I have to admit to being just a little bit addicted to Project Runway. Last January, scant weeks after the show had started, I spent a rather hung-over New Year’s Day lying on the couch at a friend’s house watching a sort of Project Runway mini-marathon on Bravo. Yes, I’m a style-fiend, and my friend, fabulous and successful hairdresser that he is, would seem to be the “right” audience for Project Runway. And Bravo has long been positioning itself as the network for queers (anyone remember Manhunt, the male model show that shares its title with an online anonymous sex hook-up site and infamous title from sleazy gay porn studio Hot House Video?).
But there is more to Project Runway than stereotypically “gay” entertainment, even if it is relentlessly histrionic and campy. Get a stable of desperate fashionistas together and the fur will certainly fly. What made Project Runway different from many of the “reality” television shows was that it highlighted some real creativity and intellect, and its contestants had to produce something. This is an observation made by Wendy Pepper, one of the three finalists last season, on the DVD extra, “WEAR are They Now?” and though Pepper was the bitch-queen of the show, I can only agree with her assessment here.
Season One pitted 11 fashion-designer wannabes against each other in a series of nine challenges. These ranged from the first episode’s “Innovation,” in which the budding designers were given $50 and set loose in a grocery store to buy the materials out of which to design a “glamorous” evening dress (Austin Scarlett’s corn-husk number was my favorite). Every week one contestant was weeded out. According to Heidi Klum’s script, “In fashion, you’re either in or you’re out,” so each week she’d inform the loser, “You’re out.” Damn you Donald Trump.
The last three designers were given the opportunity to show a full line at Olympus Fashion Week in NYC, the winner of which final contest would receive a bundle of prizes, including $100K to start up a design house. It came as no surprise that Jay McCarroll, Kara Saun, and Austin Scarlett made it to the end, at least until Pepper, a consistently so-so designer, pulled out wins at appropriate times, to knock Scarlett off his rung and make it into the final three. Pepper was antagonistic to her competitors throughout, so maybe the producers made sure she made it to the end to guarantee tension; this is “reality” tv, after all.
These four were the most entertaining of the contestants and reason enough to tune in each week. Pepper’s suburban mom shtick (she’s from Middleburg, VA) and backstabbing antics were a vicious delight. McCarroll’s quirkiness and obvious mega-talent, and Saun’s fly-girl cred and take-shit-from-no-one attitude added drama as well. But none more than Scarlett, the neo-Victorian fop channeling Yves St. Laurent, whose primary behavioral mode can only be called mincing.
The characters on Project Runway seemed exceptionally “real.” Or perhaps their obvious performances made them seem more real to me. Watching, say, The Real World, you always get the feeling that the personas of the housemates are sooo contrived, like they figured out the angle that would get them on the show and now live out that fiction. On Project Runway, the characters are superficial, but they have no illusions about being real. Scarlett is a case in point. His fey ways and extraordinary excess are brilliant. It’s unfortunate, however, that despite Scarlett’s talent, he wants to dress everyone like drag queens. Not so McCarroll, whose designs were consistently fresh and urbane. He clearly deserved to win the contest.
But this is old news, and that’s one of the problems with this Complete First Season DVD package. There’s usually little reason to own a complete season of any reality show on DVD. They’re flash-in-the-pan by definition. Project Runway is no exception, though this set includes some lively extras. The best is “WEAR are They Now?” which includes follow-ups on the last five contestants (McCarroll, Saun, Pepper, Scarlett, and Robert Plotkin). McCarroll appears during the photo shoot for the spread he won in Elle magazine, negotiating business. He’s obviously distressed to learn that his designs won’t be photographed in the exact ensembles he created. First, the Jay McCarroll “look” must be reinterpreted by the “fashion stylist” for Elle, which will be further diluted by the photographer’s vision. By the end, poor Jay seems barely to recognize his own creations.
The other major extra here is “Deleted SEAMS.” First, why the horrible fashion puns in the titles of these extras? Second, these deleted scenes offer only more detail about the cast’s squabbles, which were the least interesting part of the show. The creativity and designs were the real stars of Project Runway, none enhanced by these snippets of behind the scenes stuff.
Like fashion, the appeal of Project Runway is ephemeral and immediate. A new season of Project Runway has just gotten underway, featuring a whole new corral of desperate fashion victims. You’d get more entertainment by catching up on the new episodes than by sitting through last season on DVD. I’ve already got my favorites.