We talked to Mindy Kaling about her style, teenage years and growing up

Mindy and I are sitting in her hotel room, chatting while she gets her hair and makeup done for her book signing in Soho, Manhattan. While eating sour belts on her couch, she talks to me about her style, growing up and sports bras, and I’m in awe. I’m talking to a woman who has her own TV show, is a style icon and always looks like a queen, yet she’s so down to earth. She’s like a goddess that also understands how I feel about cute athletic wear! In our interview, we talk about everything style — from the style icons of her past and her favorite purchases of today. Read out full Q&A below for more about her style, teen years and everything growing up.

Julia Abate: A lot of young women look up to you as a fashion icon. Who or what were your fashion influences as a teenager?

Mindy Kaling: I watched a lot of movies, and decided that the entire style of a movie is how I wanted to dress. When I was around your age, the movie Heathers came out, and I loved Winona Ryder. She played this cool character called Veronica, who was kind of an outsider so she didn’t dress like the Heathers. She was good in her heart, but also kind of a rule breaker. And she got to have sex with Christian Slater.

When I was even younger, I remember thinking that Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show was a very stylish mom. She played a glamorous doctor and always looked really beautiful and put together. She was the best.

Supermodel culture was a big deal when I was growing up, so I paid a lot of attention to those George Michael videos where there were nine models, and what they looked like. Also, Kate Moss was inspirational. Kate Moss should not have been a fashion icon for me because we look nothing alike, and it was probably unhealthy for me to have looked up to her so much. I think I loved Kate Moss because she seemed like she just did not care at all. She didn’t subscribe to anything. She never washed her hair and she still got to date Johnny Depp. I thought she was really cool.

JA: Do you think that Kate Moss or Veronica from Heathers have any influence on your style today?

MK: I think more than anything it’s their attitude. Both of [them] kind of chose not to “fit in.” They’re more effortless, while my whole look has always had a “more is more” aesthetic. I rarely wear simple stuff, which is the opposite of the LA way of dressing, which is like, cool ripped boyfriend jeans, booties, and a t-shirt. So maybe it’s their oppositional attitude more than anything else.

JA: In your high school, did you ever have a dress code, and was that ever a difficult thing for you?

MK: We didn’t have a dress code, but my friend, also named Julia, says I was the only girl who wore high heels. And after sophomore year, my mom let me wear makeup. So I wore high heels and tights almost every single day at school, which is strange when you grow up in Boston, with all the snow and cold. I always really cared about dressing up.

I remember my parents dropping me off at school, and my mom and dad saying, “Look! Everyone else is wearing the same jeans, sneakers, and fleece everyday. We are spending so much more money on your clothes than your friends are!” Meanwhile, I was coming to school trying to look like Carrie Bradshaw.

JA: What was your typical outfit in high school?

MK: J.Crew was the most glamorous and cool and expensive store I knew at that point in my life. If I got J.Crew gift cards for my birthday or Christmas, I would save them all up and get the special things that I would wear for school. I would basically wear warm, wool tights because it was freezing, a corduroy mini skirt, some kind of tank top, and wool sweater. With a bright, coral lipstick or something like that.

JA: I actually have a corduroy skirt that I wear to school all the time right now.

MK: I wore corduroy skirts every day, always mini, and way too short. I would get in trouble, but I would be wearing tights so I would be like, “What?!”

JA: Do you think you would wear that outfit now?

MK: You know, corduroy and velvet are two things I’ve basically had to say goodbye to since I live in LA. There’s no place for those fabrics in my life anymore.

JA: Really?

MK: Yeah, and I always admire that about Nicole Richie. Sometimes she’ll rock a really pretty velvet blazer because she has that Stevie Nicks vibe, but in LA there’s pretty much six days when most of us can wear velvet, and then you can’t wear it anymore.

JA: Sometimes, I’ll see an old photograph of myself in my favorite outfit at the time and I’ll wonder, “Why would I wear that?” How has your style evolved as you’ve gone through different experiences and phases in your life?

MK: I think that is very universal. I’ve cringed at some photos of things I wore when I was younger. I never wore simple things, so when you choose to be that way, the plus side is that you feel like you’re a real artist, and you take risks and you feel like you’re moving culture forward, because you don’t want to just fit in. The downside is that often you look back and smack your forehead and think, “Why would I wear that?” or “Why would I wear those terrible bell bottoms they’re not good for my figure?”

One of the things that I dislike the most is the idea of the fashion police. I feel wary saying this because I have a lot of friends who are a part of it, but it’s so sad to me. You can be someone who takes risks and tries to express yourself, which is hurting nobody, but the entire reason the fashion police exist is to make people who express themselves feel bad. If they judge you and they think you look good, then you have this kind of unwarranted feeling of “I succeeded,” when actually they’re just rewarding you for fitting into this dominant paradigm of what they think is cool. And forget it when they think you look bad. Sometimes I think, “Oh god, the Fashion Police said the color that I’m wearing was weird or ugly!” Ultimately, I figure it’s too bad for them, because they don’t get to be the people making statements, they are just evaluating other people’s creativity.

