It isn't Steven Cojocaru's fault if an actress nominated for a major award steps onto the red carpet wearing a dress she might have borrowed from a crack whore, or stages a homage to the big-hair '80s, a ghastly goof sure to be captured by paparazzi and beamed around the world. There's no point in blaming Cojocaru for calling a train wreck of a look a disaster. He's just the messenger, honey.
"It's all about water-cooler talk," says Cojocaru, People magazine's West Coast style editor and reigning fashion pundit. "I'm my mother and my Aunt Mitzi, and my Aunt Rhoda, all these yentas who the day after an awards show are ripping everybody to shreds. What I say has a tenth of the vitriol that women spout with their girlfriends."
Except Cojocaru's verdicts on fashion crimes reach millions. In the last three years, his water-cooler-worthy witticisms have bumped the 40-year-old gadfly from the Hollywood fringe to the center of the crimson carpet, where fringe is lunatic if he says it is. With a weekly spot on the "Today" show, regular appearances on "Access Hollywood" and a column in every issue of People, Cojocaru's ascent has everything to do with his ability to make style, fame and the quest for beauty hilarious. On Oscar night, he'll be on ABC's Oscar pre-show team.
Who is this blow-dried bloviator with the outre get-ups, who scolds Tyra Banks for "getting in touch with her inner Barbie" when she attends the Academy Awards in a frothy gown and compares starlet Maggie Gyllenhaal to "a big doily" in the white lace Chanel number she wore to this year's Golden Globes? A flamboyant ectomorph who considers a conventional suit a Halloween costume (last Oct. 31 he turned up on the "Today" show dressed as Matt Lauer), Cojocaru apes the androgynous mode of Mick Jagger and Prince, with a nod to Cher, another childhood idol. "I am a shameless rock star wannabe," he explains. "I would like to wail on stage, shirtless, wearing a pair of beaten-up vintage leather pants in front of an audience of thousands of screaming people." He's channeling Steven Tyler, but the effect is often more Jane Fonda, circa "Klute." Never mind. The look has worked for him.
For the Golden Globes, Cojocaru is clad practically as a shrinking violet in a pale purple tuxedo jacket embroidered with butterflies. He starts working the red carpet at 2 in the afternoon, taping brief lead-ins for "Access Hollywood's" post-Globes coverage. His drill at awards ceremonies is to chat with celebrities on camera as they arrive, then again later at parties, all the while compiling a mental list of who looked great, who blew it and what trends surfaced.
The pace continues unabated until after 10, when Cojocaru collapses into a chair at the HBO bash next to his friend Merle Ginsberg, entertainment editor of W magazine. The two conduct an inadvertent rehearsal for the postmortem he'll deliver on the "Today" show at 4:15 the next morning.
Merle: What about Debra Messing?
Steven: Debra did chic but she was daring. Halle was chic.
Merle: Drop dead. Tell me your top five. Sarah Jessica?
Steven: I'm a fool for Sarah Jessica, but not tonight.
Merle: Renee Zellweger?
Steven: Very Laura Petrie, and I'm huge on Laura Petrie.
Merle: We are not on the same page tonight.
Steven: Here's who I'm gushing about tomorrow: Nicole, Renee, Salma.
Merle: Can we talk Goldie Hawn?
Steven: The body is to die for, but that dress!
He pauses to label the impromptu performance. "This is like 'Siskel & Ebert' but with good hair and makeup."
The sartorial scandal of the evening is Lara Flynn Boyle in a pink tutu and ponytail. When a photograph of her is shown on "Today" and Lauer asks Cojocaru to comment, he avoids unnecessary bloodshed. "Fill in your own punch line," he says. But one thigh-baring development has made him dyspeptic. "Mini dresses are fine on the runway," he says, "but on the red carpet the girls wearing short looked like cocktail waitresses at the Bellagio." Then he illustrates the point with a swishy imitation of a Las Vegas barmaid. "You ready for a refill, hon?"
Instant fashion criticism qua comedy is a strange art, but Cojocaru is a virtuoso. His knack for clever patter was the most important job credential he brought when he left his Romanian-born parents in Montreal and moved to Hollywood in 1992. "I have been fashion-obsessed since the womb," he says. It's nice that he knows a Versace from a vintage Norell, but it doesn't really matter. At the intersection of fashion and celebrity, all signs point to show biz.
"People want to be entertained by commentary on the red carpet," says Elycia Rubin, style director of E! and the Style network. "Entertainment is No. 1. Learning about fashion is second. What Steven does is bring humor and heart to fashion in a way that the masses can relate to."