How 'All Stars' Gimmicks Poison Decent Reality-TV Shows

By bringing back contestants, Project Runway has succumbed to the worst tendency of its genre: rewarding self-aware "brand building" over talent.

banner_allstars.jpg
Lifetime

As a Project Runway fan, I have stuck with the show through its many cycles, the rocky network transition from Bravo to Lifetime and the ill-fated Los Angeles-based season that forced dapper Tim Gunn into casual wear. I remain loyal because I've never stopped admiring what the designers can create with fabric, gum wrappers (or whatever crazy material gets thrown at them), and gumption. When the show debuted in 2004, it was one of the pioneers of the concept that reality television could foster—or at least reward—genuine talent.

When the Project Runway All Stars edition launched early this year, bringing back a collection of almost-winners and memorable also-rans from previous seasons, I started watching it for the obvious reasons: because it was on, and because I thought it might fill in for Michael Kors's runway bon mots, which I'd been missing. But now, as the spin-off slogs its way through a second installment, it mostly just makes me sad for everyone involved.

Without the involvement of sparkling host Heidi Klum, Kors, and Gunn, the whole endeavor feels like something that came off the irregulars rack. But the main problem with Project Runway All Stars is that the contestants aren't actually competing to become designers—their ultimate goal is to become marketable personalities. Its only merit now is as a cautionary tale about how even the smartest reality-TV shows can end up as empty celebrations of not talent but rather fame itself.

"This is All Stars!" the designers and judges keep intoning breathlessly, stressing the heightened expectations that come with being the best of the best. But it's clear that no one's really buying this. The first installment of All Stars at least had some relative star power with breakout fan favorites Austin Scarlett and Mondo Guerra going head-to-head in the finale. The show's existence could be justified as a do-over for Guerra, whose loss at the finish line in Season 8 is universally accepted as Project Runway's biggest screw up. Guerra was also the only one among the initial slate of all-stars who treated the show as if it was a real competition, suffering multiple meltdowns on his way to the final runway show. Instead of the coveted prize of showing at New York Fashion Week, the finalists showed off their final collections at a makeshift fashion show in a rented hall.

The sophomore season, however, is populated with mostly forgettable figures. Some, like Season 1 villainess Wendy Pepper and Season 8 mean girl Ivy Higa are on a redemption tour. Others, like Season 5's Suede Baum, simply want to remind the world that they exist and can still use a sewing machine. (A propensity for referring to oneself in the third person is a depressingly low bar for an all-star.) Instead of the wise and majestic Gunn, the designers' mentor is Marie Claire Editor in Chief Joanna Coles, whose sole contributions are to lobby for the bra-wearing women of America (admirable), and to soberly ask each designer what shoes and jewelry he or she shall select from the Nine West accessory wall to complete the ensemble.

Bringing back contestants is an easy way to hook viewer interest, but also an unpleasant reminder of the cynicism at the heart of shows dedicated to uncovering talent.

Sponsor name-dropping is a necessary part of the gig. Even on regular installments of the show, the designers routinely gush about the accessory wall offerings and the awesomeness of their HP digital sketch pads. But the all-stars slobber over the products like they're contestants on The Price is Right. In place of ego clashes and competitive spirit, they beam at every ensemble that comes down the runway and are boringly gracious in defeat. Most of the competitors seem to understand that a carefully cultivated image is part of the game—this is no one's first time at the rodeo.

Presented by

Meghan Lewit is a writer and editor based in New York. She has contributed arts and entertainment coverage to the L.A. Weekly, The Awl, and PopMatters.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

Just In