Monday, 27 May 2024

Mel Ottenberg

21st-century fame

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Since he arrived in New York in the late ’90s, Mel Ottenberg has been on an ever-upwards fashion trajectory, styling for the best magazines and blowing up in the public domain through his work dressing Rihanna, omelette gown and all. But his latest act, as editor-­in-chief of ‘Interview’, is perhaps Mel’s finest. Through perfectly ­timed superstar covers, high trash moments, a passion for all things pop and fashion, and the right degree of horniness, he’s defining American celebrity today.

From Fantastic Man n° 38 — 2024
Text by PAUL FLYNN
Photography by JACK PIERSON
Styling by MEL OTTENBERG

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Mel Ottenberg was twelve years old when he first found a copy of Andy Warhol’s ‘Interview’ magazine. Young Mel was idling over the coffee table magazines at a salon in his hometown of Washington DC while his mother was having her hair attended to. Her stylist was a tall, handsome Lebanese man named Tamour.

“It was within the first year after Andy died,” Mel notes. He thinks the date was November 1987. Like all magazine people, he’s predisposed to date historic events by month/year. “Tamour said, ‘Oh don’t look at that. It’s trash. It’s pornography. The magazine is dead. Andy’s dead. It’s over.’” Mel was absorbed nonetheless. “I just remember thinking, ‘It’s really cool.’ And kept looking at it.”

Mel Ottenberg was not a happy child. “I was just, like, ‘I hate these people,’” he says. DC did not suit him. “I was teased for being a fag. I was, like, ‘What’s wrong with these people? I’m fine. They’re provincial and dumb and I’m going to go to New York and be fine.’ It was always New York.”

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According to Mel Ottenberg, the absolute holy trinity were and forever will be Madonna, MTV and magazines.

And here was a magazine spelling out why, numbering all of the city’s luxurious, strange nocturnal distractions. He willed himself into life, with ‘Interview’ as his new guiding light.

On that first ‘Interview’ cover was Brian Bosworth. When I draw a blank at the name, Mel raises an eyebrow, purses his lips and throws his head back, as if to say, “I know, right?” The Brian Bosworth cover triggered something in him. “So there was this American footballer,” he says. “And I loved him.” Sometimes it just takes a picture on the cover of a magazine. “And then I really got into ‘Interview’ and reading ‘Interview’ and ripping pages out of ‘Interview’ and putting them onto my wall.”

***

We’re meeting for lunch in New York City at the West Village trattoria Via Carota. He orders us some fried green olives with pork sausage, a side of greens and two of the house-speciality svizzerina hand-chopped steaks with insalata verde. He drinks iced tea. A highly physical man, Mel has a pleasing habit of bodily enacting selected punctuation points during conversation. Not everything needs words. When something does, he speaks in a seductive baritone, sometimes extending syllables for an em­pha­tic second longer than necessary. If Mel were on a reality TV show, you would have a pretty clear idea who he is from the opening scenes. Sometimes he hunches his shoulders and leans into a point he’s making, to the extent that by the end of lunch, his physicality has reached an almost comic conclusion: our noses are millimetres from touching. He’s searching for a contemporary figure of comparison to Brian Bosworth.

“Do you know who Travis Kelce is?” he asks. Kelce is an American footballer for the Kansas City Chiefs and Taylor Swift’s current boyfriend, a first dip into ‘sexy’ in the singer’s ill-fated dating portfolio. By chance, just before lunch, I’d been watching a video of Kelce and his brother, Jason, crying over how much they love making their mom proud. I wonder aloud if Mel would consider putting Kelce on the cover of his own iteration of ‘Interview’ magazine?

“I mean, we really should,” he says.

Travis over Taylor?

“Yes, yes, yes.”

His split-second decision-making faculty is fabulously categoric.

“Taylor and I… What are we going to do together?” he qualifies. “Taylor’s fine on her own.”

Mel was announced as editor-in-chief in September 2021, after three years as creative director. He was scared to take it on but he says, “I like fear. Fear is a good place for me.” During his tenure, he’s thrown an irresistible sizzle back into the pages of the publication. He appears to edit it according to a cleverly coordinated index of hotness — an excellent guiding principle for visual media. “There’s definitely a tone that is the exact right tone,” he says. “We need to seduce people into it, but not trick people: I want people to be saucier. I feel like people know that they’re supposed to be sexier and saucier and say more, but you’ve got to really try to do it.

