The funny thing about most reality television stars is that they have zero sense of reality. In fact, the bulk of them are anything but “real.” Not Kelly Cutrone. Reality TV is only a small percentage of who and what she is, and by no means does it define her. She bears an authenticity that cannot be faked. She has lived a full life and still has that rare hunger to do so. She’s done everything from reading tarot cards to recording an album on Atlantic Records with producer Richard Perry. Kelly is a veteran of a notoriously shallow industry, yet remarkably grounded; she is spiritual, has lived and learned, and has the courage to create her own reality.
Kelly is the founder of People’s Revolution, one of the most powerful fashion PR companies in the world. She is the mother of a beautiful daughter named Ava, and a New York Times best-selling author. She’s also a competitive figure skater and an excellent cook.
Ray Adornetto: What was your childhood like?
Kelly Cutrone: I grew up about five miles outside of Syracuse, New York, so I guess “good” or “bad” depends on who would have been there (laughter). We didn’t really live like a lower-middle-class family, but in retrospect I guess we were one because my dad made about $55,000 a year and we were a family of five. We had one car, one bathroom, three kids and two parents. My dad would travel for two or three days at a time on business, and my Mom would pull us to the grocery store on a sled when we were little. Is that poor? I don’t know (laughter). But my parents always made sure that we had a nice time. They didn’t have money to send us to private school or Paris for family ‘vacay,’ or the stuff that I do with my daughter. We went to the local lake and had a small boat. I remember one year my dad sold the boat, and I think he bought school clothes for us with the money.
We never knew when things were tight, but now being an adult and talking to them, I know there were times that they couldn’t pay their mortgage. It was normal; they fought once in a while, but not a lot, and nobody got permanently hurt. My parents were totally in love. They used to kick us out of the house on Saturdays for a few hours. They’d tell us to go play kickball and lock the house up. My dad was the renegade bad boy, and my mom was the sweet Italian girl from next door. My dad’s English-Irish, and he grew up in an orphanage. When he was 14, the orphanage took a trip to the circus.
He saw a stripper by the name of Rita Cortez on the causeway, and he ran away [with the circus] and started washing her car.
I don’t know what else happened — that’s all he copped to. Then he got a job riding the motorcycle. He rode the Wall of Death in the circus. Then he got popped for being a runaway, they brought him back to the orphanage and he ran away a week later and joined the Marines.
Growing up in a small town, did you yearn to get out or want something more?
It wasn’t that I wanted more; I just didn’t find myself represented anywhere and I had to change my personality often to get by. There were certainly a lot of nice people where I was from, but I didn’t really fit in with them. I remember seeing MTV and being like, “holy shit, I have to go there!” I didn’t realize that MTV would continue to play a pivotal role in my life later on. That, and “Soul Train,” and Don Kirshner’s “Rock Concert” and all that stuff… it was only while watching those shows that I really felt connected, and knew that there were people out there like me.
That’s where I wanted to be. We didn’t have the Internet or people on TV talking about fashion shows. We just didn’t have the kind of access that kids have today. I talk about this in my books, how I hadn’t found my tribe and my peeps were not there. But the land is something that I find so beautiful. I try to go back up there a lot, and go skating and bring my daughter there. I still feel super-connected to the area.
What was your relationship with fashion growing up?
It’s really weird — I think both Italian-American and Latin families have a similar relationship to fashion. No matter how much money they have, the parents want their kids to look really good. My mom was really hot; she’s like, 5 foot 3 and 95 pounds, and she had a really nice ass and was really pretty. And my parents were really into each other. My dad used to buy her outfits all the time, really nice clothes. Once, he came home and gave her this champagne matte jersey tank dress, which was kind of hot for the area. Growing up, my grandmother and aunts were from a big Italian family so it was always the black hair, the eyeliner, the tight skirts and the twin sweater sets, that type of look.And my grandmother worked in this department store called Edward’s, only because she wanted to.
She loved clothes and loved to get out of the house, so she used to take me shopping and get me whatever I wanted within her means. I remember I would get an Esprit dress and think it was so fancy, or candy clogs, or a Donny Osmond record or whatever. I understood at an early age that clothes could make people happy. They could give you a persona, and even help change your mood. I knew that it was a strong communication tool. Style. Expression.
What were the college years at Syracuse like for you?
I really hated that period of my life. I didn’t want to go to college and if I did, I wanted to be poetry major at The University of Oahu. So it was basically a lot of alcohol and mushrooms.
What was your first day in New York City like?
