Jordan Roth on Extraordinary Selfness and the Excavation of Identity Through Fashion

by Charles Manning

I first met Broadway super-producer Jordan Roth three months ago, on the red carpet of the 2019 Tony Awards. He was there with his Broadway-producer husband, Richie Jackson, and our brief interview on the red carpet did something to me that no interview has ever done before — brought me to tears.

I spoke with Jordan again a month later, just before the opening of Moulin Rouge on Broadway, which he helped produce. Although we started out talking about the show and the custom Zac Posen look he was planning to wear that night on the red carpet, we ended our conversation discussing identity and sexuality and, once again, I found myself crying. This time, my tears were brought on by Jordan’s own audible sniffles and quivering breathe following a very personal share I had made — one I did not anticipate making and which any interview subject other than Jordan would probably not have responded to so generously.

That’s the thing about Jordan, though, he’s incredibly generous. He gives of his light and his joy so freely that it’s almost hard to believe he’s genuine, especially if you’ve never met him in person. There is something about him that photos and videos can’t capture. He radiates such openness and love and acceptance that he completely obliterates the walls we so often build up to protect ourselves in this harsh, hateful world.

Knowing the effect Jordan has on me, I did my best to prepare myself mentally and emotionally before our next interview (this interview) in late August. There was no particular agenda — nothing Jordan was promoting — we were simply meeting to talk about fashion for a quick, one-page article in the final Fashion Week issue of The Daily Front Row. Our discussion would find its form and rhythm in the moment and the article would flow from there. Our tearful meetings had become something of an office joke here at The Daily, so I was tempted to avoid the subject of identity entirely, given that it had proven to so triggering in our previous interactions.

I prepared my questions and even made a list of off-limit topics that I worried might lead us down a weepy path. I arrived early for our interview and waited patiently in the lobby of the Jujamcyn Theaters offices. When Jordan arrived, he greeted me warmly, hugging me and making such earnest eye contact that I felt myself instantly unnerved. As if I wasn’t merely being looked at, but was actually being seen and I realized I could either lean into that feeling, that connection, or run from it. 

Inside Jordan’s office, it was just the two of us, sitting at one end of a very long table. “So,” Jordan said. “What are we going to cry about today?”

“Oh no,” I laughed, “not this time. I’m determined.”

“No,” he said, “It’s our thing. We have to.”

“Nope,” I said “I made a whole list of things I’m not going to talk to you about. Like your husband’s book [Gay Like Me: A Father Writes to His Son]. Even just thinking about that title makes me so emotional.” Damn it, I thought. I shouldn’t have said that.

I could feel the heat rising in my face and my eyes watering up and then I looked at Jordan and his eyes were watery too and just like that all my planning flew out the window and we were off to the races, both of us fighting back tears off and on for over an hour as we embarked on the most intense and intimate discussion of my professional life.

Jordan Roth (Hannah Turner-Harts)

I really am very excited for your husband’s book to come out.
I’m so excited that you’re excited.

That title gets me every time. It’s so sweet. It makes me think of my own dad. I came out to him a couple of times in different ways.
Tell me more about that.

Well, when I was in middle school, I started wearing my mom’s clothes and putting on makeup. I didn’t have makeup of my own, though, so my mom had to buy it for me, which she did. My parents are Unitarians, so they’re very liberal.
Where did you grow up?

Albuquerque. Growing up, I got bullied a lot. My father was very distant. I remember my mom gave me an outfit of hers and I put on my makeup and a wig and ran out into the living room and I did a cartwheel and a split in front of him.
You magic being!

My mom said something like, “Doesn’t your son look pretty?” And he was like “Uh… okay. Sure.” Then he just went back to what he had been doing. He was surprised, I think, but unmoved. I think I probably wanted more of a reaction out of him than I got, because I sort of lost interest in dressing up after that. That was sort of my first coming out. Then I came out to him again when I was 18. We were talking and he said something about me being asexual and I was like “No! Actually, I’m homosexual.” And he was like, “Oh. Okay… well what I was saying was…” Just like, he moved on. That was fine by me. I had really only told him out of anger about him not really seeing me, and the last thing I wanted to do at that moment was talk about it.
I’m fascinated by your parents’ experiences and reactions. [Your mother] buying makeup for you is really interesting. It’s one thing to be like, “I’m going to ignore the fact that I know that you’re in my makeup.” And then there’s, “I’m going to allow you to be in my makeup.” And then there’s “I’m going to get you your own makeup.” That’s really something.

My mom was always very open. Her best friend was a lesbian and she always made sure I knew that. And there were always gay people in our lives and at church, although I don’t remember seeing anyone who was queer in that particular way. But, yeah, both of my parents were always very accepting.
That’s really lovely. It is interesting, because I think for everyone, there are these lines and where they place them can be surprising, especially when a person is generally accepting, because you never know at what point they be like, “oh, that’s too much.”

I think people draw those lines at themselves, right? Anything beyond what they consider “appropriate” for themselves is also inappropriate for everyone else.
That’s an extraordinary insight. I’m going to chew on that.