My team does a good job with that. It has to be hot because I like stuff that’s hot. And the world is afraid of sex. I don’t think the world should be afraid of sex.”

Why does he think that is? “Because it’s a very conservative era of the world that we’re in. Overall. Everybody is so terrified of sex.” He plucks a current pop-cultural example from the air to cement his point, the deeply polarising Emerald Fennell movie, ‘Saltburn’. “The thing about ‘Saltburn’ is it’s horny. This is a horny movie and that is why it’s nonstop everywhere. More horny movies! Hello! Surprise, surprise. Barry licking cum out of the tub is insane. That’s why it works. If anyone’s wondering why ‘Saltburn’ works, it’s because: horniness. Explicit horniness.” With the heat turned up, ‘Interview’ is once again a crystal ball of pop culture, faithful to Warhol’s initial intentions for the magazine when it launched in 1969.

I ask if Mel tells his therapist about triumphs at work.

“Ye-es,” he says, leaning in, emphatically enunciating the word, changing a one-­syllable affirmative to two. Would his therapist say becoming the editor-in-chief of ‘Interview’ has been good for him?

“That’s a great question and I’m not even sure what the answer is. I’m still trying to work that out.”

***

Providentially, Mel moved to New York in 1998, the same year Mario Diaz’s raucous spit-and-sawdust gay bar The Cock opened, making an anachronism of the big Chelsea muscle scene and depleting gay rave culture. It blew Mel’s mind. Before visiting The Cock, he says, he had been “a gay person who didn’t like gay people.” At The Cock, he found his New York people. “I walked in and saw the crowd and I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is it. These are all of my references.’ Previously, I felt like I was the only one that was into really cool fashion, but also camp, but also the Ramones, but also, what…Russ Meyer? Blondie, but also Neu! It was the melting pot. The trans girls and the freaks and the older guys and the hot guys and the coding of all the gay porn — that was so big for me. I was like, ‘Bitch, this is amazing. I like this.’ So I went every night for many years.”

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For Issue 551 of ‘Interview’, Autumn 2023, Mel commissioned a detailed 10-page oral history of The Cock written by Michael Bullock, immortalising the venue as every bit as pivotal to New York City as Studio 54 had been two decades earlier. The Cock was the rough-and-ready playpen for a generation who would upend and reinvent the city’s fashion and culture scenes. It’s an audacious piece of commissioning and writing, and Mel appears in it.

At The Cock, Mel met the photographer Alexei Hay. He told Mel, “You have cool style. You should style this story for this Parisian magazine ‘Self Service’.” It was a Chanel story. “Alexei said, ‘Alright, get Chanel suits and we’re going to shoot this weird, fucked-up chick on the weekend.’ I said, ‘Can I borrow your credit card to buy some Chanel suits at Bergdorf Goodman and I’ll return them afterwards?’ And then he simply hung up. I thought, ‘Oh no, this is the end of my styling career.’” But rookie errors are easily forgiven: Alexei still introduced Mel to photographer Matthias Vriens and the two shot Mel’s friend Doug for an editorial for ‘The Face’, another magazine that Mel had devoured, torn up and plastered all over his walls as a teenager in DC. “So I found out how to call in some Helmut Lang and some Gucci and I mixed that with my own way of dressing.”

Mel Ottenberg’s sex-positive, sex-humorous brand of styling made him many industry friends. Some were less keen. In an early issue of BUTT magazine, there was a picture of Mel giving head to a gay porn star. Even shot from behind, it was discernibly Mel. “These other stylists at the time were, like, ‘You’re never going to work again,’” he remembers. “What the fuck are you talking about? Like, come on, stop being such a pussy. It was awesome.”

Mel established an instantly recognisable signature, twinning the aspirational ephemera of the American dream with the basic heat of gay porn. Denim became his shorthand for both, as it had for Levi Strauss, Gloria Vanderbilt and Calvin Klein before him. “I’ve always loved denim. It’s the best material and I think it looks good on my ass.” His styling has always been about elevating the primal.

After stints as the New York editor at ‘Purple’, Mel became the fashion director of Berlin style magazine ‘032c’ in 2013. He established himself in the fashion industry through print editorials and brand campaigns and became a name to people on the street largely thanks to the work he did in helping turn Rihanna into the 21st century’s first pop star billionaire. Or “the greatest fucking star in the world,” as he puts it.

