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Clothes Force

As co-host of a popular fashion makeover show, Clinton Kelly tells women and men what not to wear — and helps shape up their self-image.


by Anne Taubeneck

Clinton Kelly is cracking up a crowd of 500 at Ryan Family Auditorium, entertaining the mostly female audience of students and alums with juicy tales of his pop-cult career.

There is, for example, the story of how he broke in as an editor at Marie Claire by e-mailing the editor in chief, a total stranger, with the gutsy promise he’d have 100 story ideas for her if she’d give him five minutes. She did — the next day. Bleary-eyed, he had all 100. He got the job.

There is also the saga of Stacy’s knee (to come later), a tactile encounter that helped clinch his current position as co-host, with Stacy London, of the popular fashion makeover show What Not to Wear. The cable TV program airs at 9 p.m. (EDT) Fridays on The Learning Channel.

A Medill School graduate, Kelly (GJ93) logged 10 years in magazine editing and writing before landing in a reality TV world of sloppy pants, bun-cleaving shorts, tent-type dresses and clunky shoes. Now, people shout at him on the streets of Manhattan, where he lives one block from the show’s Tribeca neighborhood studios.

“It’s always on my way back from the gym with my hair pasted to my forehead and sweat stains under my arms,” says Kelly. “Then I hear, ‘Hey, Clinton! That’s what NOT to wear!’”

Kelly has come to campus as part of the Alumni Speakers Series, sponsored by A&O Productions in collaboration with the Northwestern Alumni Association. Medill magazine department chair Abe Peck, bantering on the Ryan stage with Kelly, remembers him in class as a “wry guy.” He left Northwestern and “got huge,” adds the professor, obviously talking fame, not fat. Tall, buff and boyishly easy on the eyes, Kelly can actually pull off plaid, his latest fashion obsession, which he is wearing in the form of a muted gray and blue jacket paired with jeans.

What Not to Wear, which has a weekly audience of 4.5 million to 5.5 million viewers, features real people, nominated by friends, family or co-workers, who are fashion disasters in need of a new look. (The show reportedly gets a thousand nominations a week.)

“Contributors,” as they are called, are secretly filmed for two weeks before Kelly and London “ambush” them with cameras rolling and invite them to spend a week with the What Not to Wear team, enticing them with a $5,000 credit card they can use to buy new clothes.

The shocked contributors (a government employee showing way too much cleavage, a human resources manager with safety-pinned pants, a financial manager in her 13-year-old’s cartoon shirts) must model items from their current wardrobes in a 360-degree mirror while Kelly and London comment, and they must agree to allow the co-hosts to literally throw away their old clothes.

The What Not to Wear “victims” learn the co-hosts’ fashion rules, go shopping alone for several hours with camera running, then are joined by Kelly and London, who assist them. After having hair and makeup done, they model their new outfits before thanking and hugging the co-hosts. Or not. There have been a few people “who were so ready to go,” says Kelly.

Diehard viewer Susie Axelrad, spouse of James Axelrad (KSM85), of Highland Park, Ill., is in the third row at Ryan. She says she likes the show “because they [make over] average people of all ages and every body type. ... Clinton and Stacy do this ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine. She is the tough one, and he is the gentler version. He’s soft spoken. He’s kind. He puts a positive spin on things.”

Kelly, who is single and 37, seems to have an almost Oprah-like connection with his female fans, appealing to them with his witty, off-the-cuff remarks (the show is not scripted), his warmth and what seems to be genuine concern that women get more comfortable with their bodies and how they look in clothes.

“Don’t worry that your butt is bigger than it was five years ago,” says Kelly to the Ryan audience. “Everybody’s body catches up with them at some point. When I was an undergrad, I had washboard abs.” (Laughter. Pause.) “I still do.” (Even more laughter.)

He raises their shopping morale. “Don’t feel powerless when it comes to clothes. So many people try on a pair of pants and say, ‘These don’t fit. They’re tight in the tush. They’re big in the waist.’ And they go home and cry over that. Take control. Take the power back — and tailor stuff.”

