TORONTO — Oprah Winfrey is a tough boss who expects excellence from those around her, says Carson Kressley, the media mogul’s fashion guru and host of the OWN series Carson Nation.
“I’ve worked for some very tough bosses. I’ve worked for big famous people like Ralph Lauren and … I’ve obviously worked with Oprah Winfrey,” Kressley said during a recent promotional visit in Toronto, just days before Winfrey announced she would dedicate more of herself to reviving the fledgling channel.
“What it boils down to is they’re tough but they’re fair, you know. They’re willing to do everything that you’re doing, they’re never one to lay blame and they expect excellence.
“And I think that’s what makes for a great product, whether it’s a TV show or a clothing brand. When you expect excellence like that you expect it of yourself and of your team.”
All eyes are on Winfrey as she prepares to assume the role of chief executive officer in the fall, a move that suggests she will be much more involved in the day-to-day decisions of the Oprah Winfrey Network.
OWN has floundered in the ratings during its first seven months, but Kressley said that’s little indication of its future prospects. He expected a stronger guiding presence from Winfrey now that her talk show has ended.
“The 25th season of her show was a huge priority and she was really focused on that,” noted Kressley, whose alliance with the talk show queen began with a string of appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show back when he co-hosted Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
“And now that she’s getting an office at the network headquarters she’s going to be very, very involved…. You know, The Oprah Winfrey Show didn’t start out gangbusters, it takes time.”
Kressley’s makeover travel series Carson Nation fits right in with Winfrey’s well-worn mantra: be your best self. Along those lines, Kressley likes to call it a “make-better” show.
Each episode starts off with the flamboyant star tossing a dart at a map of the United States to decide which small town will get his no-nonsense style advice.
“I’m not going to lie, the first 10 times that I tried throwing the dart to the map I hit the ocean and the floor and one crew member. And then they said, ‘Get closer to the map,”’ he quipped.
“And it’s not just who has the most tragic hair or who’s still wearing gauchos, it’s about who really needs a little bit of help. It could be someone whose partner is going off to the war in Afghanistan, it could be someone who had a child who was sick with cancer and is now doing well, and we’re kind of celebrating that new chapter in the mom’s life.
“They’re makeover stories that have a heart and they’re much more transformational than just me coming in and saying, ‘OK change your hair, change your shoes, change your dress.”
Monday’s episode features one of Kressley’s favourite stories — a trip to Scottsdale, Ariz. to help a man who transitioned into living as a woman at the age of 60.
“Through the support of his friends and his family and his wife he decided to transition to living as a woman and have the surgeries and went through the whole process but didn’t have that wardrobe and didn’t know how to shop for clothes,” said Kressley, who visits each town with a brightly painted Airstream camper in tow.
“It was really very emotional and really hit home for me because I know what it’s like to not really be comfortable in your own skin and to feel weird about who you are.” Kressley said he grew up a “dorky gay kid” in Allentown, Pa. and relied on humour to survive schoolyard taunts.
He said his strong sense of self grew when he moved to New York City at age 21. He began his career in fashion as an independent stylist before landing a tenure with Polo Ralph Lauren. From there, he moved on to a life-changing gig as co-host of Bravo’s unorthodox reality series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
“That was a major thing in my life that made me say, ‘Oh, it is OK to be who I am,”’ said Kressley, noting the show celebrated the very thing he was made to feel ashamed of for years.
“It was really groundbreaking in many ways and I had so many young people come up to me and say, ‘You know, because of your show I was able to have a dialogue with my family about me being gay or a friend being gay.”
“Carson Nation” airs today on OWN Canada.