

I mean, do they come in and say "We really want
Devil Wears Prada
"? They have certainly been marketing her like that. I think the reality is that no one said to her,
"You have to be Devil Wears Prada." Because number 1,
she’s never even seen the movie. 

Does she not see movies? She doesn’t. I don’t think she
sees blockbusters. The flip side is that people are
using that as a marketing point of comparison. Fashion
remains sort of mysterious and untouchable for so
long. I would have to say Prada and Ugly Betty
are the only real insight into what our industry is. 

I think everyone expects it now. It's sort of this
bitch-goddess mentality.
Yeah, but you’ve worked with celebrities.
You know. It’s about entertaining. It’s
about television. It's fun to watch. 

Why do you think there’s this obsession with
fashion and fashion publishing, specifically with
Prada, Ugly Betty, The Rachel Zoe Project, Top
Model,
and Runway?
I think because it’s been elusive for so
long. Literally I used to explain to people what I did
for a living. They were fascinated by it. They really
thought my days were involved flying to a fashion show,
going to a photo shoot with Madonna, then having
dinner with Gwyneth Paltrow. That hardly ever happens.
I think this sort of is blowing the door open and
giving people the opportunity to come into something that
they would have no access to in the past. And be
fascinated by it. I think that’s why it's
fascinating. Here’s the chance. It’s
happening. You know, pull the curtain apart. And
people are like, "Is that how it’s done?" And I
think people like that. 

It seems to me, going by the show, you’re
the mentor. Anne’s the tough one, you got to
impress Anne. But Joe's maybe going to help you.
Oh, really... 

I don’t know if they’re trying to package
you as the Tim Gunn or what. Do you come in
and say 'Do this, do this' and help them?
That kind of only happens initially. But they
want us to have minimum contact with these
contestants. Just so that their work can be organic. I
thought they should be mentored through the process. Because
even as assistants and editors in the magazine day to
day, you want to help them be a bigger and better
employee every day. So I’m actually very
fascinated that you said that, because I think that should
happen. I think they should be mentored a little bit.

Joe Zee x100 (publicity) | Advocate.com 

Are these really the kind of tasks
Elle interns would have?
No, it’s way more intense. I have to say
there were times Anne and I were saying, "Wow. I
don’t think even an assistant or a junior editor
would have to do this much." So I think it’s actually
a really good training ground for them. 

This show is really all about what happens when you
aren’t there. When these girls and guys
are fighting it out and having panic attacks
and it’s very dramatic, did you know what was
going on in their personal lives?
No, absolutely not. We came in there and we
judged their work. At least I did. I mean, Anne had a
little more to do, but I just judged their work. I
mean, any of the outside part, I had no idea. Occasionally
they would bring it up in the conference room, which
was edited for content. You know, they would accuse
someone of something, like "You didn’t get your
work done at night" or whatever. Those little parts, if they
would actually bring them up, then I would be aware of
[those things]. Other than that, no, we had no idea
what was going on back home. So when I watched the
rough episode for the first time I was like, "Oh, my
God." Fashion folks are very alpha personalities, and you
put them all in one place, something is going to
explode. 

There are obviously gay contestants on the show,
and they’re young, and it might actually help gay
kids see that it’s OK to go and want to do this.
In this industry, that doesn’t play into
it. It’s just about embracing yourself on all
levels. You saw the first episode...yeah, there’s a
gay kid, but there’s also a heavier girl.
It’s just about embracing yourself. That any
level of confidence can take you there. And this is an
industry where that is all celebrated on all
levels. 

Well, and all those kids thought that poor heavier
girl was going to get knocked out, and she keeps getting
complimented because she’s got good style.
And she’s confident and she really tries.
That says a lot about someone.  

There is this moment where they line up all the
interns, and you basically critique their outfits. Is
this what you would do normally?
I guarantee you I do not line up the staff in
front of my office. I think it was a way to illustrate
what it's about. First off, what you look [like] says
a lot about you. And not that how you dress is a good
reflection of whether you do a good job or not, but
-- I sound superficial [with this] being said out
loud -- but this is your industry. You have to
have some sense of understanding what fashion is in
this industry. How you look and appear and present yourself
is going to be the biggest calling card of that.
It’s not the superficial level of "Oh, do you
get it, are you wearing the right shoes?" But
[instead] "Do you understand fashion?" I wouldn’t
hire an accountant and go out to dinner with him and
have him not know how to split the check.

Stylista
premieres tonight on the CW at 9/8 Central.