S3 E04

Isaac Mizrahi:
Nakedness & Abstraction

Neil discusses the pleasure of medical touch. Designer/entertainer Isaac Mizrahi consoles us that at least Stephen Sondheim isn’t the best bridge player.



Isaac Mizrahi has worked extensively in the entertainment industry as an actor, host, writer, designer, and producer for over 30 years. He is the subject and co-creator of Unzipped, a documentary following the making of his Fall 1994 collection which received an award at the Sundance Film Festival. He hosted his own television talk show The Isaac Mizrahi Show for seven years, has written two books, and has made countless appearances in movies and on television. Mizrahi has directed productions of A Little Night Music and The Magic Flute for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and has also performed cabaret at Café Carlyle, Joe’s Pub, West Bank Café, and City Winery locations across the country. He currently serves as a judge on Project Runway: All-Stars and his memoir, I.M., was published in February 2019.

NEIL: Isaac Mizrahi, thank you so much for being on She’s A Talker. I really appreciate it. 

ISAAC: So happy to do it. 

NEIL: I’m curious, today, May 15th, what is something that you find yourself thinking about? 

ISAAC: May 15th. I think about, of course, I think what everybody else is thinking about at the moment. Like, what the hell is going on? Really! What the hell is going on? It’s so scary. Like, I was looking at Instagram, I follow this one dancer, this one beautiful dancer called David Hallberg. I love him, he’s an old friend of mine. Anyway, so I was following him and I was looking at pictures of him dancing on stage in a costume with other dancers thinking like, “Excuse me? Will we ever get to go to a theater again?” I know that’s really what I’m thinking. A lot about theater and how much I love theater, opera, ballet. So that’s what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about David Hallberg in tights. 

NEIL: That’s inspiring. 

ISAAC: I know. Never will I ever see David Hallberg in tights again. 

NEIL: May it be soon. May it be soon. 

ISAAC: I know, may it be soon! Exactly.

NEIL: So that’s what you’re thinking about on May 15th. Do you have kind of like a recurring thought that seems to return to you?

ISAAC: You know, I gotta say the recurring thing that I think about, especially in May, is my dog who died on May 12th, 2016, right? Since May 12th, I’ve been thinking about my first dog called Harry. My screen saver on my phone is still Harry and Dean, who we got, I don’t know, six or seven years later. We got a second dog called Dean. And Dean is still with us. And he’s aging now.  I’d say he’s like 14 or 15, and we have a younger dog named Kitty. (dogs barking) Oh, there they are on cue! That’s funny. All right, Dean, relax. He’s a beagle mix so he’s very talkative. 

Isaac’s dogs, Dean and Kitty

NEIL: I love it! Well, it’s perfect for the podcast called She’s A Talker.

ISAAC: I know! She’s A Talker! She’s A Talker! And it’s so funny because Kitty, the bitch, is not a talker at all. She rarely opens her mouth. I was going to say that I was thinking about my screensaver and then I was thinking about, Jesus, when he goes, right, I don’t know when that’s going to happen, five years from now or seven years from now.

When he goes, what would my screensaver be? To me, that screensaver is the truth of my life. It’s those two dogs together in this house, in Bridgehampton. I have to say, like, I don’t have a big fabulous mansion in Bridgehampton. I have a shack that I love! That’s my home! And I’ve been here since the middle of March thinking, “Do I care if I ever see my apartment again?” Which is fabulous, the third-best apartment in the whole city or something, you know? And I keep thinking like, “Do I need to see that place again?” No, I would rather just be here now. But I think a lot about the dog situation! Like, when Dean goes does that mean that my screensaver has to change? Right? Because the truth of my life, the truest moment of my life is being here with Dean and Harry, even though he’s still not here. Isn’t that weird? His ashes are here. Harry’s ashes are on my shelf, in the den. I know it’s a little morbid. Did we expect for She’s A Talker to get so morbid today?

NEIL: Oh, I’m fully prepared to go there, and also that doesn’t feel morbid at all! That feels comforting. And it’s interesting, you know, the show is based on these index cards I’ve been writing down over the years and one of the cards, I can’t remember it exactly, is something about the different durations of our pets lives and our own lives. It creates a kind of musical counterpoint in that, you know, my partner is 12 years younger than I am, my husband, and my cat is five years and together we’re all operating on these different lifespans. It feels somehow musical to me. 

