Jay McCarroll: Wearing his heart on his sleeve

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn. ” — Orson Welles

We’ve been saying for ages that we were going to do an interview, and this week I finally got fellow Philadelphian, fashion auteur and “Project Runway” winner Jay McCarroll to sit down for an interview.

PGN: So what was a nice Irish boy from Lehman, Pa., doing working in pornography? JM: Wow. You’re going to go right there, huh? OK, making a living. I wasn’t doing it myself, I worked for a live sex website and my job was in management, thankfully. [Laughs.] I wouldn’t want anything to come back and haunt me. My job was to monitor the chat that was happening, making sure people didn’t say anything too inappropriate or intervening if someone recognized the girls from high school or had any personal connection. Then I’d have to kick them off the site.

PGN: It’s good to hear that there’s some oversight. JM: Oh yeah, the men would say terrible things to these girls, violent, terrible, awful things, so there were always two of us on each shift monitoring what was happening. We’d sit and watch eight hours of pornographic chat and kick off people accordingly. I then moved my way up through management but eventually decided that I was uncomfortable having everything in my house — dishes, furniture, etc. — paid for by porn. But no regrets, it was a very informative time in my life. I was helping people keep their jobs and I learned a lot about human nature; everyone wants to blame the women involved but they’re just supplying a service that multitudes of people utilize, so everyone needs to be under scrutiny, not just the girls. I mean can you blame someone for wanting to make $250 for 30 minutes of work? It’s hard to turn down when you need the funds.

PGN: I think prostitution being illegal is the most ridiculous law in the land. But I digress. Let’s get back to you. JM: I agree. Anyway I was, and still am, the youngest of six kids. My father was a bricklayer. My brother and sister still run the concrete plant we grew up around. All my sisters were in the high-school band so my mother made all the uniforms. That’s where I got started. And to clarify, we’re still debating whether or not we’re Irish or Scottish. We always thought we were Scottish and then my sister looked us up on Ancerstry.com and found out we have some kind of Irish history happening. So we’re something -ish, but not sure which. I had a very small-town-America upbringing. They were just normal folks, they didn’t drink or smoke or do anything fun. Well, my dad chewed tobacco, until the day he died.

PGN: What was the best thing about small-town life? JM: Probably the safety aspect. We didn’t lock our doors, left the keys in the car, it was that kind of place, probably still is. We didn’t even have a traffic light, just stop signs, a post office and a general store.

PGN: Who’s the funniest in the family? JM: My dad was funny. He was very much a character, outspoken and didn’t give a shit about what people thought. I definitely inherited some of that from him. His nickname was Butch! So here was the son of “Butch” McCarroll always in the front yard, twirling my sister’s color-guard flags or throwing batons and making costumes out of lame, it was crazy.

PGN: Who was the biggest influence? JM: Well, with six kids, by the time they got to me my parents were over parenting. So my sisters pretty much raised me. They’d take me on trips to New York and Philadelphia — I went to a B-52s concert at age 10 — and listened to Pink Floyd and did all sorts of far-out things because of them. From day one, I’d always been creative and preferred crayons over footballs, and with them I was allowed to be myself. It wasn’t until I left my house that I realized that I was different. When I went to school, people were awful to me. [Laughs.] This is becoming a therapy session!

PGN: When did you first start to think of yourself as a professional fashion designer? JM: I’m probably still trying to figure all that out. My family wanted me to be an architect but I wasn’t interested, I was fascinated with fabric and color and started making my own clothes in high school. Actually I started making things for myself around 8 or 10 so it seemed like the right path for me. I guess I felt like a professional when people started buying my things. I studied at London College of Fashion and after I graduated I moved back to London. I couldn’t find a job so I had my mother ship over my sewing machine and fabric and I started making clothes and sold them at Camden Market.

