Missouri priest discovers 'What Not to Wear'

February 3, 2010

Frumpy dressing isn't one of the seven deadly sins, but it landed the Rev. Emily Bloemker in a Friday, Feb. 5 upcoming episode of the reality television show "What Not to Wear."

Bloemker had no idea she was part of the program, broadcast weekly on The Learning Channel, until Oct. 12, when she addressed a packed audience at Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri.

She thought she was delivering the opening address at a ONE event. ONE is a nonpartisan grassroots organization committed to fighting extreme poverty, co-founded by Irish singer and musician Bono.

Instead, program hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, burst through the church doors -- along with the Cathedral Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus. London and Kelly pre-empted Bloemker's address, saying the young priest had committed one fashion faux pas too many.

And they weren't referring to her priestly collar.

"It was totally unreal," recalled Bloemker during a Feb. 3 telephone interview. The segment is slated to air at 8 p.m. Eastern time.

"I was supposed to be talking about world poverty and all of a sudden, I was offered $5,000 for a new wardrobe."

The reality series hosts first got a whiff of Bloemker's fashion disasters when a family member nominated her last year. Intrigued by fashion challenges for a 27-year-old single female priest, the hosts decided to give Bloemker a makeover. The program format includes secretly following and videotaping nominees for two weeks, then surprising them with a visit and offering them a $5,000 Visa debit card to buy a new wardrobe.

That was the "ambush" part of the show and Bloemker said that, while initially clueless about what was happening, she was also conflicted about the choice.

"Part of me felt very conflicted in accepting that much money, especially when I believe in tithing, in giving of our excess to the poor," she said. "I was really concerned about what sort of statement this might make to the world about how priests value clothing and money."

At the same time, she said, it was a chance to highlight the Episcopal Church and women clergy on the show, which has an estimated 3 million viewers.

"Part of me knew it was a really great opportunity to think about and to talk about my priesthood. It was too great a chance to pass up," she said.

Bloemker said she was a pretty snazzy dresser prior to her 2009 graduation from the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. But once ordained the associate rector of St. Timothy's Church in Creve Coeur, a suburb of St. Louis, she began living into the realities of gender, youth and the priesthood.

"Most of my wardrobe issues came from the issues priests face," Bloemker said. "The division between private and public life; whether … to step into the role of a priest do I need to leave parts of myself behind, or does sexuality have a place in the priesthood?"

Those challenges "manifested in the way I dress, in shapeless gray and black palette, no color, shape, detail or femininity. I didn't wear makeup and didn't do anything fancy with my hair or jewelry. I'm one of two single female priests in my diocese and I'm the only single female priest under 35 in my diocese. I found it very difficult to reconcile all those things."

She said London and Kelly criticized her wardrobe because of its "shapelessness, lack of color and for the man-clergy shirts. Or I wore like a man-dickie under a black T-shirt with grey pants and black shoes. It's what I was wearing when they surprised me."

That was then.

Bloemker gives a sneak preview of now. Once she arrived in New York City, where the show is filmed, stylists convinced her to go from blonde to brown hair and "helped me to see that color was something that could be incorporated into a priest's wardrobe."

They even made her a special collar garment that she wears while trying on clothes during the segment. "That was cool. They taught me how to accessorize, wear jewelry. But the biggest thing they convinced me of is that it's OK to be feminine and to look really fantastic and professional."

She found the show extremely empowering because she realized "I don't have to separate my life as much."

The Rev. Teresa Danieley, a friend of Bloemker and rector of St. John's Church in Tower Grove, a St. Louis suburb, said the program raises significant issues about gender identity and parity that plague female clergy, particularly younger, first-career priests.

"There are issues of gender identity and parity that go beyond clothing but clothing is one of the visible signs of the problem," said Danieley, 32.

She said she didn't turn Bloemker into the fashion police, but "I was so excited for this opportunity for the Episcopal Church to be on a national cable show. I was excited that people would see female clergy and acknowledge a female clergy person, and I was excited for the opportunity for Emily and for me, that I could learn from her."

"I know a lot of people think it's silly or superfluous but … I think that teaching young women how to be themselves and professionals and women all at the same time, especially if you're clergy, is really important.

"I'm really grateful that 'What Not to Wear' took this challenge on because I think a lot of people are going to learn about the Episcopal Church and to learn about Episcopal clergy and hopefully people in our own church will learn something as well."

Bloemker said her parishioners were supportive, but it did take a little while for them to get used to her new image. "They needed to make sure I was still the same priest," she said. "But just because the clothes were different didn't mean I cared for them any less or that I cared for myself a whole lot more."

She also tithed $500 of the $5,000 gift to fundraisers for the Sudan and to a local charity and said "What Not to Wear" empowered her.

"They were very interested in the church. They listened to everything I had to say about the experience of a priest, of a female priest, what the Episcopal Church is like. I tried to explain that we were really progressive, an exciting church to be part of and I knew that my image was not expressing that before."

"Watch" parties have been organized at the cathedral, her seminary and elsewhere, she said. "It means a lot to a lot of female clergy and in general to female religious people to see a normal, young person portrayed as not a crazy person because she believes in God. It's really cool that this show is portraying someone like me."

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