Isaac Mizrahi’s New Gig: Cabaret Performer With Terrible Stage Fright

by Eddie Roche

We grabbed a booth at Candy Kitchen with Isaac Mizrahi to discuss some of his favorite haunts in the Hamptons — and his upcoming gig at the Bay Street Theater — and got all that and so much more from this honest, refreshing, and hilarious Renaissance man.

Your one-man show is coming to the Bay Street Theater on August 6th. Have you ever performed out East before?
I haven’t. I’ve always been really intimidated to perform out here because it’s not your average pub-going, theater-going crowd. It’s people with giant houses, and people are in a different headset when they’re out here. Although I do perform at Café Carlyle all the time and that’s another million-dollar seat.

So, what’s the show?
It’s really just me doing numbers and telling stories. It’s adapted from all the shows I’ve ever done and put together for the Bay Street crowd.

Isaac Mizrahi performing at Cafe Carlyle.

Is it Isaac’s greatest hits?
The show is still called Moderate to Severe. My opening number is this song, “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” from Valley of the Dolls. I like to find songs that people haven’t done a trillion times; that one’s overlooked a lot. I rewrote the lyrics to Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” to make it more modern. “You’re the top, you’re the National Archives. You’re the top, you are Andy’s housewives.” It’s all these references to the modern day, and I love it because that’s my idea of this kind of entertainment that’s now gone in a way. A promoter for a show I’m doing out of town asked if we could still call it Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?, which was the title of my last show. They thought it was funnier. I said, “Sure! Call it whatever the hell you want. Just as long as you get people to show up.”

Do you get nervous when you perform?
Oh, my God! Are you kidding? Horrible stage fright — for days in advance, months in advance. I could do this a thousand times and I will always have stage fright. In my memoir, which is coming out next year, there’s a description of the stage fright and how it takes hold and where I go with it in the dressing room. It’s an in-depth description of the terror that I put myself through in advance of a show. It’s the last chapter of the book, and I’m really pleased with having this very well-defined description of something that occurs again and again in my life. It makes me feel like maybe at some point I’m going to master it.

Why do you do it?
Sometimes I feel like I do it because I’m so scared of it. I do it because I know it’s so ridiculous and so out there. To me, those are the only things worth doing. If you’re that sure of something: Don’t do it. If something is that easy, then shame on you. That’s what I think. I think every human soul is better burnished by a great challenge. I think that’s a good quote, that’s a bold-faced quote. I just came up with that. And it’s so funny, you know, when I was a kid, I did female impersonations with puppets. Crazy combinations of things, but I just found myself on street corners or in the beach club in New Jersey, just doing Streisand or doing Shirley Bassey and people just crowding around me. And there was no drag involved — it was a voice thing; it was singing. I was 12. And it’s not exactly something parents in the 1970s would actually be proud of. They’re not going to say, “Oh, good boy, you just did the best Liza impersonation we’ve ever heard.” There was a little shame involved. And so that made it more tricky and more compelling. Maybe the stage fright and rising to this level is in a little bit of defiance to all of that. I really mean it. Funny, right?

Isaac Mizrahi (William Jess Laird)

When is your book coming out?
Not until March of 2019, but it has been an incredible experience writing it. In many, many ways, having written so much about the past and having told my story over the past seven years through my show, it was not easy doing this book. It was rough and challenging, and I had epiphany after epiphany while writing. I also had terrible — if there’s such a thing as stage fright for writers — every other day I’d wake up and say, “This sucks. Who the hell is going to like this book? Why have I written this book?”

Who’s read it so far?
I gave it to my best friend, Richard, to read and to my cousin because she knows my family. People seem to really love it. Of course, they’re not going to tell me, “Oh, this sucks,” but they would tell me, I think, here and there, especially my editors. I’m not saying it’s good; I’m just saying it’s so brave to do this. It just tells my story, and if it does go to the edge of anger or sarcasm, it needed to. Like, I describe bullying. And the thing that I know more than anybody, is that I am not a victim. So I never put it in those terms, never. And I have felt, in the past months since I handed in the final draft, very light and free of my past. People should write a memoir. Even if they don’t publish it. I’d recommend it to everyone.

What did you learn about yourself from writing the book?
Writing the book and writing for the stage is very much a similar process, except a book doesn’t have to beg for a laugh at the end of every single beat. What did I learn about myself? I have to say, nothing. Nothing profoundly different than what I always thought. There is something great about getting it down and looking at it and saying this has been the truth all along. You’re just going to confirm things that you believe. I’m such a pessimist. I wake up every morning and think the world is coming to an end, which it is. But I’m 56; I’m at this age where I’m much better at accepting it. I don’t chastise myself anymore for being negative. I don’t question it anymore. I just go, like, “Okay, this is not helpful. These thoughts are not so helpful. Could you please think something else?” I move past the pessimism faster. I feel like as I get older I’m getting more functional, which is crazy. I’m less tentative. I just go forward.

