Mindy Kaling Is a Fashion-Forward, Comedic Superstar Adrift in a Sea of Sweatpants

Great comedy writers are often regarded for their quick wit and sharp sociopolitical commentary and rarely for their forward-thinking fashion sense. It’s not that writers are incapable of dressing well, but they usually don’t. Writing jokes is a career of sweatpants and sweat stains. Mindy Kaling—who makes the transition from The Office to her own show, The Mindy Project, debuting on Fox this fall—is an exception. She’s a wickedly funny writer who knows what to wear and how to wear it.

When she meets me at her office at Universal Studios, Kaling is dressed upscale casual. You can tell she takes time to dress, but she still looks comfortable. She has on a Smythe blazer, a popular pick for office meetings. “Though I’m intimidated by fashion,” Kaling says, “I really love shopping. Most of my friends just wear samples from their other friends’ fashion lines, but I would be miserable if I couldn’t shop.” Kaling’s love of retail therapy, she says, “is the first indicator that I’m not one of these super–intense fashion people.” Though she doesn’t buy into the insanity of the label-obsessed, she is remarkably influential.

More so than many television actors—certainly more so than comedic actors and definitely more so than comedic television actors who are not the standard sample size—Kaling has been vocal about her love of fashion. Though now defunct, her blog Things I Bought That I Love, was a space which she chronicled everything from sour candy to Christian Louboutin shoes. And its more recent iteration, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling, which reaches her 25,000 Facebook fans and nearly 1.8 million Twitter followers, is an eclectic look at what makes Kaling tick. It’s not just about the clothes she buys, but the shows she watches, the way she decorates her house, and what to buy for hard-to-shop-for guys. (Whiskey stones and leather coasters?)

Like her characters on The Office but with a somewhat bigger budget, Kaling has an unabashed enthusiasm for what she wears and a funny way of expressing it. “My sense of style is ‘new money’.” Kaling explains, laughing. “I love the aesthetic, like I just received disposable income, and more is more. It’s really fun.” She name-checks Helmut Lang (“always looks flattering and amazing on virtually anybody”) and her friend Charlotte Ronson (“super cute but completely casual”). Sometimes Kaling accessorizes with bright-colored costume jewelry: she’s a big fan of Tarina Tarantino’s work.

Kaling’s style has been called “quirky,” a label she’s not sure she likes. “I don’t think of myself and my style as quirky at all,” she says. “People call me quirky because I’m Indian. But I’m not wearing dresses from the ’40s or doing the hula hoop. The only thing quirky about me is that I have dark skin.”

The relationship between fashion and comedy isn’t readily apparent—comedy is generally about wearing what works, and fashion is, more often than not, the butt of jokes. But Kaling is among a new class of comedians sewing the two together: “If you’re fashionable, I don’t think people think you’re going to be less funny, not anymore,” Kaling says. “Maya Rudolph and Kristen [Wiig] are total fashion girls. They’re always rocking really cool looks by really cool designers, but I don’t think anyone thinks they’re less hilarious because of it.” Nevertheless, she admits, “I work with a bunch of dudes, at The Office more than even this job, and if you wear something a little bit too out there, or you even wear high heels to work, everyone assumes you have a super hot date that night.” It follows that comedy writers wouldn’t necessarily appreciate haute couture in the same way a designer might not get Judd Apatow movies. At its heart is the judgment that surrounds fashion as a pursuit—that a person should not only be criticized for bold fashion choices, but instead judged for caring at all. “Often,” she says, “if a character spends a lot of time on fashion or how they look, it is an indication that they are not a good person.”

This prejudice extends into the traditionally male sphere of writers’ rooms, which places undue pressure on women writers to underplay their girly traits for anything but laughs. “Most women I know—strong, smart, educated, funny women—are also interested in finding love or losing weight, or clothes,” Kaling remarks. “But if you’re doing a show, you’re told you can’t ever talk about those real things, or it behooves you not to talk about those real things, because it means that you’re not strong. But that’s crazy to me.”

In her 2011 book of personal essays, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling’s penchant for fashion and deep-seated insecurity has been wildly successful. And on The Mindy Project it blossoms even more. “Because the show is so personal, I have this nice advantage,” Kaling says happily, “When I have a personal taste thing, I get to do what I want. This wasn’t always the case at The Office.”