ISAAC: Right. You know, I often think, especially, like, I’ve been writing more and more— I know this sounds insane to you probably. (dog barking) It sounds insane to Dean, but I’ve been writing a novel. I finished at the Carlyle February 8th or something like that. Then I had like four days off and I felt like, “Okay, what am I going to do?” I feel I’m in postpartum depression, I have to start something. So I started writing this novel that I’ve been taking notes about and thinking about for 30 years or something. And the more I think about writing, the more I think about what you’re saying, which is if you stories going on, if you have simultaneous stories going on, you know the characters affect each other in this way. So the timeline you’re talking about, I often think about that. And especially now. Like, you know, my husband and I are not cohabitating through this. My husband is in the city. He preferred to shelter in the city. I couldn’t face it. I couldn’t do it. 

NEIL: Yeah. 

ISAAC: Anytime I talked to him on the phone, I think to myself this thought that you’re saying. This timeline thing, this emotional timeline of what’s going on in his life. Because he has this whole other 90% of something else that’s going on. You know what I mean? Like we think that’s going along in parallel lines, but it isn’t, and yet it works. My husband and I, we have separate bedrooms and I feel like we need that for a lot of different reasons. And we’re comfortable. Like, I always kind of spoke about the fact that I was an insomniac and that’s what kind of prescribed the separate bedroom thing. But it’s not so much about that as much as, like, really sort of standing for the fact that we have separate lives, you know? I mean that. That’s a really, really important part of our partnering.

NEIL: Next card is— I’m going to mention this person’s name and maybe bleep them out. It’s really within the context of adoring their work, but— How the third story in ****’s latest collection is a little bit disappointing, but that feels like a relief from the relentless virtuosity. Do you ever have that feeling about like where something is so masterful, where it falters a little bit it’s almost like—

ISAAC: And you go like “phew,” yes. Thank goodness they’re human. I have, but I can’t think of any real examples of it. I will tell you I’m sort of friends with Stephen Sondheim, right? Literally, he has never written anything bad. Like you can’t find anything bad. But I played bridge with him a long time ago. We used to play bridge and he wasn’t the best bridge player. And that made me feel a little bit better.

Isaac Mizrahi: An Unruly History, installation view, The Jewish Museum, NY, 2016.

NEIL: Another card says: The technical differences between a performer being naked versus wearing a bodysuit; How that probably gives rise to a lot of fetishes. 

ISAAC: What a hilarious question on so many levels. That is a hilarious thing to ask. Dance belts, thongs, sports bras… Talk amongst yourselves, right? That’s basically what you’re doing. I think that people go to see dance shows not merely because it’s an incredible art form or it’s beautiful, but also because they’re horny and it’s like a sexy thing.

NEIL: Of course, yeah. 

ISAAC: It’s a really sexy thing to watch people dance. You see like body parts jiggling, you see butts, you see titties, you see, like, baskets on men. The weights of these things. I do. Of course, you can scream, you can laugh at me, but I swear, like, a large percent of what I have been doing all these years is that. You know, when I see a woman with beautiful legs and a tutu, I go like, “what?” You know, your legs just can’t look any better than if you’re wearing a tutu and pointe shoes. It just doesn’t get better. Sometimes I design short short short tunics for boys so that when they fly up you get to see the flesh color dance. I mean, like, I just do because I’m a pervert and also because it’s beautiful!

NEIL: Oh absolutely.

ISAAC: It’s beautiful. But, by the way, you know, there’ve been times where I go like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if this was naked?” You know? And, you know, it wouldn’t because then it’s not about anything but the bodies, you know what I mean? Like, yes it’s all about the body, but it’s not just about-— it’s not only about a body. I rarely like naked dancing. There was one show I saw when I was a kid that I loved that was, oh, what’s her name? It was Garden of Earthly Delights. That wonderful choreographer I can’t remember. But they were all naked and I loved it. It was a great show. Cause it was set in the Garden of Earthly Delights! But yeah, I don’t love nudity on stage. I never think it really has a place except to shock people, you know?

NEIL: Mhm. But your talking makes me realize that something about— in a way it’s about abstraction. You know, the bodysuit creates almost an abstraction of the body. Is that it? So you’re not getting, like, balls and cock and ass and tits or et cetera, but you are—

ISAAC: Yeah, maybe so! To me, the figurative is stronger than the literal. I don’t know. I always feel like it’s kind of a let down when you see someone without their clothes. 

NEIL: Absolutely.

