"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Every now and then, a real character emerges from a reality show — not for being outrageously evil like Omarosa of “The Apprentice” or Johnny Fairplay of “Survivor,” but just for being himself. From his whimsical knit caps to his dishy cigarette breaks, not only was Jay McCarroll the frank, funny, sometimes bitchy voice of reason on the first season of “Project Runway,” but he also walked away the winner and was awarded $100,000 to start a new fashion line. With the second season premiering on Bravo (8 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7), we checked in with McCarroll in New York to see if all his dreams had come true since his “Project Runway” victory.
I just caught up with the first season of “Project Runway,” so finally I know what everyone is talking about.
Yeah, it was good. I watched it, too, this weekend.
What was it like watching it for the second time?
I’ve seen it like a hundred times. I’m kind of addicted to myself as a character. I’m the leader of my own fan club. It’s good. You know, it’s been a really tumultuous year, so it was really nice to see it this past weekend and kind of get back to the purity of it, because at the time going there and filming this thing, it was really innocent, and I was a nobody. I pretty much still am a nobody. But it was just really nice to see what the whole thing was about, and to see how motivating it was, and how stressful it was. Now I know all the intricacies of business, and how network executives work, and it’s really kind of gross. So I’d rather be anonymous.
How did you learn more about the TV business?
From working on “Project Jay,” which is coming out in February [on Bravo], and being filmed for an entire summer. Because on “Project Runway” we were blind to it. We’d just watch it on TV. I didn’t have advance screenings or anything; I saw it when everyone else saw it. It’s fun to see how it got edited. But doing my own show, I had to be more involved because my name is attached to it, and just the hemming and hawing and back and forth about how everything works is kind of bizarre to me. I just figure people film it and someone edits it and they put it on TV, but there’s a lot more to a TV show than that.
What’s “Project Jay” about?
Just a recap from winning ["Project Runway"], and what my life has been after that, as far as looking for apartments in New York, looking for a studio space, trying to get licensing deals, fans interrupting me in the middle of my day, the Emmy dress that didn’t pan out — the drama on that one, God. You have to watch it; it’s pretty disgusting.
Whose Emmy dress were you doing?
Oh my god!
It had all the best intentions, but it didn’t turn out so beautifully. You’ll see. It really is a roller coaster to watch. It’s like watching a full hour of me, the funny parts, but then on the flipside, the traumas that go along with being me, and my self-deprecating ways, and all that really sad stuff. And you meet my family a little bit more, and you meet my friends.
When you watch it, do you get tired of yourself?
I was just having this conversation with someone last night. I’ve learned to just treat myself as a TV character. I mean it’s me being me, but what you have internally inside of you is something different than how you’re being edited. I mean, we shot 200 hours of footage for an hourlong show. It’s interesting to see how a storyline is being built out of my existence.
Do you play to the cameras more than you used to?
Oh, I don’t play to the cameras. I’m just that person.
So you don’t think you’re more on when the cameras are on you?
No. Mm-mm. Hell, no.
Were the cameras ever off?
No. We had cameras pointed at our beds.
Who on “Project Runway” played to the cameras the most?
Definitely Daniel Franco, which is of interest to the second season as well, because he’s on it and he’s a cheese nut. He’s definitely the cheesiest person ever created. And of course Wendy [Pepper] played to the camera … People held back, definitely. Especially in season 2, because they know the formula and how it works so they’re going to be careful with their words, whereas we were like, “What the fuck is this show?” I mean, it could’ve been the worst show on TV. We didn’t know; we were just on it. We had no idea what we were doing. Our first judging process we were like, “Why is Heidi pulling those stupid buttons out of that ugly bag?”
So how do you feel about Wendy Pepper these days?
Oh, you know, just add her to the list of weird fame whores. She’s really doing a lot out there with “Celebrity Poker Showdown”…
She won! She beat Camryn Manheim and Kevin Nealon. I mean, of course I got asked to do “Celebrity Poker Showdown,” but I’m not going to do that fuckin’ shit. I’m a designer. I’m not like a kook. It’s fine for someone like Sammy from “Days of Our Lives,” but I don’t know. It’s a really fine line, and I feel like a lot of the designers that were on the show are having a hard time with it, because we were marketed as half designers, half TV personalities.
