[5 March 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I don’t want to hear about anything going smooth, by the way, because that’s when the lightning bolt flies through the window and we all catch on fire.
Jay McCarroll has all kinds of ideas for his first collection, most inspired, as he says more than once, “diarrhea and vaginal discharge.” While you might imagine he says such things for effect, it’s not always clear what effect he’s going for—at least any effect beyond the basic tittery shock a little boy might solicit with his potty mouth.
McCarroll seems at home in front of the camera, and in Michael Selditch and Rob Tate’s documentary Eleven Minutes, he’s found an ideal situation: star of his own show. Striding along the sidewalk, poking through clothes racks, and ranting on about the latest encounter with yet another individual who doesn’t understand him, McCarroll is always on—even when he protests he’s not.
Best known as the first winner of Bravo’s Project Runway, McCarroll announces early in the film that he means to move on. “I have a shelf life,” he notes, which he gauges at about two years. After that, his fame/infamy will no longer be helpful, but only albatrossy. “I need to make the leap,” he says, “from reality TV designer to real designer.” Because, of course, there is a difference.
He imagines a wild, great, splashy future for himself, wherein he is able to create brilliant lines, sell all of them, put on extravagant shows in airport hangars, and feel loved—in so many ways. The film during a brief moment of doubt, self-described, as McCarroll says he was worried he was “incapable of being loved.” But then, he smiles, he saw a “Russian couple” on the subway, old and sweet and charming with one another, and he was revitalized: “If they can do it, I can do it!”
While it’s good to see him so reassured, it’s hard to tell the drama from the feeling. That’s not to say that there needs to be a difference, or that anyone with a documentary camera on him all day long for months could be blamed for performing for it. The question raised by Eleven Minutes—and never answered, though that doesn’t seem to matter either—is whether or not this performance has ends, both in terms of limits and in terms of goals.
McCarroll’s months of practice for Project Runway have developed what may be innate skills. He sells himself, sometimes to himself. Pondering the query he most often gets from interviewers—“Do you feel like you deserve it, talent-wise, to be showing” in so grand a venue as 2007’s Fashion Week at Bryant Park in Manhattan?—the camera looks at him through glass, emphasizing the multiple layers and general warping of his mediations: “I can’t help but feel it’s based off my personality and my talent,” he says.
This is the way of Fashion World, yes. Designers are as well known—as revered and reviled—for their outsized self-images as for the garments they hang on gaunt women and slouchy men. (For the record, McCarroll prefers “a more normal sized girl… I like at least when they have a boob,” as opposed to just a “nipple,” a look he terms “disgusto” while agreeing to pressure from sales experts to use them in the show, because someone like Omahyra because she’s famous and sensational and draws attention—like and unlike McCarroll himself. He also boasts of using a girl with a “nub” arm and “albinos,” to show off his affection for “weirdos.”) As outspoken and self-absorbed as any designer, McCarroll mutters about the “superficial” fashion industry, even as he is also obviously dedicated to it—as a form of self-expression (self-creation or -assertion), if not necessarily a way to change the world.
He is, at the same time, a product of that industry, as carefully promoted and as manufactured as any “look.” As hard as McCarroll tries to fend off his association with Project Runway, he also exploits it, as does the film. One of the models McCarroll uses is Michael Rucker, who also happens to be, McCarroll adds, a producer on Project Runway (when Rucker asks whether he needs to sign a release, McCarroll chirps, “Aha! Playing your own game?”). The metatexting helps keep the self-performing in perspective: for Fashion Week’s photo ops, McCarroll and Queer Eye‘s Carson Kressly pose while calling themselves “Bravo slaves.” They He gets the irony of the situation, and makes good fun of it, as well as those who seem more invested (say, snooty models), and the film is alternately light-touched and clunky (the montages—sewing, casting, split-screened runway walking, backstage scrambling—do pile up).
While McCarroll has explicit and much-discussed “issues” with his sales reps and other business associates (“What I’m having problems with right now is the coherency of the collection”), most of his colleagues tend to admire him. Alternately good-natured and entertainingly bitchy, McCarroll’s surrounded by good people working for free and folks with more expertise in their fields than he has—from accessories manufacturers to public relations firms to models—who treat him with patience and exasperation. “He’s certainly not questioning himself,” says one friend. “I get freaked out by what he’s doing, putting himself out there in one of the nastiest, most critical industries around. I mean, shit. That takes balls. And I totally respect him for it.” That said, the press array at Fashion Week reverts to what’s familiar, not what’s ballsy. “Is your head spinning like the exorcist?” smiles one red carpet reporter. “What would you say Project Runway has done for your career?” He smiles, again. “I don’t want to talk about Project Runway anymore.” Too bad. “Can you articulate why not?” asks the girl with one question.
When the show’s done, the film offers a coda, where the triumph ebbs away—a month later, several months later. Urban Outfitters buyers only pick up five styles, which leads him to adjust his expectations. “I just want to be justified in this community,” he says. “I want to run away from the reality television world.” And, apparently, into the documentary world. The trick is figuring whether these worlds are so different, or more pointedly, what’s at stake in insisting on their differences.