Project Runway, reality television, and redemption

So it seems they’ve decided to give Project Runway All Stars another try.

I was never more than a tepid fan of their first go-round, but I’d warmed a little to it by the end and I love the Project Runway brand enough that I still found it fun to watch.  (That said, the way the program is morphing more and more into a blatant, ham-handed 90-minute commercial for the show’s sponsors is making it increasingly difficult to enjoy.  Please stop making Tim Gunn into a glorified shill for L’Oreal, and please stop using their products as the “inspiration” for any more challenges.)  Thus, the other night the Better Half and I plunked down with an intermittently snoozing Squirrel in our arms and watched the premiere of the new season.

No surprise, I have mixed feelings.  On the plus side, Carolyn Murphy seems to have a lot more verve as host than the nice but bland Angela Lindvall, and the judging seemed much more on point and incisive than it did during the last PRAS season, when it was all over the place.  Even Isaac Mizrahi, who seemed so addled last time, came across as having something worth saying.  On the minus side, the competition seems laughably low-stakes given how lame the prize is (sure, the money’s nice, but getting to take a fancy trip around the world has none of the drama of getting to show at Fashion Week for the first time). And perhaps there just wasn’t enough time for things to be otherwise, but we barely got a chance to see any of the garments being made, and so the first runway show lacked interest.

And then there’s the cast.  I was dismayed to learn it comprises so many of the people I grew to hate in previous seasons.  While it’s nice to see Uli, Anthony Ryan and the (IMHO) underrated Laura Kathleen again, many of the others were impressive during their first runs mainly for their insufferable obnoxiousness.  I do not relish spending more time with them.  And I fear that obnoxiousness is going to be far too much in focus.

For evidence, one need look no further than the entrance of the infamous Wendy Pepper.  For those of you unfamiliar with the show (but who are reading this post anyway), Wendy was the Designated Harpy the first season.  Every season seems to have (at least) one designer that everyone loves to hate, and by the end of the premiere season it was her.  They shot her introduction to the rest of the new cast with so much manufactured intrigue that I’m surprised they didn’t just play “The Bitch is Back” in the background.  And of course during the subsequent interview clip she says “I’m not here to make friends.”  Of course not, honey.

I think that’s a shame.  First of all, the backbiting and antisocial behavior aren’t why I watch the show.  I watch because Project Runway was one of the first reality shows that demanded real talent and accomplishment to advance, and I appreciate seeing skilled people doing something well, particularly when it gives me a window into a world with which I am otherwise unfamiliar.  It’s more about the achievement of the designers than their shenanigans.

And Wendy didn’t start out the first season as The Bitch.  If memory serves, everyone was friendly with each other.  But in one of the judging sessions, as in so many since, the judges asked the designers who was weakest, and she called out someone with whom she had been friendly, I think more than once.  And everyone turned against her.  In other words, the structure of the show demanded her to behave in a manner that led to people thinking nasty things about her, and she apparently has decided just to fill that role now.

One of the other designers on this season of PRAS that I came to detest the first time she was on is Ivy.  She came across during Season 8 as unfailing unpleasant, and I couldn’t stand her.  It was thus quite refreshing to see them giving her a chance at redeeming her image this season.  As she explained the other night, she was having a lot of trouble in her life during the filming of her earlier season, and it combined with the stress of the show to bring out the worst in her.  She’s making a point of showing a better part of herself this time.  Sadly, the clips of upcoming episodes they played at the end of the show had people complaining that she’s being bitchy once again.

I hope that’s not how things play out.  I hope she’s given plenty of time to display the better side she says she wants to.  Because Lord knows I’ve behaved like a total ass at times when I’ve been stressed out and unhappy (eg. probably about 87% of when I was in residency), and I thank my lucky stars none of it was broadcast on national television.  I’m rooting for her.

