Times Staff Writer

It isn't Steven Cojocaru's fault if an actress nominated for a major award steps onto the red carpet wearing a dress she might have borrowed from a crack whore, or stages a homage to the big-hair '80s, a ghastly goof sure to be captured by paparazzi and beamed around the world. There's no point in blaming Cojocaru for calling a train wreck of a look a disaster. He's just the messenger, honey.

"It's all about water-cooler talk," says Cojocaru, People magazine's West Coast style editor and reigning fashion pundit. "I'm my mother and my Aunt Mitzi, and my Aunt Rhoda, all these yentas who the day after an awards show are ripping everybody to shreds. What I say has a tenth of the vitriol that women spout with their girlfriends."

Except Cojocaru's verdicts on fashion crimes reach millions. In the last three years, his water-cooler-worthy witticisms have bumped the 40-year-old gadfly from the Hollywood fringe to the center of the crimson carpet, where fringe is lunatic if he says it is. With a weekly spot on the "Today" show, regular appearances on "Access Hollywood" and a column in every issue of People, Cojocaru's ascent has everything to do with his ability to make style, fame and the quest for beauty hilarious. On Oscar night, he'll be on ABC's Oscar pre-show team.

Who is this blow-dried bloviator with the outre get-ups, who scolds Tyra Banks for "getting in touch with her inner Barbie" when she attends the Academy Awards in a frothy gown and compares starlet Maggie Gyllenhaal to "a big doily" in the white lace Chanel number she wore to this year's Golden Globes? A flamboyant ectomorph who considers a conventional suit a Halloween costume (last Oct. 31 he turned up on the "Today" show dressed as Matt Lauer), Cojocaru apes the androgynous mode of Mick Jagger and Prince, with a nod to Cher, another childhood idol. "I am a shameless rock star wannabe," he explains. "I would like to wail on stage, shirtless, wearing a pair of beaten-up vintage leather pants in front of an audience of thousands of screaming people." He's channeling Steven Tyler, but the effect is often more Jane Fonda, circa "Klute." Never mind. The look has worked for him.

For the Golden Globes, Cojocaru is clad practically as a shrinking violet in a pale purple tuxedo jacket embroidered with butterflies. He starts working the red carpet at 2 in the afternoon, taping brief lead-ins for "Access Hollywood's" post-Globes coverage. His drill at awards ceremonies is to chat with celebrities on camera as they arrive, then again later at parties, all the while compiling a mental list of who looked great, who blew it and what trends surfaced.

The pace continues unabated until after 10, when Cojocaru collapses into a chair at the HBO bash next to his friend Merle Ginsberg, entertainment editor of W magazine. The two conduct an inadvertent rehearsal for the postmortem he'll deliver on the "Today" show at 4:15 the next morning.

Merle: What about Debra Messing?

Steven: Debra did chic but she was daring. Halle was chic.

Merle: Drop dead. Tell me your top five. Sarah Jessica?

Steven: I'm a fool for Sarah Jessica, but not tonight.

Merle: Renee Zellweger?

Steven: Very Laura Petrie, and I'm huge on Laura Petrie.

Merle: We are not on the same page tonight.

Steven: Here's who I'm gushing about tomorrow: Nicole, Renee, Salma.

Merle: Can we talk Goldie Hawn?

Steven: The body is to die for, but that dress!

He pauses to label the impromptu performance. "This is like 'Siskel & Ebert' but with good hair and makeup."

The sartorial scandal of the evening is Lara Flynn Boyle in a pink tutu and ponytail. When a photograph of her is shown on "Today" and Lauer asks Cojocaru to comment, he avoids unnecessary bloodshed. "Fill in your own punch line," he says. But one thigh-baring development has made him dyspeptic. "Mini dresses are fine on the runway," he says, "but on the red carpet the girls wearing short looked like cocktail waitresses at the Bellagio." Then he illustrates the point with a swishy imitation of a Las Vegas barmaid. "You ready for a refill, hon?"


Instant fashion criticism qua comedy is a strange art, but Cojocaru is a virtuoso. His knack for clever patter was the most important job credential he brought when he left his Romanian-born parents in Montreal and moved to Hollywood in 1992. "I have been fashion-obsessed since the womb," he says. It's nice that he knows a Versace from a vintage Norell, but it doesn't really matter. At the intersection of fashion and celebrity, all signs point to show biz.

"People want to be entertained by commentary on the red carpet," says Elycia Rubin, style director of E! and the Style network. "Entertainment is No. 1. Learning about fashion is second. What Steven does is bring humor and heart to fashion in a way that the masses can relate to."

The more elitist fashion's message and the more outrageous its celebrity ambassadors, the riper it is for ridicule. Mr. Blackwell was one of its first talking heads, a media creation with an arsenal of nasty quips. Cojocaru is more often naughty than negative, with a penchant for sneaking louche lines into his "Today" show commentary. (He recently proclaimed ties for women passe, "except if you're going to fondue night at Ellen DeGeneres' house.") Lauer says, "There's clearly something to be said for someone on TV who stops you in your tracks, and Steven does that. He's just so willing to have a good time at his own and celebrities' expense that he's very endearing

The best of Cojocaru's competitors are all comedians, including Tracy Ullman, who is sometimes drafted by "Today," and Joan Rivers, E!'s celebrity fashion maven. Women can easily sound superior or mean when they dis what other women wear. No one expects a straight man to know much about style. Although the notion that gay men are born with a style gene is stereotypical, it has given Cojocaru unique license to dish. "Most women on our coast love their gay best friend," E!'s Rubin says. "He's the person whose opinion you'll totally trust, because he's sincere, never competitive or backstabbing. Part of Steven's success comes from his being a very honest, caring, loving person, and that comes across on TV."

