Gags abound in ballroom competitions—but for HBO’s competition show Legendary, who illicits the sartorial drama that causes the gags? That would be costume designer and stylist Johnny Wujek, known for crafting confectionary outfits for Katy Perry and Kate Mara. On top of a full schedule, Wujek’s been staying busy during the past year. Beyond working on the ultra-entertaining show—don’t miss season 2 premiering on May 6!—he’s been transforming himself mentally and physically too. We sat down with the industry pro for the lowdown on what goes on backstage—plus his own career journey, favorite looks, and his not-so-thirsty thirst traps.
How did you get your start in fashion and costume design?
Well, I got my start in fashion probably at the age of seven in my grandma’s closet! I mean, I’ve always been fascinated by fashion, but I guess my first dip into fashion was moving to California from Michigan, where I grew up. I moved when I was 20 to San Francisco, worked for a “dot com” during the “dot com” movement. And then I moved to L.A. because the company closed down, and I started modeling and acting. I’d book a job, and a stylist would call and be like, ‘Okay, bring these clothes to set tomorrow.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, cool. There’s a job for that?’ There were also times on commercials when I’d bring extra clothes and they’d be like, ‘Can we borrow your shirt for this other person in the commercial?’ And I was like, “Okay, I see what’s going on here.’ I got into the costume world with Katy [Perry]. I met her out at a party one night, and we started working together. At that time I was already styling, which is just pulling clothes and requesting things, but with her I was starting to make things. And I wasn’t a designer at all. I just had cool, creative ideas, and I was figuring it out on the fly.
Congratulations on Legendary’s second season! What’s it been like to design costumes for the show—particularly during COVID?
Well, Legendary is a beast! The reason I say that is because I’ve done tours, I’ve done the Super Bowl, I’ve done these big projects, but nothing is like Legendary. And I think it’s because of the tight schedule and the quick turnaround. We literally had four days between each ball to make 40 custom costumes for all the house members on a theme. It’s very challenging, in a way, so you have to get creative. Like, ‘Okay, what can we realistically do with still being glam, and still being over-the-top, and still being ballroom and amazing, but realistically what can we get done in time?’ We pulled it off, but it was hell! We found the groove, and it was amazing. It’s been so awesome, because it’s such a wonderful show. It’s so fantasy, it’s ballroom, it’s bizarre, it’s weird, it’s cool. Every day I kept saying, ‘Every four days, we’re having this huge Grammys show, and there’s all these different acts, and we have to really turn it out for each one.’ Adding COVID on top of it was a whole component of, ‘You can only have three sewers in this room,’ and then, ‘You can’t do a fitting,’ and you have to wear a shield, and you’re wearing a mask, and someone’s going to come in and hose down the room with God knows what. I’m so grateful to have been working, but it was definitely new challenges.
What’s your process like when creating custom themed looks for each house?
It’s always helpful when you have a theme and every ball has a theme. I obviously got them ahead of time—but the gag was that the cast members didn’t know until the night of the ball that they’d just had. So, there’s no pre-production on their end. We can’t think ahead. I can, and I can have ideas ready, but the whole premise is that they come up with the routine, they contribute creatively for what they want to do onstage. The last-minuteness is what you have to first keep in mind. The process was that we’d have our ball, and then the next day they’d come into my studio on-camera, and we would film it and talk about what we wanted to do. And it was fun because they’re all very creative this season. So a lot of it was gagging over everyone’s ideas, but then realistically pulling back and being like, ‘How the hell are we going to do that?’ It was cool, because working with all these different departments, we came together and got to make some really gag-worthy looks. A lot more than last season. Last season there was the hat thing. This time, every episode, you’re going to gag, it’s so good!
How did you originally become involved with Legendary, and what drew you to the show?