The Mindy Project doesn’t just reflect Kaling’s voice—in many ways, it mirrors her look. “I’ve always thought it was really cool when you watch TV or movies, and you notice something that was a great choice in terms of fashion, or even set decoration,” she explains. “I don’t want this to look like just another one of those comedies where everyone is wearing logo-less color blocking.” Of course, Kaling’s desire for specificity clashes with the legal and financial hurdles of producing television. She notes that if she wanted to have a movie poster in the back of a shot—Kaling has two on her office walls, Hannah and Her Sisters and You’ve Got Mail—all the brand names would have to be cleared, a lengthy and expensive financial process. “You are incentivized to make things as unspecific and bland as possible,” Kaling laments. “What’s great about my show is I said, right from the top, ‘No, I want things to be noticeable.’ I want people to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that. Oh, I understand that.’ I think that’s cool.”

The Mindy Project will likely bring Kaling new fans—and change the opinions of those who know her only as The Office’s Kelly Kapoor, whom Kaling calls “a mean 14-year-old girl.” On the new series, Mindy plays “a flawed person, a really funny person… an adult who can act a little childish sometimes.” Her name is Mindy, too. The character will be more true to the life of the real Mindy Kaling. She will, therefore, be very well–dressed.

Follow Louis Peitzman on Twitter.

Frank Ocean Comes Out, Reveals Falling in Love With a Man

Happy Birthday, America! Usually I would be offline today, as it is Independence Day and I can live independently without the stupid old internet, but I happened to log on and see some pretty important and nutty news: last night, rising hip-hop star and Odd Future member Frank Ocean came out via his Tumblr, revealing the story about the first time he fell in love with a man. 

In a screenshot of a text file called "thank you’s," presumably intended to be included in the liner notes of his upcoming album, Channel Orange (to be released July 17), Ocean recounts the events from four years ago. Here are some highlights below:

4 summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too. We spent that summer, and the summer after, together. Everyday almost. And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence … until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless…

I sat there and told my friend how I felt. I wept as the words left my mouth. I grieved for them, knowing I could never take them back for myself. He patted my back. He said kind things. He did his best, but he wouldn’t admit the same. He had to go back inside soon. It was late and his girlfriend was waiting for him upstairs. He wouldn’t tell me the truth about his feelings for me for another 3 years. I felt like I’d only imagined reciprocity for years. Now imagine being thrown from a cliff. No, I wasn’t on a cliff, I was still in my car telling myself it was gonna be fine and to take deep breaths. I took the breaths and carried on. I kept up a peculiar friendship with him because I couldn’t imagine keeping up my life without him. I struggled to master myself and my emotions. I wasn’t always successful.

Ocean goes on to thank those around him who have given him strength and encouragement, including friends, family, and the man who sparked those emotions: 

Before writing this I’d told some people my story. I’m sure these people kept me alive, kept me save … sincerely, these are the folks I wanna thank from the floor of my heart. Everyone of you knows who you are … great humans, probably angels. I don’t know what happens now, and that’s alrite. I don’t have any secrets I need kept anymore. There’s probably some small shit still, but you know what I mean. I was never alone, as much as I felt like it … as much as I still do sometimes. I never was. I don’t think I ever could be. Thanks. To my first love. I’m grateful for you. Grateful that even though it wasn’t what I hoped for and even though it was never enough, it was. Some things never are … and we were. I won’t forget you. I won’t forget the summer. I’ll remember who I was when I met you.

It’s a big week for coming-out stories, huh! While many were not surprised by Anderson Cooper’s announcement on Monday, Ocean’s coming out might be legitimately surprising to many people. And with the stigma in the hip-hop community still so large, preventing many other closeted members of the industry to keep their personal lives hidden, I have to applaud Ocean’s courage, especially so early in his career (he hasn’t even released a proper album yet!). Time will tell how this news will affect his career, although Ocean’s already strong collaborations with Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Kanye West seem like he has a high-profile support system behind him that will help him find his success as a solo artist.

Gakwer’s Louis Peitzman (who is also a BlackBook contributor) raises the appropriate questions about Ocean’s coming out and its affect on his career. He points to country singer Chely Wright’s comments, revealing how her coming out in 2010 had a negative impact on her record sales. But perhaps more encouragingly is the statement from hip-hop honcho Russell Simmons, who wrote on his blog a short reaction to Ocean’s coming out

Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?

