‘The Idol’ Interview With Costume Designer Natasha Newman-Thomas

The Idol came to a halt after five episodes on Sunday evening, tying a plot-twisting bow on the self-proclaimed “sleaziest love story in all of Hollywood.” The series, which earned a controversial start due to a plethora of behind-the-scenes drama and harsh pre-release criticism, offered a sex-filled, drug-drenched peak into fame that was, for many, too disturbing to watch. But regardless of where your opinions on the show land, one thing is for certain: the fashion on the series tells its own story.

In the opening scene of the first episode, Lily-Rose Depp’s Jocelyn is painted as a fallen Hollywood icon: a chart-topping pop star with a decade of music-making under her belt, searching for her next hit to secure her rightful comeback. Viewers quickly learn, however, that she had to cancel her last tour in light of her mother’s death, and it becomes evident that she does not yet possess the mental wherewithal to revamp her career. Despite this, her team carries on, pushing her to film a music video with a hospital bracelet featured in its cover art. “Mental illness is sexy,” says Jane Adams’ Nikki Katz, an executive at Jocelyn’s record label, who compares her to Britney Spears. Here, the one thing Jocelyn can hold onto is employing her look — a red silk robe, intricate lace detailing and a full face of glam — to articulate her falsified wellness.

“In episode one, Jocelyn’s style is a lot about her youth and a sense of playfulness, but she’s trying to really harness her sexuality and use it in a powerful way,” costume designer Natasha Newman-Thomas told Hypebeast. “That is a through line across the entire season.”

Furthering her downfall, a photo of Jocelyn covered in bodily fluids leaks online; and while she admits it could be worse, she goes to a club with her backup dancer Dyanne (Jennie Kim), her creative director Xander (Troye Sivan) and her assistant Leia (Rachel Sennott) to take her mind off the scandalous headlines. There, she meets Tedros, played by Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye, a present-day cult leader whose confident intrigue captivates Jocelyn. After engaging in a hallway hookup at the venue, Jocelyn invites Tedros over to her house the next day.

“[Abel] cares so much about everything he works on and is so involved with the creative,” said Newman-Thomas. “You can really feel his passion for all the projects he works on. And this one was just on a bigger scale.” Notably, Jocelyn’s fictional mansion in the show actually belongs to The Weeknd in real life, and his house served as a set for the project for over half a year. “We were all working out of his personal home for six months,” she added. “I don’t think you’d find a lot of artists willing to do that kind of thing for their project.”

While Tesfaye’s dedicated efforts to create the show were noble, his character’s intentions with Jocelyn were up for debate. His first looks, according to Newman-Thomas, were indicative of how Tedros wanted to be perceived, not of who he actually is: a convicted felon who was found guilty of kidnapping and abusing his ex-girlfriend in 2012 and whose real name is Mauricio Jackson. In an effort to conceal this dark past, Tedros’ wardrobe was built around deceiving signifiers: pattern-clad luxury shirts, signature sunglasses and expensive Gucci belts, among other items.

“The aviators, the rings, the necklace with the Ethiopian cross. He’s giving you this false backstory of who the character is off the bat,” said Newman-Thomas. “That silhouette tells you so much about the character, this ominous force, and the accessories that he wears really play into his character a lot too. With his Gucci belt, for example, he wants to have a little high fashion element, but he pairs it with vintage clothes that might actually be more realistic to the character’s price point.”

Here, fashion plays a vital role in cultivating Tedros’ tyrannical persona — one that’s not only responsible for winning over Jocelyn’s attention but also for casting her and her ensemble of team members under his sex-fueled, dictatorial spell. Captivated by his off-the-cuff allure, Jocelyn engages in a series of kink-infested sexcapades with Tedros that allegedly “inspire” her to make better music, and she continues her attempts to prove that she can, in fact, push through her own struggles to come out on top.

In episode two, while on set for her “World Class Sinner” music video, Jocelyn appears in one of the series’ central looks: a futuristic pink body suit made by Los Angeles designer Nusi Quero that exudes pure pop-star energy.

“I was trying to think of something that we hadn’t seen before on a pop star and something that felt authentically new,” said Newman-Thomas. “It’s funny because I had that piece custom-made and collaborated with [Nusi] on it. But in television, there’s post-production, there’s editing, there’s this entire process of making a show that takes quite a lot of time and dedication.” As the show’s post-production ensued, Newman-Thomas spotted a similar piece by the same designer in the promotional imagery for Beyoncé’s Renaissance album rollout, just one month after shooting the scene. “That was a bit of reassurance. We knew we were in the right head space making something that would be iconic to a pop star,” she said. “It doesn’t get much bigger than Beyonce.”

But while Jocelyn’s glamorous custom costume effectively transforms her into the star she wants to be, it also chips away at her physical being. With each take, the piece begins to pierce her skin, making her bleed while she sobs in pursuit of the perfect shot. In this case, Jocelyn’s fashion offers a metaphor for her initial character arc: as much as she can pretend to look and act the pop-star part, she fails to overcome the mental blocks that continue to dig away at her.