The first Rihanna video he styled was the one for ‘We Found Love’ — the artist’s radical fashion pivot. Both the artist and her stylist never looked back, establishing a taste bond that ricocheted across culture with volcanic influence, just like Jean-Paul Goude and Grace Jones or Judy Blame and Neneh Cherry before them. “It was great,” he says. “It was fun and it was exciting. She’s exciting. Being able to style something that the whole world’s going to see, something that will change the way fashion looks or is remembered, is great. You’re not thinking historically, but you are aware of it. You’re, like, ‘Shit, I’ve got to impress this bitch again, because I’ve created this monster that just wants the best and the best and the best.’ It was always worth it, but it was definitely, ‘What the fuck am I going to do next?’”

Can I quote that?

“A hundred per cent quote it.”

Lunch with Mel Ottenberg is an absolute riot.

Our starters arrive.

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“Any Rihanna fan knows Mel Ottenberg,” says playwright and lightning-rod New Yorker Jeremy O. Harris. He first met Mel at a party in LA when the designer Telfar Clemens was courting Jeremy for the Met Gala. The circumstances of their meeting would make a perfect establishing shot for a documentary on the new creative power players of New York. “Any fan of fashion and style who is of a certain ilk knows who Mel is. And that ilk is sexy, fun, dangerous. You just knew who he was, so I was very thrilled to meet him. If I was going to the Met Gala, he had to style me,” he says. Mel did eventually style Jeremy, but with Gucci, not Telfar.

Harris is now a contributing editor at ‘Interview’ and is listed on the masthead, mafia-style, as “Consigliere.” “Mel’s an old New Yorker,” he says. “The old New York is dying to come back. He is the vanguard of its return: aggressively individual, very much believing in community — but community in a lot of different ways, filled with artists, young and old, disparate, acerbic figures. Those are the people that are around Mel when you go to dinner, to a party. That’s his happy place and that’s a true New Yorker’s happy place.” Jeremy and Mel speak almost every day.

***

Working with Rihanna was the first time Mel felt his work had real-world — not just fashion-industry — traction. He says that some of the most famous women in the world started ripping off her looks. “I would be, like, ‘Oh wow, that person is really copying everything, down to the necklace layering. They’re obsessed!’” He learned to respond to the imitations gracefully. “Let’s switch it up. That’s what was so fun about Rihanna. The thing was, she’d always rather do something cool and different from the perfect thing. Therefore, you’re going to have some clunkers that no one remembers, in order to have the naked Adam Selman dress or the big yellow omelette.” Selman was Mel’s boyfriend at the time of the 2014 CFDA Fashion Awards, where Rihanna brought the red carpet to a standstill by recalling Gatsby’s New York, but nude. And her sporting of the Chinese designer Guo Pei’s canary yellow gown and enormous ‘omelette’ train at the 2015 Met Gala inspired multiple memes, including some speculative recipes.

The online fire ignited by styling Rihanna inoculated Mel against negativities toward his ideas for ‘Interview’. “Somebody was telling me about a ‘Vogue’ editor at a dinner recently who was complaining about how they don’t get ‘Interview,’” he says. The central complaint? “It’s one gay man’s perception of the world.” Well, perhaps Warhol’s greatest artistic gift was the permission he granted gay men to take pop culture so seriously. Mel sits back, chewing mentally on the idea for a moment. “I think what Warhol definitely does,” he says, “is give gay men the ability to do it unselfconsciously.”

Mel also insists that the magazine is not solely his take on the world. “It’s a group of people’s points of view.” He spends a lot of time in the office on Canal Street. “I intend to spend more. And yes, I am top of the masthead, but girl, we’re good. We’re not going to be self-conscious about that kind of shit. It’s dumb. We want to be the best of us. I don’t want everyone liking what I do. We’re the best at this shit. And also: don’t like us.” Sometimes, Mel will be presented with a story idea, and he thinks, “If we aren’t going to do this, then who will?”

His first cover star after securing the editor-in-chief’s job was Miley Cyrus (Issue 539, Autumn 2021). “Obsessed,” he says. His first editor’s letter was written in the abbreviated, economic style of the Warhol diaries. His current editor’s letter is a picture of the inside of his fridge. He’s as interested in the words on the page as the pictures. “I remember,” he says of an early experience with an article, “there was an interview I’d done and I read the edit and was, like, ‘Wow, I am so bad at doing interviews. I really fucked this.’ Then when I read the original transcript, I thought, ‘Nah, you guys, it was great — interesting faggots having a conversation — and you have edited everything that is interesting and intelligent out to appear smart. I want all the stuff that’s interesting: the breathing, juicy stuff.’ Yeah, I was fucking frustrated and we were on deadline and it was a wrench on everyone’s time, but I was, like, ‘No, this obscure, weird story means a lot to me.’”

