Kelly Cutrone is sitting in front of me, all black hair and black clothes. She’s just finished giving a speech at the TEDxOxford conference about how a girl from a small village in New York State where the kids used to go cowtipping, ended up as a well-known tarot card reader on Venice Beach, then began training as a nurse until her very first patient died on her, only to become one of the most influential fashion publicists, setting up the renowned fashion PR firm People’s Revolution in 1996. With a capricious career path following a marriage at 24 to pop artist Ronnie Cutrone, and a recording contract thrown in somewhere along the way, Cutrone’s life experience has paved the way for a high-flying career in the fashion industry, and on a personal front, her own reality show and best-selling books.
Cutrone first snuck onto our screens as Lauren Conrad’s boss in The Hills, an appearance that made her a household name with her cutting, straight-talking, no-bullshit attitude. Her stinging remark, ‘If you have to cry, go outside’ became the title for her first book which Cutrone previously described as a ‘pop culture fourth wave of feminism’, a book for women who want to achieve but don’t know how. Her ‘Kellyisms’ have earned their own blog and her books have achieved worldwide popularity. I mean, where else are you going to find a woman who discusses a former drug addiction with such candour while at the same time throwing out such barbed truths as ‘Where do nice people end up? On welfare,’ and, ‘If you’re sensitive and someone hurts your feelings, I don’t give a fuck. This isn’t group therapy.’ While she’s termed as a ‘power bitch’, her book makes it obvious that Cutrone is simply dishing out the brutal, but honest truth of being a woman in business today. Putting her company on television was a huge risk considering clientele that have included Vivienne Westwood, Bulgari, Longchamp, Paco Rabbane and Valentino, but breaking down stereotypes and bringing brands straight to the clients has also been central to Cutrone’s philosophy. ‘At the time, with the brands I was working with, it was considered naff to be on TV. If you were in fashion you didn’t speak to other people, so you certainly wouldn’t go on TV and let the public in. But then I started feeling like that model wasn’t serving the brands so I decided that there was something new in distributing the message straight to the consumer’s home, basically eliminating the middle man. I did the first season of the Hills. I’ve been on TV now 5 or 6 years and I make millions of dollars on TV and writing books; it’s been an amazing brand enhancer for myself as a person and a woman, and its been a great way to communicate with young people.’
With her popularity leading to a reality show, Kell on Earth, as a contributor on Dr. Phil, and her newly announced position as judge on America’s Next Top Model, Cutrone has set herself up as a guru for young women today. So why does Cutrone believe her words have resonated so loudly with our generation?. ‘There aren’t that many women who come from the middle of nowhere that have built the kind of company I’ve built, that are available to talk to young women and show them that it’s certainly doable for them whatever their economic or educational background. Oprah’s not doing it. Suze Orman’s not doing it. Who’s really talking to the young people today that aren’t using music or acting to communicate? I’m in that position and it’s something I enjoy because I feel women need to be encouraged and empowered to make money their own way so they can be with who they want, not who they think is going to take good care of them because they’re incapable of doing it themselves. This generation had the post-hippy parents who are like, ‘you can do everything’ and ‘you can be anything’ and my message is, not so quick honey, you might go to Oxford but you don’t know how to take a phone message. We need to do a reality check. Young people listen because I’m the antithesis of what my industry represents: I don’t wear makeup, I’ve got black hair, I’m kinda punky and I swear, I’m kind of immature. Maybe that’s why kids like me, because I’m still connected to my child-like self.’
And her Kellyisms, are those reality checks preplanned? ‘No, they’d be a lot better if they were preplanned. Sometimes the things I say make no sense at all. One of the things I said in the Hills was, ‘the truth isn’t some happy little bluebird sitting on your shoulder, sometimes the truth hurts’. One day when the show was starting to get really big, I walked into a banker’s-type restaurant, and these banker guys were like, ‘Sometimes the truth isn’t…’ and I was like, ‘what the hell are you doing watching the show?! You’re not a gay guy or a young girl.’ They were like, ‘Our wives make us watch it!’ Sure they do! But I do cringe sometimes when I hear them back.
Having started her TV career on two reality shows, the Hills and its spin-off the City, that undoubtedly glamourised the fashion world and its inhabitants, Cutrone’s antithetical look is interesting. It’s as unique as her and her varied career path, something which has made her strive to always be her own boss. ‘I just don’t work well with others. I don’t like the idea that someone could fire me any day: that I could lose my house and whole career at the whim of someone else. When you’re an employee you’re always thinking you’re going to get nixed or something and I just wanted to do my own thing. I’m not a corporate girl – I’ve been offered ridiculously huge jobs for millions and millions of dollars, great opportunities with companies that are going to give you two thousand shares worth of stock and are about to go public, and you know the company’s going to blow up and you’ll be the girl who’s in the middle.’ But if it’s not money that has been driving her all this time, what has? It’s easy to look at the successful business woman today and forget the years Cutrone has spent sweating away in a ‘packed and intense industry’. For Cutrone, fashion is ‘the new rock’n’roll, in the sense that years ago everybody wanted to be in a band and now everyone wants to work in fashion. I just really like creating things, and I like the truth, and I like making noise, and I like getting attention for things I believe in and things I think are cool. I still get off on the fact that if I turn you onto something and you love it, that that message is going somewhere and I can share things that are interesting with people. And I also really love being able to see deep, deep inside a brand, maybe where the owner or the people who are creating it haven’t been able to see, and really pull out those threads, the DNA of the brand that are going to help it sell. I love watching a company I’m working with succeed.’
Cutrone’s second book, Normal Gets You Nowhere, is another no-holds-barred look at the world of business and what it means to be unique, to hold true to your individuality and make a difference to the world in the process. It’s been quite a journey for Cutrone herself, one that separates her form other self-styled mentors today – through homelessness, drugs and broken marriages, Cutrone’s made that enviable transaction from a small town girl with big city dreams to the lucrative reality. However harsh her truth might be, that’s a role model.