We caught up with MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow as she was being made up for our Voice photo shoot in a midtown photography studio. Dressed down in a black Western shirt and jeans, and squinting as a makeup artist powdered her face, the hottest new face on TV agreed to discuss her status as a reluctant sex symbol.
Village Voice: What do you say to people who accuse MSNBC of “glamming up” your image?
Rachel Maddow: I wear just as much makeup as the other guys on MSNBC.
VV: The Rachel Maddow Show has been on for 10 months. How are you protecting your image?
RM: I’ve become better at saying no, because I’m protecting what I’m doing more. I’ve learned to say, “Assume the answer is no, and every once in a while, I’ll say yes.” But in general, the answer—whatever you want me to do—is no, even if it’s a nice thing.
VV: Like during the Vogue shoot, when they suggested you wear heels, but you ended up in Chuck Taylor basketball shoes?
RM: They brought those—it wasn’t me insisting. But I did go ahead of time to look at wardrobe. I said, “I’m not gonna wear those,” but they didn’t have a problem with that. The only things that I have vetoed in terms of image are things that are cliché. Like, I don’t think I look very good in a tie, so putting me in a tie in order to make a point that I’m mannish . . . let’s make the point a different way. That’s an unattractive way to make the point.
VV: Do you consider yourself “mannish”?
RM: Yes! On purpose! [Laughs.] It’s not like I’m trying to be girly and failing.
VV: Like, “If only you’d carry a purse, it would all come together”?
RM: Yeah, like, “You could be so pretty.” [Laughs.]
VV: What do you think is behind the preoccupation with your appearance?
RM: Being on TV, you’re inviting people to be preoccupied with it. Since I first started doing TV, no matter what I said, the only thing anyone would talk about was what I was wearing and what I looked like. It’s a visual medium, so that’s part of it. But I don’t think it’s me more than others necessarily.
VV: Are you aware that people look at you as a role model?
RM: You know, in terms of how people see me, that’s the thing I really don’t know very much about.
VV: More lesbians feel like they can be unapologetically butch, thanks, in part, to the work you are doing on your show.
RM: Well, I still feel like the most important decision that any individual gay person has to make in this country is to be out. And if you decide to be out, then your achievements end up redounding to your community. That’s a real privilege and a humbling experience, and something that I hope is useful to other people.
VV: But you have to know that you are influencing fashion.
RM: I think that is inadvertently hilarious, which is my favorite kind of funny. My whole idea about what I wear on TV is that I want it not to be the thing that you notice about what’s happening on TV at that moment.