There have been times, especially when I first started at The Office, where I would think, “Oh, that’ll be fun, I should wear a big topknot!” Then I would get feedback like, “You don’t have the face for a giant topknot!” or “People really hated that.” In my twenties I remember beating myself up over it, but I didn’t realize until my thirties that those things usually don’t matter. It’s better to try things, even if they don’t work out.

JA: When you were just starting to come into the eye of the Fashion Police, how did you react to getting criticism?

MK: Oh, terribly. I had to learn to develop a really thick skin when I came out here. If you don’t look like a traditional actress in Hollywood, there’s a certain way that people are able to “accept” the way that you dress, and usually that means dressing really boring. Like maybe wearing billowing navy blue robes, with a belt. They always want older women to cover up their arms and not wear the same things that younger women do. Nobody likes to be criticized the day after an awards show, so resisting that kind of advice is challenging. Sal Perez, the costume designer on my show, is good at putting me in things that people would normally say “don’t wear” and he custom makes them to be really flattering and tailored.

JA: Were there any experiences that have drastically changed the way you dress or changed who you look up to in the fashion world?

MK: Getting a little bit of disposable income when I started working on The Office changed my style. After years of being in an off-Broadway show and babysitting, it was so fun to actually have a little bit of money. I remember when I graduated from basically just dressing from H&M, Gap, and J.Crew — incidentally three places that I still shop — and being like, “Oh, Club Monaco, this is kind of cool,” or being able to shop in places where the price point was a little higher. Going to Loehmann’s and getting designer things on discount was really fun for me.

Another thing that changed my style was getting recognized on the street. I love running very slowly, it’s like my version of therapy. Once I started on The Office, I would be jogging and sometimes people would say, “Hey! Kelly from The Office,” and I thought, “Oh, I think I probably can’t just wear the same Target sweatpants I got when I was in college and the same giant t-shirt from freshman year orientation anymore.” You know how everyone has their thing that they waste money on? For some people it’s stationary, for other people it’s bedding, but they just buy way too much of it because they just love it. For me, now it’s chic gym clothes, because they make working out, which I don’t like to do, a fashion moment in my life, which tricks me into kind of thinking I like exercising.

JA: I can totally relate because I ran for my school’s cross country team this year, and our uniforms were heavy cotton shirts that didn’t fit right. I would have been so much more motivated during races if I were wearing my cute Nike gear.

MK: Right? And what’s nice about the Nike stuff is that they always come out with new sneakers and gear and you feel like you’ve completely changed your wardrobe with a new Nike sports bra or tank top. It’s a less expensive way to feel like you’re keeping up with trends. A whimsical sports bra is my new favorite purchase.

JA: I definitely agree. On my blog, I talk about fashion being a voice and a way to express yourself, and I want to know: When you dress for Mindy on your show are you expressing a different voice than when you are dressing for yourself in real-life?

MK: It is different. I think when I dress as Mindy on the show, I can count how many times my character has worn black on one hand after four years, even though she lives in New York City, where everyone who’s chic and fashionable has an all-black wardrobe. But Mindy Lahiri does not subscribe to that all. Personally, I’m a little bit lazier than my character and to me it’s more challenging to look dressed up everyday. So I get that out of my system by wearing a ton of color as Mindy the character. That’s why, in life, I wear a lot neutrals and beiges, because I wear eight to ten costumes per episode as my character and they’re all these incredible tangerine, citrus colors.

JA: If I were on a show, I would definitely want the way my character dressed to be completely different from the way that I dress so I could just try out something new and be a different person. My outfits for school are usually a lot of black and white, toned down, neutral colors, but sometimes I just want to have a hot pink outfit.

MK: It’s harder to wear all the colors because it takes a lot of time and coordinating, so I let my character do that because Sal has a fleet of people that help put together a look for her, and that takes some of the work and risk out of the equation for me. So when you wear something that’s bright, or very statement-y, it feels like you’re putting on a costume and changing your character.

JA: People love Mindy’s clothes! When viewers watch The Mindy Project, we don’t just love Mindy’s style because of the bright colors and statement pieces. We love her style because she owns it.

MK: Nothing that anyone ever says stops her from wearing what she wants and I love that about her. One thing that I’m jealous of my character for, is that someone can say to her, “You dress like a Christmas tree,” and Mindy Lahiri, without defeat, is like, “Obviously I look amazing and I should be the President of the United States.” She just rattles those things off. No one can give her pause. She’s in love with a man who doesn’t seem to even value the same things she values as much, and she just doesn’t care. She doesn’t dress for men, she dresses for women, which I love. I think that’s one of her qualities that I wish I could emulate in my real life.

(Image via Universal Television.)

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