It was terrifying. I had a red Toyota Corolla, and all of my clothes that I thought were fashionable were in garbage bags in the back seat. My car was filled from top to bottom, probably with Casual Corner clothing. I don’t really know where it came from, but somehow it was important to me. Leslie Sloan (who’s actually a very famous publicist now) and I used to date guys who were best friends in college. She had a cousin named Ken who knew someone that had this apartment on Avenue C between 10th and 11th. It was 1987, and he let me sublet it for $600 a month. I went to Ken’s house; I’d never met him, but he was going to help me move in. I pulled up on 6th and Spring and I was terrified. I’d only been to New York one time in my life, and I knew nobody there. He got in the car, we drove over to my new apartment, and he looked at me and said,
Once you live here, you’ll be able to live anywhere—this is the worst neighborhood in New York.
It was so dangerous and so terrifying. We walked all my stuff up, but by the time it got dark I decided that I would sleep at his house because I was too scared to sleep alone. That started the beginning of my first affair in New York. I instantly was trying to move off of Avenue C and 10th to 6th and Spring.
Do you feel that it’s a completely different city from when you first moved there?
I think it’s the same city, but it appears different and that’s the thing that I always have to remind myself of. As far as the danger element and where we really are, it’s still New York fucking city and there are a lot of freaks here. When I was younger, things were more obvious. Times Square and the Bowery, violence, it wasn’t an uncommon thing to hear guns around The Lower East Side or Little Italy.
You would see wild shit, and you still do, but it’s different shellac. It’s the same table; it just has a new finish to it. I don’t really know if there’s a vibrant youth scene here anymore. People are always like “it’s not the scene that it used to be,” but somehow every generation keeps producing great thinkers and great artists and they tend to be living in New York or LA. Overall it feels different, but I think that there are a thousand different realities in New York. I’m sure that there’s some struggling artist whose paintings are going to be worth a million dollars soon, and there’s some mom pushing a baby stroller; there are just so many different realities in New York. So yeah, I think it’s the same city. It just has a different finish.
Please tell me a story about touring with Frank Sinatra?
A story about Frank Sinatra…His opening act was Steve and Eydie. They would do a little number and then Frank Sinatra would come out and do four or five songs. I was employed by Chivas Regal, who were paying him an insane amount of money to stop every concert and say (Frank voice), “Good evening, hello New Jersey, I think I’ll have a sip of Chivas Regal… Cheers!” That’s all he had to do. So Steve and Eydie would get into their leisure outfits before going back out and Frank screwed up one night by calling them back onto stage.
She starts flipping out, like “what the fuck is going on, what’s wrong with this mother fucker!”
It was pretty funny, they had to grab all the rollers out of her hair and they came running out. It was like Vegas, you know. Also, Frank would do these things backstage, these big money meet-and-greets. Probably people who were doing millions of dollars in business, like the liquor companies or the record labels. People who were running Sony who flew in from Tokyo to come to see him at the Garden or The Meadowlands or whatever.
They’d get there, their wives would be all dressed up, it was their moment to see Frank. And then they’d be greeted by somebody like me who would go, “Good evening, welcome to your meet and greet with Mr. Sinatra. Please do not touch Mr. Sinatra, do not speak to him, and do not try to hold his hand or put your arm around him. You will be brought up to Mr. Sinatra and you will turn front and center. If he wants to shake your hand, he will. If he wants to speak with you, he will. Otherwise, it will be a quick photo and we will ask that you move on down the line.” So bad.
Do you think that do it yourself punk mentality had an influence on the way that you do business, or gave you a foundation to be an entrepreneur?
People who have a do-it-yourself punk attitude don’t make great employees. That’s just the truth. If you don’t make a good employee, you only have two choices: you either become a vagrant or you become an entrepreneur (laughter). So yeah, of course I think it’s helped me a lot but I also think it’s hindered me a lot. It’s been my greatest asset and my most dangerous tool. It just depends on how and where it’s used. It’s helped me more than hurt me, but it has hurt me often. At the same time, I don’t want to be a person who sits in a room of mediocrity and pretends I’m on top of the world. I don’t want to support realities like that and I don’t want my own reality to be like that.
If somebody said that you can be really, really rich and not know yourself and be surrounded by shallow people who don’t give a fuck about you and all you have to do is play along pretending everything is great, or you can have a lot less money and people love and hate you but you’ll have been honest and you’ll have learned a lot in the process, which would you choose? I would choose the latter. I know people who would choose the first scenario; I just don’t want to be that person. I never wanted to be that person in a relationship; I never wanted to be the chick who hung out with a guy to get a Birkin Bag, or had to bang some ugly rich guy so I could feel important about myself.
I never wanted to be the person who sat at a corporate table and took advantage of indigenous people or the consumer.
I’m just not into that, I never wanted to do that and a lot of times that’s what comes up in these industries. We all have an agreement that we’ll sit together and pretend that we’re amazing and doing something good while we’re destroying people, places or things. I don’t want to be a part of that.
Do you feel that we typically have to choose between success and a healthy relationship?
No, but I do think that sometimes you have to ask what’s going to come first. And I think some of those things don’t always like being in second position for very long (laughter). That’s my theory, but I always like to say that my job has never cheated on me and never told me to go fuck myself.
