Kelly Cutrone's Outsider Army
“Excuse me? What the fuck is going on here? If you guys have a problem, take it outside. This is not fucking group therapy. I don't fucking want to see this shit anymore.”
That's fashion publicist Kelly Cutrone, 44, looking rather tired and pale, chewing out Whitney and Roxy—reality stars who are also her ostensible employees—for quibbling backstage at a fashion show, on an episode of MTV's The City.
People's Revolution starts Fashion Week prep with 24 interns, ends with half a dozen or so (many quit on their own accord), and puts maybe one or two onto payroll at the end.
Cutrone has long been a force of nature in the cutthroat world of PR—if you've worked Fashion Week in any form, you may have already witnessed a variation of the above—but the rest of America was introduced to the black-haired, black-clad CEO of People's Revolution via MTV, from her appearances on The Hills and its spinoff, The City.
Cutrone was such a hit on MTV that Bravo snapped her up for her own reality show, Kell on Earth, premiering Monday at 10 p.m.: Viewers will get to watch her team prepare for Fashion Week—and yes, there will be public firings and breakdowns along the way. Her memoir-ish book of offbeat advice for budding “power girls,” titled If You Have to Cry, Go Outside, comes out the next day.
Clearly, she is growing her personal brand—which it isn't as brutal as it seems. For hard-working outsiders striving to make it in the connections-and nepotism-driven world of the glamour industries—like Cutrone was herself 20 years ago—she secretly might be the best employer in town, if you don't mind the occasional “What the fuck is going on here?”
Accordingly, the bustling People's Revolution office houses a merry band of misfits and newcomers to New York, scores of black-haired minions (they tend to dye it that color) laboring long hours in the name of getting other people press. She calls them the Village Girls.
“To me the Village Girl is the girl who comes from nowhere, like Anytown U.S.A., and who is willing to do whatever it takes, within reason, to get ahead,” Cutrone explained last Monday from her Soho office, where she also lives on a different floor. “Her ego might be a little bruised because she has to go pick up somebody's dry-cleaning.... but maybe when she has her own designer clothing she'll use that dry-cleaner.”
According to Cutrone, they're the kids who come to New York with a willingness to work hard but lack the connections and pedigree that is the shortcut to a certain type of success. (A Village girl could also be a gay man.) They have a working-class attitude—it's likely their parents were divorced, or they had two jobs to get through college. They probably went to a state school.
“I feel called to give them opportunity because I know how this business can be,” Cutrone said, before interrupting herself: “Speaking of outsider types, here comes my filthy-rich assistant Andrew, who wears skirts. He's a different type of outsider.... Anyway, these kids don't even understand what they're doing. They don't understand that how they look and where they come from will be seen as a joke and people just aren't going to hire them.”
Like, say, Syracuse, where Cutrone escaped from 22 years ago. Her book—in between dispensing advice such as “awaken the voice of your soul and use it to chase your destiny” to “how to find a birth coach should you find yourself alone and pregnant”—weaves through her life story.
In short: Syracuse, punk rock, living on Avenue C, discovering nightlife, living on Anthony Haden-Guest's couch. Working for Susan Blond and Bob Guccione before starting her own company at 23. Marrying much-older artist Ronnie Cutrone at 24. Divorce, meth addiction, spiritual re-birth in Los Angeles, and starting everything from the bottom again— Bright Lights, Big City-style. The good stuff happened after she turned thirty: money, power, (single) motherhood, MTV, reality fame.
“In the seven years I did gossip, she was the only [publicist] I really liked,” said writer Ian Spiegelman, who formerly worked for Page Six and New York Magazine. “She was definitely the only one who didn’t have the stink of a trust fund on her.”
What's the appeal of working in fashion PR anyway? Despite thin veneer of glamour, it's a grueling anono-job, with law-firm-like hours and plenty of gruntwork: ferrying packages and clothing samples all over town, affixing hundreds of stamps and labels to fashion show invites, and answering the constantly-ringing phone. The interns work for free, with no material compensation other than getting to occasionally hang around the periphery of fashion parties. As Cutrone's 22-year-old personal assistant Andrew Mukamal put it: “We're at the service end of the fashion industry.” So what makes the Village Girls drink the Kool-Aid?
“They're a very, very special breed,” Cutrone said. “They get off on collectivity. It activates their sense of self-worth.”
She takes a maternal sense of pride in watching her interns grow. Stephanie Skinner, a junior executive featured on the show, recently asked Cutrone to stop describing her as the former “chubby girl from Chicago in the Limited Express T-shirt and the Converse sneakers.” Cutrone started laughing thinking about it. “I was like, 'But Skinner, you were!'”
Not everyone makes it. People's Revolution starts Fashion Week prep with 24 interns, ends with half a dozen or so (many quit on their own accord), and puts maybe one or two on payroll at the end. Some can't stand the hours; others realize they just don't want to work in the industry after all.
Kevin Leak, 22, is the intern who answers the phone. From Queens, he recently graduated from college in Miami. He likes the name People's Revolution, because it reminded him of the Ghandi quote. “You know, 'Be the change you want to see in the world',” he said, entirely earnestly.
Mukamal, Cutrone’s personal assistant since August, is a bit of an exception to the typical hire: He grew up in New York City, went to exclusive prep school Horace Mann, then to college in Virginia where he majored in history. He was working as a freelance stylist, picking up some samples from the People's Revolution office, when Cutrone spotted him.
“I think she had a moment of 'Oh, you look like you could be my long-lost son.' We both have that Addams family look,” he said. “She says she's psychic, but I think she just reads energy really well.” Also, he's a Scorpio, which is important—they're known for being loyal.
Even though the work can be exhausting and stressful, “you always feel like you're actually living,” he said, still sounding a bit awed by it all, or maybe just dazed. “You never feel like you've wasted a day.”
“The one thing for sure that everybody who works here knows,” said Cutrone after a brief rant on employees who roll their eyes at her, “is that if you have a problem, or you're in trouble—whether alcohol, drugs, illness, your boyfriend's cheating on you, your father's sick—we will pick you up. We stay together, and we march together.”
That doesn't change the crying rule, however. You really do have to go outside.
Sheila McClear is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to the New York Post, among others. Her work has also appeared on Gawker.com and in the New York Observer. Her book, Last of the Live Nude Girls , will be out in 2011 from Soft Skull.