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“Charm School”’s Classes on Class

pkamens Icon Posted by Paula Kamen

July 2nd, 2007

Think “My Fair Lady” turned ghetto fabulous.

This could probably have served as the most optimistic pitch possible for the VH1 reality show, “Charm School,” the endlessly entertaining, hilarious, yet ultimately exploitive, reality show that had its finale last night. It featured as contestants the outrageous street-smart women who (inexplicably so) had ruthlessly competed over Flavor Flav in the cult show, “Flavor of Love.”

But this time around, the prize was not Flav, but cold hard cash: $50,000. Another dividend was that for each of the ten “lessons,” the women attended an actual East-coast boarding school-like “finishing school,” complete with prim uniforms, where they learned everything from ettiquette (which part of the wine glass to hold while making a toast and how to eat frog legs) to the importance of giving to charity. The “principal” was the highly watchable comedian Mo’Nique, who had it both ways by contributing clever barbs while also serving as nurturing mother hen to the ladies. At the end of each epidose, one woman was “expelled” by Mo’Nique and her team of judges.

Besides the very witty and outrageous personalities of the contestants, this show stood out, and got interesting, because of the class (and race) element. The women’s candor often exposed the stuffiness of their teachers, just like Laverne and Shirley often made the Milwaukee elite look silly with their frankness. This was the case in the episode structured around wine heir (and “Bachelor” star/prize) Andrew Firestone, who instructed them in the art of boring small talk. But what came out of their mouths instead was more original, such as the reply of one woman to his question about wine admitting that she really doesn’t care for it.

The finale was striking, and depressing, in how high the stakes were for the three remaining women, who seemed to be mostly from impoverished backgrounds. The assignment was to write and their recite a “term paper” of one page to argue why they deserve the money. The woman who ended up being the winner, Saaphyri, moved the judges with her off-the-cuff heart-felt speech how the money would just allow her to have what she never had, a roof over her head and sense of security. She had spent much of her life homeless and always had to worry about her belongings being taken from her under her nose.

The runner-up, Leilene, a former stripper, talked about how she would support her two children as a single mother. This was very depressing that these women have so few opportunities that reality TV is the closest they’ve gotten to higher education (in the same way I get depressed when Oprah gives houses to poor people; it’s a sad state of national affairs when reality TV is the best option for someone). But it was also poignant with how articulate the women were and how much dignity they had at the end, proclaiming that instead of a man, the main prize they have gotten from the show was new comfort with themselves. This was true even with “villain” Shay who rose to the occasion as a fair-hearted and non-vengeful judge.

The women’s class also was a factor in how they were unusually abused by some of the judges — even by reality TV standards. Too often the joke was on them. In the second-to-last episode, the fomer beauty-pageant male exec lashed out at one of the more sexually provocative characters, Brooke (Pumkin), saying that “you can’t put lipstick on a pig.” Mo’Nique added that Brooke was the “whore of Charm Schoool.” The hurt in the young woman’s face was painful to watch as she tried to maintain her composure, and lost it, in the face of this cruelty. I don’t think they would have treated a “higher class” contestant like that, like someone from one of those Bravo “Project Runway” spinoffs. These women got on the “Flavor of Love” show to begin with because of their flaunting their sexuality, and now one was being castigated for it.

This was an admittedly riveting series to watch, for better and for worse. But I’m not planning on turning into the next show of this series, “Rock of Love,” (premiering on July 15) in which women (inexplicably) compete after 80s hair band Poison’s lead singer, Bret Michaels. As the website shows, these women will also be outrageous, but lacking the “My Fair Lady” element that enlivened “Charm School.”

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