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Red-faced carpet

Times Staff Writer

COVER up, ladies. He’s coming back for the Oscars.

Isaac Mizrahi -- the Golden Globes’ red-carpet terror, the man who peered down Teri Hatcher’s dress, inquired about Eva Longoria’s bikini wax and, for his big finish, groped Scarlett Johansson’s breast -- will be prowling the hallowed ground in front of the Kodak Theatre on Sunday, microphone in hand for the Style Network.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Mar. 04, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 04, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Red carpet -- An article in Friday’s Calendar section about Isaac Mizrahi said he would be co-host of a two-hour special, “Live From the Red Carpet Academy Awards,” for the Style Network. He will do the show on E! Entertainment Television from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

Oh, God, help us all.

At the moment, he’s safely 3,000 miles away in his New York office, where he juggles designing a couture clothing line, hosting a cable-TV talk show, creating Broadway costumes and -- as if in a hurry to get on with it -- blurting out an explanation for his outrageous red-carpet debut on Jan. 16: “Just curiosity, honestly.”

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In his live report, Mizrahi managed to steal the show. (Who was talking about best actor afterward? Who even remembers who won?) He left his co-hosts and audience aghast with intimate questions (Queen Latifah, Keira Knightley and Jessica Alba all discussed their underwear), and catapulted himself from cable nobody to headline-grabbing somebody. Call it offensive or artful, Mizrahi is the first, post-Joan Rivers, to create a totally new kind of red-carpet presence.

“I just bring my own sensibility to the red carpet,” he says from behind a cluttered desk. Never mind the fabulously glossy white loft that serves as his office, workshop and set for his Style Network talk show, “Isaac.” His longtime office is a converted studio apartment in Chelsea that looks as if it were furnished by discards pulled from the curb. At the moment, the tiny space is packed by a backup team that includes his fashion company’s chief executive, a publicist and his dog.

“Being a fashion designer, it’s almost like being a doctor,” he continues. “You can touch a person because they cough and you can tell whether they’re ill.”

In his chatty way, Mizrahi explains that he was just being himself, an inquisitive fashion designer, by investigating the mechanics of all those figure-hugging gowns -- especially Johansson’s gravity-defying, strappy red number.

“I got my answer about her bra,” he says. “She was wearing this incredible thing that was very supportive. Whether it was part of the dress or part of the underwear, it was supportive, which I love. It’s ironic, because I wasn’t going after [a feel], I was just answering my own question about underwear, which is a very natural thing. To me, that’s normal.”

For the record, Mizrahi approached her by saying, “I just want to feel it. Oh, ooh. It’s totally working.”

Johansson replied: “What’s going on?”

Mizrahi: “I’m just taking notes.”

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Johansson: “Take all the notes you want.”

Offensive? Mizrahi seems confounded by the suggestion.

“I think everybody needs to have a great sense of humor -- if you really care about winning the award that much, then you shouldn’t be there because it really is a game,” he says, talking a mile a minute and gaining speed.

“People are watching you either win or not win,” he says, and unless you’re prepared to be a good loser, “don’t show up.”

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In fact, official rebukes have been few and mild. Oscar spokesman John Pavlik issued a vague threat when he said in an interview with USA Today that any impolite hosts “would find themselves in subsequent years having a harder time” working along the red carpet. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation complained to network executives about Mizrahi’s calling Charlize Theron’s character in “Monster” “a scary dyke with no teeth.”

Despite the initial reports from Oscar headquarters that Mizrahi not dare to be so familiar at their event, no actual warnings were given, says Gilbert Cates, the Oscars’ longtime producer.

“I personally think it was a tasteless thing to do,” Cates says about Mizrahi’s grope. “I think he is a brilliant designer and a very charming guy. I think he just got carried away.”

