Isaac Mizrahi – New York State of Mind

by Yasmine Shemesh

Published in print and online in the March 2019 issue of BeatRoute Magazine

It’s 1968 in Brooklyn. Isaac Mizrahi was seven years old at the movie theatre with his family to see Funny Girl. As he sat there looking up at the big screen, he became totally captivated by the visuals, the colours, the costumes, and, most profoundly, the star of the show – Barbra Streisand. She was beautiful. She had the same New York accent as his sisters, but she was even more glamorous. She embodied it in a way he’d never seen. It would be one of the formative moments of his life.

“She really saved me in a way,” Mizrahi says. “Before I knew who Streisand was, I didn’t know there was such a thing as this whole world of glamour. I won’t ever forget that, sitting there, watching that movie.”

Mizrahi’s affinity for Streisand (and Judy Garland, in the same way) planted a seed that later grew into a diverse canon of creative interests – namely, fashion, music and theatre. These passions eventually led him to become a world-renowned designer, television personality, and theatrical performer. His memoir, I.M., which is released this month, reflects on his life’s journey with stories on everything from his rise to fame working with Calvin Klein and his friendship with Liza Minnelli to struggles with chronic insomnia and depression. It’s taken him seven years to write.

In support of the book, Mizrahi is also touring his cabaret show, which kicked off in February with a residency at Café Carlyle. He began doing residencies at the New York club a few years ago, which earned him the best review from the New York Times, Mizrahi says, of his entire life. For Mizrahi, it all represents an important transition and alignment into show business. “It’s very exciting, it’s terribly scary, but it’s keeping me – how can I find the word? – it’s keeping me not bored,” he says. “And, to me, that’s the most important thing in life. You’re bored, you’re dead.”

As a kid, Mizrahi always had an impulse to create. That and his love of entertainment and art are what he credits with keeping him from drowning in the dark depths of depression. “My depression, I think, was mostly circumstantial and it kind of rendered me inert for a short time,” Mizrahi contemplates. “By inert, I mean I sat on the couch in front of the television and ate my feelings for a long time. I began to make things with my hands. It was the way out of depression.”

Mizrahi’s circumstance? Growing up gay in an Orthodox Syrian-Jewish community. His family wasn’t exactly Orthodox, but they did keep kosher in the house, attend synagogue, and enroll Mizrahi in a Yeshiva. Not to mention, it was the early 1970s – the subject of gayness in America was a largely stigmatized one, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community.

“If you were gay, it was persona non grata,” Mizrahi says. “Like, no – there’s no such thing as gay. People would bully me for being effeminate, but I don’t think they put it together with the homosexual identity. No one put it together. They called me a fag, but it was just another thing. I don’t think they could plumb the depths of what it meant. I couldn’t even plumb the depths.”

He knew he was romantically attracted to men, always. And he understood, deep down, that his feelings about his sexuality were right. “I think I got that from my mom,” Mizrahi says, of his gut instinct. “I think artists, they understand that the feeling you have about something is what runs you. When you express yourself, when you move yourself through the world, it’s all about your feelings. I knew that my feelings couldn’t be liars. I just knew that.”

He would do impersonations of Streisand and Garland in the lobby of the synagogue and at Yeshiva – a precursor into his talents as a cabaret star, to be sure – and while Mizrahi’s mother and father didn’t encourage it, they didn’t discourage it, either.

“They never bullied me, my parents,” Mizrahi insists. “I was 10 years old when I started doing this in 1972 – were they supposed to encourage a female impersonator in 1972? I’m not sure if culturally it would have been a good idea for them to do that. Now, it’s a different thing if you have a kid who’s a female impersonator who’s 10. Do you encourage that kid? I think probably now you do. Politically, where we are. But, in 1972, I don’t think it was at all a good idea to do so. Here and there, I got the feeling they were embarrassed. And I couldn’t help feeling that way. It’s not their fault – it’s just what was going on in the world at the time.”

Although Mizrahi has been doing his cabaret act for years, he admits he was nervous for his mother to see this particular iteration with it being so autobiographical. “I always wonder if she is going to be capable of seeing the humour in it and allowing herself to be this subject,” he says, adding that he was especially anxious about her reading the memoir. “She finally finished the book and we spoke, about a week and a half ago. It was literally like a dream come true. She said she loved the book. The courage of doing a memoir doesn’t come in the writing because, if you’re a creative person, you get yourself to do stuff. Really, it’s when it’s published and people see it and they react to it. The people that you’re writing about – that you love – you want them to continue to love you. And yet, you’ve got to tell the truth. I kept saying to my close friends and my husband, ‘I hope my mother doesn’t die hating me when she reads this book, because it’s lovingly told.’”

Mizrahi felt an incredible release when he finally finished writing I.M. He painted an honest and gritty portrait of his life, and coloured it with humour and resilience. The past was behind him. Now, there’s only the present and future. It was a dreamy moment. Mizrahi took a step back. “I was like, ‘Darling, you did it,” he says. “’You told your story. You are queen.’”