PGN: How did you get hooked up with “Project Runway”? JM: I was working with a nonprofit in New York called Gen Art that works with fashion designers and photographers and other artists. I’d done a few international contests with them and they sent an email out letting people know about the auditions for the show. And as they say [using an accent], “The rest is history.” PGN: So you won the first season. I didn’t know until now that you’d turned down the prize money? JM: I’m pretty sure, or I hope, that anyone in the same position would morally do the same thing I did.

PGN: I think you overestimate the morals of most people. JM: For me, it wasn’t even a choice. I have zero regrets about it. It was the best decision I ever made and, nine years later, I’m still confident in my decision. Sure, $100,000 would be great, but I could have blown it in a weekend and then what?

PGN: You’d be tied to them for perpetuity … JM: Actually, I can’t discuss any details. Look at me, I’ve become so media savvy!

PGN: [Laughs.] Understood, I guess people can Google it and see the speculations. What was your favorite challenge on the show? JM: My favorite part was actually the finale, because we finally got time to work on our pieces and got to do what we wanted to put out for the world to see. The rest of the challenges you had to whip something together and there were always stipulations on what or how you did it. You only had a day, so it was unfinished and you didn’t have a great selection of fabric choices. Can you imagine someone saying, “You have to build a house and you have 15 minutes to grab all the building materials”? You’d end up with a Duct-taped, cardboard and Mylar house. But if I had to pick, I’d probably say the dress I made for Banana Republic, inspired by the Chrysler Building in New York.

PGN: I like the unconventional challenges. JM: They’re great. If in your real life you’re a designer who makes beautiful silk charmeuse gowns inspired by old Hollywood and then you’re given Reese’s peanut butter cups to work with, it really shows how creative you are. But I also like when the designers are given free rein. When someone is allowed to do a piece they’re passionate about that expresses who they are, it’s fabulous, because sometimes they go too far. When they had them design for male strippers last year — while it was good-eye candy — it was ridiculous. I felt for the designers. How are people in the industry going to take you seriously when you’ve been on a show designing rip-away clothes for Australian male strippers? It wasn’t a high point.

PGN: You spent some time in Amsterdam, what was that like? JM: It was amazing. Crazy. I couldn’t do it now. I lived in an attic, with no bathroom or kitchen. I had to pee in a bucket and figure out how to store food without any refrigeration. It was weird but wonderful. Buying groceries, I shopped by the pictures. I bought everything with an orange on it because I at least knew it would be orange-flavored. Amsterdam is beautiful and romantic, sexy and dirty and sleazy and super free. Everyone was like, “Come on, have fun, eat cheese, smoke weed and have sex.” And once a week there’s an outdoor market that just sells fabric. It’s fabulous.

PGN: Where else have you traveled? JM: I’ve been to Asia and all across the United States, which is its own planet.

PGN: Do you think having travel experience is important to a designer? JM: Yeah, well the world is so cross-pollinated these days. We’re becoming one big globalized society; we’re looking to “third-world” countries for their handcrafts and color pallets. There’s not much we have that’s original anymore, we’re just regurgitating everything else that’s happening in the world. I don’t know. For me, I think I have my own little aesthetic and I find things, wherever I am, that fit into it.

PGN: So you won season seven of “Celebrity Fit Club”? JM: The weirdest experience of my adult life. Honestly it was a lot of fun, but it was super hard.

PGN: What made it weird? JM: I lived with Kevin Federline and Bobby Brown! They both gave children to famous pop stars. It was weird being with people we all see on TV. I mean, I’d grown up watching Nicole Eggert on “Charles in Charge” and then I had to deal with her as an adult in real life and it was not the person that I thought it was going to be. But it was a good experience. We only filmed for about 30 hours a week, so I had plenty of time off where I just explored L.A. All my meals were delivered to me, my apartment was paid for, my travel was paid for, it was great and I got paid on top of it. Amazing. And I lost weight!