Many thousands of Internet posts have debated Mizrahi’s move. Some see it as harmless, coming as it does from a man who is openly gay. Others say he should have been slapped (bad manners are bad manners), while many others have hailed him as a hero for unmasking the pretense of award shows and their preening stars.

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Strange as it may sound, the last group has a point. Why call Mizrahi outrageous when in last April’s Rolling Stone, Longoria was waxing on about waxing her pubic hair, her favorite vibrators and orgasms? At the Grammy Awards, Hatcher wore a gown transparent enough to reveal her belly button and her underpants. As she told Associated Press, “I didn’t want anyone to have to wonder if I was wearing underwear or not.” And, of course, exposed underwear, thongs and bra straps have been part of the fashion scene for years now.

If America was outraged, the complaints didn’t land on the desk of Ted Harbert, the president and chief executive of E! Networks, which owns the Style Network.

Harbert said that he hired Mizrahi because “I wanted someone to ask the usual questions in a different way or ask new questions.

“I got what I paid for,” Harbert said. “I’m not doing my job if I don’t upset someone.”

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At no point did Harbert reach for the phone to have Mizrahi halt. “Isaac went down a direction with a few of his questions that became controversial. No one was as surprised as I was.”

Yet, Harbert admits that Mizrahi, by being gay, has more latitude. “If he were not a gay man, I would have got him on the earpiece and told him to stay away from that line of questioning.”

As a gay man, and a funny, flamboyant one at that, Mizrahi and others have what gay studies scholar Larry Gross calls “a eunuch permission slip.”

It reads: “I can do this because I’m no threat.”

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“He’s doing a combination of the official eunuch and a child,” said Gross, director of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. “He’s desexing himself in two ways: I’m just a child, and I’m a eunuch. He’s like Richard Simmons or Liberace.”

Like them, Mizrahi’s easy rapport with women has aided his many ventures. He’s known foremost as a fashion designer, first of his now-defunct women’s line and lately as Target’s man for clothing, housewares and even dog toys. He offers a couture collection through Bergdorf Goodman and recently designed the costumes for “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Threepenny Opera” on Broadway.

He’s also a media presence, having starred in the 1995 documentary “Unzipped” and appeared in the one-man off-Broadway show “Les MIZrahi.” He’s the author of “The Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel,” a fashion comic book. He hosted a talk show for three years on the Oxygen Network, and since December he’s landed top talent on his new show, “Isaac.”

Singer Lisa Loeb has been a guest on both. On his Oxygen show, at his request, she showed Mizrahi her panties, “some really cute underwear from Japan.” For the new Style show, they again discussed her underwear, and with the cameras also rolling for her reality show, “Number 1 Single,” Loeb paraded in her thong. Loeb, who calls herself a prankster, included the scene in her show because “it’s one of those fun, silly things to do.”

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And, well, if it helps the ratings, so be it.

“It’s a mistake to read these things on the surface without acknowledging that he is being deliberately provocative, either at the instruction of his producers or by his own belief that it will work,” Gross said. “This is in context of a medium that got freaked out by Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.”

Still, for others a line was crossed. Vincent Boucher, who is the stylist for Hatcher, said the issue must be taken in the context of professionalism.

“I don’t think looking down anyone’s dress is ever appropriate on television,” Boucher said. But like a lot of people who know Mizrahi, they figure it was just Isaac being Isaac.

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“He’s probably been in a gazillion fittings with models,” Boucher said. “It’s a professional occurrence. That was the thing: I kind of felt like he forgot where he was.”

Boucher, like television executives, said that with the intense attention on the red carpet from cable channels to tabloids and the Internet, there is a lot of competition for ratings and attention.

“You need, like, a novelty act to break through,” he said.

Similarly, Cates likened the touch to the Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction,” an incident that he says received “excessive response” and resulted in a new five-second delay on live shows.

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He doesn’t expect such high jinks at the Oscars.

“No one is going to touch anyone’s private parts at the Oscars,” says Cates. “It’s just not done.”

At least, not yet.


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