Barneys New York creative ambassador at large Simon Doonan tells stories the way he dresses windows. That is, with headlong humor, wild (but wildly on) pop culture references, and a forward-thinking, U.K.-rooted sense of style that feels bawdy and high-brow, buttoned-up, and completely undone. His latest is called Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, and if you don’t get that pop culture reference, Mireille Guiliano would like to introduce you to a cheese plate and a croissant.
But first, I’d like to introduce you to Simon Doonan. You can meet him for yourself on Thursday, January 26 at the downtown Barneys where you can pick up a signed copy of his pink-jacketed gem. He’ll be there from 5 to 7, and you’ll need to RSVP by calling 206-622-6300 ext 221.
WWW: Obesity is such a huge medical problem in America right now. Does Gay Men attempt to deal with that at all?
Doonan: It’s a humor book. I have friends who struggle with their weight and I’m enormously sympathetic to that. My book is fluff. It’s about having a good chuckle. The goal of my book is to encourage people to live in a flamboyant, fun way regardless of whether they’re gay or straight, fat or thin. People have historically attributed a finesse and knowledge to French women. The reason gay people have a similar cache is because of their outsider, idiosyncratic status. We embrace a lifestyle that is flamboyant and fun. That attitude could empower you to make changes if you’re overweight but I’m not qualified beyond that—I’m stupid and fashiony. I eat the same thing everyday.
Yes, in the chapter that delineates certain foods as gay or straight (sushi is the former, Mexican food is the latter), you share your daily diet—All-Bran cereal, soup, brown rice, broccoli.
I’m very much a lesbian when it comes to food. Growing up in post-war England, we didn’t have an interesting food culture. It was disgusting and frightening and there was never enough. Food wasn’t a comfort, and my mom was a health food nut. She thew out all the white sugar in the ’60s. My gay sister and I eat exactly the same way; very crunchy, lots of nuts and seeds.
I think I might be a lesbian, too. I just had steamed spinach with kimchi and chia seeds for lunch.
The book is so immediate and fun. It’s the kind of thing you should bring on a three-day beach vacation—but you’d run the risk of totally devouring it before the plane lands. On one hand, you’re such a visual storyteller—a window at Barneys can say so much about character and narrative and time and place—but on the other hand, I’m addicted to those Moth podcasts and the couple of yours that I’ve heard are pretty great. And this is your sixth book.
Engaging with people, whether with a window or an anecdote, is not dissimilar. The Moth is very exhilarating and scary. It’s ten minutes of madness. But I’m not nervous when I do them because the audience is rooting for you—for everyone. I’ve seen people stop and forget their place, well the audience just cheers them on. I’ve learned that people are essentially good natured. Being gay, you learn to navigate negativity and enjoy life. You leave shame and guilt behind. When people say, “What’s your guilty pleasure?” I don’t have an answer for them. I’ll watch some crappy TV show if I feel like it and I’m certainly not going to feel guilty about it.
There’s a lot of pressure to be well-read and high-brow these days.
Women are going through a very masochistic period. You have to look like Angelina Jolie, pop out loads of children, and be professional. When I meet women who are really self-critical I’m just like, “Fuck it, enjoy life.”
So where do Kim Kardashian and all those Real Housewives of Whatever fall into all that? Into that pressure to be superwoman?
Kim Kardashian is a plucky nut who puts herself out there in a way that’s pretty mind boggling. The problem with her and Paris Hilton is that they spawn millions of imitators. I mean, where did all those tanned girls with blonde hair and a purse on the crook of their arm come from? Not Tilda Swinton. My issue is that it becomes conformist. I encourage individuality. All my books are clarion calls to develop a sense of individuality. To use fashion and style not as a rod to your back but as a form of self expression. And I know that’s hard for some women. I say it and they nod and then go, “What shoes should I wear with this?” They freak out when I say there are no rules. The only rule is using fashion and style—using it to express yourself, whether you’re Snooki or Tilda.
Well put. People ask me to define what ‘stylish’ means and I always say it’s certainly not about following the examples in Vogue. I appreciate all kinds of well-defined style—it doesn’t have to match my style. Develop your own sense of style, and do it with conviction.
I could never be Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I’m not that. If I met a goofy straight guy with a mullet I would just encourage him to use a good conditioner so it was nice and soft and luxurious. Otherwise he’d go from being someone noteworthy to just being ‘acceptable.’ It all comes back to Diane Arbus; I want to see a smorgasbord of humanity.
In terms of American culture, there’s been such amazing progress in terms of gay culture and this whole melting pot situation. I mean, your book might not have been contracted much less placed in megamall bookstores ten years ago.
The evolution of gay rights is an ongoing thing but there’s definitely been a leap forward. When I came to this country they didn’t give green cards to homosexuals. That was late ‘70s, early ’80s. That’s unimaginable now—it’s like I’m making it up. Oh, I lied about it then because I had to, but I’ve always been very out, even when it was problematic to be out. It seemed like a good idea to be straightforward. Telling the truth seemed to have intrinsic power. That’s the key with discrimination: you can’t take it personally because it’s not really about you. I coach kids to be unoffendable. Don’t take it personally.
That makes me think of Lady Gaga’s antibully thing—she’s definitely a gay icon and friend-of-Barneys.
As well as your own Dan Savage. I think he’s just great. Jonny and I listen to his podcasts and just laugh hysterically. I recently uploaded a video to his It Gets Better project. I think if he does nothing more with his life this will be enough.
Do you know Dan? Will you see him when you’re here?
I’ve never met him but I should send him a copy of my book.
Okay, one final question. Given your new categorization technique for the sexuality of food as well as Washington state’s latest developments in the gay marriage department, I have to know: is wedding cake gay or straight?
Fabulous question! English wedding cake is straight. On the inside it’s this very tough fruitcake and on the outside, it’s rock-hard icing. Altogether, it’s a very butch undertaking. American cake is all nelly and gay. The fluffy icing situation is very gay, there’s definitely a transatlantic divide there.