Clinton Kelly Tells NPR Listeners 'What Not To Wear'

After 250 episodes, the reality TV show "What Not To Wear" returns for its eighth season today on cable channel TLC. To preview some of the fashion transformations of the season and explore how fashion fits in with self-esteem, host Michel Martin speaks with the show's co-host Clinton Kelly.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

And finally, you can admit it; we know you like to watch. Of course, we're talking about the reality show "What Not to Wear." After 250 episodes, the program returns to TLC tonight for its eighth season. You've heard about it. People nominate friends, co-workers or relatives who could use a fashion fix under the firm hand of co-hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "WHAT NOT TO WEAR")

U: Some people think that my husband is an entertainer because of the style he wears.

MARTIN: Either that - or he's just a circus sideshow.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

U: And I don't know, it's just - sometimes it's just really embarrassing.

MARTIN: Aw.

MARTIN: Aw.

U: Look at this, there's faces on here.

MARTIN: Ooh, ouch.

U: Matches these purple pants perfect.

MARTIN: Purple pleated pants.

MARTIN: Purple pleated pants.

MARTIN: Purple pleated pants. Who knew? In the series, selected guests receive $5,000 and a trip to New York for a makeover that includes hair, makeup and wardrobe advice. With us now to tell us more about the eighth season is co-host Clinton Kelly, and he's with us from our studio in New York. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

MARTIN: Thank you for having me today.

MARTIN: And I understand that your cohort, Stacy London, is a little under the weather today, so I'm sure you can represent ably.

MARTIN: I will do my best, Michel.

MARTIN: So, what's new with this season? I understand that the first episode in the new season is not actually kind of a plucked-from-the-crowd person, but it's actually a celebrity.

MARTIN: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell us about that.

MARTIN: If you remember the television show "The Facts of Life," which was very popular in the '80s, the character of Natalie was played by Mindy Cohn. And Mindy Cohn is our first makeover of the season. And she was quite a trip. She covered herself in, you know, what I would call tents. And we tried to convince her that she should have more structure in her life, stylistically speaking. And, you know, she fought us quite a bit. But we finally got through to her. It was a long week.

MARTIN: What's the logic there of a, sort of celebrity? On the one hand, I think a lot of people figure well, those people already have access to a lot of advice; it's the - kind of the rest of us who need the help. What was the thinking there?

MARTIN: You know, you have to remember that celebrities are real people, too. I mean, you know, this is a woman who had a very, dare I say it, average body in that, you know, she wasn't a supermodel necessarily. And I think a lot of women can relate to her body shape and her story of not feeling so comfortable in her own skin.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, that seems to be one of the through lines of the program - is that these issues are more emotional than I think many people might think. It's not just a matter of the clothes. It's why people are choosing what they're choosing.

MARTIN: Right. What you put on your body is generally a direct reflection of how you are feeling about either your body or about yourself at any given time. And that's, really, why I think "What Not to Wear" has been so successful over the past eight years. It's not just a silly makeover show where we say, here, put on this pretty dress and go back to your high school reunion.

This is about coming to terms with the body that you have right now, and dressing it the best that you possibly can, so that you are treated with the utmost respect. And I think that's really what it boils down to. How you dress tells the rest of the world how you expect to be treated. And I hope that you expect to be treated with some level of respect.

When you cover yourself in a hoodie and an oversized sweatshirt and sweatpants and a cross-training sneaker, that's not telling the rest of the world that you feel good about yourself. That's saying that you want to hide from the rest of the world and you're saying, please ignore me.

MARTIN: You don't have any hoodies in your wardrobe? Come on.

MARTIN: I have one cashmere hoodie.

MARTIN: Oh, cashmere.

MARTIN: But I only wear it in my house in Connecticut. So nobody actually sees me in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK, excuse me. But you know, some people might say: In these difficult economic times, what you put on your body is a function of what you have in your wallet. And so the question I would have is, even if you know your wardrobe is a disaster - right - how do you then say to yourself well, I do have to go out and look for a job. I do have to be presentable. But how do you justify spending money on clothes?

MARTIN: I don't think that style has a price tag. Your wardrobe is an investment in your future. I mean, look, if you are dirt poor and you can barely think about getting food on the table for your family, I'm not telling you to go out and buy a Prada suit. All I'm saying is if you have to buy clothes, buy something that fits you, and buy something that you've put a little bit of thought into.

Because there are too many mindless shoppers right now in America. There are a lot of women who shop emotionally - where they say, oh, I need this blouse because it's going to make me feel better, or I need these shoes because I'm having a bad day. That does not translate into a wise shopping decision. And if you are having a tough time economically, spend most of your money on classics. And really pay attention to fit. That's the best advice I can give somebody.

