The fabulous life of Simon Doonan — talking head on various VH1 anthologies, creative director at Barney’s, columnist, memoirist, and occasional guest star on America’s Next Top Model — is finally hitting the small screen. Tonight at 10:30 p.m., LOGO premieres the British series Beautiful People, which is based off his childhood memoir of the same name, originally published as Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints. The inspired-by story follows young, fey Simon (Luke Ward-Wilkinson, pictured next to the present-day Doonan) as he navigates school as a gay youth with his best friend Kyle/Kylie (Layton Williams), all the while looking for the elusive “Beautiful People” of the glamorous life in London. In the bristling comedic style of Ab Fab, Beautiful People is a hyperrealistic take on Doonan’s life, totally British, and tons of fun. The ever-busy Doonan took a few minutes to chat with EW about the show, obtaining an illegal green card to come to the States in the ’80s, and why he loves American Idol‘s Adam Lambert.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Beautiful People is based off your memoir and you’re credited as creator, but what did you have to do with putting the series together?
SIMON DOONAN: I was blissfully not involved. Jonathan Harvey — who wrote the script — and I had several conversations. He would call me and say, “Do you think your mum would ever ‘blah blah blah’?” Or, “Did you ever have a dolly growing up?” I get to be Joan Crawford all day long at Barney’s, so it was fun to not be responsible for something in that way, to see what kind of mad, crazy, kooky extrapolation they would make from my memoir. I knew they were committed to preserving the essential ideas.
What would you say those essential ideas are?
The essential ideas are being a gay kid in a positive, nurturing environment, where my gayness was small potatoes compared to the other eccentricities and wackiness that was going on. Growing up in a house where two people were schizophrenic and with a blind auntie, being gay was kind of small potatoes.
That’s one of the things I love about it. Being gay is usually the “weird” or a black sheep thing, but here, your character is the straight guy.
I was the normal one, and that is very accurate. The other essential truth is that everyone, especially gay people, sort of looks on the horizon to see all the glamor and excitement shimmering just out of reach. We think, “Oh, if I could be there with the Beautiful People, you know, my life would really begin.” Sort of the illusion of this Oz-like place where the Beautiful People exist. The two boys want to go live with the Beautiful People, and it’s clearly a kind of deranged obsession that everyone kind of relates to in some way.
After the jump: Doonan admires the “guts” Adam Lambert shows on American Idol and reveals: “Being gay was illegal when I was a kid!”
So it’s an inspired-by, comedic take. I’m guessing a documentaryreconstruction of your childhood — as fun as it might have been — probablywouldn’t have been as delicious as this hilarious take.
Yeah, my childhood was a very mixed bag. There were moments ofextraordinary humor, but it was also quite grim. I didn’t want to do itin a victim-y way, so I did it in a way that looks at my childhoodthrough the lens of humor because I thought that would be moreinteresting to people. Like, you know, my sister being dumped off at anorphanage every day because that was like childcare back then. It wouldbe a lot more tortuous if it were more relentlessly real.
Growing up gay in the ’60s versus the ’90s [when the contemporized TV series is set] has to be so different.
Being gay was illegal when I was a kid! I was aware that it was illegalwhen I got my green card to come to America — at that point, they didn’tgive green cards to gay people.
How proud are you to have this out there? What kind of fan response have you gotten?
I feel tremendously proud of it because when it first aired in England,my website was full of emails from people saying that it had beenhugely validating to them and that it had really helped their parentscome to terms with them being gay. I got deluged with positive emailssaying, “Thank you. This is such a positive thing for gay people andfor families who are trying to come to terms with the fact that theirkid is gay. It normalizes it and makes it seem kind of fun.” Like, themother character says to young Simon, “You’re not weird — you’re justdifferent.”
I love how young Simon’s mom indulges him all the time. During thatshow tunes scene in the second episode, she practically sings back upfor him.
Yeah, the mother character is a great cheerleader. And my mum was verymuch that way in essence. I always thought with my mom that if Imurdered someone, she would say it was their fault. You know, “Theywere asking for it.” She was like the mother in the TV show, one ofthose moms who always has their kid’s back. So that’s how it shouldbe. Minus the murdering, of course.
You’ve done books, television, you write a column for The New York Observer. What’s next for your career?
Well, I’ve always fancied writing fiction, so I’ve been playing aroundwith some ideas. We’ll see. It’ll probably be a while before I popanything out. Barney’s just opened a big store in Chicago, we’re goingto be opening in Scottsdale in the fall. Between Barney’s and TheObserver, I have a really full plate.
You’ve been at Barney’s for more than 20 years now. Does your job still excite you?
My job at Barney’s couldn’t be more fun. It’s the job that little Simon always had in mind.
You’re a high-profile gay man. What other high-profile gays out there are you keeping your eye on?
I loved watching Adam Lambert on American Idol. I kept thinking, I’m soproud of all the gays that put themselves out there because they don’tget a huge amount of encouragement when they’re young. Adam Lambert, hesits up there knowing what people say about him on the blogosphere,knowing that people love him, knowing that lots of other people havecompletely the opposite feeling about him, and he just belts out asong. That takes guts. Those other two finalists got to pick their noseand fart and do whatever straight guys do. Adam’s leading a wholeother, more complex life, and he deserves a huge amount of respect forbeing courageous and being creative and not being daunted.