Earlier in the day we meet Kelly at the Sofitel Chicago Water Tower Hotel and talk about how he made the leap from Medill to makeovers. He is wearing plaid Burberry trousers, an aqua pullover (“silk and cotton with a little bit of stretch”) from Banana Republic and Bruno Magli loafers that look expensively soft.

Partial to pocket squares (he has “about a hundred”), he says he is really good at “rotating things out of my wardrobe. I hate having stuff that I never wear just hanging out in the closet. I think it’s like emotional baggage. I have adopted this European approach to dressing. Buy a few pieces that fit me really well and wear them more often.”

Kelly grew up in Port Jefferson Station, Long Island, N.Y., where he says he was “a preppy with argyle socks, an argyle sweater and a mullet.” His parents owned a beauty supply business. “They were partly responsible for big hair on Long Island.”

He attended Boston College and worked as a singing waiter. A baritone, he was president of that school’s University Chorale. “I was not a very good waiter,” he recalls. “I think I was overly concerned. I’d ask, ‘Is your food OK? Are you sure, because it didn’t look that good when it came out of the kitchen.’”

At BC, he decided to be a fiction writer. “But I didn’t want to be poor. I was afraid of living in the East Village, squatting in a tenement and eating cat food out of a tin. So I thought, I’ll write the great American novel in my spare time but get paid to write for magazines.”

Kelly started in the magazine program at Medill in January 1992 and recalls feeling intimidated. “I was 22, about to be 23, in grad school with people who were older with a lot more life experience. I felt like I didn’t know how to keep up with them. They were the types who had read the New York Times every day for the past five years while I was sort of doing keg stands at BC.

“I remember thinking the campus was beautiful, and I loved the people in the journalism department, but it was a tough time in my life. I felt like Chicago was a little bit of a cold city.”

Kelly thawed out in Medill’s intensive 11-week Magazine Publishing Project, in which he and other graduate students, working with Peck, conceived and produced a prototype of a magazine called Inside Comedy. Kelly was design director. “Clinton may have gotten a lot of good things out of that class,” says Peck, the Theodore R. and Annie Laurie Sills Professor of Journalism, “but he didn’t get a fashion sense. It’s almost like steerage in there because the students live in that room. It’s a 24/7 project.”

From Northwestern, Kelly went straight into a job as an editor and writer at a Manhattan trade publication called SportStyle, then became a host on a home shopping TV channel, a contributing editor of Marie Claire, deputy editor and advice columnist (Joe L’Amour) for Mademoiselle and executive editor for DNR, the men’s fashion weekly.

While at DNR, he got an e-mail from a casting agent who asked him to audition for the job of co-host on What Not to Wear, a show he had never seen. “They were casting a very wide net,” he says. At the second audition, he was seated next to London, known for her caustic sense of humor.

“We were just talking,” says Kelly, “and the next thing I know, I’ve got my hand on Stacy’s knee, and it was like, ‘What am I doing? I never touch anybody.’ I’m one of those people, like, ‘This is my personal space, don’t get close to me.’ It’s sort of a WASP-y mentality.

“I said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve got my hand on your knee,’ and she said, ‘Whatever.’”

Now, the two routinely “crack each other up,” says Kelly. By the end of the current season, he adds, “we will have done 140 [one-hour] episodes together.” (They have also co-written a book: Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body [Three Rivers Press, 2005].)

Kelly says he can relate to women who come on the show who are uncomfortable with their body types. “I started college at 6-foot-4 and 155 pounds. I was a walking coat rack. So I know exactly what it’s like to feel like you’re a freak of nature. To this day, I still can’t find jackets with long enough sleeves.”

Shooting the show is exhausting, he says. “But what is really fantastic is that we are changing people’s lives,” he adds.

What’s in Kelly’s future? Maybe another TV show, he says. Possibly more magazine editing. Definitely some writing. Perhaps even performing.

“I’ve never been too worried about where I would end up, say, five years or 10 years from now. I really believe good things happen to hard-working people.” Especially those who know what to wear — plaid included.

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance journalist who writes about the arts for the Chicago Tribune. She lives in Wilmette.

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The sweatshirt look works for college students who, Clinton Kelly says, fall into their own fashion category.
The sweatshirt look works for college students who, Clinton Kelly says, fall into their own fashion category. Photo by Mary Henebry