They reached out to me. I was filming some show with Patrick Starr called Face Forward, and I was on a break and there was a message from one of the producers. He’s now one of my best friends, but I didn’t know him at the time. He said he was pitching a show about the ballroom scene, and he thought I’d be great because the costumes are outrageous. Before I knew it, we shot the pilot and then all of a sudden it got picked up by HBO, and then here we are. It was very organic, in a way. It all started from a DM on Instagram—literally!
Why do you think Legendary resonated with viewers?
I think the thing about it was that it was new. I mean, ballroom’s been around forever, but it was new to the world of HBO. Pose gave you a little touch, but Legendary was so gritty and real and the stories were so compelling. It’s all about family. Every house, there’s a mother and a father, and then all these family members come together, and it’s just chosen families and love. And then on top of it, they’re doing these crazy dance moves in platform high heels, looking crazy and outrageous and glamorous. It was highlighting something that’s been around for so long, but not in the mainstream world. People needed stimulation, and it came out right during COVID. It was really cool to see how well it was received because it’s such an incredible world. I now an honorary member of like, 20 different houses?! I mean, literally, they’re all like, ‘You’re House of Mugler, you’re House of Gucci now.’ They’re all so talented and genuine. Ballroom’s all about throwing shade and being shady, but they all are supportive of each other and they love each other. Legendary is one big family of all these different houses that come together, so it was really cool to just see the exposure they were getting, and the LGBTQ+ community and the trans community—everybody.
Can you give us any hints on what we can expect from this second season, costume-wise?
I would say I didn’t hold back at all. I even spent money out of my own pocket, just to add to the cushion of, ‘We’re going to need more sparkles on this one,’ or ‘I need that fabric for this, so I will pay for that.’ I just am so invested in Legendary, and I just wanted everybody to look as glamorous and amazing as possible. So, just more glam, more wow, more shablam, more reveals!
Let’s talk fashion. What have you thought of the virtual and socially-distanced shows this past year?
Obviously this is an interesting time in the world, with everything that’s going on. And so, people pivot and adjust. I think it’s been pretty cool because it’s getting people to really think creatively and think outside the box. There’s nothing like going to a runway show, being there, front row, energy, music, models. Nothing will ever compare. But it’s cool to see what people are doing. Valentino did their show in some palace in Paris that was just gorgeous. It seems like soon enough, there’ll be some physically attended moments that are going to be happening. But I’m enjoying watching what’s going on. Fashion will never die. COVID can’t kill fashion.
What are some of your favorite fashion moments of all time?
I’m really into when Adam and Eve wore the leaves—no, I’m kidding! Of all time. I mean, honestly, it’s really hard to say. I’m influenced by movies, music, fashion, life. My grandma would probably be my fashion icon. She’s so glam, she was in Ferragamo and Chanel when I was little and had no idea what that was. But in the celebrity world, moments like Madonna and Michael Jackson going to the Oscars. I remember seeing that as a kid, being like, ‘That is glam. That’s glamour and fashion.’ Or Princess Di asleep in that chair, with that big gown. Like, ooh! That’s gorgeous and glamorous. I remember as a kid, just being influenced by these moments. It’s really honestly impossible to pick one, because it goes on and on—rock music, old movies, everything. Or, Rose McGowan when she wore that see-through moment. I was like, ‘What the—?’ That is scandalous, but so amazing. I was just like, ‘Oh my God, that made me feel something.’
What are some of your favorite looks throughout your career that you’ve styled or designed?
Obviously there’s a lot of looks for Katy, to start with—so many moments with her have been iconic in pop culture world. Like the cupcake bra, or her Met dress that lit up was a moment. The Phillip Treacy cheese block head, that moment. I also love dressing Kate Mara. I would say, if I have to pick one, and this may be weird, it was this Versace look that Katy wore to the VMAs. It was super Asian-inspired, she had the little parasol umbrella, she had the blue, hair, everything. The dress was so great. The cupcake bra is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever made, because of how iconic it became. At Halloween that year, everybody’s wearing cupcake bras. You go to these museums and you see these things, and now things that I’ve made have been in museums, or still are in House of Blues in Vegas or the Grammy Museum. It’s really cool.
