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Simon Doonan: New York's favourite gay man

Simon Doonan's caustic social commentary has made him the city's favourite gay man. Not bad for a window dresser from Reading
  • @johnhenrywalsh

Since discovering his second vocation a decade ago, at 49, Simon Doonan has become a fixture on the New York scene. His books of wry, bitchy social observation are bestsellers. He writes a column for Slate.com. He delivers caustic one-liners on sheeny TV shows like Gossip Girl and America's Next Top Model. Madonna is a fan. So is Joan Rivers. And Malcolm Gladwell, the wiggy genius author of The Tipping Point. Simon has a day job at Barneys New York, the ritzy department store, of which more later. Run his name on Google Images and you'll find snaps of him sharing jokes with the cream of Manhattan's exhibitionists, in a seemingly inexhaustible succession of explosive floral chemises. Not bad, on the whole, for a British window dresser from Reading.

It's amazing but true. The petite (5ft 4ins) pontifical, ubiquitous, party-haunting Doonan, who once topped a Time Out list of "the gayest people in New York City," is a chap from Berkshire, whose father worked for the BBC, monitoring Radio Moscow through the Cold War, and who talks with a nostalgic sigh about Radio 4, Marc Bolan and gay high jinks with Mancunian taxi drivers circa 1972.

This double identity gives his new book, Gay Men Don't Get Fat, a fascinating tone: a camp and twittery New York monologue, full of the dropped names of Greenwich Village scenesters, interspersed by frightfully English references to the Wolfenden Report, the gay polare of Round the Horne, elderly synonyms for "homosexual" (poofter, queer, mo) and phrases such as "I waited for her to bugger off" that you'd never hear on an echt Manhattanite's lips. His literary predecessor is an Anglo-Irishman who died 112 years ago and prompts reflections such as: "There was a time when we gays lived in the shadows. We were, to quote Oscar Wilde's boyfriend, 'the love that dare not speak its name'. Now times have changed and we are no longer the love that dare not speak its name; rather we are the love that won't shut the fuck up."

The book's 18 essays cover many aspects of the gay world (fag hags, liposuction, "bears") and gay aspects of the world that you hadn't realised were gay. Like food. According to Doonan, there aren't four food groups, as popularly supposed: just gay food and straight food. Slabs of wild boar are straight. Fillets of sole meunière are gay. Mexican burritos are straight as Tarzan, while sushi is the gayest food on earth. And, he points out, the gayest dishes are invariably prepared by the toughest heteros. "Scratch a butch chef and you'll find a bitch," says Doonan in his typically swishy way.

By now you'll have a sense of the book's USP, which is to describe the world in ridiculous generalisations, then make the reader laugh by backing them up. Wasn't it too outrageous, I asked, to suggest that environmentalist culture is essentially lesbian? "As far as I'm concerned, they invented it," said Doonan. "The organic food movement started with all those oatmeal dykes in San Francisco in the early 1970s, those community tables where you share lumps of crusty bread – all that hearty Sapphic stuff produced a new sensibility about food, about how honest and organic the ingredients should be. To me it's so screechingly obvious."

A constant theme in Doonan's writing is that gay people lead better, healthier, more dramatic, honest and emotionally fulfilling lives. At a (straight) barbecue party, he examines the hetero guests with an anthropologist's eye. He clocks "the backslapping, the goofy badinage," the men's sunburnt flesh, their dull conversation ("Nobody Gagas, or Ke$has or Beyoncés or slags anyone off. And nobody shares a beauty tip.") their Bahama shirts and surfer shorts, their feeding frenzy at the chips'n'guacamole table. Meeting a bitchy Frenchwoman, Doonan realises they have much in common – about accessories, taste, colour sense, attitudes to men, calorific intake – and has "a deep and profound realisation. Gay men are French women... with penises".

