‘What’s up, sexpot?” Kelly Cutrone asks, eyeing our waitress at Aurora Soho, a cozy Italian spot not far from the headquarters of her boutique PR and marketing firm, People’s Revolution.
“I was going to stop by your office, like you said,” the girl replies, offering a shy smile.
“You want to work in fashion, we’ll get you sorted out,” Cutrone declares. “You’re my project.”
The fashion publicist, reality-TV regular, and newly minted self-help author is sporting her usual matriarch-in-mourning look: black leggings, dark shirt, hair pulled back, face bare. She turns to the restaurant’s proprietor and, after a little banter in italiano, informs him, “I’m stealing her.” She does this a lot, the fairy-godmother routine, at least when she’s not singeing the bangs off some PYT with one of her blowtorch reprimands—the M.O. for which she is perhaps better known. In three seasons of The Hills and one season of its spinoff, The City, Cutrone has enthusiastically played up her reputation as fashion’s downtown dragon lady, introducing one peroxided rookie after another to the eat-what-you-kill gestalt of the New York rag trade. “She just makes the stakes a lot higher,” observes Whitney Port, The City’s doe-eyed if implacable protagonist. “In L.A., everyone has this lackadaisical, easygoing way. With Kelly, you realize things just aren’t going to be handed to you on a silver platter.”
The result has been a welcome note of discord added to what can otherwise feel like a slick symphony of rolled eyes, gnawed lower lips, and pregnant pauses. Much like Simon Cowell, Cutrone is the “very unsubtle presence among a lot of subtle personalities,” says Tony DiSanto, MTV’s president of programming. “Kelly pops off the screen, which has made a big difference in the ratings and the buzz factor.”
Cutrone puts the matter more bluntly: “I have a reputation for being this total cunt,” she admits. “I’m a really easy person to hate.” She doesn’t take it personally. Characters on reality TV “are just iconic representations of aspects of ourselves. You have to be a blank slate and let people project what they will.”
Though employees and acquaintances rarely fail to note her maternal side, it’s a confrontational sort of mothering. Tagging along with her on a recent night, I watched one victim after another stumble into her crosshairs. MTV’s cameras were there to capture one such showdown for The City last season, a dramatic bit of full-contact shock therapy administered to Port’s friend, model Allie Crandell, who Cutrone picked on for being too skinny. Reached by phone, Crandell reports that she’s since put on weight but remains convinced that Cutrone exploited her for publicity. “It caused a lot of problems for me, and it just showed how mean people can really be,” she says. But even she admits “Kelly is entertaining, whether or not she’s a bitch. She’s good TV.”
Perhaps it was only a matter of time before The City’s breakout star would enlarge her empire, which now includes a television series, Kell on Earth, premiering February 1, and a self-help book, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You (out February 2). “We strip the fucking curtains off the walls,” says Cutrone, who will still appear on The City next season. “People get ripped apart. Some interns have nervous breakdowns. People cry. They get fired. It’s the real deal.” And the recession has made things especially challenging. “It’s not a good time for fashion,” she says, noting that when the market first took a dive, “I realized, You better fucking step it up and change something, or you’ll lose everything.” As billings dipped (anywhere from 25 to 30 percent, depending on the month), she gave up car services, sublet some of her 14-year-old firm’s office space, and often went without a paycheck. No one has been laid off yet, although Cutrone did fire one employee who had the bad form to ask about a bonus. People’s Revolution also parted company with a number of clients who were struggling to pay their bills. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” she says. “If your arm has gangrene, you have to cut it off.”
A few wounds were self-inflicted—most notoriously, the Ashley Dupré incident last year. After the Eliot Spitzer scandal, Cutrone began offering Dupré friendly advice (against the wishes of her team, which doesn’t always share the boss’s enthusiasm for taking in strays), and seated the former call girl at a show last winter. Dupré’s appearance in Yigal Azrouël’s front row, while an apparent publicity coup, prompted the designer not only to dismiss People’s Revolution but also to issue a press release letting the world know he’d done so. More recently, when a computer glitch caused a seating fiasco for Chado Ralph Rucci (a debacle vividly chronicled on Kell on Earth), the high-profile label sent Cutrone’s firm packing.