There’s this incredible line in Queer as Folk, where uncle Vic says “A slut it’s just someone who has more sex than you.”
I don’t remember that line, but it’s brilliant.

Right? And you can extrapolate that to understand so much about human interaction.
You know what’s interesting to me about that? It’s also true for ourselves. Let’s see if we can unpack this. We figure out the line around us and anything past that line is too much and if we feel our own toe going past that line, that’s what stops us. Right? So even the movement past that line for ourselves can carry as much judgment of ourselves as anyone else. I know this from my own reality. Over these last several years, I have become aware of these lines that I thought were my own, but were not. They were taken on from others. Now, I remember where those lines came from and I realize that my line is actually way over there, or maybe doesn’t exist at all. I don’t know yet.

What lines specifically?
I think in physical expression. Dress.

When did you begin this kind of inventorying? Was there a particular incident that made you feel like it was really taime to take a had look at your internal values and where they actually came from?
Interestingly, I don’t think they are internal values. I think they’re internal judgments. For me, as I would take a step, I would realize that it is when you put your weight on that foot that you [realize that the thing you’re doing is not actually] outside of your comfort zone. But you can’t know that until you’ve really planted that foot on that ground. And then you take the next step and another step.

When I think about what I was exploring in fashion a year ago or two years ago, at the time, it really felt like I was moving myself forward in terms of my own self-expression, but now I look back and I think that 10-steps-ago me is very foreign. And I take great meaning in being able to chart that change because it is a kind of map of growth.

Were you ever scared to take those steps?
No, because I wasn’t taking these steps one after another, right? It was sort of a conversation with myself, in which I took joy from and found meaning in the exploration of self, so each step felt like exactly the right thing to do [at the time]. What else would I do except step there, and then there, and then there?

I guess it’s all just a matter of perspective, because for me, that all sounds quite scary. But, then, I know that the things that scare me are often the very things I should be doing, because that is where growth comes from and it is in those moments of growth that I find the most profound joy. In the overcoming of that fear.
Sometimes I think what we’re most afraid of is ourselves. What would really happen truly lived as ourselves; not just letting out what’s inside, but actually building on it, adorning it, celebrating it, shining a light on it, breathing air into it, making it bigger. That’s the thing I think we are afraid of, but ultimately, I think that’s how we create joy.

That joy is intoxicating, right? It’s akin to what actors feel when they give themselves over to a character and a scene. It’s a high.
That feeling is available in the performance of life as well, not the performance of stage. I have been thinking about performance professionally and personally for my entire life; I reject the notion that performance has anything to do with fraudulence. The pinnacle of performance is really engaging with the truth, which is how I understand fashion — a daily performance of the truth of yourself. We create all of this [motions to his outfit] to express who we really are. If that feels fantasy, well, what is more true to our core than the fantasies we have of ourselves. Isn’t that who we really are? Who we really want to be?

Do you remember the first time fashion gave you that feeling of extraordinary selfness?
I started producing when I was very young. I was 21 when I did my first show, and everybody who worked with me and for me was older than me. I got in my head that I had to present authority and maturity, so I adopted this uniform of black, gray, or blue suits with a white shirt — untucked, because I wasn’t a banker — and my hair was super cropped. That uniform served me very well for a very long time, until it didn’t. I started to feel constrained by it, and fraudulent.

I think that we in the LGBT community have a fundamental connection to fraudulence, because we spent the first however many years of our lives trying desperately not to be found out. Practicing all of the ways we can cover, stilt, and obscure that which would find us out, which we decided would be the worst thing that could ever happen to us. There’s this tension — as if all of these things are going to betray us: our voices, our bodies, our carriage, our tongues, our wrists, our fingers, our ankle bones, all of it — so we make this study out of being fraudulent, where we are constantly scanning ourselves and the world. And I think that scanning never leaves us, but then we come out and realize, “I can keep scanning for what is authentically me now and then share it.” 

So it just became really clear that those suits were not serving me any more, and I started to take steps away from them. I had actually forgotten that this wasn’t always me — this man in the suits. I forgot I was the teenager who, when I was in London, went to the flea market to buy the bright blue Cookie Monster fur jacket and the Bowie platform heels with the silver stars. I was running around Princeton in dresses and I forgot. This was always me and I just took a long detour that, again, served me well until it didn’t. I regret it somewhat, but I don’t regret it wholly.

I always say fashion is an outward expression of what is inside, but it’s also an inward expression. Through it, you can tell yourself how you want to feel. You can give yourself strength,  and that was what I was doing. And it worked, so I am grateful for that.

The uniform is an interesting concept. What’s wonderful about a uniform is you don’t have to think about it, but that can also be self-limiting. It’s too easy to get comfortable, and being in conversation with yourself means talking and thinking about your observations of your own discomfort. That’s where the growth is; that’s where the joy is; that’s where the meaning is; that’s where the truth is.

