Carson Kressley Keeps His Eye on Success
by dorothy cascerceri
When you think of Carson Kressley, the fun-loving Queer Eye for the Straight Guy makeover maven and former competitor on Dancing with the Stars, the word “conservative” probably doesn’t come to mind. But that’s exactly how the Allentown native grew up, and it’s what prompted him to move to New York the day he graduated from Gettysburg College, to pursue a career in fashion.
“My family was practically Amish, and that is not a lie,” Kressley says. “I come from old-school Pennsylvania German stock—good conservative Lutherans. My style stood out when I was a little kid. When you grow up in a small town or a conservative family, it makes you celebrate your individuality even more.”
And celebrate he has. Kressley has cultivated a reputation as one of the fashion industry’s top makeover experts, first on Bravo’s Queer Eye and then with his own show on Oprah’s OWN Network. He’s a fashion correspondent for Good Morning America and also Good Afternoon America, which debuted July 9, and he is also developing a pilot for ABC that, as of press time, was still being kept a secret.
But even more exciting is the debut of his new line of women’s sportswear, Love, Carson, which is sold on ShopNBC.com and which launches this fall. The pieces, inspired by the styling he has done on numerous makeover shows, are designed to flatter all body types and are easy on the wallet. The idea for the line developed slowly: Throughout his career, Kressley perused expensive department stores in search of the perfect threads for his makeover subjects, only to find appallingly high price tags.
“It’s not okay for clothes to cost $250—that’s like a mortgage payment or groceries for the week,” he says. “As I shopped high-end stores as part of the makeovers I did, I always kept key styles in the back of my mind for this kind of project. I created beautiful, expensive-looking pieces that flatter every body type, and almost everything is under $50.”
But Kressley waltzed onto the biggest platform of his career when he competed for the Mirror Ball Trophy on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. That experience, he says, was the most eye-opening—and a bit of a role reversal.
“The cameras really showcase people for who they are,” Kressley says. “There’s no way you can fake it and pretend to be a great dancer, because if you’re not, it’s going to show. The cameras showed a different, broader audience who I was, and for once I wasn’t the one making over people. That show was about me—about my transformation—instead of me transforming others.”
He enjoyed the experience and learned so much about himself in the process—least of all how to dance, he admits with a laugh—that he decided to dust off his dancing shoes and spend the first half of the summer in Las Vegas as part of Dancing with the Stars Live, which recently extended its run to December. Whether Kressley will extend his own role remains to be seen, but he’s grateful for a chance to try to perfect his fox-trot.
“I wish I had been on the show longer, so when this opportunity to be part of the spin-off came up, I thought, I’d love to have a second chance at dancing,” he says. “However, I dance every day and still haven’t gotten better.”
The concept of failure, however, doesn’t deter Kressley, and he is no stranger to competition. The blond TV host is an accomplished equestrian, having spent a lifetime training on his family’s horse farm and competing across the US and as far away as South Africa. He returns to the Philadelphia area every May to ride in the Devon Horse Show, and he has certainly earned his bragging rights: He was on the World Cup team in 1999 and was crowned World Champion Amateur Rider in 2009.
“Competing with my horses is my real passion and love besides clothing and styling people and designing,” he says. “I’m very lucky my grandparents were in the horse business and that I learned how to ride when I was a little kid. My sister competes and my niece competes; it’s a great hobby that involves the whole family.”
His background as an equestrian, he says, opened up a whole new world of possibilities outside of Allentown. “Every experience we have in life builds upon the last and makes us who we are,” he says. “Even though I came from a small town in Pennsylvania, because I was a good rider, I got to travel the competition circuit, which exposed me to people with great taste and different styles you didn’t see around Allentown. This makes you worldly and gives you great perspective.”
His knowledge of the sport helped land him his first major job, at Ralph Lauren—a precursor to his breakout role on Queer Eye. “Growing up riding horses helped with getting that job because I fit their mold and understood the brand and the aesthetic,” he says. Kressley’s experience with Ralph Lauren was actually his only education in fashion: He never formally attended design school—surprising, given his styling prowess.
“Working there was like the movie The Devil Wears Prada, except everyone was very nice,” Kressley says. “I learned everything about the business there, styling all of their ads and even going to Milan and helping style runway shows.”
In the middle of his many projects, Kressley still finds time for causes near and dear to his heart. In addition to his heavy involvement with many charities, in 2005 he founded the Rainbow Scholarship Award in conjunction with Pride of the Greater Lehigh Valley, an organization geared toward building a safe community for people of every sexual orientation and gender. “The scholarship is about inspiring people to embrace diversity, and anyone in local high schools who demonstrates this can be eligible,” he says. “It’s a small way to promote diversity and tolerance.”
Kressley, who has lived in New York for 20 years now, frequently returns to Allentown to spend time with his family. He claims that one of his biggest sources of fashion inspiration when he was younger was his mom. “Growing up in the ’70s, there was so much crazy clothing and color and so many patterns. There was this exuberance, and it was also an era where people got a little more dressed up than before. Even though I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and we weren’t worldly or sophisticated, my mom was a great dresser and took pride in her appearance.”
Kressley took what he learned at an early age and turned it into an empire, transforming others from the outside in. And he is grateful for every moment of it. “I honestly feel like I haven’t worked in 10 years,” he says. “Everything I do is so much fun.”
photography by rainer hosch; Styling by Ashley Loewen; Grooming by Steven Lake at stevenlakehair.com