Fine Gardening magazine, June 2010

I enjoy a good rant about how gardens and gardeners are depicted in the media as much as anybody.  As you know, we are all about real, grubby, dirty and disheveled. But the talk about P. Allen Smith’s clothes in last week’s guest rant made me feel sorry for Mr. P. Allen, who is dealing with the same difficult issue I often have to grapple with–finding convincing gardening clothes that are media-friendly.

When I first realized that TV appearances were going to be a part of my professional life, I hired a media trainer.  I really did need help: I don’t own makeup, period.  I had no idea what kind of clothes would work on TV, although I did realize that there were rules about such things. My hair is usually an unruly mess and it turns out that certain hairstyles are more camera-friendly than others.  These kinds of concerns may sound vain, but hey–TV is a visual medium.  I wanted to at least learn the rules of the road, even if I chose not to follow them.

The rules about make-up were the first ones I broke.  I allowed a media trainer to convince me that I would require a tremendous amount of make-up to look like my normal, un-made-up self on camera.  So I submitted to the cosmetic experts at MAC, walked away looking like a drag queen, and found out that the television camera doesn’t lie:  I still looked like a drag queen on TV. (and by the way, I am pro-drag queen.  It’s just not my look.) Now I follow the make-up rules for men: use powder to combat shine, use blush to combat the effects of bright lights on pale skin,but otherwise go as yourself.

Clothes are another thing.  Want to hear the TV rules for clothes?

No black.  No white.  No patterns or stripes or logos. Nothing shiny or glittery. No distracting ribbons or other strange detailing, especially if it sticks out in some way. Certain bright reds can vibrate weirdly on camera. For women, those v-neck sweaters that don’t look clingy or revealing in real life actually look horribly clingy and way too revealing on camera.  Every lump and roll shows up.  So all but the most anorexic women are advised to wear structured layers:  jackets, shirts with collars, that sort of thing. (Oh, and men, don’t read this next part, but: Women are also advised to avoid shirts with a button right over the nipple.  Sorry, there’s no other way to say it.  You wouldn’t think this would look weird on TV, but it does.)

Now take that advice out into the garden, where garden writers are often photographed.  Guess what else you can’t wear?  Earth tones.  Browns, greys, and greens disappear into the background, and you, as the star of the show, need to pop out against that background. And since you might be bending and stooping, you need clothes that never, ever, ever ride up or slide down to reveal that once-adorable midriff that now only your husband loves.

So guess what that leaves me with?  Orange and blue. Maybe a sherbet color like pale green, pink, lilac or yellow, but those mostly look terrible on me and can turn glaring and washed-out in sunlight.  So my life is a never-ending quest for orange and blue jackets or shirts that look reasonably convincing as garden attire and that can hopefully also do double-duty in a TV studio and in front of an audience.  Oh, and it helps if it’s easy to wash out in a hotel room and looks OK if it hasn’t been ironed.

It also helps if I can put on the outfit, look in the mirror, and somehow recognize myself in there.  If I see a soccer mom staring back at me, I run screaming back to the suitcase for my ripped Sex Pistols t-shirt that shows off my tattoo.  (Sorry, soccer moms. My hangup, not yours.) I went through several rounds of Ann Taylor button-up shirts and khakis before I found my way to the Eddie Bauer cargo pants/mildly hip jacket look.  And the search continues.

And I haven’t even mentioned shoes.  Shoes that look like something you’d garden in, but are clean and decent enough to want to put in your suitcase or wear the rest of the trip?  It can be done, but it takes some thought.

So while I would love to make a statement by refusing to wear anything but my actual dirt-stained ancient, baggy, dreadful khakis, along with one of an assortment of ripped plaid flannel shirts or green polarfleece pullovers covered in paint stains from some long-ago home improvement project, topped off by horrid, just-got-out-of-bed hair, the fact is that media appearances are about more than making a statement about what real gardeners look like.  They’re also about getting booked for another media appearance–and producers like to know that you understand the rules of the road.  They’re also about getting a call from a garden club or a botanical garden who would like to invite you to come speak–and as much as those program chairs also love “real gardeners,” they don’t want to invite someone who looks like they could just as easily be pushing a shopping cart down the sidewalk on trash day, picking the recyclables out of everybody’s garbage–which is how I look most days.

I’m just saying it’s not easy.  Men do have it easier: the P. Allen Smiths of the world just have to put on a pair of jeans or khakis and a solid-colored shirt with a collar. But for women, it is surprisingly difficult to put together a media-friendly garden wardrobe.

Here I am, above, getting my picture taken for Fine Gardening magazine. Those are actually what I consider to be my “good” jeans, so normally I wouldn’t wear those to garden.  The shirt is one of those ExOfficio mosquito-repellent shirts that I bought for a trip to Ecuador; it’s still far too stain-free to wear for actual gardening, but the color is right for this green and brown background.  I don’t know why I had my reading glasses on–I probably just forgot to take them off. I made some attempt to tame my hair. 

But–since they photographed me at home–the shoes are real.  12 year-old Birkenstock gardening clogs.  Yellow with dirt encrustation. That’s as real as it gets.

UPDATE:  Someone sent me an email to ask what these alleged hair rules are.  Here goes: If you have unruly hair like mine, use about twice as much product as you normally would, as long as it isn’t so much that it looks wet.  Your hair will feel greasy to you but will look smooth on camera.  And avoid products that advertise “shine.”  You don’t want sunlight or bright TV studio lights bouncing off that shiny hair and creating a glare. And of course, no hats–they cast weird shadows across your face. There–you now know everything I know about hair.