Tim Gunn tells how he got a Lego up on the world

by Luaine Lee

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

14 February 2012


PASADENA, Calif. — Who would’ve thought that a set of Legos would lead to TV stardom?

But that’s what happened to fashion guru Tim Gunn. The mentor from TV’s “Project Runway” and now co-host of ABC’s daytime show, “The Revolution,” began constructing with Lincoln logs as a kid, graduating to Legos.

“In the olden days, Lego wasn’t a prescription, it was just an anonymous box, and you just did whatever you did,” he says seated on a leather loveseat in a hotel lounge here.

“I remember when their windows came out, ‘Oh, my God this is fantastic.’ Then roof tiles. So I developed a profound interest in architecture. ... because it’s about having that structure, that fortress, that safe haven in which to, then, put things,” says Gunn, who’s wearing a natty pin-striped suit, purple-and-white checked shirt and purple silk tie.

“I had a plastic play castle and I filled it with furniture made out of balsa wood and felt. It’s just been something that’s been intuitive with me and then of course, I studied it later.”

His passion for art and form continued through his troubled adolescence. “I had a terrible stutter. It was very debilitating and required several years of therapy as a late teen to get through it. When I become tired it still comes out. It caused me to not want to interact with people. By nature I’m very shy, very introverted,” he says.

“I loved nothing more than being by myself in my room playing with my Legos and reading books. It made me happy.”

With Gunn it was more than the usual adolescent angst. “I made a very serious suicide attempt as a teen from a profound unhappiness,” he confesses. “Was it related to my sexuality? No. I didn’t know who I was then, but I knew who I wasn’t, in terms of sexuality. I called myself a neuter. I thought I was asexual. I was 17.”

In a way, that suicide attempt proved useful. “Because it resulted in a really long hospitalization. It helped because I couldn’t run away. I was a prisoner and had a number of psychiatrists thrown at me — not at the same time — suddenly there was a doctor, Phillip Goldblatt, who’s still practicing, an amazing man who was with me five days a week. And he wouldn’t let me demonstrate denial, run and hide from these things. It was horribly, horribly painful. But he’s the one who just said, ‘I’m stepping on you like a bug I’m not going to squash. But I’m stepping on you, and you can’t go anywhere.’”

He credits his parents and his doctors for piloting him through. “I say to young people all the time: Life is a collaboration, you can’t do it alone. And it’s also ‘The Revolution’s’ message. Life is collaboration. You can see it by the five co-hosts we have and the areas we cover that we’re saying, ‘Sure, you could get one of us independent of the others, but collectively it is so much greater.’”

Gunn’s life in the art world spun him in a direction he had no intention of going. A student of fine art, primarily sculpting, he found himself teaching three-dimensional design at a school in his native Washington, D.C. Armed with degrees in literature and fine art, he says his design tutelage came when he accepted a position at Parsons School of Design in New York.

“I suddenly had to learn about all these other disciplines from architecture to interiors to fashion to product design, photography — many different disciplines which I had an appreciation and respect for, but I wasn’t an insider. I had to learn it and acquire it. I ended up developing so much respect for design that I began to look at fine arts as being rather self-indulgent and rather selfish, because design really helps us change the world.”

Though Gunn hated school, he found himself in a dual position at Parsons as both administrator and teacher. It was the teaching that fulfilled him.

“Being called back to the classroom to teach design was a great, great, great honor. It was also completely debilitating. I threw up in the parking lot of the school every day the first week of teaching. I would shake so badly that I’d have to brace myself against the wall of the studio to keep from toppling over and hold myself up with a desk.

“I went to my mentor and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ And she said, ‘Well, this will either cure you or kill you. And I’m hoping for the latter.’ And cure me it did. So that’s exactly how I did it,” he says.

“In a way, walking into the classroom is a form of acting. You just have to get over it, leave all that nervousness and anxiety at the door. I’d say to my students when they said they were nervous, ‘You need to learn how to act. You need to step away from this, leave those propensities for nervousness and shyness at the door. It’s important for you and your career and your life. And I believe that.”


Hulu is burrowing into the TV network act by introducing its first original scripted series, “Battleground,” premiering on Valentine’s Day at www.hulu.com/battleground. Reluctant as some of us are to watch TV on our computers, this one is actually worth seeing.

A behind-the-scenes look at the campaigners for a Wisconsin seat in the Senate, we watch — from a semi-documentary view — as the staff finesses and exercises damage control for the candidate — who may, or may not, be a lesbian. The cast is led by Jay Hayden, as the resolute leader of the crew, along with Teri Reeves, Jack DeSena and Ben Samuel. The whole thing is orchestrated by JD Walsh, Hagai Shaham and Marc Webb.

Walsh thinks that most shows that explore this subject do it wrong. “They do the kind of young, up-and-comer congresswoman who wants to get the bill across and help immigrants. And that’s awesome in the real world, but it’s slightly boring on television. And so we wanted to build a show that was just solely about how campaigns work. And I think that the trick was, we decided to make the candidate less important. So each season will be a different candidate. The team will stay the same, but the candidate will change.”


Ricky Gervais has unhitched another sacred cow he can milk for laughs. He’s already orchestrated a comic turn with his pal, the befuddled Karl Pilkington, who’s following his “Bucket List” over on the Science Channel. Now Gervais is belittling little people with his and Stephen Merchant’s new HBO comedy, “Life’s Too Short,” premiering on Sunday.

How does Gervais get away with joshing the sacrosanct? “I think I deal in taboo subjects, particularly in standup, because I want to take the audience to a place they haven’t been before,” he says.

“And no harm can come of taboo subjects. And when people say it’s sort of outrageous or sick or pushing the boundaries, I don’t see that it is. I think some people confuse the target of a joke with the subject of a joke. You know, you can have jokes about race without being racist, et cetera, which we’ve always done. And I think sometimes people flinch too soon. And very often, the target is people’s prejudices or the character’s stupidity,” he says.

“So I think smart people know what we’re trying to do. We’re not trying to be just outrageous for outrageous’ sake. That’s too easy. It’s childish and it’s pretty pointless. But I do think you have to go as far as you can to explore comedy. I think the job of a comedian isn’t just to make you laugh, it’s to make you think as well. So I have to be able to justify everything, and that’s the truth. I think I can justify. I shouldn’t have to, but I think I can justify everything we do.”


When “Celebrity Apprentice” hits NBC again on Sunday it will boast a whole new cast of familiar names plotting to get ahead in the pseudo-reality scheme. But Penn Jillette, one of the contestants, says it does no good to enter the strife with a plan. “My plan was actually from the philosopher Mike Tyson, who said everyone has a plan until they get hit.

“And everybody does have a plan until they get hit. And the instant that something doesn’t go the way you planned — especially with this particular group of people — all plans go out the window.

“What is a little bit depressing about working on the show is that even people who suspend their morality completely and are willing to do anything don’t do it well enough to do damage. I saw people who were willing to do anything to win and you could see that clearly that they had let go of their morality completely and they still didn’t win.

“I mean, it’s like a guy who decides to rob a liquor store with a shotgun and everybody looks at him and goes, ‘Get out of here!’ and he goes, ‘OK.’ He’s already done the moral transgression, and he still failed at his task.”

//Mixed media