Photos: Huy Khiem, Say I Do, Netflix
Meet Thai Nguyen. Standing tall in a suit, the self-styled #fairygownmother graces his presence on your small screens with sleek gelled jet black hair, oversized black-rimmed aviator glasses, and a wide pearly white smile. Although he is diminutive in stature compared to his castmates, Nguyen’s presence is larger than life.
Created by the same team that made Queer Eye, Say I Do features Nguyen, Jeremiah Brent, and Gabriele Bertiaccini in their respective roles as a fashion designer, interior designer, and chef. With their bubbly energy, candid quotes and uplifting optimism on and off set, these triple Sagittarians have captured our hearts all over the world. However, Say I Do isn’t the designer’s first time he did reality TV. In 2009, he was in Bravo’s Launch My Line as a contestant, then he designed dresses for the queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Ten years later, he appeared as a judge on CBS’ competition show World’s Best for Vietnam.
In between his gigs, Nguyen was busy dressing the cream of the crop from Jennifer Lopez to Katy Perry alongside Lala Anthony and Kate Beckinsale in his custom made gowns. Even Chriselle Lim fell in love with his dresses, too. Known for its figure-flattering silhouette and extravagant beading, it’s no secret that Nguyen’s dresses made him the top contender to appear on Say I Do as a host.
Although Nguyen, Henry, and I have yet to meet in person, talking to him was like catching up with a long-distance friend. Despite a 15 hour time difference and in different hemispheres of the globe, Nguyen’s camaraderie, laugh, and warmth can be felt beyond the screen, warming up the room like wearing your favorite cardigan over your shoulders. We get real via Google Hangouts about what it’s like for him to straddle between Vietnamese and American cultures, his journey into the fashion industry, why men shouldn’t be afraid to tap into their feminine side, and why he turned down Next In Fashion to participate in Say I Do.
Thai Nguyen: I would call myself Vietnamese American. It all depends. The whole time I was in Vietnam, I wasn’t myself. I was living with a secret, I was living with this avoidance, and I was always avoiding my family as I’m the only child. We came from hardship. So, they were always working. I always get passed around with my aunt, my grandma and I did not live with my parents until I turned 9. Then, we came to the States when I was 13. When we came to the States, my parents have to work and survive. I did not know a word of English, went to school but there was a translator with me. The time I was in Vietnam, I did not know about myself. I didn’t want to invest in anything in myself because I know subconsciously that there is something out there for me. Those thirteen years was not really me. When I graduated from fashion school, I want to keep my roots, my culture, and my heritage. So, I went back to the Vietnamese community and I start doing research, I worked with the Vietnamese music industry, I start learning about the music, language, and I became really really Vietnamese. I speak and write the language fluently and I understand everything about Vietnamese culture. That, to me, set me apart as a fashion designer from everyone else. I don’t want to be like any other designer in the mainstream because you have to be different. You got to have your own signature. To me, it’s East meets West. I combined those two together and became Thai Nguyen.
TIMID: That’s so cool though!
TN: That’s why I’m Vietnamese American. Not a hundred percent Vietnamese; not a hundred percent American. It all depends on the situation and environment. When I’m in a Vietnamese environment, I can be very Vietnamese. (laughs) From what you’ve seen on Netflix, I can be very American.
TN: No. I’m proud of who I am, but I wasn’t proud of my sexuality, or my pain or my secrets. But, I’ve always been proud of who I am as a Vietnamese even when I get my US citizenship at 18. They asked me, “Do you want to have an American first name?” And I said, “No, I want to keep my name.” Honestly, I never want to hide my heritage. Now, I’m even more proud!
