When Elle magazine’s creative director Joe Zee stepped in front of MTV’s cameras last year to join the cast of The City, he revealed a type of fashion editor rarely seen on the small screen: A decent, humane one. Granted, there wasn't much room for another unscrupulous personality within the show's staged reality (the cup overfloweth so much that The City's most feared cast member, Kelly Cutrone, got her own show on Bravo), but Zee's serene countenance and wide-eyed idealism made him the fitting foil for co-stars Olivia Palermo and Erin Kaplan. While Palermo, a socialite whose job at the magazine isn't exactly clear, and Kaplan, Elle’s PR director, duked it out every week over botched styling assignments or their contrasting work ethic, Zee, for the most part, remained calm, genuinely concerned and, to many viewers’ chagrin, always willing to give Palermo the benefit of the doubt. As The City kicks off its second season on Tuesday, Zee seemed amused when addressing the “nice guy” image the show has allotted him.
Click the Image to See Joe Zee's Photos and Captions of His Favorite Things
“Am I a nice guy all the time?” Zee said one recent evening in New York. “No. I certainly did not get to where I got to by being a really nice pushover. I am very opinionated. I have a very specific vision of how things can be, but I'm also fair. I don't think there's any need to be rude for no reason.”
Zee attempted to convey his diplomatic nature in last season's finale, where he sat judge-like behind his desk while the contentious duo traded blame and insults. Kaplan gave Zee a melodramatic “It’s her or me” ultimatum before storming off, though it’s clear both girls will be back for more this season. It's all for the cameras, after all. “I can tell you that Erin and Olivia do not sit around thinking about each other all day,” Zee said.
“If Joe and I agreed on Olivia, there would be no show,” said Kaplan. “I think we both take it with a grain of salt.”
“I think Twitter's fun. Let's face it, no one's interested if I'm going to the gym but people care if I'm at a photo shoot and tweet about this cool new shoe I love,” said Zee.
Zee considers the drama that ensues par for the course when starring in a docusoap, but the 41-year-old Toronto native would rather shift his focus to lifting the curtain behind the machinations of a fashion magazine. According to Zee, The City’s new season will include a closer look at him on the job. There will be more photo shoots, meetings with fashion designers and a work-related trip to Los Angeles. Elle Editor-in-Chief Robbie Myers even appears in the show’s previews, which could open opportunities to show the inevitable power struggle between the magazine's two top editors. With Zee's star on the rise, the addition of Myers—who had been almost nonexistent in Elle's two other forays into TV, Project Runway and Stylista—could give Palermo's and Kaplan's workplace tension a run for its money.
For better or worse, the increased exposure on The City is yet another way Elle has set itself apart as a brand. “I work for a company that's very aware of what the future of media can be, that things have to exist as a brand,” said Zee. “I wish we could say everything was so strategized but some of it is really organic. Project Runway happened long before I got [to Elle], but it was at a time when ‘reality show’ was a dirty word. No one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole, much less someone in fashion. Elle was the one that said, ‘Let's take a risk.’”
A media savvy fashion mag is, in essence, the perfect place for Zee, a self-professed technology geek who grew up obsessed with magazines. He moved to New York City at 22 and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he toiled in internships at magazines from Sportswear International to Mirabella. “At Sportswear International, my job solely consisted of pushing a shopping cart up and down Broadway and 7th Avenue returning garment bags of clothes to the showroom,” mused Zee. “I loved it! I just wanted to be part of the process…even if it was returning a garment bag.”
After graduating from FIT, Zee was determined to land a job at a fashion magazine before his student visa expired. “It was the early '90s and there was a recession. People were like, ‘You're not going to get a job at a magazine. You really have to think this through,’” he said. He set a goal to work as an assistant to legendary Allure creative director Polly Mellen, which he achieved. Following four years at the beauty mag, he moved on to W, where, as fashion director, he revamped Britney Spears as a dominatrix for one of the magazine’s best-selling issues. Zee’s sharp eye for reinvention also benefited Justin Timberlake, Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Lopez, all of whom can credit him for retooling their images via album covers and ad campaigns. Zee also styled memorable ads for Gap, including one featuring Madonna and Missy Elliott.
Despite his successful 10-year tenure at W, Zee left in 2003 to launch Vitals, Fairchild Publication’s short-lived men’s magalog. When the magazine folded after two years, he continued to contribute to Conde Nast titles such as Vanity Fair and House & Garden before joining Elle as its first-ever creative director in 2006. “[Elle] was a huge brand that was really a sleeping giant. It was ready to become something great,” Zee recalled. “I was very determined to make it fashion-forward and directional and relevant.”
A redesign in 2008 ushered in a fresh, new look for Elle, which remains a bankable magazine in light of publishing’s daunting future. For Zee, reinventing print is a challenge he welcomes at Elle and elsewhere (he was recently a frontrunner to run W before the editor-in-chief job was given to T magazine's Stefano Tonchi). “It makes me so sad when people say print is dead because it's such an unfair generalization of where things are,” he said. “We have the Internet, blogs, social media, the iPad—how are we going to take those things and make it work in conjunction with the printed magazine? It's scary but at the same time, it's exciting.”
Zee’s also fully embraced social media as a means of connecting to readers. He currently has over 20,000 followers on Twitter, where he tweets fervently from fashion shows, industry events and his seat on cross-country flights to L.A. “I think Twitter's fun. Let's face it, no one's interested if I'm going to the gym but people care if I'm at a photo shoot and tweet about this cool new shoe I love,” said Zee. “I'm not going to waste people's time with innocuous crap, but I’m going to share things they wouldn't necessarily have access to.”
When pressed about whether TV is his next frontier, Zee laughed and vowed to “never say never.”
“It was just something that happened by accident,” he insisted. “I don't even consider it a TV career. I never watch myself on TV and I’m not going to start.”
Enid Portuguez is a New York City-based writer and editor. Her work has also appeared on InStyle.com, the Los Angeles Times, Antenna and Flaunt magazines.