From the producer of the critically acclaimed comedy “Absolutely Fabulous” comes “Beautiful People,” a six-episode series by Barneys famous style guru Simon Doonan about how to become fabulous via ambition, youthful optimism and a loving, yet very dysfunctional family.
Growing up the son of two Irish parents in Reading, England in an era when most of his male classmates were ogling stars like Bridgette Bardot and Jane Fonda, Doonan and his best friend Biddie Biddlecomb were busy trying to become them.
Not that they ever actually wanted to be women -- far from it. They just had too much fashion sense to be confined to one gender. It was something he had learned from his mother.
“My mother believed in the transformative power of platform shoes, and I do too,” Doonan, 56, told the Irish Voice during a recent interview. “She understood how you could transform yourself with a couple of shoulder pads, and that was her thing. She always felt that she was very average looking but she always made herself glamorous and interesting.”
In “Beautiful People,” the new TV series on Logo and LOGOonline.com, inspired by Doonan’s memoir “Nasty: My Family and Other Glamorous Varmints,” Doonan takes us back to his unconventional childhood as the creative son of Irish parents growing up in England, and all the steps he took along the way that ultimately led to his job setting trends at the uber-glamourous Barneys New York fashion emporium.
Nowadays we’ve seen hundreds of TV series about young men with a special talent that lead them from very humble beginnings to a world beyond their wildest dreams, but to date not many of these stories have featured a lad who knows his way around a pair of Manolo Blahniks like Carrie Bradshaw. Until now, that is.
The show is set in 1997 to give it a more up to date feel than its original 1960s settings. In the first episode we meet the 13-year-old Simon, surrounded by dreams of hitting the big time and all the beautiful people that go with it. This is a young man who can’t open a fridge door without belting out a show tune, so clearly the path ahead will be a little unusual.
But even a budding peacock like Simon finds himself constantly upstaged by a family that’s even more eccentric than his latest attempts to be fabulous. Mom Debbie is a peroxide whirlwind of matriarchal warmth, husband Andy is a plumber who secretly listens to grand opera, and Simon’s older sister Ashlene is a wannabe hip hop queen who has shifted every boy in the neighborhood, and blind lodger Aunty Hayley has turned up and it looks like she will never leave.
Add to that an amazing performance by Oscar winning Irish actress Brenda Fricker as the lobotomized grandmother Narg, who has lost God and replaced him with a foul mouth and psychotic episodes.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the new series, considering its unusual subject matter, is its surprising sweetness.
“I’m very happy about that tone because I think it makes it more universal,” says Doonan. “It’s a great mixture of wickedly funny and sweet, which I think the Brits are good at if you think of “Are You Being Served” or “Fawlty Towers,” all the great British sitcoms.
“There’s real warmth to it. And it’s a perfect blueprint for a dysfunctional family, about how to be happy and dysfunctional. I think that that’s why people respond to it.”
As a family sitcom, there’s certainly a lot of weird tangents to the show, and the diversity of characters often mix it with explosive results.
“I mean, who really has a normal family?’ asks Doonan. “My mum was so absolutely Belfast. That’s what I should call my next comedy show – “Absolutely Belfast.” Everyone could talk in those northern accents that you can’t ever forget.
“I remember walking though Belfast with my mother, and her old friends would see her and say, ‘Ach, hello Batty, how are yeoo-uh?’ It had a hundred syllables in it.”
Watching the new show, with its updated setting, has resulted in a strange sense of déjà vu for Doonan.
“I watch it with two minds,” he says. “On the one hand I see constant references to my real history and things taken directly out of my book, and then on the other hand I see a re-imagined version of my childhood and the two things go back and forward.”
One thing that startled him with its accuracy was the work of Fricker. “She brought my grandmother completely back to life, which was scary,” says Doonan.
“She resurrected her actually. For a child she was often a very scary person to be around, and Brenda brought that all to the show and actually even looked a bit like her.”
In “Beautiful People” the friendship between Simon and Kyle (known to everyone on the show as Kylie) is one of the charms of the show. Together they save each other from the harsh lives they would have led on their own.
“I think that any kid who’s a bit marginalized for whatever reason, they might not fit in, to have a best friend who’s in the same boat -- that can even be the difference between life and death,” he says.
“If you were Jewish or gay or whatever it was that marginalized you, if you have a best friend in that same boat it means so much. They capture that in the show.”
Belfast woman Betty Doonan, Simon’s real life mother, was no one’s fool, and he can see flashes of that in the new show.
“Although my mother never had fights on the street in the way the women in this show do, thankfully, if it had happened she would definitely have won. She would have beaten the crap out of any English housewife,” says Doonan.
“She was a tough broad from Belfast. She was a survivor; she had once gone to work for a pork butcher butchering pigs. In the war she worked as an electrician in the Royal Air Force. She bootstrapped it all the way.
“She was a self-invented tough person. No one messed with her because they would have had their lights punched out. I was scared of her myself. I wouldn’t have messed with her either.”
Doonan, who has designed windows at Barneys that have featured Queen Elizabeth II sitting on a fire extinguisher surrounded by Corgi droppings, has affection for his Irish ancestry but also for his upbringing in Reading.
“I have a lot of affection for the Queens but I have always thought it was fun to debunk the royals. I’ve done it many times,” he says.
“We had a window with Prince Charles taking a bath with his crown still on. It’s affection; I’m not about to put a guillotine up in Buckingham Palace. I grew up reading “Private Eye” satirical magazine where they always called her Brenda. I was always exposed to that satirical side of me I can’t control.”
Like the show, there’s something of a fairytale aspect to Doonan’s rise and rise as the bestselling fashion king of Barneys, and he knows it.
“I’m an immigrant who came here at 25 with two suitcases and a dream. I’m the walking American Dream. I have a great job that I enjoy and make good money at so in a way I am that dream,” he says.
“Beautiful People” is now showing on Logo and LOGOonline.com on Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m.