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The Near-Fame Experience

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Harold Dieterle, winner of Top Chef, Season One.   

If you’re a viewer, Bravo’s competition reality shows—Top Chef and Project Runway in particular—make up some of the most addictive programming on television. In part, their appeal comes from the simple, old-fashioned pleasure of watching people make something with their hands. But they also come with a television-ready arc: Each episode starts with a mystery and asks the contestants to solve it, as if they were cops: Your challenge is to make a dress out of coffee filters and azaleas. For “coastal, educated” people, the base of Bravo’s viewers, these shows offer idealized reflections of their lives—urban, verbal, multiethnic, creative, gay—and, like an idealized life in the city, they’re mini-meritocracies, driven not just by personality but talent.

For the contestants, the implicit promise of these shows is that they’re time machines, compressing the brutal urban mechanics of getting ahead—the political maneuvering, the grinding incremental labor—from a matter of years to months. The problem is that reality-show success is no substitute for real-world experience. “There is something a little bit cruel about all the attention,” says Ted Allen, the dignified cooking guru of Bravo’s Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and a recurring judge on Top Chef. “Because during the season you’re in one of the shows, you are famous for a while, and you get to enjoy all the fun of that. But you’re not someone who has any sort of expertise that’s going to keep you on television. There’s no certain road map for translating that kind of ephemeral success into a life of yachts and bling.”

Andrae Gonzalo, for instance, the Project Runway contestant immortalized as AHN-dray by Gunn (and Gunn’s premier impersonator, Santino Rice, the scoundrel of the second season), was a great character—sweet, prone to tears, talented in an unpredictable way (that dirty-gutter-water dress, purchased for $760 off projectrunway.com—God, how I dream of it still). Today, he still sews the odd custom dress for $1,500, and he teaches too, but he makes a fair chunk of his money doing gigs that exploit his reality-show fame, like hosting events at gay bars in Pittsburgh. He knows this won’t last. “I tell everyone I’m not a star,” he says. “I’m a brown dwarf.”

Celebrity, as any casual observer of Lindsay Lohan knows, is not for the weak. It wreaks havoc on relationships. “It’s a real testimony to my boyfriend that he stuck through it with me,” says Andrae. “He basically pointed out that I’d bought the lie—that because I was on television, it made me special. You are unique because you are on television. But not special.”

Wendy Pepper, the Madame Chiang of Project Runway’s first season, made herself over and dumped her husband after the show was over. Jeffrey Sebelia, last season’s winner, split with his girlfriend, with whom he had a 2-year-old son. At breakfast one morning a few weeks ago, Ilan Hall, the appealing winner of this past season’s Top Chef, confessed that he and his old girlfriend also split after the show. “She thinks it’s because women were coming up to me after the show,” he said. “Which happens. But it had nothing to do with it.” And I believed him—he’s 25, hardly the marrying age—but even Ilan’s father, says Allen, now jokes that his son’s girlfriends have gotten prettier since the show.

Though the people appearing on Bravo’s competition reality shows work in backstage professions, making clothing and cooking food (or, in the case of Shear Genius and Top Design, cutting hair and decorating homes), many are also deluged with offers in the aftermath that would prolong their fame but do little to advance their intended careers. And those offers can be tempting. Austin Scarlett, the young Quentin Crisp from the first season of Project Runway, says he was approached about a role on Heather Graham’s short-lived sitcom, Emily’s Reasons Why Not. Today he wonders if he should have mulled it over. “Because I don’t think you should turn down work that much,” he says. “That’s one of my continuing struggles, being considered a reality-TV, you know, star.” I ask if he’s ever done TV gigs he’s come to regret. “Yeeeeeeeees,” he says. “Battle of the Network Reality Stars.” Shortly afterward, he appeared on a reality reunion show on Bravo, too. “I felt so cheap and tawdry,” he says. “They gave me $500, and I was like, Keep the money. It was just part of my confusion, grasping for the next thing.”

Austin actually figured it out. At 25, he’s currently the creative director for Kenneth Pool bridal lines and has seen his gowns featured in the window of Saks. But as a rule, it’s the older, more established contestants who are best able to take advantage of their exposure, simply because they already have the means. Jeffrey Sebelia already had his own business called Cosa Nostra and was therefore able to start selling to major stores in Los Angeles—Fred Segal, Maxfield. Tabatha Coffey, the “fan favorite” on Shear Genius, already had her own hair salon in New Jersey and was therefore able to see 175 new clients within six weeks of the show’s debut. Kara Saun, the runner-up on Season One, is still a costume designer in L.A., just as she was before, but now she has an investor in Connecticut who made it possible for her to get into Los Angeles Fashion Week and a few high-end boutiques. And Harold Dieterle, as a former sous-chef at the Harrison, was able to launch his own restaurant, Perilla, here in New York, after he won Top Chef. (Last month, he got a star from Frank Bruni in the Times.)

“When they asked me why I wanted to be on Project Runway,” says Nick Verreos, 40, who made the fetching Barbie dress from Season Two (it sold for $1,700 on projectrunway.com), “I said I wanted to use it as a trampoline. Because I knew I was doing fierce stuff, but nobody was noticing.”


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