I am profoundly moved by the courage and honesty of Frank Ocean. Your decision to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear. These types of secrets should not matter anymore, but we know they do, and because of that I decided to write this short statement of support for one of the greatest new artists we have.

His gifts are undeniable. His talent, enormous. His bravery, incredible. His actions this morning will uplift our consciousness and allow us to become better people. Every single one of us is born with peace and tranquility in our heart. Frank just found his.

Frank, we thank you. We support you. We love you.

That’s an incredibly promising start! Let’s sincerely hope this does change the game in some way, that it will encourage more tolerance in the community and also among hip-hop fans at large. I’ve already seen people on Twitter say that this is a bigger deal than Anderson Cooper’s coming out; that remains to be seen. But what I can admit is that Frank Ocean has set himself up to be a pretty big role model for a large group within a community that has long been silenced. I couldn’t feel more proud on Independence Day than I do right now. 

Is ‘Magic Mike’ the Greatest Gay Movie Ever Made?

Magic Mike is the purest reflection of the “It Gets Better” sentiment—a movie so gleefully homoerotic, it can give a boost to bullied teens everywhere. And for those of us who grew up on the bland, heteronormative softcore offerings of Cinemax and Showtime, it’s a stirring reminder that our culture is headed in the right direction. Deadmau5 may see Paris Hilton’s DJing as a sign of the Mayan apocalypse, but if 2012 truly is the end of the world, at least we’re going out in a blaze of bare-assed glory.

On the surface, Magic Mike isn’t a gay movie—it’s about male strippers and the women who love them. There’s even a romance, in which Channing Tatum’s titular meathead struggles to articulate himself to Brooke (Cody Horn). But Magic Mike is for women the same way Playgirl is for women: it’s sort of an open secret that gay men look, too. And for all its offbeat rom-com content, it’s also a bromantic love story between Mike and his protégée Adam (Alex Pettyfer). Not to mention a stunning look at Matt Bomer’s abs, Matthew McConaughey’s nipples, and Joe Manganiello’s enormous prosthetic cock. (We only catch glimpses of it, but it casts a long shadow.)

There is something—I’ll just say it—magical about a film like Magic Mike, which feels like gay porn without actually containing any explicit gay content. It is a charmed production, in which I believed Matt Bomer as a heterosexual and didn’t hate Olivia Munn. I also recognize that Magic Mike is not for everyone, in the same way that I recognize Tree of Life was an overblown piece of shit, but surely even the dissenters will appreciate some of Magic Mike’s more impressive feats. How often does a movie about male strippers manage subtlety? It all feels like a trick: abracadabra, and your reservations are gone.

Even if it doesn’t dazzle you, Magic Mike is an impressive feat—a mainstream movie with some big names behind it that doesn’t shy away from glorifying the male form. The amount of manskin exposed is something rarely seen outside of gay indies or foreign flicks about ambiguous French dudes and their foreskin. Magic Mike may be exploitation, but it’s harmless exploitation—and it relishes in exposing men, who are long overdue for this kind of overt objectification. You don’t have to be an expert on the “male gaze” to appreciate the differences between how men and women are sexualized on screen.

Nudity is a big part of it, naturally: contrast the number of women who have taken it all off on screen versus the number of men who have shown us more than a well-defined torso. Even the ass, which is basically all Magic Mike gives us, is still taboo: it’s not that we don’t see it, but it’s almost always for comedic purposes. (That holds true for full-frontal—think Jason Segel’s penis in Forgetting Sarah Marshall.) Magic Mike doesn’t just showcase ass—it showcases ass in the context of ass that is meant to be gawked at. It’s not a fleeting, post-coital glimpse; the movie is inviting you to take it all in. After all, that’s what you’re paying for.

Don’t get me wrong—there is substance to Magic Mike. I will spend the remainder of 2012 defending this movie’s non-guilty pleasure virtues to anyone foolish enough to give me a venue. But it’s those asses and pecs and arms that will bring audiences in, and Magic Mike wastes no time in getting us to the first strip scene. Nor is it restricted to a single money shot: the film spends its two-hour runtime swinging between its love story, its coming-of-age story, and the stripper known as Tarzan (Kevin Nash) swinging on a vine across the strip club stage. Magic Mike merits rewatching because of a mostly self-aware script by Reid Carolin and Steven Soderbergh’s strong directing skills. But it’s just as worth the repeat viewings for every rhythmic thrust.

