• With 'real' women, 'Project Runway' gets good and ugly
     | August 30,2006

    ATLANTA — In the past few days, "Project Runway" has lost an Emmy and landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

    But that's not the biggest news concerning one of TV's hottest — and chic-est — shows.

    Last week, Heidi Klum & Co. finally put some real people on reality TV.

    The results weren't exactly pretty. But it made even more compelling a show that, midway through its third season, seems increasingly interested in examining the messy underpinnings of the human psyche, along with pretty clothes.

    By now, you either have to be hopelessly naive or more simple-minded than "Deal or No Deal" to still believe that most "reality" shows aren't carefully calculated productions. The only way contestants on "The Apprentice," "The Bachelor" et al. qualify as real girl (or boy)-next-door types is if what's next door is a combination cosmetic surgery clinic/tanning salon/acting studio.

    Still, if any show were going to introduce messy reality in the form of physical imperfection into the equation, "Project Runway" seemed about the least likely candidate. Each week, its ambitious designers compete against one another to make the most gorgeous outfit from things like foliage or "recyclables" (aka trash). They're helped along immensely by a cadre of professional models whose high cheekbones disguise many a flaw in the outfits being sent down the runway for a panel of judges.

    Until last Wednesday, when "Runway's" producers replaced the pros with the "everyday woman" — and not just any everyday woman. These were the contestants' own mothers and sisters being outfitted and sent out to strut their mostly middle-aged stuff — and to basically take one for every female, non-size 2 in America with a measurable IQ.

    "I don't understand proportion on this kind of body," Robert Best, 37, sniveled about having to design for contestant Vincent Libretti's sister. (No one was allowed to work with his or her own relative). Granted, the poor woman was shaped like a large pear. But you would've thought she had open sores on her body for all Best's whimpering: "I'm scared of this. I don't know what to do. I'm so scared."

    Even worse was Jeffrey Sebelia, the heavily tattooed sourpuss who simply stalked away from his everyday woman — someone's pleasantly plump mother (who works for the Red Cross, for pete's sake!) — when she ever so politely questioned his color selection.

    "I'm not going to stand here and be nice to you just because you're some old lady who can't walk," Sebelia, 36, snarled later, having reduced her to tears.

    Some contestants were less ugly, but only, one suspects, because they got the younger, more stylish women to dress. It all helped reinforce the notion that for the fashion industry, the people it designs for are almost completely beside the point. Even the slightly imperfect perfect ones: "You should be pretty and seen, and not open your mouth," contestant Kayne Gillaspie, 27, sniped about one of the professional models in an earlier episode.

    This could explain why no woman with hips can ever find anything decent to wear. But it only hints at what makes "Project Runway" so thought-provoking.

    For that we turn to the loathsome Sebelia, who, his proud mother tattled, is a recovering alcoholic no longer living on the streets. Or the prickly Gillaspie, who reluctantly admitted after his mom produced an old photo, that he used to be 110 pounds heavier. On and on the revelations went until you could almost understand why the slightest reminder of imperfection would be so unnerving to most of these designers. Why live in the "everyday" world when you don't have to?

    Because, like it or not, we all pretty much do.

    "You have to compensate and deliver to real women, because these are the people who wear your clothes," observed last week's winner, Libretti.

    Minutes later, Best finished dead last — just behind Sebelia — and got sent packing.

    Back to the real world.

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