Backstage with Tommy Hilfiger at the Princeton Hyatt, with an audience of 400 or so sitting in anticipation of the iconic clothing designer:
Peter Crowley, the Princeton Chamber of Commerce CEO, is at the podium, already greeting the crowd. Just outside the ballroom Hilfiger, the author of a new memoir, “American Dreamer,” is standing by with his entourage and me, the journalist recruited to engage the celebrity in conversation for the next 45 minutes or so. Hilfiger and I are ready for our cues.
But something is wrong, and it’s as clear as the look of consternation on the face of Hilfiger’s massive security man.
A few moments before, as we were making our way from the VIP reception, I had heard Hilfiger tell his people that “we need to get out in front of this. Tweet it out, put it on Facebook.” Hilfiger’s people pull out their cellphones. I find out eventually that Hilfiger has been quoted in Yahoo Style, reporting that his casting director originally viewed the clothing line’s new star model, Gigi Hadid, as being “not quite as tall as the other girls, not quite as thin.”
Hilfiger’s quick response puts out the fire: “Gigi is the epitome of perfection. . . not just because of her face, not just because of her body, but because of who she is.”
All that is taken care of within seconds. But the security guy’s look of consternation continues, and — I now notice — is fixed directly on me. He walks over, reaches for my suit jacket, and rearranges the lavaliere microphone cord.
“Is there a problem with the mike?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “It’s this.” I’m wearing a three-button jacket, and I have the middle button buttoned. The security guy reaches down and buttons the top button, as well.
“Two buttons — are you sure?” I ask.
He smiles. “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “I’m sure.”
A few seconds later the door opens and I’m on. It’s showtime.
Since that celebrity appearance, I’ve been asked by lots of people: How did it go? People who were there told me it went well, but I don’t really know. What I do know is that holding a 45-minute conversation with a newsmaker in front of a crowd is a lot different from conducting a 45-minute one-on-one interview. If you watch a guy like Charlie Rose and think it’s easy, think again.
With the public conversation you have one eye on the clock, one eye on your script, and an ear turned toward what your subject is saying. In the private, one-on-one interview you drill down as deeply as you can. You know it went well if you hear something totally unexpected from your source.
I think I had a little insight into Tommy Hilfiger because he and I grew up within 40 miles or so of each other in upstate New York — me four years ahead of Hilfiger. So we traded some small talk before we got down to business. For Tommy and me it was memories of Ernie Davis, the football star from Tommy’s alma mater, Elmira Free Academy, who became the first black to ever win the Heisman trophy; the humiliation of being turned away by the high school football team because we were deemed too small; getting paper routes to provide spending money during high school. Tommy paid $15 for his; I paid $40.
Then it was on to business.
One question was about his various failures. Hilfiger had plunged into his first business, bringing to his hometown of Elmira the clothes of the counter-culture that he saw at rock music festivals in places like Watkins Glen in upstate New York and the East Village of Manhattan. Think bell bottom pants, for example. Hilfiger didn’t have to rely on any business plan or management training manual and he had a good explanation for why not. “I wouldn’t have been able to read it — I was dyslexic.”
In his book Hilfiger makes a point that I have made: That celebrities have the same insecurities as anyone else. I tried to get Tommy to reveal one of his own: As many failures as he has experienced on the road to incredible success, the ones that seem most hurtful are those that reflect on his creative sense rather than his business acumen. He describes the moment when Landlubber jeans dismissed his designs: “In my heart I knew I had it right. I knew it the way a musician knows the right riff or a chef knows the right taste. It came to me naturally. But here were the pros telling me I was wrong. I went home and cried.”
I tried to get Hilfiger to open up about that, but he didn’t bite. So I tried another tack: Why did he write this memoir now? Are his kids the readers who matter most to him? We ran out of time before I could pin him down on that.
I did better with another question, based on a corollary to the idea that celebrities are just like everyone else. The corollary is that nobody has the world by a string. I asked him if he felt that parenthood was similar to being an entrepreneur, in that when you take the plunge you do so without knowing the outcome. But whatever it is, you will be the owner of it.
Hilfiger went off script with that answer. He has two children on the autism spectrum, he told the crowd, and he and his wife — who are on the board of the national autism advocacy group, Autism Speaks — have been able to manage it. But they have the wherewithal to manage. His heart went out to all those many families who don’t have his resources.
It was heartfelt, but didn’t really tell us anything that wasn’t in his book — or so it seemed to me.
But I had forgotten the other presence in the room: the audience. The final person at the microphone, during the Q&A session was David Holmes, founder of Eden Autism, the provider of services to hundreds of families, did not have a question. He wanted to thank Hilfiger for his public role in the autism community. “You have done for autism what your celebrities have done for your clothing brand,” Holmes said. “Most importantly, you have made families feel that they are not alone.”
I looked over at Hilfiger. He was moved more than anyone else in the room. Maybe it went alright after all. Time for me to unbutton that suit coat.