ISAAC: And I don’t think it’s an abstraction of a body. I think it’s a kind of leveling of the body, and it’s the best way to see the body. Sometimes I think the only great costume is a leotard. And the more I work as a costume designer, which I don’t really do that much, I work with Mark Morris. Still, it’s really interesting to me because we’re really, really close friends. We’re best friends. So it’s really interesting for me to do that. I always love rehearsal clothes better than any costume you could possibly come up with anymore. It makes me focus better. Does that make sense? 

Photo from Gong, a Mark Morris performance, costume designs by Isaac Mizrahi

NEIL: Did you see that recent Cunningham documentary

ISAAC: Yes, I did.

NEIL: The balance so many of those costumes struck between— You know, they were often bodysuits, but adorned and decorated. 

ISAAC: I was actually gonna bring up Merce because, you know, usually it was some kind of a bodysuit. I’m a huge Merce Cunningham fan. I loved that stuff so much growing up. I was there so often and, by the way, not liking it and not understanding it a lot too. It never stopped me from going. I kind of went so as not to understand everything. I didn’t want this feeling of understanding when I went to see Merce. I wanted to be immersed in something. Almost like being immersed in your own organs or something. It’s like the insides of your own body that you’re looking at.

NEIL: For me, Merce— I have such a similar relationship to the whole cognitive experience of watching Merce and not getting it. I almost feel like it’s about a type of productive spacing out. Like, the ways in which I don’t connect or the way it throws me back into my mind by virtue of not getting it is a productive space. Is that part of what you’re saying, perhaps? 

ISAAC: Absolutely! Yes, 100%. One of the things I don’t think a lot of choreographers answer is the question: Why the hell are we here? You know what I mean? Why are we here? Right. A lot of choreographers don’t do that. Some of the best. And it bugs me. I can’t work with them unless they can answer that question. And with Merce, the question doesn’t even arise. You are there because you are there. To me, it transcended everything. I mean, that music, that idea about what art is, I mean, to me, it’s what it is. And you know, for a long time, my favorite movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey because of the attraction and because of the wonderful coming together of this kind of futuristic look at something and this ancient look at something. Monoliths and space people and ape-men, et cetera. I thought it was this incredible thing. And then I saw it again and you know what? It didn’t really age that well. I have to say it didn’t stay with me. And if you look at Merce it not only ages well, it’s just the most beautiful damn thing. It’s as beautiful as anything you will ever look at. 

NEIL: I so agree.

ISAAC: Graham doesn’t age that well, does it? It’s like a little drama. It looks great out of costume. If you ever get a look at Graham in rehearsal out of the costumes, it looks so beautiful. It looks so beautiful. 

NEIL: That makes sense because it adds to the melodrama, the costumes. 

ISAAC: Merce was just doing it all without costuming. You know, you look at some of the pivots, and some of the flexing, and some of the arched back, and that kind of deep, deep plié, and the relevé, everything on the relevé never touched. It’s Martha Graham only without costumes and on steroids and an abstract— no subject matter, no story, nothing. You know?

NEIL: Yeah. Yeah. Product placements: the kind of psychic work you have to do to get past them. How do you connect to that, if at all? Like when you’re watching a TV show or a movie and you see— “Okay, there’s that Coke.”

ISAAC: Yeah, exactly. Right. You know, I think they’re doing a really good job because I notice it less. You know? I notice it less. You know when I notice it? Is on, like, Ellen or something. Like talk shows?

NEIL: Interesting. Uh-huh. 

ISAAC: I notice it a lot. You know, it’s like, “Oh, who made that deal to use that spatula on the cooking segment?”

You know what I mean? That’s when I think about it. In the movie, I don’t exactly think about it unless there’s a giant product name. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t bother me. And I feel like they’re doing a good job or something. They’re doing a good job. 

NEIL: Well you know they’re measuring it. God knows. 

ISAAC: I know. Or else I’m getting callous and I don’t care or something. I don’t judge a show by its ability to place a product without notice. But at a talk show, it’s like, well, of course it’s about— that’s all it’s about. Why else are you watching the talk show right now? It’s to plug someone’s new movie and someone’s new spatula. Right? That’s the only reason to have a talk show.

NEIL: Do you have a favorite spatula?

ISAAC: I do actually. My favorite spatula is an OXO Good Grips spatula

NEIL: Absolutely know what you’re talking about. 