As editor-in-chief, Mel has presented an array of dashing cover stars, shot, styled and questioned with refreshed purpose for the magazine, reflecting what he believes to be an unexpected new thrust and excitement to New York. “I actually like New York more now than I did in 2019, before the pandemic. It’s got a lot more grit, a lot more soul. I think the Gen Z kids are very cool. I really do.” These are the temperature checks one must take when heading up ‘Interview’. Warhol understood the depths of the shallows better than anyone, making a magazine built on the philosophy that the historical moment can be as accurately adjudicated by looking at its stars as at its art, faith, culture and politics. Mel is exactly attuned to this wavelength.

“‘Interview’ was never really in the life plan and yet it was right in front of me,” he says. He is 47 years old, but because it is his first magazine editor’s job, he curates the magazine with the energy of someone half his age. “He’s always curious,” says Jeremy O. Harris. “It’s like a 25-year-old, or even a teenager, got their hands on their favourite magazine, ripping it apart and putting it back together the way they feel.”

***

In the time since Warhol’s death, stardom itself has been subject to a cyclone. Politicians and famous people are now indistinguishable. One of the questions I’d written down to ask Mel was whether he would consider featuring Melania Trump (I ask; he wouldn’t). The metrics of online popularity mean that fame is a sport for all. Fame sprawls; it creeps up on us. Sometimes it assaults. Fame often exhausts. It is a mess. The question hovering over Mel when he took over the magazine was whether he could mop some of that up for us. It is the most important criterion on the ‘Interview’ magazine job spec.

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In two and a half years, he’s shown a smart native instinct for the Machiavellian pulse of stardom. If fame is now a tornado, he has positioned himself in its eye, staring this strange new blast furnace in the face. Like many gay men with a witty turn of phrase, good shoulders and a close proximity to glamour, Mel is internet-famous himself. But unlike many internet-famous gays, he has a discernible work ethic, too. He isn’t in it for the money. “Have I made a lot of money over the years? Look, I’m freelance. So there’s great years and there’s leaner years. There’s let’s-buy-an-apartment years and there are curb-the-takeout years.” When was the last curb-the-takeout year? “It was more recently than you would think. Because at this point in my career, I’m less defined by all the possible dough I could make and more by my passion. I could’ve gone down another path. I was Rihanna’s stylist for seven years and I never went and did the Hollywood thing because I didn’t want to. And I’m not against celebrity stylists at all. I just never identified as that. I do the thing that interests me. I think it’s fun to stay alive through work. Or stay feeling really excited about life through work.”

Becoming the gatekeeper of Warhol’s fame legacy means keeping your wits about you. A drunk or drug addict could not do it. Mel is over three years sober. To maintain Warholian distance, one must appear at the centre of the party while remaining at close observational range — a tricky gate to keep. Drawing out the wit, humanity and sex from fame is the central ‘Interview’ proposition, one which makes more sense now than ever. Inquiry is the best form of defence in a digital world defined by certainty and approval. It is, in some respects, all magazines have left. Stars can tell us what they think, who they are, what they do on countless self-publishing platforms. But who is still there to ask politely, “Why?”

I ask him what “Real Housewives”, the reality TV franchise he’s dipped in editorials, means to the US in 2024. “That America is a chaotic, drunk, morally corrupt train wreck? That the apocalypse will make for some great fucking eps? That the American dream is still alive? I don’t know, but I do find it riveting when I’m in the mood for it. It’s incredible art.”

***

“Viva hate” has become something of a motto for his tenure at ‘Interview’. “Thanks, Morrissey, for that.” He smiles. For somebody who spends so much time on the internet, Mel has a robust response to its more gladiatorial aspect. “We all have dopamine levels that are affected by likes and views and shares and all that kind of stuff. But we have to remember that being ahead is also really fun. Everyone doesn’t have to like everything.”

