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.

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