Randy Fenoli, star of TLC’s reality television show, “Say Yes to the Dress,” thinks the world is a beautiful place.
More than 75 fans and aspiring fashionistas attended Thursday’s Silliman College Master’s Tea, where Fenoli recounted his evolution from an Illinois farm boy into one of the most recognizable faces of the wedding dress industry. “Say Yes to the Dress” features brides-to-be shopping for their perfect wedding day attire at a New York City wedding boutique called Kleinfeld Bridal. During his talk, Fenoli emphasized to audience members the imporance of pursuing their dreams and finding a career path that inspires them to work hard.
“Thank God I love what I do. I don’t work — I play,” he said.
Though he is a well-known, flamboyant television personality, Fenoli said he was nervous about speaking to Yale students. He discussed the sequence of events that led him through careers as a waiter, a female impersonator, a real estate investor and a personal chef before he found his way into television. He added that he never imagined he would end up hosting several bridal shows on TLC.
Fenoli said he has not forgotten his rural Illinois roots, though he said he had trouble as a child fitting in with six siblings and “a hundred head” of cattle that roamed near his childhood home. After years of abuse from his father, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, he decided to re-evaluate his direction in life, he added.
“I ran away five times,” he said of the experience. “But it taught me strength, courage and independence. [My father] taught me what not to be.”
Fenoli said he was able to pursue his love of fashion and design by sewing and repairing clothing for his mother, who will turn 90 this year.
Fenoli moved to Louisiana at the age of 16, where he finished his last two years of high school before studying for three semesters at Louisiana State University. After dropping out in the middle of his sophomore year, he said, he started doing hair and makeup to support himself until he entered a female impersonation contest on a dare. He said he later grew his hair down to his waist and sewed his own evening gowns, before achieving a successful stage career, winning the title of Miss Gay America in 1990 and landing on “The Joan Rivers Show.” He added that these experiences gave him the confidence to pursue a career as a fashion designer.
Fenoli said he is currently working on developing his own reality show, “Randy to the Rescue,” which premiered last year. “Say Yes to the Dress” has recently begun filming its 10th season, he said, adding that he is focusing on future projects and aims to gain enough influence to make as large a difference as his idols, Barbara Streisand and Oprah Winfrey. He said he hopes to transition from television to community service and social action.
“I’m a really big believer in breaking rules,” he said of the his new focus on philanthropy. “[I think] it’s important to do things that are uncomfortable.”
Nicole De Santis ’15 and Hannah Fornero ’15, who organized the event, said they decided to email Fenoli the first day of fall semester after watching the show together all last year.
“They were really enthusiastic [about the idea]” Fornero said, explaining that she and De Santis anticipated the worst result of their request would be a polite refusal.
Rhiannon Monta ’14, said she noticed other students in the audience getting emotional as Fenoli described his early experiences growing up in the Midwest.
“I appreciated how open and forthright he was about his personal history,” she said.
Kiara Hearn ’13 said she thought Fenoli’s expressive personality made one of her last Master’s Teas at Yale particularly memorable.
New episodes of “Say Yes to the Dress” and “Randy Knows Best” air on Friday afternoons on TLC.