ISAAC: I love it. 

NEIL: I know you’re into astrology and see, for me, I feel like, as a hardcore four planets in Virgo, that the spatula is the Virgo tool.

ISAAC: Yes it is. You know I have a Virgo ascendant. Yes, 

NEIL: Yes. you’re a Libra. Right? If I remember correctly? 

ISAAC: Yes, a Libra with a Virgo ascendant.

NEIL: As a Libra, does your choice in kitchen tools connect at all to your— 

ISAAC: A few things. A few things that I adore. I have the best ice cream maker in the fucking world, it’s huge! And it makes basically a cup of ice cream, but it does— It’s so great. When you turn it on the whole house vibrates and you know this ice cream is being churned. And I loved it so much I got another one for the city. So now I have two of these babies and I feel so rich. I feel like I’m a rich person because I could afford two ice cream makers, you know, like, of such quality. And then the other thing I have, which is so special and I love it: if you go on my Instagram page— speaking of product placement, Isaac Mizrahi! Hello? Hello!— So the thing is that I did this cooking segment. I made this really good pasta with—

NEIL: With pork! I saw it!

ISAAC: Yeah, exactly. And I have this wonderful sausage smasher. It smashes the sausage really effectively 

NEIL: Sausage smasher sounds like a euphemism somehow. 

ISAAC: Doesn’t it? It sounds like something you would— like a terrible thing you call someone. 

NEIL: Okay. Another card is: I always feel the gesture of holding something away from my eyes to read it because I’m not wearing reading glasses somehow looks cool. Like I do it in front of students, but of course, it looks just the opposite, but I still haven’t let go of it. 

ISAAC: No, you mustn’t do that. You mustn’t. That ages you so much. You know what else ages you?  If you wear glasses and, at some point, you look over your glasses to see something.

NEIL: Oh, don’t do it. Don’t do it. 

ISAAC: I remember, I’m not gonna mention any names, but I worked for an older designer at a time and he used to look over his glasses and I was like, “You’re so old.” I came close to saying it to his face once. Like, you gotta stop doing that because it’s just so aging, you know? Don’t do it! Do not do it. 

NEIL: I’m thinking of your life in cabaret, this other world that you occupy. So how I wrote it down on the card is: The connection between camp and paying the check while performers are still singing at Joe’s Pub. And I know it’s the Cafe Carlyle as well. I remember seeing Justin Vivian Bond breaking my heart with a song, but, at the same time, the server is coming or I’m doing that tip. And somehow navigating that mental space between being moved by something on stage, but also having to negotiate this transaction feels like the essence of camp.

Isaac Mizrahi performing at the Cafe Carlyle

ISAAC: You know, especially after that exhibit, shall we call it, last year at the Met called Camp, I don’t know what the hell camp is. I always thought I knew what camp was and I always kind of understood that people associated a certain amount of camp with me because I embrace it. I do love camp but I don’t know what it means anymore. You know?

NEIL: Yeah.

ISAAC: And so all I can say to you is I would never associate the word camp with the confluence of those two things happening at once. Like, you know, on stage singing a heartbreaking song with the fries coming and paying a bill. That’s not, to me, campy. To me, that’s ironic. And it doesn’t detract because that’s the understanding that you have as a performer in a nightclub. That’s the understanding that you have. The irony kind of adds to it. It makes it better in a certain way because all artists are there to be appreciated. Right? So if this person came and is sitting there and the agreement is that he can order food and he can pay his bills while you’re doing what you’re doing, then I say, “Bring it, bring it, bring it on.” I mean that. I never— I don’t flinch when that happens because I think, you know, I’ll tell you this one thing: I used to kind of be friends with Azzedine Alaïa a little bit, a little bit. Like, we had dinner three times. I said to him, “Oh, you know, this person was wearing the dress and she was wearing it with this bra—” and he was like, “Darling, I don’t care if she’s wearing it with a flower pot on her head, she bought the dress, bless her.” You know? And I was like, well, thank you Azzedine. You know, I thought that was a great piece of advice. Like as I age, I get less and less precious about certain things and more and more precious about other things that I didn’t. One of them is not people paying attention to me on stage because if they already paid, they can do— I count the sleepers sometimes. I’m not kidding you, it’s like, “Oh she’s sleeping, he’s sleeping…” And I’m counting people who are asleep. If you play a big room, you’re going to have some sleepers. You know? And I go, “Hurray!” Because darling, some of the best sleep I ever got was at ballet or the opera or the theater. And I love the show, by the way. I come out thinking “That’s the best show I ever saw in my life.” A) Because it was great. And B) because I got like a 10-minute nap and it was my favorite thing.