TIMID: I’m so happy for you that you stood to your guns. For TCKs like me, I had contrasting stories like yours. I didn’t know where to go. I was born in Indonesia, but I grew up in Singapore, and I didn’t go to a Singapore school system. I went to an American school and English was my first language. I naturally grew up in an American accent. I am so used to being near American people and culture. I feel like I had to go hide one part of myself to really blend in with the rest of everybody. It was something I had to deal with growing up. I wasn’t too aware. I didn’t see things from an outside perspective, but now that you told me about this, I’m so surprised that you managed to keep yourself, your Vietnamese self to your core and I’m glad that you are using this to your advantage. I think that it’s kinda hard to retain your individuality because you have to fit into a box.
TN: I completely understand. I have a friend that has to change themselves so that they can blend in. In my case for seem reason, the day I left and got on the plane, I knew that I was going into something new. I don’t need to blend in. In Western culture, if you show weakness and you are afraid, they will push you. So you just have to say, I’m here, too. We’re all the same. I might not speak the language like you do, but I understand what you’re saying and you understand what I’m saying clearly. Literally, when I went to college and it was my first year, the third week, I was in the elevator. People would go in the elevator and they were just pushing, pushing, pushing me. At that time, I was only 100 pounds, which was a tiny little guy. I literally stood in the middle of the elevator and I screamed. I said, “Stop pushing me!” It felt so good, so liberating that you know, sometimes you have to speak up and protect yourself.
TIMID: I totally agree. That’s why the magazine’s called Timid ‘cause we’re all taught that way before. At the end of the day, we appreciate that quality in us because that is what makes us unique and speak up through our work.
TN: We’re timid because that’s our culture and we respect that. It’s who we are and we have a foundation. We’re not going to disrespect that. But, if you have a purpose and you know what you’re doing and you’re not hurting people, we don’t have to be quiet about it.
TN: Because I think secretly, we all know we want that. It’s just that we haven’t been exposed to it. I was so scared for 30 something years. I wanted him to let him know that it’s OK to express yourself. It’s easier said than done. But you know, if you’ve been there already, you need to show them the way. If you watch carefully on the whole episode, I wear a different shade of pink.
TIMID: I actually couldn’t tell on my screen because it showed one shade of Barbie pink throughout.
TIMID: (laughs) One shade, I’m not gonna lie!
TN: The scene when we were under the pagoda, it was so cold I had so many layers on. It was a purple jacket with a pink shirt inside.
TN: Another scene at the choir, at the lectern, I had my pink shirt under my tuxedo. And then, I wore the pink suit with Randy and the scene where I was sitting down with Jeremiah and Gabe at the venue, I had this floral jacket with pink pants. At the reception, I had this pink fur coat, then at the wedding, I had this metallic suit with a pink shirt inside. I always want to have the pink in there.
TN: That’s exactly what I told Randy. Sometimes, when you change fashion, that’s the first thing you can change. I’ve never been afraid of color since I was young. Just to give you a quick story, when I first went to the United States and [was] in seventh grade, my uncle gave me a pink and green backpack. At that time, deep down inside of me, I was so happy but, I was terrified carrying that to school because kids are mean. We had no money and I had no choice. I carried it to school and I survived! My parents had a private sewing school in Vietnam, so when the students made things, they learn how to be seamstresses…just to survive. It was an outlet for me to live in. Without that, I won’t survive.
TN: Well, my parents were in the field. They know how hard it is. They think that with fashion, we sit there and sew every day. There’s so much more to fashion. They were concerned about me leaving to go somewhere far. I had three choices: FIT in New York, a fashion school in Miami, or FIDM in LA. All I said was, “LA was the closest to you guys. Can I just go to LA? Can you sign it for me? I will work and will take care of the living.” Obviously, they took care of tuition and they just literally signed not knowing what would happen. They drove me to LA. I remember the night they were leaving, my mom asked me, “Are you sure you wanna stay? You can go back with us.” I said, “I’m staying.” It was the best decision ever.
