Designer and entertainer Isaac Mizrahi talks fashion, cabaret and ice cream ahead of Houston visit

Like many of us, Isaac Mizrahi found refuge in the kitchen during the fraught early days of the pandemic. He’d shoot videos about cooking various dishes or his affinity for a variety of salts — Camargue being his favorite. These days Mizrahi is known for far more than the fashion design work that made him a star in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He’s hosted television shows, headlined cabaret performances and become a regular on the speaking circuit, particularly after the publication of “I.M.: A Memoir,” which sweetly tells of his struggles growing up gay in an orthodox Jewish community in New York. He’s currently working on another book, this one he says will be fiction.

Of his many pursuits, he laughs at the unlikely nature of it all: “Darling, try being a fashion designer who think she can sing or act or write. It’s like trying to crack a Fabergé egg. Impossible.”

Yet possible. Mizrahi visits Houston this week, where he’ll be The Jung Center’s Spring Benefit guest speaker for “IM Enough: An Evening with Isaac Mizrahi!”

Q: We last talked during the Before Times. But for a global pandemic, how have things been? I’ve enjoyed watching your cooking videos.

A: Thank you! Funny thing, I’ve always been someone who likes to cook. And for some reason it’s a subject I returned to that we did on the talk show for those seven years. I did a lot of cooking segments. And I loved it. That was one of my favorite parts of the job. I know so many great chefs. They’re always inspiring.

Q: I saw you’re wrapping up a residency of cabaret shows. This event will be one of your speaking engagements, right?

A: Yes. And I have to say the one thing about a talk, a talk is not exactly like a show, where it’s about pacing and has to hang together a certain way. With the talks I’m more relaxed. I really will answer any question honestly. I’m never going to lie; I made that decision a long time ago. I had this great psychic since I was 18 years old. She passed on six or seven years ago. One of the first things she ever said to me was that I had to think about if ever I was in the public eye, what would I talk about. What would I want to represent. I told her I’d worry about that bridge when I came to it. But she insisted. “No, no, you should worry about it now.” I’m glad she brought it up, because I’ve realized it’s better to just be you than to be something you’re not. It’s important to me to go out there and express that to people.

Q: You became a much more public figure with “Unzipped,” which is on the cusp of turning 30 years old.

A: No, no, don’t say that. But really, can you believe it? One thing I’ll say about that, I’m not sure what kind of strange, morbid corner I’ve turned, but I’ve reached a point where I don’t hate pictures of myself anymore. I’m fatter and older and crazier than ever, and I just don’t care. We all get there eventually. A 60-year-old Jewish queen? Fine. It works. It works. That’s the good thing about aging.

Q: But it has been a process getting there . . .

‘IM Enough: An evening with Isaac Mizrahi’

When: 6:30 p.m. March 28

Where: River Oaks Country Club

Details: virtual viewing ticket $150; event tickets start at $500; 

A: When I was young . . . so the past two years, it’s intense thinking about turning 60 a year ago and 61, so now I’m into this decade. But darling, my whole life I’ve been so freaked out and nervous and crazy worrying about this and that and quality checks for this and that. And at some point I allowed myself to just enjoy a little bit of this. To have a little fun. That’s been the big thing in life, really, to let it all go. I have to say, an important factor in all this, this idea that the pandemic occurred and brought me to a point where I could think about what I was doing. I knew I couldn’t just sit around. The first six weeks were scary. OK, the first six months were scary. But after a year, I’d go, “Wait, why am I eating so much ice cream and feeling so happy? . . . Why do I love this song?” All of that is good. I thought about the long path here to being a functioning adult. So many of the things I was looking for before were so wrong.

MORE FROM ANDREW DANSBY: The Jung Center seeks to assist with post-pandemic stress and burnout

Q: I can relate to the ice cream thing.

A: I swear, the thing that got me through this pandemic was ice cream. It felt like end of days, darling, so just do it. I put on a few pounds. I have a whole thing with ice cream now. 

Q: You haven’t cut ties with fashion entirely. But it’s a much smaller part of the public persona you present.

A: What’s funny, I don’t always know how to put this. I love clothes. I love clothes the same way I did in my teens and 20s and 30s. Fashion? Not so much. I adore textiles, styles, lengths, people wearing wonderful things. Fashion? Not so much. I loved fashion in my 20s and 30s. But I’ve always been a performer. I went to a performing arts high school, which I didn’t think I’d do because I was a fat kid. They were realistic about messaging there: “About one percent of you will make it. Sorry to tell you that.” I thought they were talking directly to me, not the gorgeous other people who were my friends. . . . But designing things was so natural to me. And I got one of the best jobs in the world, as a design assistant at Perry Ellis. There was fun and excitement and glamour in that. And I don’t know if I’d gotten a job someplace else not as vital and refreshing, maybe I’d have done a different thing. But I was able to capitalize on something I was good at.

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