That's all very well, Simon, I say, but you describe yourself as going to the party in orange-and-yellow, daisy-print Caprese shorts, twinned with a Liberty print shirt "dripping with lilies" and a cowboy hat. Who on earth would take you for a fashion guru? "For me, style is about mayhem and eccentricity and being over the top," says Doonan, a little hurt. "My primary interest is unconventional style. I don't really have the gay-helpful gene, the guys who rush around on makeover shows, making everyone look 'appropriate'. I'm interested in making people look completely insane. It comes from living in London during the punk era, when people broke all the rules and had no sense of decorum, people like Leigh Bowery, Zandra Rhodes, Andrew Logan."

He lives in Greenwich Village with his civil partner Jonathan Adler, a top interior designer. Its palate of acid greens, orange and blues, its beautiful mishmash of styles, objets trouvé, glass figurines and gold-tap bidets, have featured in magazines. How much was his input? "I'd say 90 per cent is Jonnie's and the 10 per cent insanity component is me from 40 years of window displays, which has given me an irrational approach to home décor. The head of Prince, and the Michael Jackson bust came from a Barneys window. The Gothic mirror, I found in a junk shop in Miami years ago. When I look at our pad, I often think of The Avengers – the groovy, moderne style of Emma Peel and the clubby, farty eccentricity of John Steed."

So is he "An Englishman in New York", like in the Sting song? He sighs. "I'm not one of those people who eat tea and scones, and buy Smarties and Cadbury's Flakes. There are people in New York who can't live unless they have a Bounty to munch on. I don't fetishise those aspects of England. Once in a while I hack into the BBC website and listen to Desert Island Discs, for a trip down Memory Lane."

Doonan came to live in America in 1978, when he was 26. He's been a window dresser all his life, first at Heelas, a Reading department store, then Aquascutum in London and Tommy Nutter's groovy shop in Savile Row. His witty designs were spotted by the owner of Maxfield, the LA department store, who invited Doonan to come and do his shop. Eight years later he was signed up by Barneys, and has remained there ever since. After a quarter-century of adjusting mannequins and playing with fenestral special effects, of which was he proudest? "One that got a lot of pick-up was the "Iron Lady" window in 1989 – I did her as a dominatrix in this kinky dress. She was ironing while listening to Iron Maiden, and there was a genuine iron maiden [the Tudor torture machine] in the display, with a strong suggestion that her husband was stuffed inside it."

His second life as a writer came about when a New York publisher suggested he did a book of all his window designs. "He asked me to write an introduction and when I did he said, 'This is hilarious, we must make the book text-driven'. So I wrote the whole thing, and from that I got the job as columnist on the New York Observer. Then Madonna bought the rights to Confessions of Window Dresser, and it all took off." He pauses, reflectively. "Nobody was more surprised than I. Because I failed my 11-plus and for 45 years, I thought I must be very stupid. At 12 you're off to the technical school, where all the girls are learning to be typists and you're kicked out at 16. But being a resilient homo, I went to a nearby grammar school and did my A levels and managed to get into Manchester University. But I wasn't concentrating. It was bang in the middle of David Bowie and Roxy Music. I was focused on getting tarted up to go out and have fun."

Exactly one year ago, a small cloud appeared on the horizon of this ceaselessly buoyant and amusing man. Mark Lee, the new chief executive at Barneys, changed Doonan's job from Creative Director to Creative Ambassador-at-Large. This was seen as a demotion. "Nobody gets promoted to anything with 'at-large;' in the title," said an insider. So what does he actually do? "Oh, I love my new job at Barneys," said Doonan with a convincing show of enthusiasm. "I have the job everybody wants. I get to wear a sash – metaphorically, of course. It's more relating to publicity and special events and being a Face of the Company, that kinda stuff. Its not as, ah, task-oriented as my previous job. But I love it and I'm very happy."

Will he offer advice to his successor? Will he steer the faltering steps of his window-design replacement? "Oh no, no, I'm applauding wildly from the sidelines." And abruptly, the unsinkable Mr D's voice changed into camp Cockney sparrow: "I mean, I don't want to piss on me chips..."

Gay Men Don't Get Fat (Blue Rider Press)