PGN: Tell me what you’re doing locally. JM: I’ve been teaching at Philadelphia University and I’ve been named Fashion Ambassador for the Hamilton Mall in Mays Landing. I’m doing a monthly column called “Ask Jay” for the mall where people can send me questions about anything. Fashion-related … I don’t think I’m advising people on finances or sexuality. People have asked me, “Why a mall?” and I say, “Why not?” Coming from small-town America, the mall was my outlet for fashion. There was no Gucci store in Luzerne County. Going to Benetton or The Gap was the ultimate. At 13, the King of Prussia Mall was the height of glamour. PGN: How about what drives you crazy about your students? JM: We’re in such close proximity to New York, and it amazes me when they don’t pay attention to Fashion Week there. It bugs the shit out of me. So if any of my students are reading this, get to New York for Fashion Week if you want to be on my good side!

PGN: You went to Philadelphia University, right? JM: Yes, and that’s a good thing as a teacher because I know what they’re going through. I did the same program, took all the same classes and I realize that at that age you really don’t know anything. Everyone thinks, I’m going to go to New York right after graduating to be the next Michael Kors. Well, I went through all that and it’s not so easy. I try to keep them grounded. The business is not as glamorous and shiny as it seems from afar. It’s great, but be prepared for hard work.

PGN: They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but you can tell so much by the way people choose to present themselves. JM: We speak through our clothes. And it’s interesting because it can transform a person as well. You can wear a specific kind of thing and you’re instantly classified with that group of people. Like, I’m not goth, I have no inking to be, but you dress me up like that and people would automatically assume that I’m part of that group or that I worship Satan or kill cats or skateboard or something. It’s insane.

PGN: What’s a fashion trend that should never come back, anything from lederhosen to mustaches? JM: I love lederhosen. I don’t know, I kind of like everything. I think there’s a reason why it happened and why it’ll happen again. I love neon, I love ugly sweaters, I love things in bad taste, I like glittery things, I like modern clothes and minimalist things, colorful things, classic things. Even mom jeans, which you think of as ugly, are making a comeback. But I don’t like pleated pants on men. It makes them look puffy.

PGN: Changing gears: Any pets? JM: Yeah, I have an orange tabby named Woody and a black pug named Vernon.

PHN: Bad habit you’ve given up? JM: Oh, I still have them all. No wait, I stopped drinking soda in March. My life changed when they introduced Coke Zero. I had an unhealthy obsession with it, but I’ve kicked it now. It’s so yummy though.

PHN: I didn’t ask you about coming out. JM: It was hard because of my father, Butch. I told my friends first when I was in high school. I told them one by one and no one cared. I twirled batons and designed clothes so it wasn’t a shock. Then I told my sisters in my 20s, they all knew. But I never told my father. He’d asked my sisters and they confirmed it but we never discussed it. It was really uncomfortable for me. I had a brother who was extremely typical heterosexual — football-playing, married with kids, all boys passing on the family name — and then there was me. My mother knows. Again, I don’t think it was a big surprise, I take my boyfriend home for holidays. We’ve been together for four years. Matt, he’s a hairstylist at Adolf Biecker salon. PGN: What’s an adventure you’ve had with Matt? JM: We go see his family in Maine once a year and we always have some kind of crazy adventure there. We go to the family reunion, which is two hours of humanity and fun in the woods of Mount Katahdin. We also went on a road trip to Texas in February and hit Nashville, Austin, New Orleans and a whole bunch of places in seven days. And we didn’t fight! Actually we don’t fight, just over dumb shit like dishes. We know each other.

PGN: Before we wrap up, tell me about the fashion show you’re working on. JM: We’re doing a Battle of the Runways at Hamilton Mall. I’m emceeing the fashion show Aug. 15 with back-to-school fashions and we’ll also have a “Project Runway”-ish type of contest with people creating fashion from the Hamilton Mall shopping bags. It’s going to be fun. I’m actually hosting a number of events for them and designing a T-shirt exclusively for Hamilton Mall. They’ve been great, they even have my face on a billboard on the Blackhorse Pike!

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