TIMID: It’s so surreal though. Most people would always pick NYC for fashion school. The fact that you picked LA and the fact that you want to be close to your parents was so brave and thoughtful of you. Speaking of Los Angeles, I always think that there’s this sort of stigma attached to LA fashion. It’s like, it’s all about the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Ed Hardy, and Juicy Couture, you know? People give it such a bad rap! Since you began working in Los Angeles and established yourself among celebrities, what is the most unexpected thing you faced as a designer while dressing celebrities?
TN: The celebrities’ thing didn’t happen until a couple of years ago. You brought up a good point, Michelle. To be honest, I did not know about fashion school. I just wanted to be in fashion school. When I was in school in LA, the school wasn’t that supportive and they didn’t care much about me. They didn’t want me in the third year program because at FIDM, after two years, you get picked for the top 10 students.
TIMID: What?! This is crazy.
TN: They didn’t want me. I begged them. I fought my way. I was like, “Please, my goal is to be in the third-year program. Give me that chance.” I begged them. You know why they didn’t want me? ‘Cause they care about ready-to-wear, mass-produced apparel, and make something that’s catered to everybody, but I didn’t want that. I want special occasion; I want red carpet; I want bridal. They’re like, “That’s not realistic. That’s why we don’t want you to be in the third year.”
TN: Guess what? The 10 students, none of them are doing fashion right now. You have to stick to your guns and you beg. You beg your way until you get it and then, you prove them. Because I want to do red carpet gowns, I’ve always had that dream, and all of a sudden, I created a collection! One of the publicists loved my design, they showed it to the stylist and it started from there. It really started with J.Lo.
TIMID: I’m so proud of you, Thai!
TN: Thank you!
Were celebrities the people that you looked up to since you were young?
TN: I dream of dressing them, but I did not look up to them. I’ve dreamed of seeing Anne Hathaway wear my gown to the Oscars, or Cate Blanchett, my all-time favorite.
TIMID: At the end of the day, they are truly like us. Everyone is trying to represent themselves in a way. The way I see it is you’re no different than I am. That was the realization for me.
TN: They are talented to get to where they are. I applaud them for that and I respect them for that. At the end of the day, we’re all human, we are the same. Another breakout moment was dressing Lala Anthony for the Met Gala. The Met Gala is a big deal. It takes half a year to create that one gown. It was a last-minute thing: she got invited by Anna Wintour and prior to that, she wore three or four of my dresses already. Her stylist was like, “Thai, Lala loves your style and your beading, can you create this gown in a week?” I came up with the sketch, printed the fabric, and we made the dress in three days. I flew to New York to fit her. Literally, we’re still beading it as she was walking down the red carpet. At that moment, she had so much fun. She wasn’t like “I’m a diva! Why is my dress not done? Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” It’s not that. That’s when I realized, that you know, we’re all trying to create something beautiful and have fun doing it.
TN: That’s what fashion should be. That’s what life should be.
TIMID: I agree. That’s a great attitude that you have. I’m surprised to hear about that. Because I’d think that some celebrities have an ego whereas some don’t. I’ve been in both your shoes to work with these kinds of people and it’s really great to hear how humble they are.
TN: I think there are some crazy ones out there.
TIMID: Not surprised! (laughs)
TN: It’s the Asian in us. I don’t know if it’s true for you two, but for me, it’s the Asian in me that when I meet people like that, I prefer to step down a little bit. If you want to be above, go ahead and be above. I’ll just be below you a little bit so that we can get the job done. I think this world is really small, especially with celebrity and entertainment - words do get around. You don’t wanna say bad things, so you just wanna pull yourself back a little bit. It’s ok. They’ll eventually see who you are and what you can do.
TIMID: Let the work speak for itself, right?
TN: The Asian in us is beneficial. It’s benefiting us in that way. I think I get a lot of accomplishments and I get to where I am today because of that.
TN: The most challenging is…a lot of times when it comes to brides. I listen to her stories and I meet her bridesmaids, her mom…Here, I don’t get to meet the brides until after the proposal when things are already done, when things are already planned with. I only get all the information and all design ideas through the men’s perspective.