Mel’s mum, Jane, says that ‘Interview’ is her favourite strand of her son’s career so far. “It would be easy to say that his work with Rihanna was my favourite, because it
was a lot of fun watching Mel do wonderful and sometimes earth-shattering things with her. Yet I am knocked out by what he is doing for ‘Interview’.” Jane Ottenberg spent 40 years in the publishing business in DC herself, “so it’s crazy that Mel ends up editing a magazine. This is something I never imagined. I’m so proud of his work, which is much better than anything we ever did.” She knows exactly how seriously he takes it. “My very favourite thing about Mel professionally is his incredible work ethic, his perfectionism in his work, that he remains authentic to what he knows is right for him.”

Mel doesn’t have a boyfriend. “I’m dating casually in sexy manners,” he says — a delightfully Ottenbergian response. “So it’s not just fully like I’m on ground zero.

I don’t get asked out on a lot of dates.” Could he be bothered with a boyfriend? “I don’t know, maybe? Where is the interesting, age-appropriate, intellectual man?

I don’t know where he is. He might not exist, by the way.” Jeremy O. Harris thinks “Mel’s hypothetical boyfriend would have the body of a porn star and the brain of Fran Lebowitz.”

***

A year after taking over ‘Interview’, Mel shot Kim Kardashian for the September 2022 cover. “I was pushing for it,” he says, leaning into the story, pressing his chin as if to share a state secret from the deepest, darkest vaults of the White House. In the eye of the 21st-century stardom tempest, making sense of the Kardashian angle of fame might just be that. He chose to christen the issue ‘The American Dream’ and put Kardashian in a jockstrap and denim against a stars-and-stripes backdrop — a gay-porn-aesthetic staple.

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As he was researching for the cover, a picture came to mind from a private Instagram account he used to run called Powertoool (three o’s, just like he’d pronounce it; since discontinued), where he shared his favourite cheap gay porn imagery. Bruce LaBruce and Steven Klein followed it, unaware that it was Mel running the account, which made him laugh. “I kept thinking, what do I do with an American dream thing? I was talking to my photo director at the time, Ruben, on the phone and then it just hit me that the American flag background and gay porn aesthetics are the only thing that she hasn’t done. It’s my ultimate aesthetic. Let’s go.”

He shows me the reference picture, the cover of a DVD called ‘Gung Ho!’ with a corn-fed porn star against the same backdrop in the same pose, butt out. In a full-circle way, the picture also looks like it is referencing the famous February 1992 ‘Interview’ cover of Mark Wahlberg. “Right?”

Kardashian was Mel’s go-hard-or-go-home moment. “Kim Kardashian is the new American dream, whether you like her or not. She’s got a lot of the Madonna in her,” he says. “You know what I mean?” He’d previously worked with her in 2016 and, like everybody who meets Kim, warmed quickly to her. “‘The girl with no talent’ — and that’s her quote, not mine — is so emblematic of America. So I really wanted to do an American dream cover.” The reaction to it, he says, “was very positive and very negative, which was exactly what I wanted. It was totally a delight to me.”

For Christmas 2023, one of Mel’s brothers gave him a cut-out of a cover story from ‘The New York Post’, with Piers Morgan decrying the Kardashian cover. He scrolls through his phone and finds the cover. “Piers Morgan: ‘We’ve hit rock bottom if Kim Kardashian is the national dream’, with our cover on the front of ‘The New York Post’.” He sits back, satisfied. “That’s the dream.”

Not long after the cover dropped, Mel met his most famous predecessor, the ‘Interview’ editor-in-chief by whom all others are judged, Bob Colacello. “I said, ‘Hey, Bob, such a fan, obviously.’ An awkward silence ensued. And he said, ‘You know I just hated your Kim Kardashian cover so much. I thought it was terrible, and that is not the American dream.’” Colacello told Mel that he’d considered writing a letter to the magazine, denouncing his lifetime affiliation with ‘Interview’. “And I said, ‘This is so great. Now that we’ve met you can address that letter to me. I’d love that.’” They became friends. “Obviously.” It’s all cool now, but there is a wider point, central to the current era of Mel Ottenberg’s ‘Interview’. “Babe, if somebody isn’t hating it, I’m not doing this right.”

CONTRIBUTIONS

Photographic assistance by Nathaniel Jerome. Lighting by Eduardo Silva. Styling assistance by Bella Lucio. Grooming by Kabuto Okuzawa at Walter Schupfer Management. Retouching by CO Jack Pierson Studio.