Even celebrities he's skewered come back for more. On the red carpet, stars are swarmed by interviewers hungry for sound bites. Microphones are shoved in their faces, while inane questions from "Are you hoping for world peace?" to "What did you eat for breakfast?" are lobbed. Along comes Cojocaru, able to crack up the dourest thespian by asking if she would rather be marooned on an island with him or preppy "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush. Those in the spotlight get to be playful with him and don't come off as pompous or stupid. "Access Hollywood" executive producer Rob Silverstein says, "We haven't ever gotten a call from anyone who was upset about something Steven said. And we get calls from publicists complaining about what we say about their clients all the time."

The disgruntled sometimes go right to the source. An actress smarting over a Cojocaru slur confronted him at a party. "I said to her, 'You cannot be serious. Are we adults and actually having this conversation?' " he recalls. "It's all so subjective. I don't want to ruin anyone's day. But they have to know there's going to be good and there's going to be bad. I might make fun of someone one week and gush about her the next. And if it's not me, somebody else will do it. Get some thick skin. Or don't walk down the red carpet."

Humble to fabulous

Traversing the Beverly Hilton lobby the night of the Golden Globes, Cojocaru is repeatedly stalled by strangers who ask him to pose for a snapshot or give them an autograph. They know he's air-kissed Hollywood's hottest, but they've also probably seen him begin a "Today" show segment by kvetching about his outfit. There was the morning he looked to Katie Couric to approve his lavender suede shirt, saying, "What do you think? Does it work? I feel it's bombing as we speak." Catching his own image on a monitor, he interrupted an exegesis on a line of Eminem sportswear to remark, "Oh. I think I might be getting too blond."

When he says he is obsessed with his appearance, the admission is pregnant with understatement. And yet the flashes of self-doubt, as regular as TV weather updates, frost him with divine vulnerability. His eyebrows are shaped by Anastasia, a fellow Romanian and the current brow groomer to the stars. His hair is lightened, blown, gelled and flat-ironed into submission, and his teeth demonstrate cosmetic dentistry's state of the art. He is clothed in designer duds and hipster accessories. Still, something is always a little off. Perhaps the jacket is too tight or the tresses too perky. Like the rest of us, including the stars who sometimes get it right and other times crash and burn, Cojocaru is still trudging the rocky road to fabulousness.

At the Hilton, the most frequent greeting he hears is "Steven, I love you!" He might have the look of a rock 'n' roll brat down, but Cojocaru can't manage a diva's rudeness. "I'm a people person," he says. "I'm gregarious. It's easy for me. It might not have been Switzerland, but I went to the best finishing school, watching celebrities on the red carpet. I don't understand cranky, miserable celebrities who do a Garbo number and spit on their fame. No one put a gun to their head and made them become actors. I went into this business to be noticed, and now that I am I'm content. I get clothes at a discount. I get my hair blown out whenever I want. I made my dreams come true."

As he details in his just-published memoir, "Red Carpet Diaries" (Ballantine Books), Cojocaru's incubator was that lonely suburban bedroom where adolescent outcasts dream of a glamorous, happy land, a meritocracy where beauty, moxie and blind determination rule. "My only lofty goals were to be rich and famous," he says. "I was obsessed with celebrities. If you had given me Gwyneth's flop sweat a few years ago, I would have put it in a bottle and built a shrine around it." Even a proto-fan would admit that stamping autographed pictures of a C-level sitcom actor was starting at the curb. Cojocaru advanced from low-level publicity jobs to a temp position in Disney's consumer products division that lasted three years because he charmed his bosses, "two sweet ladies from the Valley who kept me on the payroll to get them lunch," he says. "I had a ponytail and an earring, which in Disney terms meant I was part-transsexual, part-Lucifer."

He bumbled his first assignment for US magazine. But Cojocaru listened and learned, he schmoozed, he dressed to thrill, and he scored a job interview at People. "We live for this stuff!" was the E! channel's motto. Ditto Cojocaru. Style director Rubin gave him a spot on Joan and Melissa Rivers' "Oscar Fashion Review," then sent him to Cannes in 1998 to be part of Rivers' Cannes fashion show. A promotion at People to West Coast style editor the following January put the magazine's promotion department in his corner. As Oscar season approached, Cojocaru was ubiquitous -- sniping on MSNBC, cracking wise on "Dateline," mugging on "Access Hollywood." Jeff Zucker, then executive producer of the "Today" Show and now president of NBC Entertainment, saw Cojocaru on "Access." "This guy's a keeper," he said.

Today, Cojocaru could be savoring the revenge of a former nerd in extremis. He lives in a mid-century modern house in the Hollywood Hills with his Maltese, Stinky. Every week, they are flown first-class to New York, where the "Today" show regulars welcome Cojocaru like their favorite wacky cousin. "My life is about meeting deadlines and working the phones and catching planes and making sure my skin is at least marginally hydrated," he says. "It's high pressure. My job is the most bizarre cocktail of grit and glamour. It's strange being a scullery maid one day, and a diva the next. But I can't complain."

The "Today" show has expanded his role, giving him volunteers to make over. "Access Hollywood's" Silverstein says, "Our entire fashion focus is based on the knowledge, attitude and abilities of Steven." The nightly half-hour show is giving him a weekly segment, "Cojo's Corner," which won't only be about fashion.

So "the little misfit that could, the paid heckler," as Cojocaru calls himself, doesn't have career worries. But such pressing dilemmas as what to wear to the Academy Awards bedevil him. And when he spends a quiet evening at home on beauty maintenance, kicking back with a mud mask on his face, deep-conditioning goo on his tortured locks and eye pads working magic on the bags under his eyes, he wonders, "How long can I wear leather on the 'Today' show? Till mid-May?"

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