I wore a uniform for almost a year and a half — selvage denim jeans, white Adidas sneakers, and a blue button-down shirt. It started it as an experiment just to see if anyone noticed. I was only planning to do it for a month, but no one ever said anything and it was easier than picking out a new outfit every day, so I just kept it going. And after about nine months, I started pointing it out to people I worked with, thinking they must have noticed and just not said anything, but no. They had no idea. And I realized then that people really don’t notice what you are wearing. You think they do and they care, but they really don’t.
Well, I’m here to dispel that myth! [laughs] But I take your point.

To your point, though, I wonder if I wasn’t hiding behind that uniform of mine. I mean, I chose the most generic outfit I could. And I conducted similar experiment with girlfriend of mine for an article once, but I dressed her in a beautiful all-white outfit that was much dressier than what she normally wore to work, so no only did everyone notice, they thought her house had burned down or something and this outfit was all she had left.
That’s the interesting thing, right? When they notice and when they don’t. I know that people notice me because I share it on Instagram, and I am in dialogue with a lot of people about fashion and feelings and ideas. And that’s really one of the most meaningful parts of this whole thing for me — those discussions — because when I’m out, people come up to me and say, “Oh, I want to see what you’re wearing!” People I know, people I don’t know, people who follow me, people who’ve never seen me, and in those moments fashion that is an immediate bridge for us to talk and make space between us. And I think that’s one of the many gifts fashion gives us.

It’s not the same thing as someone saying “Where’d you get those boots?” It is not the same thing at all. That’s, “I want to dress like you.” This is, “I want to dress like me. I want to feel like me and dress like me the same way you feel like you and dress like you.”

Do you like Halloween?
I used to love Halloween when I was a kid, but I have come to be a lot less focused on it [as an adult] because I realize now that Halloween is the permission we are all looking for to come out of ourselves — to allow the fullest expression of our fantasies and the fantastical — and the more that we embrace that possibility every day, the less we need this one day a year. Because if you think about it,  the costume you choose for Halloween, it is some expression of who you are, who you want to be. And I believe that who you want to be is actually the truest expression of who you are. So if you’re the kind of person who just wants to wear something really sexy on Halloween, what you’re really looking for is permission to express more of your sexuality and sensuality in your everyday life. But there are so many boxes erected around us, by us, that doesn’t always feel possible. I understand that. God, do I understand. I have spent a lot of time, and continue to spend a lot of time, taking those boxes down; deconstructing them, for myself and my children.

What’s it like doing that work in front of your children? I mean, this whole exploration of self that you are doing has been very public and comes at a time when your eldest son is in the midst of his own coming-of-age as a teenager.  
I sometimes feel an internal pull back, like, “Oh, I don’t want to embarrass [him]. Is he going to be embarrassed by this?” But then I realize that’s not about them. That’s about me. And at the same time, I am aware of trying to help them not allow their own thickets to grow quite so dense around them. It’s hard, particularly with our baby three-year-old.

Three years old? He’s a big boy!
It’s funny you say that, because I’m so aware of how many people will say “big boy,” right? “Oh, that’s your big boy.” “You’re a big boy, you can do this. You’re a big boy, you can do that.” And, yes, there is some level on which that’s quite encouraging. But there’s another level where what that is saying to him is that when he wants to be carried, or when he is crying, or when he wants to sit in a different chair, those wants somehow make him small, which is to say less good — disappointing in some way — and I don’t want that to be true for him, so I am engaged daily in deconstructing all of that for myself and trying not to let it take root in my children, so they don’t have to do the same work that I’ve done.

What would a life built on that kind of a foundation even look like, I wonder?
I don’t know. And I understand that I can’t prevent all of it, but I also understand that as children, we listen to our parents as if [they are speaking] through a megaphone, so I’m aware of how loud my own voice is to them and I hope they have a fighting chance.

It’s funny, right? How the little things that your parents say, just…
Reverberate. Forever. Forever and ever.

And once a kid hears something, they can never unhear it. Forgetting is something adults do. I remember things my parents said that were like bullets to my brain when I was little, but they don’t remember them at all.
And as a parent, you have to make space for yourself as a human and say, “I’m not going to say the right thing every day. I know that. I accept that.” Although it is terribly painful when you feel like “Oh, I shouldn’t have said that.” But, really, it’s just this awareness, this consciousness. It’s being in conversation with yourself about who you are, what you feel, what you believe at this moment, so that in the next moment who you are, what you feel, and what you believe can become more clear and more true.

I like that. This idea of approaching every moment by asking yourself, “Is this me? Is this expanding my understanding and expression of my self or cutting it back?
Exactly. I think we invent these cliffs, and endow them with such meaning, but they are not real. It’s like, a man wearing a skirt or a dress has become this cliff, right? This white-hot line of meaning. But that isn’t actually true. It doesn’t actually mean anything. A skirt is simply the absence of an inseam. But getting over that, right, it doesn’t just feel like a step, but a giant leap, full of all this significance, but then you do it and you realize, “Oh, right, this was just a step. Same distance as the last step.” We imagine these chasms before us, so the steps we want to take don’t actually even seem possible, because we think there is no ground for use to place our feet upon. But there is and when we take that step we see that no only is the ground there, it is sturdy and quite beautiful.

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