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‘It’s not a fluff job,’ says stylist Rachel Zoe

There is no stylist more famous, influential or loathed than Rachel Zoe, who selects the red-carpet looks for such A-listers as Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway.
/ Source: The Associated Press

There is no stylist more famous, influential or loathed than Rachel Zoe, who selects the red-carpet looks for such A-listers as Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway.

Zoe’s association with Hollywood launched her career. And her boho-glam aesthetic — oversized sunglasses and handbags, statement jewelry, vintage mixed with modern designs — has inspired trendsters and haters who can’t ignore her power in the fashion world.

Zoe is an undeniable force in the industry and one of its most targeted size-zero figures. Routinely pounded in the media, she’s been attacked as a celebrity hanger-on and champion of the skinny epidemic that swallowed former client Nicole Richie. Her looks are mocked online by bloggers like Perez Hilton, who coined the nickname “Raisinface.”

And that’s not the half of it.

“There’s really like this big laundry list of misconceptions,” she said in a recent interview. “I think, off the top of my head, I would say: one, that I’m anorexic; two, that I starve people; three, that I give drugs to people to make them thin. And I would say that I’m a diva or that I’m this sort of very kind of tough, kind of heartless person.”

The negative attention gets to Zoe, who said the public perception of her is vastly different from who she really is.

“I’m very vulnerable. I really am. ... I’m human. I’m super sensitive. I take everything personally,” said the 37-year-old, wearing a red Chanel blazer with gold buttons, tight Seven jeans and platform heels so high they could give a teetering Olsen twin pause. As always, she sported her trademark California tan and tousled blond mane.

She hopes to present her “real” self — “for better or for worse, crying with eyelash glue on my eyes, letting it all hang out” — in her Bravo reality series “The Rachel Zoe Project,” which airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EDT.

‘It’s not a fluff job’Anyone who thinks that stylists have it easy would do well to watch the first episode. The self-described workaholic lives in the fast lane, fueled by Starbucks coffee and an obsessive love of fashion.

In under an hour — TV time — Zoe searches for the perfect gown for model-turned actress Joy Bryant, who can pretty much look good in anything but needs to make an impression on the red carpet. She travels to Manhattan from her headquarters in Los Angeles to take meetings with designer Michael Kors and the corporate types who are helping launch her would-be design empire. And she invites tension in the workplace when she hires assistant Brad, who immediately gets on Zoe protege Taylor’s bad side.

“There are shake-ups and breakups and tears and laughs and all of that,” said Zoe, nursing a Starbucks venti as she spoke to The Associated Press. “And we all work really really hard. It’s not a fluff job, and I think that people think it’s a sort of glamorous, jet-setting job and it’s not. ... You really have to love it. And you have to want to live it. It’s a lot.”

Andy Cohen, Bravo’s senior vice president of programming and development, called the show a “bullseye” for the cable channel, intersecting viewers’ interest in fashion with the mystique of Zoe.

She’s an “unwilling kind of divisive figure,” Cohen said. “What I always knew about her was that people had strong opinions about her, but I never knew why. ... There’s this image of her in the media as this sort of Starbucks-swilling beetle, and she has so much passion and energy and fun and light and love of fashion — and so much more.”

Zoe, who is married to businessman Rodger Berman, said she has sacrificed her personal life for her chosen profession. The New Jersey native began as a 20-something after an editorial stint at YM magazine, and now juggles private clients such as Cameron Diaz and Demi Moore with business plans to extend her brand into jewelry, handbags and everything else.

A fixture at New York Fashion Week, she took in shows by Marc Jacobs, Diane Von Furstenberg and Marchesa.

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“It’s a service what I do,” she said. “So it’s actually my job to be on that quest every minute of every day of my year to think months and months in advance.” There are award shows and film festivals, premieres and TV appearances. “So in my mind, when I’m at fashion shows or I’m meeting with designers, I’m constantly thinking, ‘OK, this is the perfect thing! Oh, my God, that can only be worn in Cannes!”’

Zoe’s light brown eyes, encircled in a smoky liner, light up with genuine joy as she describes her work.

“It’s literally like this rotating runway in my head almost — it just excites me all the time. I mean, I’m literally like a little kid. ... I’ve been doing this forever, and I still get that excited by it,” she said.

Proudest moment: GarnerHer greatest hit: Dressing Garner for the 2004 Oscars in a vintage Valentino gown in a bold shade of tangerine.

“That for me was a groundbreaking moment in my life and in my career,” said Zoe, author of the 2007 book “Style A to Zoe: The Art of Fashion, Beauty and Everything Glamour.”

“Jen and I just really fell in love at that point. She’s just magical that one. She just lights up the red carpet like you’ve never seen.”

Recent favorites include Hudson’s green Galliano kimono dress at the actress’ London premiere of “Fool’s Gold” and Hathaway’s pale green Atelier Versace confection at the Venice Film Festival.

It was Zoe’s collaboration with Richie that made her a celebrity. Zoe helped shape Richie’s stunning transformation from schlumpy socialite to fashion icon, making her over into a hippy-dippy Audrey Hepburn in Pucci and Missoni and stovepipe jeans.

Richie won acclaim for her new style while losing a dramatic amount of weight. Some of the blame for Richie’s gaunt frame fell on Zoe, who was criticized for promoting unhealthy body images and brainwashing so-called “Zoebots” Richie, Lindsay Lohan and Mischa Barton into adopting her personal style. Richie and Zoe parted ways in 2006, and the two reportedly no longer speak.

Zoe, whose current roster of high-profile clients are svelte rather than scary skinny, said she doesn’t try to impose her fetish for the 1960s and 1970s on her subjects.

“I love the style, I love the fashion icons of that time period,” she said. “The music — I mean, the Beatles, the Stones, Crosby, Stills & Nash — that’s my life. I think I’m actually stuck in the ’60s and ’70s. ... But that doesn’t mean that that’s what I like to see every day and on everybody. ... I think that it’s really nice to have a mix, and I think that each woman that I work with is completely different.”