An actor, writer, and occasional model (you may have seen her in Miu Miu's fall 2015 campaign), Hailey Gates dove headlong into participatory journalism with her new Viceland show, States of Undress. Her inspiration, she says, is George Plimpton, the late gadabout founder of The Paris Review, where Gates is an advisory editor. The hourlong series, which premieres Wednesday, has her visiting some of the world's worst places of conflict. The twist is that she goes under the auspices of documenting the local fashion weeks that have sprung up, from which she breaks off to visit the slums of Venezuela, the Gaza Strip, or Islamabad. (That's where she encountered a religious leader who had strong ties to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.) Now, picture Plimpton doing that.
You are so good as a TV host! Don’t take this the wrong way, but were you as surprised as I was that you were so comfortable on TV?
Oh, thank you! [laughs] I mean, it’s still very difficult for me to watch myself. I’m constantly like, “You motherfu----ing idiot, why did you do that?” [Laughs.] It’s been a process. I think by the time I watched the China episode, which is the last one we shot, I could definitely see a difference in my comfort level.
But I like that you’re a little uncomfortable, because these are uncomfortable situations you’re dropped into. If you were ultra-polished, I don’t think I would empathize so much with you as the host.
Absolutely. I think why I was attracted to making something with Vice is that level of intimacy that you get as the viewer, getting to see some of that production element where we don’t exactly know what we’re doing, where we’re going, or even if it’s a good idea. But we’re going to press on. The only thing we really promise we’ll offer is that immediacy.
The scene where you go to meet the cleric in Islamabad, the one with the strong terrorist ties—you were clearly frightened.
That was definitely one of the more terrifying moments of the trip. I was also in my first burka, and all standard black burkas are made of polyester, so I was just sweating in my own personal sauna.
Karachi fashion week is fascinating.
To be honest, I was kind of ashamed by my surprise at the grandeur of that fashion week. It was so well done. So fab, you know? I was embarrassingly under-packed, because I didn’t really know what it was going to be like. So I brought all my most conservative clothing.
You brought no heels.
I had no clue! It was funny, they really thought I was so poorly dressed the whole time! [Laughs.] I just didn’t know what to do; I didn’t bring anything exciting because I didn’t anticipate that kind of dress.
It’s a little counterintuitive, but it makes a lot of sense that the more provincial parts of the fashion world would overcompensate by really going for it. Whereas in New York or Paris people are more casual.
Totally. I think that we very much all participate in that kind of casual-ness … It was just very funny, to be the ugly duckling there. [Laughs.] It’s an interesting thing, because Karachi fashion week is an event for the elite. At times, it was kind of difficult for me, because we were stuck in that hotel, surrounded by people who felt familiar—you know, the patrons and guests of any fashion week. At times, I had to remind myself I was in Pakistan, to the point where we went to the fashion week afterparty, and it was in this hilarious mansion with Picassos over the toilet, free-flowing booze [alcohol is outlawed in Pakistan], and a light-up dance floor. I felt like I was at a party in Beverly Hills. But I do think the interesting thing about this show is that, with a program that an Anthony Bourdain does, food tends to be a leveler. And fashion weeks are a divider. So we’re able to go to these places and meet both the elite and the everyday citizen. And that disparity is usually fairly shocking.
You wore a few looks that seemed to me brave for Pakistan; there was a bare-shouldered piece, I remember. Were you nervous about wearing that?
Oh yeah, that was actually a Pakistani designer. They couldn’t bear to see me in my own clothes, so they kept trying to dress me every night. [laughs] But I did feel deeply uncomfortable in that moment, because I was interviewing two women who were so generous about talking about their ability to participate in fashion while living with their religious beliefs. I did feel a little bare-shouldered in that moment.
You mentioned at one point that fashion can be a political act, that it’s about defending a choice. That sounds to me like a thesis for your series. Did you find that to be a theme across the different fashion weeks?
Definitely. Not as much of a life-or-death circumstance as in Pakistan, but it is present throughout all of the episodes. The Pakistan episode is so interesting in terms of discussing fashion within religion, because there are so many different viewpoints there. So I hope the viewer gets to understand the breadth of people who have to think about what they wear in that way, from the women in hijabs to the women making bondage gear to the women who have had acid thrown on them for not wearing proper clothing.
That part was hard to watch. And you seemed to be very deeply affected by meeting them. Did it take an emotional or psychic toll on you to go to these places and meet these people?
Yeah. I’ve definitely come back to New York and walked 60 blocks with tears streaming down my face, not really knowing why I’m crying. It really does take a toll. But also, that was just a particularly hard one because it’s very difficult to understand the impetus [to throw acid on someone]. It’s essentially a scarlet letter, to be a woman walking around with this. We might say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” And the people in their community say, “What have you done to deserve it?”
That was where you put a cap on your empathy, when you interviewed the man who threw acid on his wife. You basically said, “I just can’t get to the point where I understand.”
Yeah, that was really interesting. He was getting more and more frustrated with me because I kept asking him, “Why couldn’t you talk to her?” He just kept getting angrier, and he said, “You would have done the same thing. There is no other option.” And those moments are hard for me, because when the camera is on there is nothing I can say to help this make more sense.
You also make the point that fashion offers a sanctuary for diversity.
Yeah, in the sense that Pakistan, an Islamic republic, by having an event like this in a bomb-proof hotel bunker, gives the citizens the ability to explore their creativity in a safe environment. Because many of those fashion weeks have been targeted in the past. And traveling there is really difficult. Every hotel and every airport has been bombed, at some point. So just the fact these things exist are markers of some progress.
Right. Just a week ago, during Istanbul fashion week, the city was targeted by terrorist attacks, which struck the main shopping areas.
Yeah, I just think we can’t underestimate how big of a deal this is for a place like Pakistan or Turkey. There are a lot of people who don’t want things like fashion weeks to happen. And you saw that in the interview with the cleric, who said, “If a woman reveals herself, destruction spreads.” And often the question that these situations beg is, “Is fashion a frivolity best saved for times of peace?” Each country answers the question differently: some prove that it’s not frivolous; some maintain that it is a marker of stability in an otherwise unstable region; some decide they have got more important things on their minds. This is sort of a spoiler, but in Palestine the fashion week gets canceled.
So where else are you going this first season?
We did Pakistan, Venezuela, the Congo, Palestine, Russia, and China.
Are you finding that you might run out of fashion weeks that have this sort of political undertow?
Yeah, I mean, as I like to say, “There’s no fashion week in Aleppo.” But you’d be really surprised. It’s wild, how many places of conflict that have fashion weeks. It’s becoming some sort of marker for these countries that says, “We are in conversation with the rest of the world.” One of the most fascinating episodes is the China episode, which obviously is very involved in fashion. I even tried on Rihanna’s Met Gala dress there.
Really? How did it fit?
It was so heavy. It was when I interviewed Guo Pei, who designed Rihanna’s dress. She had no idea who Rihanna was. She was like, “Someone told me it was a pretty big deal.”