“Isn’t that groovy? I’m so thrilled. ”
Simon Doonan, openly gay author, style critic, TV personality and creative director at Barneys New York, is talking rather excitedly about the American debut of “Beautiful People,” and with good reason. The brilliantly funny series debuting on Logo is based on his best-selling memoir, “Beautiful People: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints.”
Doonan said the show was so well-received in the U.K. that a second season is already in production.
“Beautiful People” features Simon’s perspective as a window dresser at Barneys as he takes viewers back to his unconventional childhood in suburban, working-class Reading, England. Simon, at 13, along with his friend Kyle (who prefers to be called Kylie), both want nothing more than to leave their drab, boring little town and off-kilter home lives for the perceived excitement and glitz of the big city.
It must be noted that the show isn’t 100-pecent true to Doonan’s actual childhood, as it depicts modern-day Simon as a 20-something window dresser for Barneys and sets teenage Simon’s misadventures in the 1990s instead of his real teenage years, which were in the 1960s.
“It was updated dramatically,” he said. “The BBC wanted to make the cultural references more relevant to people. My teenage years were more about Dusty Springfield and The Kinks. They wanted to make the show relevant for young kids today who are coming to terms with their sexuality, their orientation and their gay sensibility. The effective way to do that was to update it so that you can cross-reference Kylie Minogue and the Spice Girls — the cheesiest, most fun things from the 1990s. It was a pop-culturally driven decision.”
Doonan said that another difference between the show and real life is the way Simon’s parents are portrayed. In “Beautiful People,” Simon’s parents, especially his mother Debbie (played by Olivia Colman), are more supportive of young Simon’s eccentricities than they were in real life.
“My parents weren’t as accepting as the parents on the show because they lived in an era where people didn’t express themselves,” Doonan said. “The mother in the show is very affirming. The one thing my parents did, though, was being gay was small potatoes compared to the other stuff that was going on. My grandmother was schizophrenic. There was my blind aunt Phyllis living upstairs. There was layer upon layer of strangeness. So my being gay in that context was like, ‘Oh well, I guess you’re a poof. But it could be worse. You could be mentally ill.’ I had an easier coming-out because being gay in that context was more readily accepted than it might have been.”
Simon’s friend Kyle/Kylie has an opposite home life. His mother is constantly berating him for his effeminate ways. But Doonan said there is a lesson to be learned from her intolerance.
“His mother is homophobic because her attitude represents prevalent attitudes,” he said. “They had to have someone on the show that was actually juxtaposed to the parents, who were accepting and loving of Simon. It was smart to show a parent who was not that way, who is resistant and homophobic. She gets punished on many levels because Kylie is so resilient and fabulous that he keeps rising above it all the time. He’s irrepressible.”
Doonan said despite the liberties taken with the details of his life, the show still conveys what it’s like for someone trying to figure out where they fit and where they want to go in life.
“As a kid growing up in a crap town with a house full of lunatics, I couldn’t wait to get out and get to London,” he said. “That impulse to escape, especially for a gay kid, is very important. It’s a survival thing. For gay people, being able to get out of dodge and reinvent yourself is hugely important, especially if you live in an oppressive environment. In the series, you know that Kylie and Simon are eventually going to get away, even though they have an abortive attempt at the beginning.”