Tim Gunn Talks Bullying, His FBI Agent Father & Anna Wintour
What is it like to be bullied as a gay teenage boy and raised by a father who is more interested in football than piano playing? Tim Gunn knows from experience that everything in life happens for a reason, and he wouldn't take anything back, not even the darkest moments. He is known as the dapper fashion professor who co-hosts Project Runway with Heidi Klum, and with the phenomenal success of the show, his career has skyrocketed into the big leagues.
At the 92nd Street Y on Sunday night Gunn had some time to sit down and chat with Budd Mishkin, the host of NY1's "One On 1 with Budd Mishkin." Gunn has come a long way from his days of suffering from bullying, stuttering, and stage fright in front of a classroom. He recently published his first book Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work, and he's now the chief creative officer at Liz Claiborne Inc. His tales of transformation are like an inspirational episode of "Glee," featuring Kurt, the talented gay boy who knows just how to make it work, in spite of frequent instances of getting thrown in the high school dumpster by people who just don't get it.
Gunn's father was an FBI agent and a ghostwriter for J. Edgar Hoover. Gunn said of his father, "[He was] a big, macho, football-watching, beer-drinking guy and he had a son who loved to play the piano, be reclusive, and play with his sister's Barbies." His father tried to get involved with Gunn's life by coaching his softball team, but Gunn wasn't very fond of softball -- "It was so dirty and dusty!" he exclaimed to Mishkin during the lecture. Nonetheless, he appreciated the fact that his father showed up and made an effort.
Gunn suffered through so much bullying as a kid that he now considers himself an anti-bullying activist. He recalled the bleakest moment of his childhood when he went from school to school and said, "I reached a point where I saw no light -- where I thought, 'Oh god, yet another boarding school with yet another roommate who was made uncomfortable by me.'" And that's when his world turned upside down. He was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, and luckily his whole family stood by to support him. He had an amazing therapist who helped to change his life. Now Gunn is able to say with complete confidence, "Things happen for a reason -- even awful things." And that's where his "make it work" mentality came from.
Gunn has carried those survival skills from his bullying days into his work in the excessively competitive world of fashion. On his first day teaching at the Corcoran College of Art & Design, he was so nervous that he threw up in the parking lot, but that didn't stop him, obviously, since we now know him as the polished and well-spoken man of elegance who guides the struggling designers through their many taxing assignments on Project Runway. Since he knows what it's like to struggle against all odds, he is the best mentor a student could find.
Even once he had made a name for himself as the co-host of an Emmy-nominated show that took reality TV to a new level of seriousness and talent, Gunn continued to face instances of bullying. But this time around it wasn't about some homophobic boys beating him up in the playground -- it was about a little known fashion diva named Anna Wintour. In his new book Gunn explains the whole story around the Anna Wintour controversy that arose in the New York Post. It all started innocently enough -- a reporter asked Gunn about the most outrageous thing he had seen thus far in his many years in fashion. He responded with an anecdote about witnessing Anna Wintour being carried down five flights of stairs in a fireman's lock by her bodyguards after refusing to ride an elevator. It was during a fashion show for designer Peter Som that took place in 2006 at the Metropolitan Pavilion where there was only a freight elevator.
Of course, the day after the New York Post printed the story, Gunn received a call from Anna Wintour's office, and he cowered in terror, feeling catapulted back to his days of being harassed in the schoolyard. It turned out that Wintour's VP of communications at Vogue asked Gunn to have the Post retract the story, but Gunn had been bullied too many years and had always tried to fight back. So he refused. He explained that there were many other witnesses of the ridiculous story, and he even said, "God bless [Anna Wintour] -- I wish I had people carrying me down the stairs...it's what happened afterward that was so appalling." Moral of the story: Gunn didn't melt under the menacing gaze of Wintour and her brigade of PR experts -- he stood true to his story and lived to tell the tale. The reason he included it in his new book, which is intended to be "modern manners for the digital age," is because he wanted to prove a point about moral etiquette: "Don't bully, don't threaten, and always accept responsibility for your own actions."
On bullying, Gunn thinks that "it's an atrocious way to act," and it's about the bully seeking self-aggrandizement. He said that bullies do what they do because they an individual whom they don't understand, don't like, and don't want to be.
Gunn ended the lecture by mentioning that he had once met a spoiled twelve-year-old girl at a charity gala who had her parents purchase Gunn so that she could tell him that she had to be a judge on "Project Runway." She was wearing five-inch stilettos and a real chinchilla shrug. Her mother had declared, "I only believe in expensive clothes!" When Gunn asked the little girl what her best quality was, the girl responded, "Meanness--there's no one meaner than I am!" The fashion world may be known for catty behavior and bitchy attitudes, but Gunn's life story is a testament to the fact that being true to yourself and never stooping to someone else's low, is just as effective a way to make it to the top. If Gunn's new book does nothing else, hopefully it will inspire a new generation of young gay girls and boys to stand up to their bullies and make a life out of being their authentic selves, because Gunn has proved that not even Anna Wintour can stand in the way of their dreams.