MARTIN: So, tell me some of the people who we'll meet this season.

MARTIN: We have a woman named Wanda coming up. And Wanda was raised as a Mennonite, and now lives in San Diego. And she was a great character because she had never - nobody had ever taught her about clothes. And she also had a lot of opinions about clothes and what they might say about her. She was raised to believe that clothes really didn't matter. And so it was fun working with her.

We had a woman named Jordan, who was also from San Diego. And she was dressed as a skate punk even though she was a grown woman and a graphic designer - and she was in her 40s.

We had a woman named Erin, who is from Nashville, who had asymmetric breasts and had had surgery to correct that, and so it left her with some scarring. But it also left her with some emotional scars, where she really felt as though everybody was staring at her breasts.

MARTIN: And so what did she do? Did she cover herself up wearing really baggy and undistinguished clothing because she wanted to kind of hide? Is that it?

MARTIN: Exactly. And she grew her hair very long so that it - that she would wear it in front of her chest to camouflage.

MARTIN: But I bet it actually didn't work. I bet it had the opposite effect.

MARTIN: It did. It added more attention to that general area. But also, the way she was dressing was a reflection of how unhappy she was in her job. And after the show - this is what I love about "What Not to Wear;" I love it so much - after the show, she went home from "What Not to Wear," quit her job, and she always wanted to move to L.A., so she moved to L.A. to become a writer.

And the woman I was talking about before, Jordan, the skate punk, I mean, she left "What Not to Wear" and met the love of her life. You know, it's really exciting. This is not just your typical makeover show. This is an emotional makeover show many times. It's really, very satisfying.

MARTIN: Once again, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Clinton Kelly, co-host of "What Not to Wear" on TLC.

You have a master's in journalism.

MARTIN: I do.

MARTIN: As I understand it.

MARTIN: Yes.

MARTIN: And so how did you get from...

MARTIN: From there to here.

MARTIN: From there to here?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I, you know, I started out...

MARTIN: How did that happen?

MARTIN: Well, I went to Northwestern, I got my master's in journalism because I wanted to be a writer. And I really wanted to write fiction, quite frankly, but I thought that if I, you know, was a journalist - say, a magazine editor - I would be able to write for a living and get paid for it, and so I wouldn't be eating cat food out of a tin in the East Village. I was very afraid of that.

MARTIN: You're right. Publishing fiction as journalism is frowned upon. It does happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So I just wanted to write. I just wanted to be paid to write. So I was a writer and an editor in New York City for about 12 years. And then a casting agent emailed me one day saying that she was looking for a man to co- host "What Not to Wear," and I ended up getting the job. And that was eight years ago. And I really haven't looked back. And I'm kind of glad I left the magazine world because there are very few magazines left at this point.

MARTIN: Well, can I just ask you, though - forgive me. And you know, obviously, we invited you on the program because we are fans. But what qualifies you to be telling people what to wear?

MARTIN: Absolutely nothing qualified me in the beginning. I mean, I had written about style. You know, I had reviewed fashion shows. I had done a little bit of styling in the past, and I was an expert on menswear before I started "What Not to Wear." And we used to have men on the show...

MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait - you're an expert on menswear because you're a man, and you wear clothes? What makes you an expert on menswear?

MARTIN: No, because I was executive editor of the premier men's trade magazine, fashion trade magazine called DNR.

MARTIN: OK, all right. Well, I guess that counts. OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So you were a fashion journalist.

MARTIN: I was a fashion journalist, yes. And so that's what I did. And then I got "What Not to Wear." And I will tell you that in the beginning, I was completely unqualified to be dressing actual human beings because I had only dressed models up until that point. And so there was a very, very steep learning curve. But I will tell you, after eight years of working on "What Not to Wear," there is not a body type I can't dress at this point.

I've done 270 episodes, I think, of "What Not to Wear," and I've done hundreds of other makeovers for Macy's across the country. And I will tell you, I mean, I'm approaching 1,000 makeovers at this point. And I don't even think that anybody else in this country has done 1,000 makeovers.

MARTIN: And speaking of your journalism background, you have a new book out, "Oh No She Didn't: The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them." And we don't have time for all 100, so why don't you give us one or two?

MARTIN: OK. I would say, you know, having been to 42 of the 50 United States and been to every major American airport in this country, I will tell you that the biggest fashion mistake that you can make is to wear a cross- training sneaker as casual footwear. A cross-training sneaker is a sneaker meant to be worn while training for something - not for running to the doctor's office, the supermarket, dropping the kids off at school, yada, yada, yada. Get yourself a cute, casual shoe.

