As Isaac Mizrahi sees it, second acts are better than firsts. At 57, the multihyphenate mogul, who made a name for himself with his eponymous high-end clothing brand in the 1990s, has changed lanes and become an entertainer. Last month, he returned to New York’s Café Carlyle—where he’s had residencies twice before—with Queen Size, an alt-cabaret act in which he sings Leonard Bernstein and Cole Porter classics and shares his riotous, self-deprecating takes on everything from prescription drugs to politics. This spring, he’s touring North America with I & Me, a one-man show based on stories from his just-debuted I.M.: A Memoir, a funny and touching look at his eventful life.
“I’m this 57-year-old man, and I’m just starting my life in show business,” Mizrahi says during a Skype call from his home in Bridgehampton, Long Island, adding with a punchy laugh, “It’s like, if it is a midlife crisis, then OK. At least I didn’t wreck my home and f*** up my kids!” Performing isn’t exactly new for Mizrahi, who had a cabaret act in the ’90s and starred in the cult fashion documentary Unzipped, which gave viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of his fall 1994 collection. He says being on stage was always his first love, but as a young man he viewed show business as “treacherous and crazy” and decided to explore other avenues. “Oh,” he quips, “let me think of an easier, kinder, gentler business—like fashion!”
In I.M., Mizrahi recounts it all, from his struggles as a young gay boy growing up in a Syrian Jewish Orthodox family to his rise to the zenith of New York fashion (the Jewish Museum celebrated his career with a retrospective in 2016) to his mainstream success (after his couture line shuttered in 1998, he took part in Target’s first designer collaboration and later started QVC’s Isaac Mizrahi Live!). He spent seven years writing the book—a prolific reader, he references Alice B. Toklas, Susan Sontag, and J.R. Moehringer during our conversation—but says that once he overcame the hurdle of starting, it ultimately came easily to him. “I approached it as though I were writing a novel about something that I knew everything about,” he says
Although his sights are now set on writing and performing, Mizrahi hasn’t given up on fashion completely. He still appears on Isaac Mizrahi Live! to sell the show’s namesake mass-market line in a wide range of sizes (Mizrahi was an early advocate for plus-size designer fashion), and he regularly meets with his design team to oversee products for his brand partnerships with Lord & Taylor, Revlon, and Bed Bath & Beyond. He admits, however, that he has stepped away from hands-on design. “I think [fashion is] really best left to younger people,” Mizrahi says. “Ballet dancers, athletes, and fashion designers are best before 38, I think.”
Mizrahi hopes the best is yet to come in his new career. Watching him enthusiastically sell brocade sneakers on QVC or judge a contestant’s dress on Project Runway All Stars, it’s clear that his joyous, opinionated personality is tailor-made for entertainment. Critics agree: A New York Times review of his 2017 Café Carlyle show described him as “raucously funny.”
What, then, does success mean to him? Mizrahi, dressed in a black tee and lounge pants from his own brand and Nike flip-flops with socks, his heart-shaped face framed by thick black glasses and an unruly mane, stares earnestly into the camera. “I wouldn’t know. That’s, like, a part of your brain that goes, ‘OK, darling, you’ve won.’ And I do not feel that—I promise you.” What surprised him most about writing his memoir was the alchemical merging of expectations and results. “When you’re a young person, it’s almost like you don’t know who you are,” he says. “You have these prescient ideas about the person you want to be perceived as, and so you act like this person. And then later you become that person…” He pauses. “By the end of writing this book, I feel like I am that person I was pretending to be all along.”