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Project Plus Size, other Bravo observations

pkamens Icon Posted by Paula Kamen

August 23rd, 2006

Ever since I discovered Bravo’s always-entertaining Project Runway at the health club (all the gay guys around me were watching it on their elliptical-machine TV screens), I’ve been hooked. It’s in a league of its own as a Class-A reality series: filled with intriguing personalities, inventive challenges, and insightful looks into the madness and delights of the creative process.

Project Runway
is charged by the ultimate high-stakes ingredient for drama: of ambitious hardscrabble people trying to realize their God-given talents. Each week, the group of designers gets a design challenge from the dominatrix-like host, Heidi Klum, which they have to excecute on their assigned models and realize by the end of the show in a runway show. The one with the “worst” design is out. The three remaining designers get big prizes and industry exposure as a reward.

I really noticed tonight, above all, how these producers know how to mix things up — and get us to think what fashion is about, and who it is for.

On tonight’s episode seven (of Season 3), the challenge for the 8 remaining designers was to “Create Look for Everyday Woman.” They each had the challenge to design a “fashion-forward” outfit for one of the mothers or sisters of the other contenstants — who would then model said outfit on the show’s runway.

Right away, this challenge stood out from all other challenges because of the size of most of these models: plus size. In three seasons of the show, the models have all been interchangeable gamines. Any outfit would really fit any model, and very little specific tailoring was required, since they were all almost the same size.

I strangely enjoyed watching this challenge mess with the minds of some of the designers who had only previously designed for the sparrow-thin model sizes. “I don’t understand these proportions,” exclaimed former Barbie-wear (literally, yes, he worked for Mattell) designer Robert Best. Jeffrey, a supposedly open-minded rock-n-roll type, was spiraled into a panic that he had never designed for anyone of that size before.

In contrast, a warm and professional Vincent (who ended up being the winner of the challenge) was the voice of reason telling them that these women represent the true customer, and they have to respect that and get to know them.

However, while the message tonight was of acceptance of diversity, last week’s episode was more mixed. The losing designer was condemned by judges, including Klum the most vociferously, of making her model “look plus size.” Klum went on and on how she wants to look “long and lean” and not “fat.” I do recognize that a goal of fashion is to flatter one’s figure, but Klum’s voice revealed an extreme sense of horror.

Then again, Bravo redeemed itself tonight. Or rather, Nike did, with a brilliant ad during the show featuring famously-beautiful tennis star Anna Kournikova. It involves her being regaled by strangers for her looks; as she walks to her tennis match, they serenade her with Sacharine-sweet strains of “I Feel Pretty.” Then, as she reveals her force in her tennis serve, the chorus stops, to literally instead awe at her strength.

And then, speaking of mixing it up, after “Project Runway” tonight was the season finale of another distinctive reality show Work Out, also featuring a strong personality trying to realize her talents. A twist is that star Jackie Warner, a high-end trainer and designer, is in the midst of ending a dysfunctional 4-year lesbian relationship. Here, Jackie’s sexual orientation is not an “issue;” it’s just there. And it shows that despite some hopes expressed by some idealistic feminists in the ’70s, lesbian relationships can be just as fucked up as the rest of them. Work Out reminds me of the most progressive gay-friendly (and addictive) channel of all, HG TV, which routinely designs for gay and lesbian couples, never even stopping to acknowledge them as different — as they bicker openly like the other couples.

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