Robert Verdi Knows the Look

By Harrison Pierce

Originally published on Advocate.com June 08 2009 12:00 AM ET

Robert Verdi is a man who wears many hats. Actually, make those sunglasses, since the famed style maven's signature look is a pair of fabulous shades perched atop his famous smooth dome. Anyway, when Verdi's not busy quipping fashion on the red carpet, hawking his jewelry line on the QVC or stylizing the lives of stars like Eva Longoria, Hugh Jackman and Mariska Hargitay, he also serves as celebrity judge on TV Land's original modeling competition series She's Got the Look , which kickstarts its second season June 11.

In case you missed season one, She's Got the Look is a modeling show with a twist; the twist being that its contestants are over the age of -- gasp -- 35. It's a welcome change of pace for a reality television subgenre oversaturated with embryonic young women with little to no body fat, let alone life experience. According to Verdi, the contestants on The Look are more substantive and textured than their younger counterparts -- the higher personal and professional stakes they've invested in the competition definitely makes for more moving, riveting and, of course, divalicious, viewing.

The Advocate recently caught up with Verdi to gossip about judging (and not judging) the ladies of She's Got The Look , acting opposite La Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and staying stylish during the big, bad recession.

Advocate.com:Robert, what distinguishes TV Land's She's Got the Look from the other I-wanna-be-a-model television shows?Robert Verdi: The biggest distinction is that the show invites women over the age of 35 to actually pursue a dream that many of them felt was lost many years ago. We actually had an enormous turnout at the open calls when we were scouting for contestants. We found that the [potential contestants] had developed lives that were substantive and textured. Many of them had a family or a spouse or they were divorced and they'd had several incarnations in terms of their careers -- so they just have a lot more substance then a very young girl who wants to pursue a career as a model.

Are the contestants better behaved because they're older or do they get Top Model crazy too?They're not better behaved, they just handle things differently. You don't see a lot of catfights -- there are not a lot of physical assaults on anybody. There's definitely a more adult approach to how issues and disagreements are settled and how people who don't necessarily like, respect or respond to each other, handle the interaction and living together.

How do you feel about contestants who come in all botoxed and plastic surgerized?Well, I don't think that's such a terrible thing. We're not the Miss America pageant. I mean, we're not looking for somebody who's untouched or untainted. I think women who are level headed and well adjusted can make small changes and minor adjustments and know that it helps them feel a little bit better and that it doesn't really detract from who they are. We're not just a beauty contest. It's bigger than that. It's about a personality, it's about being hard working, and it's about thriving through the challenges that life presents you. Those things are the real basis of the competition.

In these modeling reality shows, there's this underlying message that, in order to make it, you need to be more than just a pretty face. Is that really true of the industry -- or just something that keeps these reality shows more interesting?Yes, they really want more in the real modeling industry. It is necessary that the women have more than just a pretty face and that she has personality and can relate to people and can connect with a photographer and an art director and a stylist and the agents. That's usually something that somebody who lacks personality wouldn't be capable of doing. Personality is definitely a key factor.

ROBERT VERDI EVA LONGORIA RACHEL ZOE X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Modeling shows like She's Got the Look help make certain models -- like season one winner Tanya Hutchinson -- household names. Do you think this familiarity will help restore models to the covers of fashion magazines or is the actress-as-cover-model trend here to stay?I think we're in flux right now. But with the collapse of the economy people don't have the singular focus on celebrity and fabulosity and wealth. They're connecting with models once again because, in some strange way, celebrities are totally out of touch with real life and models aren't. Models are, you know, kind of somehow closer to us. We deify celebrities but we no longer deify models and I think they become more relatable because of that. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has an exhibit that's currently running that traces the origins of the supermodel and the model as muse -- I think that the model's starting to come back to a powerful place.

So, Robert, at what age did you realize you could make the world a prettier place?I was very young I think -- I love that question because I do make the world a prettier place! When I was young, I understood that you could manipulate people's minds with objects, whether they were decorative objects in an environment or the clothing one wore. I remember seeing my Mom dressed up -- like, all gay men tell this story about seeing their mothers dressed up -- and going "wow, she's the most beautiful thing ever" -- and then coming to an understanding that it's the stuff that makes her -- the jewelry and the earrings and the makeup and the hair.

Growing up in New Jersey, what did Manhattan represent to you?Manhattan symbolized to me in New Jersey what it symbolized to everyone everywhere -- it's cosmopolitan, it's chic and it's where all the fabulous people went and it's where all the creative people were. You know, it's the epicenter of so many industries, from the publishing industry to the fashion industry, the financial industry to the art community. It's the creative crossroads of every practical and impractical business of the world.

Now, you first came to Manhattan as a jewelry designer, correct?I started as a jewelry designer when I was a kid but I wasn't a trained goldsmith. I was just gluing things together, melting pieces of plastic together, sewing pieces of fabric together. I was creating accessories and then I went to F.I.T. and became a trained goldsmith. But, up until that time, I was really just being creative. Anything I could get my hands on, I turned into something else. Now, I have a jewelry line on QVC, so it's like homecoming for me.