MARTIN: I'm sorry, I'm looking at somebody in the control room who seems quite upset, and I'm looking at her feet to see if she's got cross-training sneakers on. But I'll provide a diversion so you can get out of the studio.

MARTIN: All right, great, thank you. When did this become OK? That's what I want to know.

MARTIN: All right, well, that's one. So, what's two?

MARTIN: Two is wearing the wrong size bra, I would say. Women need a professional bra fitting, not someone at the mall who is 16 who works at, you know, Victoria's Secret after school and says, oh, I think you're probably a D cup. Let's try that on. You need to go for a professional bra fitting, to someone whose job it is to fit breasts in brassieres.

MARTIN: How do you know who is that person?

MARTIN: You need to ask that person, how long have you been doing this - you know? Is it your first day on the job? Do you really know what you're doing? Because a proper bra fitting is going to change your life - and I'm not even kidding you - because once you get the bust in the correct place - and I'm using correct, I'm using air quotes around the word correct - but ideally, the bust should be halfway between the shoulder and the elbow in a bra, because that's where clothes are designed to have the busts rest. OK?

MARTIN: OK, I got it. Yes, sir.

MARTIN: All right, once you get the bust there, then you'll have an easier time finding clothes to fit you.

MARTIN: Duly noted. Thank you.

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Now, I know your book is about women, but I think it's only fair to ask what are the style mistakes that men make?

MARTIN: Well, I think men make that same style mistake of the...

MARTIN: The bras?

MARTIN: ...cross-training sneaker. It drives me crazy. Crocs are bad. But I also think that the American man is scared to death of having style. Of course, not all men but just in general, men are scared to death because they think that, you know, if they wear a stripe or they wear something that's got a little bit of pink in it or, you know, something that isn't blue, white, navy or gray then, you know, people are going to be judging them for being - oh, I don't know, a dandy or a sissy.

And I think that's really unfortunate because if you go to other countries, men aren't worried about that at all. Any man who is comfortable in his masculinity isn't going to worry about what other people think if he's wearing a shirt that's got a pink stripe in it.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I'll let everyone know, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Finally, do you think - are you surprised that the program's lasted this long?

MARTIN: Oh, yeah. I thought that when I got the job, we would do 10 episodes and get canceled, and I'd go back to publishing - because I didn't really like the show.

MARTIN: What?

MARTIN: I didn't like the show when I first did it. It just wasn't my kind of show. I thought, I wouldn't watch this show. So of course it will get canceled.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But no, why wouldn't you have watched it back then? Because you thought it was mean, or you thought it was - what - trivial, or just wasn't fashionable enough, or what?

MARTIN: Well, I thought it was - I probably thought it was a little superficial and a little mean-spirited. But you know, now that I'm a host of the show, I sort of get - I mean, I came into the show with a certain level of empathy for our contributors, because I never really felt great about my body growing up. So once I could relate to them on that level - like, all right, you don't love your body? Well, guess what? I didn't love my body for a long time, either. That doesn't mean that you have to look like crap.

And so that's where I was able to relate to them. So I, you know, I went into it like, with a sense of humor, having a good time with it, but not necessarily, you know, taking it so seriously.

MARTIN: And finally, you - obviously - have access to all the finest, I'm sure, fashion stylists in, you know, fashion people in the country. I mean, you're in New York. But is there anything that you would make over about yourself?

MARTIN: Wow. That's a really good question. I think that I really found my style. I love all of my clothes. I don't buy things anymore unless I really love them. And, you know, I'm 41 at this point, and so I'm not really doing trendier things. Like, you know, I see these guys in New York City wearing the skinny jeans and I think, I'm too old to be doing that. And I also don't have the body type to be doing that anymore.

And so there's a part of me that wishes I was doing trendier clothes. But you know, I also feel really comfortable about my style and who I am, and who I've turned out to be. So I don't think I'd change anything about myself.

MARTIN: What are you wearing now?

MARTIN: I am wearing a pair of Rock and Republic jeans; a great loafer, a tasseled loafer; a custom-made shirt; a little sweater vest over it; and a great little checked, cotton jacket from Paul Smith with a little bit of a purple thread running through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Clinton Kelly is the co-host of the reality show "What Not to Wear." He holds it down with Stacy London. The eighth season premieres tonight on TLC. Thank you for joining us. And you know what? You look great.

MARTIN: Thanks, Michel, so do you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more on Monday.

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