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Clinton Kelly dispenses advice on careers and, of course, clothing
Clinton Kelly ’91, cohost of the television show What Not to Wear, began the Q&A session of his master class on February 21 with a question for the audience packed into the McGuinn lecture hall: “How many people really thought about what you were wearing tonight because I was coming?” After three-fourths of the audience raised their hands, Kelly, like an archvillain at his apotheosis with his fists raised to the heavens, mock cackled, “The power I have!”
With an average of 4.5 million viewers a week, Kelly’s What Not to Wear, cohosted with Stacy London, is a popular program on the cable channel TLC. In every episode, a fashion errant, nominated by friends or family, is ambushed by Kelly and London, who offer their expertise and $5,000 to acquire a new wardrobe. Accompanying the windfall is national exposure of the subject’s dressing faux pas, with joshing commentary from the hosts. Kelly has worked on the program, with its 50-episodes-a-year shooting schedule, for two and a half years, and he was returning to BC as part of the ongoing series, “Master Class: Alumni in Residence,” sponsored by Boston College Magazine.
Prior to the event, Kelly—attired in a dark pin-striped blazer over an Oxford shirt of pastel blue and green vertical stripes, prefaded jeans, and tan leather shoes—had a casual dinner in the Boston Room of Corcoran Commons with a small group of students, chosen for their interest in magazine publishing, journalism, and television production. Kelly holds a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; he told the students how he grabbed his first brass ring, a full-time position at the Manhattan-based glossy Marie Claire: Tired of freelancing, he sent a letter to the magazine’s editor-in-chief stating that if she gave him five minutes of her time, he’d give her 100 story ideas. She took him up on his offer and, shocked, he had to come up with the ideas in 24 hours. The gambit worked—he was hired as a contributing editor—and it served to illustrate the creativity needed to break into a competitive industry where, Kelly said, as an editor he “received a hundred story pitches a day.” Fashion publishing in particular, he said, is a “nasty little business,” with low-paid, entry-level workers such as “closet girls” whose sole responsibility is to pack and unpack sample clothing for the editors.
But if he was the bearer of daunting news, Kelly was relentlessly optimistic in its presentation, imploring the students not to worry so much about their careers. “Follow happiness,” he said, “and the money will follow.”
While Kelly and the students finished with dinner, copies of his recent book, Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body, coauthored with London, sold out in 15 minutes in the lobby outside of McGuinn 121. There began a line of students unable to enter the full lecture hall, waiting for a sight of Kelly; it stretched from the lobby into the corridors of the school of social work. Seeing this gauntlet, Kelly delayed the start of the master class by a quarter hour to chat with the disappointed students. And then, for perhaps the first time in the history of a lecture hall that is usually assigned to survey courses, the visiting instructor strolled in, and the largely female audience screamed.
The first half of Kelly’s master class, an interview with Ben Birnbaum, editor of BCM, began with a series of confessions. First, as a teenager on Long Island—with the attendant accent, which he lost in an elocution class at BC—Kelly was a “preppy with a mullet.” Second, when he moved into the Medeiros Townhouses on upper campus his freshman year, his father had to install extra shelving to support his sweater collection. And third, one reason he enrolled at BC was an item in the Preppy Handbook, which, according to Kelly, read, “You can picture the students of Boston College gathering on the quad talking about how they keep their skin so Ivory-soap clean” and at which he thought, “That is the school for me.” During his time at the University, Kelly majored in communication, was the president of the chorale, and worked as a singing waiter aboard the harbor cruise ship the Spirit of Boston. In his senior year, a writing workshop with Robert Chibka of the English department inspired Kelly to pursue a career in journalism. He had hoped to write the great American novel “in my spare time” and noted wryly, “I wrote Dress Your Best—close enough.”
Kelly’s peripatetic career before What Not to Wear included two years, from 1994 to 1996, as a product host at the QVC shopping channel Q2, a job offered to him while he visited the channel under the auspices of an article for the now defunct magazine SportStyle on “the future of shopping.” Kelly quit QVC for freelance journalism when an agent called him about a potential career in television, saying, “I’m seeing game shows!” To which Kelly reacted, “There is no way I’m going to wake up 30 years from now and be Chuck Woolery” (host of Love Connection). In 2001, after a stint as deputy editor at Mademoiselle, he became the executive editor of DNR, a men’s fashion trade magazine begun by a friend, and in 2003 he was invited to audition for What Not to Wear. Explaining his selection, besides an immediate chemistry with London, Kelly cited a television-wide move away from “rent-a-hosts,” “the person who just reads off a teleprompter”; producers today “want people who have an opinion, who have an expertise . . . who can ad-lib.”
Of the 150 or so fashion greenhorns Kelly has advised on What Not to Wear, he estimates that he has kept in touch with 50. That morning, he’d received an e-mailed link to the Nordstrom’s website from one former beneficiary, who asked, “What do you think about this jacket?” (Kelly thought the plaid garment, which had intentionally unfinished seams, was great for a night out but too casual for work.) However, not all guests take to the show’s realities so eagerly. On Kelly’s fourth episode, a woman in her thirties watched the crew’s covert footage of her old outfits, excused herself to the bathroom, “and cried for four hours straight,” Kelly told his BC audience. “I felt like what I was doing for a living was cruel, and that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it.” He later found out the woman was crying because “she felt so unhappy with her life, and her clothes were just sort of a reflection of that.” This is the heart of the show for Kelly. “Let’s dress a little bit better so that you can get what you want out of life,” he explained, because the way you present yourself “tells the rest of the world how you feel you deserve to be treated.”
Questions from the audience followed and continued for 75 minutes after the class as Kelly posed for pictures and autographed books. His favorite designers? Armani and Michael Kors. Are the old clothes in WNTW really thrown out? No, they go to the Salvation Army. How many guests go back to their old dressing habits? About 50 percent. What was it like at first to work with London? “Difficult to get a word in edgewise.” One student’s question was preempted by Kelly, who complemented her sparkled green jacket, asking, “Where’s that jacket from?” Flustered, she answered, “Kohl’s.” Said Kelly to the audience, with a wink, “You don’t have to spend a ton of money on good clothes. . . . That’s style, right there.” Her ecstatic reply, after a few stunned moments: “Thank you. I have to tell my mom.”
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