Eventually you became an on screen television personality, hosting shows like Metro TV's Full Frontal Fashion and E!'s Fashion Police . Were you always comfortable in front of the camera?The camera never really intimidated me. It is what it is -- I mean, I'm aware of it being there, but maybe it works in my life because I gesticulate a lot. I'm very animated and I can connect with people through it. Like, it doesn't get in the way of my relationships with people. It's not an obstacle to me.

I know you have a vested interest in the world of celebrity styling, but do you ever secretly wish celeb stylists would disappear so we could see more train wrecks on the red carpet?Yeah, I mean I love women who are free spirited and independent and don't necessarily have the fashion tutor with them all the time telling them what to wear and what to say and how to do it. I do love the irreverent and outrageous women of the red carpet like Cher. I think they bring a kind of vibrancy that feels exciting and independent and enthusiastic and is honest and real and isn't fabricated because a lot of times, when you're working with a stylist, you're kind of working on the fabrication of a public image.

ROBERT VERDI ZAC POSEN X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Who gets you most excited on the red carpet right now?Well, I do love the women who are really fabricated and fabulous like Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez. I'm also really intrigued by Megan Fox. I've always adored Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen. I'm wowed by Michelle Obama. You know, she's a real woman and, if there's a book on style rules, she's made some mistakes. But I love that she makes mistakes and does it her own way and that she has people talking about the American fashion system and the industry. She's shining a light on a lot of relatively unknown designers too. I think that's important because the business of fashion is very broad and is an important part of the commerce structure of our nation. I think it's very important we have a first lady who is an international superstar celebrating with such great style.

How do you recommend staying fashionable in the recession?I think people are gonna buy differently. I think they're gonna make purchases based on investment versus expense. They'll buy something of greater quality. I also think they'll alter things they already have that they would normally cast away. They'll look at the silhouette of a coat and say, "Maybe I could put a belt on this and it will be really stylish," or ",Maybe I could hem this trouser or let it out so it's got a wider leg." I think people will alter things they have and that accessories are gonna be the key to fashion for the next few years As a rule, we'll buy really great investment basics and then accessorize the hell out of them.

With summer rapidly approaching, what are some summer style do's and don'ts?We always say in our office, don't leave home without a tan. Today, you can get a fake tan, which is far healthier. Also, know your flaws -- but the flaw isn't necessarily what other people see, it's what you see. So if you're self-conscious about something, make sure you dress it up properly. If you don't like your arms, don't wear a tank top. Otherwise, you'll end up showing that in your body language and you'll collapse into yourself. I don't buy short sleeve shirts because I don't like my arms. You'll never see me in one, even in the desert.

What about the dreaded flip-flop?Well, make sure your feet don't look like The Flintstones . Actually, a lot of summer tips are about grooming. Plus, you're showing more skin so make sure your skin tone is even. If your face got a tan, make sure you tan your arms and legs because otherwise you'll look like a colorform.

Do you feel constant pressure to look pulled together every time you leave the house?I used to years ago when I first started in the business; it was part of how I gained recognition. I was always dressing up. As I became better known and even had some successes, those affectations started to fall away, so I don't feel it all the time, but there are moments when I do and it's usually when you're having dinner with Diane von Fürstenberg at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That's when I'm like "Oh, I better get dressed for this one!"

ROBERT VERDI TIM GUNN KENNETH COLE X390 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

You had a small part in the now classic fashion comedy The Devil Wears Prada. What was that like?Well, it was fabulous; I don't know how they could have done it without me [laughs]. I mean, it was really fun because when I arrived on the set, Meryl came over to me and she said "What are you doing here?" and I said, "I'm going to play myself on the red carpet and interview you" and she said "That's a stretch." It was really funny. I was only in the film for a few seconds, but I was there for eight hours. But it was exciting because all the stars of the movie were in my scene. It was my first quote unquote role in a movie and it was opposite Meryl Streep. "My first acting role was opposite Meryl Streep" -- I'm writing that in my diary tonight.

Any other acting roles coming up?It's interesting because I had a run of auditions after that but I didn't get any of the parts -- although I am in the season finale of Ugly Betty .

You're already a multi-hyphenate designer-stylist-TV host-etc., but is there any additional job you'd secretly like to do?I don't think I could do more than I already do. Although I would like to work with Michelle Obama, with less of a focus on how she actually dresses and more about harvesting the fascination people have with her style and creating a comprehensive event that helps people understand how important fashion is in the machine of our commerce.

In the past, you've styled the weddings of such celebrities as Eva Longoria. When marriage equality happens in New York, will you style your own big day or let someone else?I am too big of a control freak, so I'll do it [laughs]. But I'm definitely the type of person who has an approach to creative expressions where I'll ask a lot of other people their opinions. But, in the end, I always do what I want [laughs].