Over the past three decades, Isaac Mizrahi has become the ultimate multi-hyphenate. Still celebrated as one of America's most talented fashion designers, he is also a documentarian, stage director, author, and television personality.
On top of all that, New Yorkers treasure Mizrahi for his unique cabaret shows, which have been seen at Joe's Pub, City Winery and, most importantly, the beloved Café Carlyle. He reopens that storied room (which has been dormant for over two years) with In-Person from March 1-12, for which he will once again be accompanied by his band of jazz musicians led by Ben Waltzer.
Mizrahi recently spoke to TheaterMania about his return to live performing, his unusual career trajectory, and why he pays more attention to what he wears than what the audience wears.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This will be your first live show in New York since the pandemic? How are you feeling about returning to the stage?
I can't believe how excited I am. For the past two years, we've all gone "soft" with the outside world and our only real engagement with other people has been virtual shows or social media. So even if I have some anxiety about re-entering the real world, I know no matter what happens at the Café Carlyle, it will be fun! For one thing, it feels like an extension of my living room. And there is something about being in the company of these smart New Yorkers that makes me feel safe; I feel like whatever I say, I won't be cancelled.
You've had two years to think about what you're going to say. What did you decide on?
True, I've been thinking the whole time about what to say. What I want to talk about is the concept of happiness in the world, especially real happiness versus virtual happiness. I also think as Americans, we're taught that we're always supposed to be happy. And I do believe that if you're alive and you're not grateful, that's a problem. But to quote Peggy Lee. "Is that all there is?" Should you always just be grateful, no matter what? Is it ok that for years, you made all these plans, built these castles, and now part of you only wants to stay at home with your dogs and watch reruns of Seinfeld?
You also sing in your shows, and I hear this one is going to include songs by both Stephen Sondheim and Billie Eilish. Do you want to explain this eclecticism?
I've tried a lot of different musical content over the years, especially because I like all sorts of music. I used to sing Stephen's "The Ladies Who Lunch," but about two years ago, I decided to try "One More Kiss" from Follies. It got the response I wanted, so I think I'll do it again. Stephen was both a friend and a huge influence who occupied a big place in my life, though I doubt he ever said the same about me. Anyway, now that he's gone, I don't know how I will make it through opening night without crying. As for Billie Eilish, I am going to sing "Everything I Wanted." I like her and I like the theme of her music, which is about questioning whether to live life by someone else's standards.
Being a fashion designer, do you ever judge what your audience is wearing?
No. I am so embarrassed that anyone thinks I care about what they wear. I'm so deeply nervous about how I look; it's a very big part of my self-esteem issues for the past 30 years. I always give a lot of thought about what I am wearing in my shows. I started out just wearing tuxedos, although for my first show at the Carlyle, I did a costume change at the end. I wore this incredible Swarovski crystal-covered jacket. Then someone from Vogue wrote something like, "he came out in some tacky jacket with plastic gems." I was so upset; I thought, I just can't win. So, now, it's always a black suit of some kind — but I am thinking about some sort of new look for this show.
Your life has changed so much in the past decade or so. Do you think you've finally found the right balance in your careers?
No, it hasn't changed enough for me. To be honest, had I known it was going to be difficult to segue from one career to another, I don't know if I would have done fashion. I did some acting as a kid, but my father don't think I would make it and so he taught me what he knew, which was the garment business. And not only was fashion easier than getting into Juilliard; but my priority was getting out of the house. Fashion has lots of physical hard work; people don't realize how demanding things like fitting and recutting are for me. And doing fashion shows were the worst for me. I became a maniac during them and then I would watch them later with gnashed teeth poring over every mistake. I am so grateful there's been a progression in my life. I don't feel jaded about performing; I look forward to every show. True, I get stage fright right before I go on, but then I feel the audience's love and I instantly relax. It's rapturous. So, yeah, I'm ready to transition into being a full-time entertainer!