After more than 30 years in the fashion and entertainment industries, Isaac Mizrahi is proving determination and courage never go out of style. The larger-than-life fashion designer—who has conquered television, cabaret stages, and more—is slated to bring his honesty, insight, and wit to Houston on March 28.
“An Evening with Isaac Mizrahi, benefiting The Jung Center” will give the cultural influencer a chance to share his story that begins with his upbringing in a traditional Syrian Jewish Orthodox family. Mizrahi reflects on generational homophobia as he recalls his coming-out journey, saying, “It was not just difficult, it was impossible. My perspective on all of this has to do with being an outsider in my family.”
Dancing to the beat of his own drummer since childhood, Mizrahi’s defenses helped him survive. “It never occurred to me to follow the path of some gay men who seek approval from their original family. That never occurred to me. I just kind of went off on my own and just jumped out into the world.”
Growing up in a conservative religion also framed Mizrahi’s early perceptions of what it meant to be gay. “It was a very strange thing to grow up being told that you’re supposed to be stoned to death [for being gay]. As a child, this is something I heard every day growing up. I thought that this can’t possibly be—there must be another alternative.”
Both his teachers and his parents did their best to indoctrinate the young Mizrahi. “I was born with this idea that being different was a good thing. However, I was being bullied by my teachers, my rabbis, and I felt this sort of bullying by my parents. It was really bad.”
Despite his current faith journey, he refers back to the religious ideology that made most sense to him. “I was lucky, because I was born with this idea that I would be okay. If you believe in God and that God created you, then how could he be so two-dimensional as to adore some of his creations and hate others? I worry about those who understand things in that way, and who are beholden to the people around them. They listen, and they take that in.”
The familial aspect of coming out is ongoing for the fashion icon, who speaks fondly of his sisters despite their negative perceptions of the LGBTQ community. Mizrahi explains that his siblings still take a hands-off approach when it comes to their relationship with him. “My sisters and I were very close growing up, but they have become even more religious,” he explains. “So they relate to me on whatever terms that they feel safe [in doing]. I don’t know why anyone who [has been rejected by conservative religions] would go begging to be accepted into a world like that.”
Since Mizrahi saw little to no queer representation in the media while growing up, he turned to the iconic divas. “We had no queer role models; you had to go out and find your own,” he recalls, naming Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand among his top influences. “These people whose work actually resonated with us—their pain, the beauty of their art, or whatever it was—it was transcendent.”
Mizrahi ultimately left home when he was in his twenties. “I didn’t expect people to understand my sexuality—but also, why is it my job to make them understand?” he observes. “I never felt the necessity to go and find some kind of acceptance there, partially because the world I was interested in was a bigger, better world.”
The world was indeed his oyster, and Mizrahi hit the ground running. During a meeting with one of his mentors who is psychic, he was told he would reach larger audiences someday—an insight that proved to be prophetic.
When a premier magazine did a profile on Mizrahi’s success in the early 1990s, he decided to maximize its impact by coming out publicly. “New York magazine did a cover story about my ‘meteoric rise.’ I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to lie to them. I’m not going to dodge the question [about my sexuality]. If they ask, I’m just gonna be this openly gay person. It would be such a great thing.’ I felt that there was a breakthrough event to take place.”
His leap of faith proved to be groundbreaking. “When I made that decision, it was a conscious one,” he says. “I saw a friend of mine after the article came out, and he said, ‘Oh darling, I’m so sorry. They outed you.’ I said, ‘No, no, wait a second. Nobody outed me, honey—I came out!”
Throughout his career, Mizrahi discovered that the world had a lot of catching up to do. Hollywood and pop culture kept him in a safe box where he could be the type of gay man that the public was comfortable with.
“Black people go through that, Asian people go through that, Jews go through it. That’s what we have to go through. This kind of crazy, weird, white American thing, which is luckily changing so much,” he says. “It takes them a minute to get over the fact that you’re not just the two-dimensional clown version of your ethnic or gender selves, but that you have dimensions and that you are smart and that you are not a threat to their happiness.”
His upcoming Houston lecture at the River Oaks Country Club is yet another leap of faith for Mizrahi, who intends to speak about several aspects of his life, including his mental-health journey. “Doing this talk is a little scary, because what the hell do I know? I’m not a trained psychiatrist,” he says—despite having been in therapy since the age of 8. “Therapy saved my life. All those people telling me that I needed to correct this thing, that I needed to not be gay, that I [didn’t really] want to be an artist—they were never right. I knew they were wrong. I knew that I was different, and that was a good thing.”
Mizrahi was born in 1961, and watched Sesame Street on TV religiously as a child. On the screen he saw people of all ages, colors, and religions cohabitating. With the recent surge in anti-semetic and anti-LGBTQ hate in America, Mizrahi yearns for that innocent illusion he grew up with, thinking of an oasis where people of all kinds could come together. “I’m not sure what [to say] in terms of hope for the future, except for the fact that I know that statistically, the country is turning browner, and more gay, and more Asian, and it’s changing into that world we all hope for,” he says. “The ebb and flow of hope is hope itself.”
With decades of iconic work under his belt, Mizrahi will have plenty to share at his upcoming Houston event. His story should offer hope to people of all ages—especially those who may not feel as comfortable stepping out into the world as boldly as he did at a young age. “If you’re gay and you’re hopeless, it is so important to expose yourself to good examples of queer diversity . I’m not sure what the hell that is. Is it RuPaul’s Drag Race? I think that’s part of it. And reading certain books or reaching out to certain support groups. The more you do that—the more of an effort you make—the more it will become natural, and you will find that confidence from within.”
What: Isaac Mizrahi appearance at The Jung Center’s Spring Benefit
When: Tuesday, March 28, 2023
Where: River Oaks Country Club • 1600 River Oaks Blvd, Houston, TX 77019