Going through this past year and seeing how disgusting Hollywood is and how queer people are and how ego-driven people are … It’s all about money and ego and “You’ve gotta stay in the spotlight!” and “Strike while the iron is hot!” and all that bullshit, and I just wanted months to fucking change my hair color, grow a beard, and gain 50 pounds in a cave. It’s retarded. It’s really hard dealing with people being like, “You’re great!” It’s really nice from a lot of people, but, with really nice comes “Let me e-mail you! Here’s my card! Let me call you and call you and call you.” And I’m like, who the fuck is this person that I met in a drunken stupor in a bar? Fame is weird. Now I’m on Out magazine’s Top 100 Gays of 2005, and I’m like, “You people wouldn’t have cared about me until now, and I didn’t do anything for the gay community. I just did my fucking work because I’m a creative person and all of the sudden now I’m something?” It just makes no sense to me.
Do you feel that contestants on the show have trouble saying no to things?
Oh yeah. And I did, too, for months. The first couple months I was like, “Yeah, I’ll do interviews for everyone!” and “I’ll consider making clothes for a dog for a celebrity dog-walking show!” But after a while, you’re like, “I’m not making a dress out of chocolate. The only charity I care about right now is me, and I’m broke.” So you have to be careful, and that’s where the Wendy Peppers and the Austin Scarletts of the world — you know, great for Austin, it seems like he’s doing fashion-related things, at least — but Wendy is jumping through tires on “Battle of the Network Reality Stars.”
Who’s doing the most in the fashion world?
None of us.
What’s that about?
It’s taking everyone some time. We’re trying to sort out what the fuck just happened to us. I’ve been trapped in my studio for a decade, and then nothing more. I would just make stuff and put it on a rack. Then you have that extreme media attention. I mean, why the fuck am I in People magazine? Why am I in Elle or Newsweek or Time? Why do these people care? And then you need time to process that. I think if you’re a weak individual and you’re not a thinker and you’re a fame whore, then you’ll be like, “It’s great! This is exactly how my career’s supposed to be!” But if you’re really cerebral like I am and really conscious and you’re just trying to find the light in life, and you can see through all that bullshit, then it takes more time. It’s taken me months to process it.
Have you been designing at all?
Of course. I mean, I haven’t stopped. I came up with a collection about two weeks after I won, and then I was sitting on that forever. It’s been hard, because a lot of people in the industry don’t want to invest time or energy or money because it’s like, “You were on a TV show.” But the flip side, it is like a résumé, and I’m not the most motivated person, where I’m out there at Marquis and Air every night being like, “Yeah, I’m Jay McCarroll, and here’s my card!” I wait for people to kind of fall into my lap, or to come across someone who knows someone, and that takes time. Putting a business together takes tons of time. I saw Heidi [Klum] at some kind of party, and she’s like, “Why aren’t you doing anything? Why aren’t you doing more?” and, “When I was young, I went everywhere, and I did everything!” And I was like, “Well, I’m trying to set up a business with distribution and manufacturing and production and licensing and marketing, and you just show up at a photo shoot and collect a check.”
And viewers of the show don’t understand that I can’t make 5,000 tote bags by myself and I can’t whip up a wedding dress in a day and a half like I did on the show. I mean, those things were stapled on, sewn on, barely hanging on. It would be easy for me to do a fashion show straightaway. I could put together an entire collection, but how does that get to the customer? I can’t mass-manufacture that stuff when I have no money. I can’t distribute that stuff when there’s only one of them. There are a lot of factors that go into a fashion business that a lot of people who watch the show, people who were executives on the show and came up with ideas for the show, don’t understand. I mean, that’s why so many fashion businesses fail, because there’s so much overhead, and getting investors and proving yourself and putting out collections on your own and seeing how your sales numbers are and how your financials are. There’s a lot to it.