Straight women deserve this showcase as much as gay men do, but I think Magic Mike will ultimately prove more relevant to the latter. The movie is coded for its gay audience: it’s not as overtly gay as Brokeback Mountain (still one of the few examples of mainstream sexualized gay entertainment, sadly) or even Albert Nobbs. And in calling Magic Mike a movie “for women,” while neither embracing nor shying away from any homoerotic subtext, the producers have all but guaranteed a cult gay following. It’s a gateway drug for those men who aren’t ready to fully commit to the “LGBT interest” genre.

Look, it’s not like a bunch of closeted guys are going to take their girlfriends to see the male stripper movie – regardless of how it’s marketed, any film with this much dude ass in it is bound to inspire some gay panic. But it’s the kind of movie sexually confused 15-year-olds torrent in secret, or something two bros might leave on HBO (you know, ironically) before they both give into it, and each other. I’m not saying that was the filmmaker’s intention—or that these theoretical scenarios aren’t odd for me to be imagining—but I don’t how else to articulate the subversive thrills of a wide-release Soderbergh film that repeatedly humps you in the face.

And for those of us who have already accepted and professed the love that dare not speak its name, Magic Mike still feels like Christmas. The movie knows there’s a thin line between the homosocial and the homoerotic, and it straddles that divide without ever really committing to one side. You get a movie where men embrace, talk intimately, come close to kissing, and even share each other’s wives—but where none of that is either overly emphasized or shocking. Magic Mike gives us exactly what it has to: we don’t need lingering glances to know two characters love each other (in whatever capacity), and we don’t need a movie to be targeted directly to the gay community to know that we’re a vital portion of its audience.

I could be wrong about Magic Mike. Perhaps I’ve been blinded by the strip-club lights, or at least the sight of McConaughey covered in bronze body paint. But I admire this movie, just as I admire the performers giving it their all. They might stand behind their “you can look but you can’t touch” rule, but they’ve committed to owning their sex appeal and exposing themselves. While Magic Mike does caution about the dangers of a party lifestyle, the stripping itself is portrayed as sweaty, lucrative fun. There is no shame here, which hopefully will convince audiences to be as uninhibited in their response. Sometimes a guilty pleasure is just a pleasure.

Alison Brie Graduates to the Big Screen in ‘The Five-Year Engagement’

“You are immortal,” whispers the barista to Alison Brie as she hands her a steaming mug of antioxidant-rich tea. At Café Gratitude, a vegan restaurant on Melrose, drinks are named after affirmations. It’s an exceedingly Los Angeles conceit—even regulars like Brie admit it’s a bit silly—and while her immortality is still uncertain, Brie is at least having a very good year. The doe-eyed, petite actress already stars in two critically adored television shows, Mad Men and Community, and she’s about to hit the big screen, summitting the Mt. Olympus of comedy typography: a Judd Apatow production. This one is called The Five-Year Engagement. It stars Jason Segel and Emily Blunt as a long-suffering engaged couple—like The Breakup in reverse—and features Brie as Blunt’s younger sister, Suzie. As Brie heads to our table to ingest her own immortality, I lean in to the barista and say, “I am gorgeous.” “You are gorgeous,” she answers and hands me green lemonade infused with kale.

Though only 29 years old, Brie has quickly come to represent a certain feminine ideal of comedy—quirky but never irksome, relying neither on Liz Lemon’s klutziness nor on Sarah Silverman’s potty-mouth misanthropy. Brie is just plain funny. She’s had nearly three decades to practice.

“When I was a little girl, I was always trying to make my family laugh,” she recalls, breaking into a wide smile. “I would perform little SNL-type skits with my sister. My signature sketch was about edible wieners. Picture me, a skinny little eight-year-old girl in Pasadena wearing a trench coat. I’d break into the room and open the trench coat to reveal a hot dog between my legs, and I’d burst into this advertisement. ‘You’re walking down the street and you get hungry, and you don’t have anything to eat. New edible wieners! It’s your wiener, but you can eat it!’” She sips her frothy brew between laughs.

In between appearances as Toto in a local Jewish Community Center production of The Wizard of Oz and, later, working gigs as a clown at birthday parties, Brie found she had a talent for making people laugh: namely, herself. It’s a trait that has served her well on the freewheeling set of NBC’s Community. “[Community co-stars] Donald [Glover] and Danny [Pudi] make fun of me because they say, ‘You just have this amazing ability to make yourself laugh regardless of how funny the joke actually is.’” Brie says. “I literally bring myself to tears because I’m laughing so hard.”