Disregarding your public persona, I can tell that you’re a really good person who genuinely cares for people and life. It’s something that’s hard to hide. Do you feel that you’ve had to protect or cover up your kindness to be a serious player or to be successful?
Okay. Here’s my packaged answer. I got into PR because I love people and love to talk. Now I hate everyone, and I have nothing to say (laughter). That’s kind of it in a 140-characters-or-less. Everything that happened in between was me still trying to find the good in things. No, I actually do have a very generous heart, and I‘m super naïve.
A lot of things I’ve learned about business and human nature that have come as a result of working in a fiery profession have been heartbreaking for me to learn. It’s been heartbreaking for me to understand why somebody who I spent three days working sixteen hours a day for, and fighting for to make something happen, why would they stiff me and not pay their bill if they knew that I needed that money to feed my family or to pay my employees? It took me a really long time to understand why somebody who was up and coming, who nobody really cared about — and I spent my day making sure that they were dressed beautifully, with the best hair and makeup people for free to go to their first red carpet event — why would they steal those clothes from me? Or why would they return them damaged if they knew that I had to pay the five thousand dollars for that? You know? Why would somebody who came to work for me steal my clients after I opened my life to them? It took me a really long time to learn about human nature and business. It took me seven years to have in my contract that if you don’t pay your bill I have the right to keep your shit. It took me a really long time to say to somebody that if you’re going to work in my office, then what you see here, what you hear here, what you learn here…let it stay here, here, here! Sign an NDA, and if you fucking leave with any of my clients I have the right to sue you.
It took me years to figure out all that stuff because you don’t learn that in Syracuse while being pulled around in a sled by your mom. And that’s not my nature. My nature’s like “hey, let’s go make a shit ton of money and change the world and have a great time.” But do I understand the business that I’m in? Yeah. I don’t want to be the girl who goes out to do the sidestroke in shark-infested waters, and then starts crying because I don’t understand why I got bitten. And that’s what it was like for me when I was in business at the beginning. I didn’t understand until I realized that it was human nature. It keeps happening because it’s business, and people like to put money before dignity. It’s taken me years of abuse and getting fucked over and getting lied to. At the same time, there are really amazing people, places and experiences that this industry has led me to. I’ve been to the most outrageously beautiful and profound places in the world, and I’ve met the most outrageously beautiful and profound people in the world.
What does fashion mean to you?
Style is for everyone. Fashion is for people with money.
The best fashion advice that you can give?
Don’t follow fashion (laughter).
What’s the greatest thing that America has contributed to the fashion world?
(Long pause and then laughter.) Umm leisure suits… jeans, denim. Denim.
Is there a common trait that you notice in good designers?
It’s a common trait but that doesn’t make them good designers. They usually have very big egos (laughter). No. I don’t think that’s fair to say. They’re usually people who like to build things. They’re always looking at how things are crafted, even if they’re not creating it and they’re knocking it off. Say they’re in a vintage store: they don’t just look at a dress and say that they want to make it, they look at how it’s built.
In your opinion what’s the biggest difference between fashion in the U.S. and Europe?
It’s the same song, sung with a different accent. That’s the best way to explain it. People say that the industry in Europe is more in tune to the art. That’s not necessarily true. What’s so artful about Louis Vuitton ponytail holders?
In my opinion, when a dollar crosses any art, it’s called a product. Whether or not it’s art or collectible, a lot of that comes down to PR and marketing.
There are a lot of amazing singers whom nobody ever hears, and then there are a lot of people who can barely [sing] who become huge stars. Same thing: there are a lot of amazing designers who never become internationally renowned, celebrated and wealthy. And there are a lot of ridiculously horrible designers who become millionaires. The truth of the matter is that we need clothing to protect us from the elements, and then we also have it tell a story.
What inspires you?
People who do great things for humanity. I find it really inspiring that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote the Declaration of Human Rights. I find it really depressing that nobody agrees on human rights. Usually whatever inspires me causes me this great sense of confusion and despair about the world. Amma really inspires me. She goes around the world hugging people, raising millions of dollars for orphans, doing all this good and feeding homeless people. The other side is, “why aren’t we all doing that?” Usually whatever inspires me also makes me really sad and despondent (laughter).
What’s something no one knows about you?
I’m a competitive figure skater. I can still do really amazing spins, and run 12-year-olds out of the circle at any ice rink, while wearing all black. And I’m an excellent cook. I cook for, like, 35 people at a time. I cook from every Friday night to every Monday morning. My country house is called punk rock kitchen. And I ride a bicycle all around New York.
How would you define beauty?
It’s a word that usually brings out the worst in people.
Your greatest fear?
Something happening to my daughter.
How would you explain love to someone?
Real love is something that puts you in an, if not immediate, then a very quick state of forgiveness, passion and acceptance despite what’s been done to you.