There is a glossy façade to “Project Runway” work. “Here’s your challenge to design something inspired by the pork industry! Da da da!” And the music is on and it’s all glistening and the pigs are oinking, and the pigs are slaughtered, and you’re making beautiful leather jackets out of it, but the zipper doesn’t work and it smells like fucking kung pao chicken. It’s glossy, but the reality of it is, this stuff takes years, and it’s going to take me years to do this stuff. But hopefully people will remember my big Sasquatch face enough to buy the clothes.
I’m working on a line right now. It’s going to show in September. There’s interest, but there’s still no money and I need a glob of money to make this happen the way I want it to happen. I can put out 30 T-shirts, but I want more than that. And now “Project Runway” is being shown in Norway and China, and it’s like, I get to now think about international markets? That’s great. The best thing that came out of “Project Runway” is the fact that they sold my soul to this planet. They’re all potential customers, so I’m not offended by that.
So your target market is a mass market, not a couture kind of thing?
Right. I want complete accessibility — affordability, most importantly. Because that’s how I shop, that’s how my friends shop, that’s how my family shops. I don’t know anyone who wears Fendi fur, and those people are disgusting to me. I don’t want that to be my market. I want those happy girls who are putting themselves through college working two jobs. I want those people who are young professionals who are just trying to make ends meet and living their dream. I don’t want those fucking bitches whose husbands pay for them to wear my clothes. I don’t want that! I don’t care about red-carpet stuff. I don’t care about celebrity. We’re in a really important time in fashion right now with the disposability of clothes. The Old Navys of the world — I love Old Navy, I love Wal-Mart — they pump this shit out. I don’t know how it’s being made, and I buy it for nine dollars.
Has your view of the world gotten darker since you did “Project Runway”?
It’s actually gotten lighter. Because once you know these things, then you can make conscious changes in your world. Ideally, if I could use organic fibers and no fur and no leather and no slave labor and organic dyes in my line, and have it produced stateside, that’s my only goal. And I’ll work with organic cosmetic companies and no companies that do animal testing. The way so many companies work is so disgusting. But the more I learn about that, that’s more leverage that I have. I’m an animal lover, I’m an earth lover, I’m a recycler, I’m a composter. If I can bring beauty to the world in that way … I’m going to be the “Super Size Me” of the fashion world, basically.
Do you think you can still make your clothes affordable?
Oh, hell, yeah. People are great with consciousness. If it costs 10 dollars more — I don’t want to market to those people who don’t care. I have this one friend in particular who wants a fur coat, for no reason — it just looks pretty. And me being Sasquatch and not growing up as Brad Pitt, I’ve been really conscious of not being pretty in my life … For me, my friends and family will get the first [design] of everything, always. I’ll give it to fucking strangers. I’ll send you shit.
In that case, send me that skirt with the circles on it, and the scarf that goes with it. That’s what I want. Do you think anyone sabotaged their career by bombing on the show?
No, we’re all pretty much lost right now. It’ll take time. We’ll see in the next year or two people starting to reemerge again. We’ve all been just sitting on ideas and plans.
So, it sounds like you need a lot of time and money to do things your way.
Well, I need a lot of money, and $100,000 sounds great but I didn’t take the money. I basically opted to pursue other financial avenues.
What? Were there strings attached?
I can’t talk about it.
That sounds like a serious injustice!
It’s fine. It’s been a challenge to work around that obstacle, and if I can make it work beyond that, then I’ve really worked…
I could’ve been a complete douche bag right now, I could’ve been like, “Yeah, you know it’s really funny, it’s great to talk to you, Heather!” I’ve been media-trained! I’d probably say, “The best part of ‘Project Runway’ is all the parties! I mean, I’ve met so many great people!” That’s not interesting. That’s what Nick Lachey is for and that’s what Lindsay Lohan’s for. I’m not that person.
Do you think your thoughtfulness can get in your way?
No. I mean, there’s a game to be played, but we’re in really crazy times right now with Hollywood and the media. Fucking Giuliana DePandi on E! news: “Breaking news! We’re interrupting ‘Gastineau Girls’ to tell you about Nick and Jessica’s big breakup!” People are getting sick of that, and people are going to want to start to strip things down.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)