André Leon Talley on 'America's Next Top Model': 'Like being on two sides of a rainbow'
I have to admit, I was nervous before my interview with “America’s Next Top Model’s” new judge, André Leon Talley. He’s not only an icon in the fashion world, but he's also the infamous Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour’s right-hand man.
Soon after we started chatting, though, he put me at ease. He’s like many of the divas I’ve crossed in my life: larger than life, prone to speaking in metaphor and worth every moment.That’s what viewers have to look forward to when Leon Talley makes his judging debut on this week’s episode.
Executive producer and host Tyra Banks first asked Leon Talley to be part of the “Top Model” franchise years ago.
“I said no. It wasn’t a fit then,” explains Leon Talley. “Then, seven or eight years later, we had lunch, and she said the idea and we had to go forward fast, and I said yes. I thought that, at this point in my life, it would be fabulous and interesting to do.”
Although the Vogue editor-at-large has just joined one of the longest-running reality shows on television, that style of entertainment isn’t for him. In fact, “Top Model” has never really been on his TV radar.
“I’m going to have to [watch it] now. I’m on it,” he says. “I have never seen a full season of it, no. But, I don’t watch reality TV shows. My television time is not spent watching those. I watch Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Chris Matthews. That’s what I watch every night. By the time I’ve watched them, I don’t have time to watch reality TV shows.”
He has had time to follow the skyrocketing career of one of his favorite supermodels, Tyra Banks. In fact, it was her talk show and especially her dedication to exposing her own weight and body issues publicly that have impressed him most.
“She’d grown into this amazing phenomenon,” Leon Talley says. “The way Barbara Walters grew into a phenomenon with ‘The View’ and ‘20/20.’ She grew into her self-brand the way Oprah grew into her self-brand. Tyra is that person.”
I wondered how someone who co-helms an empire like Vogue and attends dozens of fashion shows across the world every week has the time to be on a weekly show. Of course, if Leon Talley wants to do something, he’s going to do it.
“I think that’s the way the world should be,” he tells me. “It’s very easy to be flexible. It’s a blast. It’s a rainbow moment for me. It’s like being on two sides of a rainbow and both sides of fabulous.”
It doesn’t hurt to have Wintour’s blessing, either. “She gave me the approval and the nod,” he explains. “She said, ‘André I just want you to be happy. You want to do this, go ahead and do it.’ ”
Leon Talley has been known to embrace the careers of some of the greatest models to hit the catwalk, not only Banks, but also Christy Turlington, and Gisele Bundchen, among others. With that kind of firsthand knowledge, I asked him what he would most look for in this cycle’s contestants.
“The skills of confidence patience, tenacity and courtesy,” he says. “Courtesy showing a sense of respect, as well as demanding respect. Confidence, projection of an inner strength or an inner fortitude. It comes forth not only in the way she speaks, but the way she stands there. The way she looks, the way she smiles, through her deportment. Not from what she’s wearing, what’s on her lips or the Louboutins or the Blahniks. It’s all about realness. Keepin’ it real.”
Of course, historically, a successful model hasn’t really reflected the real woman. In 2006, Madrid Fashion Week made headlines when they were the first city to ban overly thin models from their runways. So, I asked Leon Talley whether thin still meant beautiful.
“I think it’s important that models be healthy,” he answers. “I think that we should not embrace anything that borders on unhealthy issues or anorexia in any model. Beauty is health. Health is beauty. And that’s what we have to focus on.”
Back in November of last year, the idea of Leon Talley joining the “Top Model” judging panel was only speculation. J. Alexander fans, though, feared that the show favorite was being pushed out for the new judge. And the reality is that Miss J. has moved back into his role as the show’s runway coach. Now, fans still wonder whether there’s some animosity between the two divas.
According to Leon Talley, the two men are close friends. It’s apparent, though, that they do have a good-natured rivalry.
Back in February, Miss J. told New York Magazine that the two do battle a bit when it comes to their fashion knowledge, but he admitted that Leon Talley had “a little more fashion-history verbiage just because he’s a little bit older.” When I mentioned the comment to Leon Talley, he was proud to agree.
“I am happy to be the senior factor here,” he answered. “That means I have survived. I think J. is fantastic. He’s still very much a vital part of the show. He is dedicated to what he does, and he’s the best coach for walking in the world. Of course, my knowledge would be very much deeper than his, because I’ve had deeper experiences than he has. He has great experiences, too, but I think my experiences are pretty unique. One and only.”
-- Jethro Nededog (follow me on Twitter @TheRealJethro)