TN: Straight men’s perspective, too.
TIMID: Oh my goodness! Whoa…
TN: It’s very scary (laughs). A lot of times, they don’t even know. They have no clue. They’re like, “she just wants flair and drama!” You know how Marcus said it? “I don’t know. I want her to look like a queen!”
TIMID: YES! Oh my gosh, I remember the Marcus episode. He was like every straight guy; he was being so vague.
TN: It’s just how they are though. Whatever you see on the camera is really genuine. It’s just how they are - how straight guys talk about fashion - or even gay guys like Jason say, “I just want a blue suit.” They don’t know anything else. Or like Randy who says, “I dress like a white Republican”. They don’t know. So, that’s my job as a fairy gownmother and I go in, “Poof! This is what I’m gonna do for you.” (laughs)
TN: To me, I really appreciate the idea of customization and personalization because when I design a collection for the red carpet, it’s about you know, how elaborate it is or what’s the trend or you know, how is it gonna translate on the red carpet, on photo, fabrication. But, when it comes to bridal gowns or when it’s a custom made to order, it’s about the story. We create that person. In every brides, they show me so many pictures and they’re all like, “I want elegant and timeless and pretty,” but then, they are like, “I want it something to make my own. They want something just for them.
TN: I like to create wedding dresses, but I don’t like to go to weddings because I’m always sad at weddings because I don’t know when I’ll have my own wedding. That’s why every time you watch an episode when we’re standing at the end of the altar, I get really emotional. It’s really hard for me because I want to have that for me and for my parents. So I create these beautiful dresses for people to celebrate with them. That’s why I dream through my brides. And whoever that comes to me, any brides - in the past or in the future - that when they come to me, trust that they will really get something special because I really value that day for them.
TIMID: That’s interesting for you to tell us what was really happening behind the scenes because on the camera, you look so composed, so still, but I never really knew the context about why you were crying because, after the reception, you were grabbing the mic, ready to speak up, ready to party on…
TN: Yeah, yeah!
TN: Mmm, no. It’s basically they were the most amazing producer ever. The showrunner, Larissa A.K. Matsson, one of the executive producers, she’s an amazing person. She listened to everything I said. What is so good about them is that they made that trust. When I first met the producers, I told them everything. It was very intimidating meeting them. But, they just gave me that comfort, so I laid it all out. They were like, “Where have you been all these years?” I was like, “In Orange County, California, making one dress a day to build my brand!” That’s how it happened. I owe it to them.
TIMID: So, what made you want to sign up for reality TV shows like Say I Do as opposed to Next in Fashion or Project Runway?
TN: I don’t want to do competition. (laughs) All my whole life, it’s about competing. I don’t want to compete all the time and with those competition shows, it’s not my environment. It’s not where I want to show my talent, my passion, my vulnerability. When I heard about Say I Do, I went, “Oh my god, I’m so happy that it’s not a competition!” To be honest with you, my publicist wanted me to do Next In Fashionas a competitor. All my life, I’ve been competing with the industry and I’ve been competing with myself, you know? There’s no competition with the couple. There’s just pure love, kindness, and family.
TN: No. Well, you can see on the show that I’m 39, but I act like I was 12! (laughs) I like to have fun. I’m always optimistic and I don’t really think about age. For my career - thinking as a Western person - I don’t really care about age because it’s really about how you learn throughout the years. Your knowledge is more than how old you are. Sometimes, you can be younger, but you know so much. I respect that as an older person. But for [the] Vietnamese, we think that you don’t really actually make it and sustain it unless you made it around 40 years old. Because if anything you accomplish before you’re 40, it could slip away. It’s hard for me to rebuild that back. So, every time I start a project and I fail or I start something, where I lost something, you’re just not at that age where you keep it. In our culture, 40 is the age where you can actually keep it. I feel that’s my prime time! (laughs)