Looks from Isaac Mizrahi’s fall 2004 fashion show. (Getty Images)

Do you miss doing fashion shows?
No. I had a dream the other night of clothes I was creating. They were so beautiful. It was a full collection. It would take me literally 15 minutes to just sketch the whole thing. And it was this miracle of an idea, and I actually consulted with a psychic. I said, “Should I do this? Should I go forth and look for somebody to make this and look for someone to market it?” Just the idea of that made me get hives. To do that again would take my eye off the ball of what I really want to do in the world now, which is more and more performing. Later, if I have time, I will make these clothes, but right now, it would take too much time. In a perfect world, if I could walk into a room and it would be done, and I could do that like Elizabeth Montgomery in Bewitched or something, then I would for sure do it, but that is just not the way this works. If you want to make beautiful clothes, expensive beautiful couture clothes, you have to literally grovel for weeks. It takes a lot of groveling. And then once you’ve made it, there’s this whole other layer of selling it and promoting it. That is not what I want to do anymore.

Do you still pay attention to what the new designers are up to?
No, I don’t really. Occasionally I see something that I like. Mostly I see stuff I don’t like. I think it’s because I’m not young. It’s best done by young people. I mean — sorry, Karl! I’m not wrong. And what’s great about him is that he has young people around him that go, “No. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes.” And I think one really needs that, and I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I ever did. I never partook in that kind of hard-core fashion thing where things had to be a certain length or had to be heroin chic. I always did stuff that I just liked that pleased me. And for a minute people really enjoyed what I did and then it sort of tapered off a little bit and then it came back. It goes up and down. I did it for a long time.

We were at one of your last NYFW shows in 2011 with pink poodles walking down the runway.
That was a funny show. It was poodles, cakes, and dresses. It was the show I had always wanted to do. The most inspiring things to me ever are poodles and cakes. That’s it.

A look from Isaac Mizrahi’s fall 2011 fashion show. (Getty Images)

How long have you been coming out to the Hamptons?
Since 1986. That’s a long time. I just like this area. There aren’t many towns in America like this. On the West Coast, towns have a more tropical feeling of palm trees, and Cape Cod has this ’50s perfection. I go to Pennsylvania a lot for QVC, and I look for these towns and they don’t exist out there. They existed up until about 20 years ago, and now they’re just not there. It’s sad. There’s a lot of boarded-up storefronts and you see a lot of AA meetings.

You reside in Bridgehampton. What are your favorite haunts?
I love Pierre’s for breakfast. The East Hampton Grill is divine. I love the Candy Kitchen. I get my newspaper here.
I know it’s hilarious that I actually still read a newspaper. I’ll pick up
The New York Times and the occasional New York Post.

Do you go to the beach?
I do. I mean I don’t take a chair and a sandwich. I go for a walk. I love Town Line Beach, which is that one on Beach Lane. Beach Lane beaches are so beautiful. I love Main Beach, right on Sagg Road, all the way down Sagg Road. My favorite beach is Gibson Lane because they allow dogs. When I had my dog Harry — he passed away about two years ago — he used to get insane as we would get closer to the beach. He would run as fast as you can imagine to the ocean. Just run into the ocean, he loved it so much, and it just restored your belief in the magic of ecstasy and nature. You can’t make that up in a dog, can you? Now, I have my dogs Dean and Kitty, and they’re like, “Yeah, whatever.” I don’t even feel compelled to bring them.

How do you get out here every week?
I’m driven, usually. I have a driver. Once I’m here I drive a little, which is not the best idea for me. I’m not the best driver.

Why’s that? Tell us more!
I think I get it from my mother. I’m not very patient. I remember when I was a kid, my mother would parallel park by, like, banging into cars. She’d bang into a spot and say, “Well, that’s what bumpers are for.” And that’s what I’ve always thought, okay, that’s what bumpers are for. To bang around a little bit. Cars are not supposed to be these pristine things.

Do you go out to social events?
I go to dinner a lot and breakfast a lot and lunch a lot at Yama-Q and Pierre’s and stuff, and I occasionally go to a dinner. I have a clutch of friends out here. The beauty of being here is that I don’t have obligations. That’s what I really love about it. It’s close enough to the city where I do have millions of obligations, not just social obligations, but obligations to go to the gym and go swimming. I’m supposed to be at the pool in the mornings. Whereas here I wake up and I don’t think about anything. I just think about having breakfast and then writing. I write a lot here, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful feeling.

What’s your favorite season in the Hamptons?
Late fall, like October and November. For one thing I’m not good without a shirt. I never was. I was never great without a shirt. Even when I was underweight, like seriously underweight, I never felt right taking off my shirt. And now that I am fat, I can’t make as many jokes about having this weird body because I don’t anymore — no, I’m just fat. But the point is that I like the idea that there’s no expectation of being young and beautiful in the fall. You’re not supposed to be young and beautiful. It’s not the season for young, beautiful people.

Do you have a dream for your comedy career?
Like any other comedian, I’d love to host SNL sometime. Or maybe have a talk show again at some point. I’d love to get into the late-night talk-show scene.

You seem like you have an endless number of dreams.
I do! Isn’t that funny? And again, I don’t see why I shouldn’t.

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1 comment

Dorothy E. Volz July 14, 2018 - 7:01 PM

I love you and you are not fat, you are just right. next time i get a banana split I’ll think of you. Are you just in new york or are you traveling..Could you post your schedule please? You are so smart and talented, it’s a pleasure to see you on QVC. Sat hi to Arnold, love U
Enid Volz

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