In fact, what I’d really like is for the producers of PRAS (and later seasons of the regular show) to give the designers a chance to show the audience their decent, generous and admirable qualities.  I’m sure for a lot of them the obnoxiousness is baked into the cake, and the camera just captures who they simply are.  (That’s certainly the impression I have of a couple of the people back this season.)  But I would have to be as naive as my newborn daughter to think that they aren’t coached to up the drama of the interpersonal tensions, which are then heightened even further through creative editing.  (If you think the exuberant, gleeful reaction the designers gave when told about the lackluster prize was sincere, allow me to tell you about a great deal on a bridge in New York City.)  Perhaps the show can do without it?

Maybe, just maybe they could try not to have the people turn against each other?  Tensions will inevitably arise anyway, and conflict is probably unavoidable.  But maybe the producers could avoid structural devices within the show designed to induce or heighten those conflicts?

There are already so very many of these “reality” programs that are nothing but orgies of deplorable behavior, of people acting in as foul and ugly a way possible.  Rather than come across as even more of a scold than I already do, I’ll just assume anyone who has seen more than five minutes of these shows knows what I’m talking about rather than engaging in a rant about how wretched they all are.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there were just one that fostered harmony, and reconciliation when things get sour?

This wish is doubtless so idealistic as to be risible.  That pie is so high in the sky it may as well be Sputnik.  I get it.  Nastiness and discord make for compelling viewing, and who wants to watch a bunch of people being nice to each other?  Snore.  But Project Runway has precedent (Mondo apologizing for being a dick to Michael in Season 8, for example), and at least one of the people on PRAS seems to want to show the world how good a person she is capable of being.

Wouldn’t it be great if maybe the producers of the show thought it worthwhile to help her with that?

Update:  Since posting this, Laura Kathleen actually re-Tweeted something I wrote to Fellow Ordinary Ryan.  Which means I have no choice but to be firmly on Team Laura Kathleen.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. I loved the first season of Project Runway All-stars, and I’m super happy about season two. The caliber of competition is not what I’ve come to expect from an All-stars show. I’m not interested in the drama I just want to see amazing clothes go down the runway, and so far Ivy Higa’s white and lace jacket was my favorite. My co-worker at DISH really liked Wendy Pepper’s design except for the decals in the front. I will miss the next episode of because of work, but I set my Hopper to record it and since there is so much DVR recording space combined with my obsession with this show I’m going to record the rest of the season. I love Isaac Mizrahi and think he would be an awesome addition to the regular season of Project Runway.

    • Well, this is clearly spam. Cunningly done, but now I know the tune.

      I’m letting it stay because it’s clarifying re: the previous example of this kind of spam when I wasn’t quite sure. And also because I want to boost my comment count.

        • Spam for the company that makes recording shows like this so convenient.

  2. Eeeh, I was never a real fan of PR. Then again, I think most of the trends in fashion are absolutely stupid – ala those ridiculous heels from the Scottish designer that committed suicide – McQueen, I think?

    I can’t be bothered to spend money on things that aren’t comfortable, and look horrendous on anyone not possessing the figure of a prepubescent child (or Kate Moss).

    I’ve seen some snippets of ‘teasers’ from the show, but I just don’t enjoy watching people being bitchy backstabbers and make snide comments about everyone else or their work.

  3. The first episode of PR I ever saw was the one where Wendy Pepper was hugging the model who was crying.

    So I totally picked the wrong episode to start watching.

  4. As a total side note, we’re going to see more shilling for products during shows as DVR’s becomes even more widespread and less people watch commercials. Hell, Chuck basically got another season due to a sponsorship deal with Subway.

  5. If you watch Face Off, you’ll see a show where the contestants pretty routinely help each other out; un-jamming molds, offering advice and criticism, etc.

    They have been gleefully avoiding throwing someone in the mix that you’re just not supposed to like.

    • I have to reluctantly echo Pat. Face Off is that pure skill show you want to see that Project Runway has been drifting away from. Now granted the Hostess on FO couldn’t hold a candle to Tim Gunn (bland and kindof boring) but otherwise FO is beating PR’s pants off in quality.

  6. Amazing Race and The Voice for non-bitchy “competitive reality”. Last season of Top Gun was also way cool– the female shooter from Argentina was a pistol (so to speak).

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