Paul Wharton is a morning person.
I could’ve easily guessed this within the first few minutes of our Zoom date, as he exudes a palpable enthusiasm that’s nearly impossible not to catch a high from through your laptop screen. But still, he confirms my hunch with a charmingly theatrical rendition of his morning affirmations.
“The thing that makes me special is my ability to be resilient and look on the bright side,” he tells me while relaxing in his London flat, cocktail in hand and dressed to the nines before dinner with his quarantine bubble. “I’m one of those people in the morning who’s like, ‘Good morning, everybody! We get to do this all over again!’ You know? Unmedicated. That’s the way it is.”
Though currently overseas, Wharton is a local celebrity in the District. Born in Cleveland and raised in Columbia, Maryland, he’s built a reputation both in D.C. and nationally as a pop culture expert and entertainer. Television personality and producer, beauty and lifestyle expert, and author are among the professional titles he’s earned over the years. He’s sharing his infectious perkiness with me to highlight just how much the past seven months have impacted him.
“I started to feel a little cynical, a little, ‘Ugh. What’s the point? Mornin.’”
While that sounds like a perfectly reasonable pre-coffee reaction to me, to him it was a red flag that he needed to switch up his surroundings.
“I live right up the street from Black Lives Matter Plaza, and I was looking down the street at the White House and I thought, ‘You know, this really depresses me. This is the source of my depression, and I really don’t have to be here.’”
And with that, he found a pied-à-terre through a friend-of-a-friend and made the move in August. He describes the energy in London as less tense.
“People aren’t walking down the street ready to fight at any moment, which is what I felt before I left. We were all on edge.”
Still, he says D.C. will always be home and he has every intention of splitting his time between the two cities. He was home in September to host the RAMMYs and plans to be back for Christmas, although he says he’ll host his annual holiday special virtually from across the pond.
Wharton says his best friend and actress Jenifer Lewis, actress Debbie Allen, and Dolly Parton, who all collaborated on the soon-to-be-released Netflix film “Christmas on the Square,” will be a few of the “stellar group of mostly women” joining him on his special from their own homes.
“Essentially, I come up with TV show ideas [and] attach talent to them. We’ve sold two shows since Covid, and we have several more we’re negotiating right now.”
The first successfully sold show, “his big baby,” will be based in L.A. and comprised of an ensemble cast of “iconic Hollywood people and their children.” The second he’s a little more hesitant to share too much about, but says he came up with the idea with close family friend Whoopi Goldberg.
“We do these slumber parties at her house, just me and [Whoopi], and we write our ideas. As cool as you see her on ‘The View’ is as cool as she is in real life.”
The show, which will be set in Atlanta, is very much rooted in exploring the human experience from a thought-provoking and original perspective. Beyond that, I’m sworn to secrecy.
While working as an executive producer and show creator is at the forefront of Wharton’s career, he is always hustling with a myriad of side projects. He’s got his own line of skin and hair care products, has several books in the works – he pulls out a copy of his 2018 book “Pulling It All Together: Essential Style Advice on Being Beautiful” as we chat, and is aiming “to do more food-centric things” in 2021, including writing a cookbook.
Wharton’s had a varied career, a fact he relishes rather than stresses over. He’s not fazed by much, least of all multitasking across half a dozen career tracks and racking up the list of passion projects.
He moved to New York City at 19 to model and got his big break in television a few years later on MTV’s “MADE.” Several model-focused TV shows followed.
“Because I’d always worked with models, that became my niche – the whole model life. But at a certain point, I was feeling like modeling wasn’t my whole world. I had gotten older. I wanted to evolve and get into my love of women. I say that because I do [love women]. I’ve always been mesmerized by the whole romantic part of a woman getting dressed, and just admiring [them]. I used to help my mom pick out her outfits when I was young, and she would go to a bunch of fancy parties and fun places. I took a lot of joy in that.”
Wharton left New York in 2005 and returned to the District, where he took a position as the face of the local CW station and started doing local castings for “America’s Next Top Model.” After 16 cycles of castings for “Top Model” and doing makeovers on TVOne’s “Makeover Manor,” he got the opportunity to do a spinoff of “Queer Eye.”
What he thought was his big break ended up being an opportunity to stand up for what he believed in and move on to more meaningful projects that resonated with him. In short, a producer encouraged him to push a woman on the show so far during a makeover that she would break down and cry, and Wharton wasn’t here for it.
“I thought, ‘Wow, with all the things [women] have going on in their lives already, [they] have enough on their shoulders. You want me to break them down? Why can’t we just build them up more?’ I brought that back to set, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane back to D.C.”
This was a major shift for Wharton, who says he always wants his career and his message to be positive. He knew in that moment that any future shows or books of his would come from a place of telling women, and people in general, they’re already beautiful.
“That’s really who I am without faking it at all. I like to surround myself with beautiful things. I love fresh flowers. I like to cook and experiment with recipes. I’m a pretty good television producer. I loved making that life for myself in D.C. – although it wasn’t easy, in terms of when you are Black and gay in D.C., as I am. I was really the only one for many, many years [in that community] who made his way to those opportunities.”
Wharton is speaking of his years on Fox 5 and the CW, among other accolades. Though working in the entertainment industry in the District often feels like being a big fish in a tiny pond, he says the positive side is if you stick around and build a career here, you won’t just be a flash in the pan. You’ll have staying power.
“The one thing I tried to do over the years in D.C. is create a lane for people like me that create their own work. If we are truly the District of creativity, we really have to create more opportunities for creatives – not just to take the little crumbs, but to have a real space. You come up with the idea, you write it down, you make it into something, you plan it, you promote it, sell it, do it – and then you do it all over again. That’s kind of been my life.”
But perhaps his most irresistible quality is that he does not give a damn about pleasing other people. At this point in his life and career, he’s doing what makes him happy and in the most beautifully unapologetic way. A jaunt to a new city is the perfect example of him taking the reins of his own life.
“I think you get to a point in your life where you want to turn up the heat and challenge yourself a bit more, and I love the idea of living in more than one place at once. I think when you’re exploring what life is, you think, ‘Okay, I’m going to meet somebody, I’m going to buy a house, work over there, live over here. This is what I’m going to do. And then I’m going to have kids, and they’re going to go to that school, and then they’re going to go to college. And then I’m going to be old, and then I’m going to get a weekend house in…’ You know, all that bullshit.”
Wharton wasn’t about that life. He thought, “Why do I have to live in one place?”
“I move around maybe every three or four years, and people say, ‘Well, you’ve moved too much.’ I say, ‘I’ve been here for four years. I’m f—king bored. I want to look out the window and see something new. I need some inspiration.’ I’m just taking that desire to see something new to the next level.”
Admittedly, most recent interviews end on an uneasy note when the topic of the future comes up. But not with Wharton. There’s no sign of the party stopping for this force of nature. He says he’s hoping to support more unity, collaboration and cross-promotion in D.C.’s creative spaces – maybe he’ll even produce a show here.
In the meantime, he’ll be gunning for his next dream project. He’s dying to learn the ins and outs of being a physical producer – running the cameras, making the edits, owning every nitty-gritty part of the process. I have no doubt he’ll be the most stylish person in the room and wishing everyone a bubbly “Good morning” every step of the way.