Let’s talk about you! What else have you been up to this past year?
I did this show called The Quest. It’s on Disney Plus next February. It’s a sci-fi, medieval, fantasy world: it’s so cool. That was such a fun job. Then, in turn, also just grabbing the reigns on my health. Body, mind, soul, spirit. I quit smoking. I just really focused on self-care. I’ve been so busy since I’ve started this career journey, and you get so busy when you’re traveling and before you know it you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m 30 pounds overweight and I smoke cigarettes and I’m eating like shit and I’m not taking care of myself.’ I had to crack the whip. I’m 41 now, and it’s time to really get snatched again. Luckily, that helped me so much to get through the two shows, because they were so big and they’re so involved emotionally, physically. I’ve been focusing on the Johnny Wujek brand. There’s been so many opportunities along the way where I dabble, dabble, dabble. But this is the first time I hired a publicist, who’s amazing, and just doing things to utilize what I’ve accomplished so far. I’ve been in this industry now probably 15, 16 years, and I have a dope ass resume. I need to embrace it and be like, it’s time to do things for me and my brand, doing things that I’ve had in the back burner that are now like, it’s time.
You have really bold personal style—we all remember that mesh hoodie from Girls! How do you choose what to wear each day?
Well, I was doing a photo shoot in New York, that’s why I was wearing that mesh shirt that Jeremy Scott sent. And Lena [Dunham]’s a friend of mine, and it was really funny. She just messaged me, ‘Are you in New York tomorrow, and can you bring that mesh top to set?’ It was very random, but cool. I’m never an all-black kind of guy. I always like to make a statement and be colorful. I feel like my fashion has evolved since I’ve gotten more in shape, too. I feel more comfortable wearing things. Sometimes it’s whatever’s right there, and I just throw it on, and sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, I want to wear those shoes,’ and then it all goes from there. Like, the other day I went to my friend’s thing, it was this pool party and it was so cloudy and gloomy out, but I I wore this really amazing fleece jacket that had clouds all over it, because it was cloudy, and then it turned into a thing. Everyone was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s cloudy out and you’re wearing clouds.’ Shit like that, I love. I just love humor and color and fun.
You’ve posted a lot on social media about your fitness journey in the last year. How’s it going?
The fitness journey started in November. Basically it was the end of Halloween, and I think I was the biggest I’ve been. I thought, ‘This is uncomfortable. I don’t feel good. I just need to pull it together.’ I hired a trainer, I made it a focus and a priority. Along the way, I’ve just been growing as a person spiritually and mentally. You have to be strong-minded and in shape to keep up with the world today.
You’ve also posted a lot of thirst traps on Instagram recently! What led to that change in your personal content?
The thing about posting on my social media is like, yeah, I’m fucking proud. I’m proud because I’ve put in the work, and it’s been hard. Especially while I’m doing these two shows, I needed an hour and a half to myself every day to drive to the gym, and do my thing. People are reacting, saying I’ve inspired them. I’m not a motivational speaker or fitness guru…but a lot of the reasons why I post my workout videos—or my half-naked photos!—is because it’s pride and it’s showing people they can do it too. It feels good to feel good, and to fit in clothes again. And also, it’s more of a quench, not a trap. It’s a thirst quench! It’s giving the people a taste, a little splash. I don’t take myself seriously, if you’ve gathered.
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What’s next for you—what’s in Johnny Wujek’s future?
A child. Yeah, fatherhood, probably. Since I’ve pulled in the reigns of my life and my health, so many amazing opportunities are coming to me. Work-related, life-related, all different kinds of things. There’s a fun show in the works that I can’t really talk about yet, which is going to be major. I want to do it all now. I just want to get all this creativity out, so you’ll be seeing a lot more shirtless photos, some body shots—I’m just kidding! But fun stuff regardless. Just more glam, more excitement, more disruptive Johnny essence and being.