Similarly, Tedros’ style offers a crack in the armor of his suspect persona with one key detail: his rat tail. In the third episode, Jocelyn’s managers, Destiny (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Chaim (Hank Azaria), report to the house after receiving a concerned call from Leia about Tedros’ growing power over the Jocelyn “machine.” After inspecting the scene, Destiny and Chaim return to their car. “I think our girl’s in trouble,” Chaim says, to which Destiny replies: “My grandmother said you never trust a dude with a rat tail.”

It’s also in this episode that Jocelyn shares the details of how her late mother would abuse her with a hairbrush “anywhere people wouldn’t notice” as a “form of motivation,” while seated around a dinner table with her now so-called “family” (which consists of Tedros, Xander, Leia and Tedros’ entourage of friends-slash-followers). Tedros asks Jocelyn to bring him the hairbrush and, while in his signature, coded and buttoned-up style, he repeatedly beats her with it, as her mother seemingly would. Jocelyn, meanwhile, obliges while wearing a revealing lace gown, relying on only her sexuality for a semblance of power.

As Tedros tightens his grip on Jocelyn, Troye Sivan’s Xander, who Newman-Thomas describes as a “Silver Lake hipster guy,” becomes Tedros’ bullseye in episode four. The ringleader, at the height of his power trip, catches Xander, who previously lied about tearing his vocal cords, singing in the shower; so Tedros ties him in a shock collar to learn that Jocelyn’s mother forced him to sign a contract promising he wouldn’t pursue a professional music career. As creative director, Xander holds significant authority in Jocelyn’s world, and his wardrobe, one filled with “vintage designers, young streetwear pieces and several looks from Boot Boyz Biz,” per Newman-Thomas, reflects a similar youthfulness to Jocelyn’s — which Tedros, at this point, has become seasoned in manipulating and abusing.

Later on, Jocelyn exhibits a stylistic shift as she discovers the truth behind Tedros’ entrance into her life. In conversation with one of Tedros’ comrades Chloe (Suzanne Son), she learns that her backup dancer Dyanne and Tedros planned their meeting, as part of a larger scheme that involved Dyanne stealing her song “World Class Sinner” and Tedros infiltrating her home over the course of the season. Jocelyn plots her revenge (which entails inviting over her ex) and exalts Tedros from her life, while the exposed pimp visibly falls victim to his drug habits and his wardrobe abruptly veers away from its coined style. Here, the power — both thematically and stylistically — shifts.

In the final episode, Jocelyn’s eyes are on her tour, and she effectively takes control of the entire operation, working with Mike Dean (played by himself) to produce three new hits, while still bearing sensual styles that now, as she assumes her ruling role, read as confident and truly empowering instead of reactive and submissive. Meanwhile, Tedros’ facial hair appears unkept; his infamous rat tail becomes undone, and he exhibits a lack of care for his overall appearance. In tandem with his decline, Jocelyn stages a pre-tour performance for her label alongside Tedros’ entourage and Xander (who she’s now enlisted to open for her shows) while wearing just a sparkle-clad, ultra-short dress. The executives witness the return of Jocelyn’s star power, and her team removes a disheveled Tedros from the scene altogether, later making him the subject of a defaming Vanity Fair article.

“We wanted to make everyone feel as true to the characters that we were building as possible,” said Newman-Thomas of the wardrobe’s significance in the show’s shifting plotlines. Here, it’s important to note that Tedros clearly loses the ability to keep up his fashions, while Jocelyn only leans further into refining hers.

Six weeks later, Jocelyn is backstage at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, preparing for the opening night of her tour. She appears in a number of white ensembles, representing how she’s finally taken her power back. “One of my favorite jewelry stores in LA, August, lent us these real diamond earrings for the concert,” said Newman-Thomas. “In another scene, we got a tongue-in-cheek McQueen scarf and it has skeletons all over it.” In an after-credits clip, Depp adds, “It says a lot about the new freedom that [Jocelyn is] allowing herself.”

Before the show concludes, Tedros arrives at the stadium and picks up an artist pass left for him by Jocelyn, under his real name, Mauricio Jackson. Wearing a turquoise suit — the most formal of attire that Tesfaye’s character has sported throughout the entire series — he reunites with Jocelyn in her green room, hoping to reconnect. In this final sequence, Tedros’ suited style sees him surrender in a reluctant plea to re-enter Jocelyn’s life.

Upon entrance, he learns that the stories about her mother abusing her with a hairbrush were not all true, and that she’s apparently been in control the whole time. She subsequently brings him onstage, introduces him to her fans as “the love of her life” and tells him to stand on the sidelines to watch her performance; he obeys defeatedly with his eyes on her, in a white dress. In the end, the power is all Jocelyn’s.

While The Idol’s plotlines deserve a mountain of disclaimers and trigger warnings — and its myriad negative reviews are no help to its success — the series’ stylistic journey, or “sociological exploration,” as Newman-Thomas puts it, offers a deeper avenue for thoughtful and critical discourse. Two characters, both riddled with a desperate desire for all-encompassing power, battle for just that in what might be this year’s most polarizing show on television.

And through Jocelyn and Tedros’ journey, their wardrobes effectively articulate where they stand in the rat(-tailed) race to win it all.

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