If you want a successful career in fashion journalism these days, it is necessary to have your hands in a lot of different pots. Gone are the days of penning for one fashion rag, or having that much-envied editorial post at a widely read fashion bible. With the proliferation of magazine closings and a downturned economy, even the most prolific and highly esteemed fashion journalists are having difficulty making ends meet. So what is the aspiring fashion writer to do to weather this changing tide?
Look to fashion writers like Merle Ginsberg, who is successfully weathering the storm by expanding her base beyond fashion’s high-glossy dinosaurs. Though Merle plied her trade at W Magazine and other fashion behemoths throughout the 90’s, she always kept a keen eye on where the industry was heading. After several popular celebrity bios and turns as a fashion commentator on E! Entertainment, CNN and MSNBC, Merle has set her sights on the new frontier of fashion reality television. (For those who have seen her on Launch My Line and Rupaul’s Drag Race, the lady has jokes and a great screen personality.)
Celebrity aside, Merle Ginsberg never strays too far from her two passions, writing and fashion. And she is a shining example that following your bliss can reap benefits.
After meeting Merle during New York Fashion Week, she graciously spoke to the Fashion Spot about her two great loves, fashion and writing.
How did you become a fashion journalist?
Merle Ginsberg: Well, my journey is really circuitous. I discovered in high school that I had a talent for writing because I kept winning all these short story contests. The thing I really wanted to do was become an actress, so my major in college was literature and theatre. I was in every Shakespeare play, I just loved it, but as I neared the end of my undergraduate studies I didn’t think I was pretty enough to be an actress. So I decided to do graduate study in literature at NYU and become a writer, and if all else failed, I could teach literature on the college level.
But, you still hadn’t decided to become a fashion writer.
MG: No, I hadn’t. You know, fashion was not the big deal that is in now when I started out as a writer, so I didn’t see it as an option for me. Anyway, while I was at NYU I met this editor at the Village Voice, and started writing theatre reviews for them.
How did you segue that into writing about fashion?
MG: I got another job in NYC writing for the Soho Weekly News, which was kind of like the Village Voice. I was the assistant to the publisher, and immediately I started writing about nightlife in NYC. Because of my job there I had carte blanche to see plays, dance performances, music, etc. NYC became my cultural playground, so to speak. The Soho Weekly News folded and I started freelancing, writing about the downtown music scene, and evidently I ended up writing and producing for MTV, and later Rolling Stone Magazine. Weird, but I pulled it off.
A love relationship took me out to LA, and while working at E! Entertainment, I heard there was an arts editor opening at W Magazine. Since I always loved fashion and read W voraciously, I went all out and convinced W to hire me. They were not enthusiastic at first, but it worked out. That is how the fashion thing started.
You have such a varied writing career. You’ve written for W Magazine, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone Magazine and also several books about celebrities. How have you navigated the changing terrain in fashion, and made decisions about what to concentrate on next in your career?
MG: A lot of what happens in your career is not about choice, it’s about the road you happen to be on. I was at W Magazine for 11 years in lots of different contexts. I lived sometimes NYC, other times in LA. I worked for various publications in the Fairchild family, and had lots of different roles at these publications. But after 11 years, I wanted something different. I wanted to write books and do television.
You stated that you wanted to do television, and you been on Rupaul’s Drag Race and Launch My Line. How did working on television come about?
MG: It really started while I was at W. To promote some of the stories I wrote for the magazine, I appeared on Entertainment Tonight. At the time I also had a friend who worked at American Movie Classics, and they were producing a segment on fashion in old Hollywood movies. This was around 1998, and they hired me to do the segment.
My American Movie Classics stint segued into doing commentary for CNN, the BBC, and MSNBC on fashion for the Academy Awards, which I have now been doing for 12 years.
Now, how did Rupaul’s Drag Race come about?
MG: Rupaul’s Drag Race is the funnest thing I have ever done, and I love working with such fabulous people. I get asked to be on a lot of reality shows – sometimes I get cast, and the pilot goes nowhere. So, when the producers of Rupaul’s Drag Race asked me to be a judge on the show, at first I didn’t respond, because I thought the show would never get off the ground. But they were persistent. I originally thought the show would be too outrageous for me, but when I finally met with Rupaul, I wanted to be a part of the show. Rupaul is brilliant, and you just want to be a part of his inner circle.
Had you been a connoisseur of drag performance art before being cast on Rupaul’s Drag Race?
MG: Well, before I started writing about fashion, I covered the New York downtown scene, and became very familiar with drag performance art in its highest form. I used go to the Pyramid Club, and Suzanne Bartsch’s parties. I was on the glitter drag circuit in NYC.
Did you think the show would be the runaway hit?
MG: We shot the episodes in the summer of 2008, and they didn’t air until February 2009, so that was kind of a long wait period to see what kind of response was out there. But within three weeks of the show airing, people were stopping me in the supermarket and saying, “Lip synch for your life.” By the last episode, we knew we would be back for another season. The show has become a phenomenal hit.
How did you get cast as a contestant on Launch My Line?
MG: I really enjoyed being a judge on Rupaul’s Drag Race and I was looking for other television opportunities. I heard about Launch My Line, so I called Bravo and initially got no response from them. Then one day out of the blue, an agent I knew told me that Bravo was trying to reach me about being on the show.
Had you ever thought about launching your own line before being on the show?
MG: Launching my own line was a fantasy of mine. I had this idea that if I had my own line, it would be separates that could adjust to different skirt lengths with tops that also could be manipulated to work with the restyling, so that you didn’t have to keep buying new clothes every season.
Your collection on the show reflected your fantasy of clothes that could be adjusted, if not from one season to the next, throughout the day.
MG: You are right, that is what I did. The producers of the show asked me to submit a proposal of what I wanted my clothing line to be, and I submitted the adjustable clothing idea. We were limited somewhat by the challenges on the show, but my line did reflect that aesthetic.
You were the runner-up on Launch My Line, and now that the show is over, are you attempting to launch a line?
MG: Yes. My partner from Launch My Line and I are looking for investors. We are in negotiations with some interested parties.
What do you think of this marriage of fashion and television?
MG: I have been working in fashion since 1992, and the perspective of a lot of people that worked at fashion magazines was that fashion was not for the masses. When these fashion shows came on television, some people in the industry frankly didn’t take them seriously. But the reality now is that high-end designers are making secondary lines for Target, TJ Maxx and Century 21 to capture that television audience. I think it’s great, and as a whole, people are dressing better.
What do you think of the New York Fashion Week moving to Lincoln Center?
MG: I think it’s great. New York Fashion Week will be perceived in a more cultural light instead of a mass of touristy fashionistas tottering around in six-inch heels being bitchy.
What’s next for you?
MG: I like change. I like to try to things and have new experiences. I am working on some book proposals. Along with my business partner, Tai, I am looking to launch my clothing line. I also write a Hollywood fashion blog called Fashion Rules. Rupaul’s Drag Race and Launch My Line made me realize that I have this funny on-screen persona, so I am putting together a comedy routine. I am always looking around for interesting ways to do new things.