NEIL: Yeah. And sleeping is a form of interactivity too. It’s like an edit. 

ISAAC: Exactly. This is true. It’s like a way of making it your own, shall we say? 

NEIL: Yes, yeah. 

ISAAC: Hooray! I’m glad we got that straight because I mean that. 

NEIL: I love that idea of the things that you become more precious about and less precious about. Does anything immediately come to mind as something else you’ve gotten less precious about or more precious about with age? 

ISAAC: I’ve got less precious about meet and greets and autograph signing. I’m much less precious about that. And I’ve gotten more precious about, like, what happens to me before a show, because I feel like I have to be in a certain space to do a show.

Isaac Mizrahi after presenting his Spring 2011 collection during New York Fashion Week

NEIL: Mhm.

ISAAC: I’m more precious now. Like I beg people to get me this or not offer me with that. You know, make sure that something is set up properly so that I can make my entrance because I feel like doing that thing that I do at the Carlyle or whatever I’m playing, you have to show up exactly right. Because if you don’t show up exactly right they’ll eat you alive. You have to really believe that you’re not nervous. And in order to do that, you know, there’s a lot of preparation. But now afterward, I can meet people, I can do meet and greets, I can sign autographs, I can do all that. In the fashion business, I hated doing meet and greets. I hated— I couldn’t do trunk shows. God. I mean, like, really? I have to now sell the shit? Like I designed the shit, I showed the shit, I taught the shit, and now I have to sell the shit. I don’t know why, but I feel like this is just on more of a personal level. Like, I guess I just like theater better. I like the theater better than I like fashion. It’s just better— Sorry. I’m old enough. I can judge. It’s probably sour grapes. 

NEIL: Well, that’s for you to decide. It doesn’t sound like that. That sounds more like what artists do, which is that they have an evolving relationship to the forms that they engage with. Two last questions. What’s a bad— I mean, it relates to this “what’s precious, what’s not anymore.” Fill in the blank for an X and Y: What’s a bad X you would take over a good Y?

ISAAC: I would take a bad episode of Mary Tyler Moore over, hm, oh, I shouldn’t say this, over, a really, really good fashion show. 

NEIL: Cheers. Cheers. 

ISAAC: I mean it. I shouldn’t say that, but I did. I said it. You got it. But could I tell you something apropos of Mary Tyler Moore?

NEIL: Please. Anything. 

ISAAC: I have been inspired by Mary Tyler Moore before in my life and everyone knows that. So people think that that’s all I think about and I live for or whatever, but, I mean, I watched the show when I was a kid a lot, whenever it was on. And then here and there, because it really wasn’t one of those shows they reran to ad nauseum, you know? Anyway, I’ve been here since the middle of March. I swear to you, one of the first things I started doing was watching that show every single night. I watched like two or three episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore show starting from season one. By the way, it’s seven seasons of literally like 24 shows or 26 shows. So it’s like 175 shows. 

NEIL: Wow. 

ISAAC: It is the most brilliant, heartbreaking, beautiful shit in the world. The writing is so unbelievable. The grasp on, like, the quality of comedy, but it’s not really— I mean, comedy, yes, but it’s so melancholy and it’s so— it’s like Peanuts, but adult Peanuts. You know, like, Charlie Brown or whatever. They’re all kind of hapless and just, they’re all bordering on depressed, and they’re all so fucked up, and, like, so three dimensional, and they deliver you three jokes on every page. I mean, it is unbelievable. That’s been getting me through. I watch whatever I’m supposed to watch on Netflix or whatever. You know, I get through all that, and then I put on Mary Tyler Moore right before I’m going to go to bed and I just watch the two or three episodes and I eat ice cream while I’m doing that. 

NEIL: Heaven.

ISAAC: It’s heaven. Ice cream and the Mary Tyler Moore show, darling. I’m serious.

NEIL: Finally: What’s something you’re looking forward to when this is over? 

ISAAC: Here’s what I’m really looking forward to: David Hallberg or any male dancer in tights. Like, seeing that on stage. That’s what I’m looking for. 

NEIL: I love it. May you have it soon. On that note, Isaac Mizrahi, thank you so much for being on She’s A Talker.