Though Community is a scripted comedy, it is one that leaves plenty of open space for improvisation. Over the last three seasons, Brie, along with co-stars like Joel McHale and Gillian Jacobs, have become adept long-form improvisers and comedic collaborators. This, in turn, has allowed for a free and easy set. “If you’re not shooting for some big laugh with every word that comes out of your mouth, then there’s less disappointment,” Brie reflects. “It’s more like a delightful surprise when something really funny does happen.”

“To deliver any kind of joke, you have to get the joke,” says Brie. Thankfully, Community members do. “I feel like the scripts were so funny already, and then the cast developed our own language, just like in any circle of friends. I feel bad now for guest stars that come on the show, because it’s like we’re talking in quotes from the show that we’ve changed and morphed into some other joke. It’s like an inside joke of an inside joke. How is anyone able to penetrate this at all?”

If the slang and shorthand of the cast has rendered the comedy of Community illegible to guest stars, the semi-obscure references can seem even more inaccessible to some viewers. (Community fans worry that Season Three may be the show’s last. And sadly, that decision lies in NBC’s hands.) But for many, it’s that tangible insider quality that makes the show compelling. “What keeps people coming back to watch the show,” says Brie, “is that these people are constantly growing and changing, and that those relationships are evolving. You can go see stand-up and laugh, and that’s fine, but it’s the story that should keep you coming back.”

If the Community set resembles the basement theater of Upright Citizens Brigade, the vast machinery of AMC’s Mad Men is a stately penthouse apartment. Brie, who plays Trudy, the ambitious young wife of upstart ad man Pete Campbell, calls the feeling “a bit more quiet and focused.” Actors are given weeks with the script as opposed to the fast turnaround of Community. “Mad Men is so much more about the subtext,” she says. Not that that subtext can’t be funny; it’s just that its humor is found after the fact. “When we’re shooting the material on Mad Men, it seems like it would never play into comedy,” she says, “because the circumstances in any scene are usually so serious and are taken seriously when we shoot them.” Take, for example, a scene in which Trudy laments the fact that she and her husband Pete (played by Vincent Kartheiser) can’t conceive. This, one might imagine, is a set-up completely devoid of any humor. In fact, on set, director Matthew Weiner stressed the sadness of the moment. Brie was instructed to dab her tears away with a napkin. (The tears were real. Though known for comedy, Brie has done drama. Her Ophelia in a Rubicon Theatre production of Hamlet was called “deeply moving” by the Santa Barbara Independent.) It was only later, when she watched the scene cut together, that Brie realized it was “hilarious.” “You’re looking at these two people, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, they’re ridiculous.’” Pete and Trudy are the only people taking Pete and Trudy seriously. But, of course, that’s part of the genius of Mad Men. “It’s just written in there, and these characters are just that way,” says Brie.

Both Annie and Trudy, the twin roles for which Brie is best known, are perfectionists: they’re driven to please others. But in her role as Suzie in The Five-Year Engagement, Brie plays against type—an “irresponsible party girl,” says Brie, to her uptight, permanently engaged sister, Violet. “It’s really the most flighty I’ve ever played,” she says, even though it still falls firmly within the wheelhouse of hilarity. Though Brie has found her place in the comedic world, she’s still interested in exploring her range and knows she can’t be an ingénue forever. She confides an interest in trying action, an urge that arose after shooting Community’s action-heavy paintball episode. Her attitude seems to be that if she has fun filming something, the audience will have fun watching it. It matters little to her if she trades on her stunning good looks—which situate her somewhere between cherubim, girl next door, and hippie chick—or if she subverts it. Sex appeal is fleeting; comedy is forever.

“A big part of comedy to me is looking stupid and being comfortable looking unattractive,” she notes. “Comedy comes before vanity.” When I ask about her evident sex appeal, she claims she’s “middle-of-the-road attractive” and worries less about the sexualization in comedy. “Being objectified, if it’s for the sake of the joke, is not such a terrible thing,” she offers. “We do it to the men on our show, and we do it to the women.” Whether Brie veers toward the Cameron Diaz/Jennifer Aniston School of Hot Comedy or follows the Amy Poehler arc; whether she forsakes comedy altogether for ammo, guns, and glory or the thrill of the theater (with three syllables) is anyone’s guess. Happily, she has an eternity to decide.