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The Near-Fame Experience

Lauren Zalaznick, head of Bravo.   

And since the show, more people have noticed Nick’s work. He’s done red-carpet dresses for Patricia Arquette, Eva Longoria, and Brenda Strong; he did his own cocktail- and prom-dress line for Windsor; his clothing label, Nikolaki, expanded; and he moved into a stunning atelier in downtown Los Angeles, where I visited him last month. You’d think it’d be enough. But even he’s been seduced by the siren call of television, doing style gigs that others thought were beneath him, or themselves. (“I crack myself up by saying, It’s lucky that I turn things down so that Nick has stuff to do,” says Santino.) And semi-celebrity has clearly changed the standard by which Nick and others see his success. “In the supermarket, crossing the street, at a restaurant, it’s, Whatareyoudoiiiiiiiiiing? Whatareyoudoiiiiiiiiiiing?” he says. “And I know it comes from a wonderful place, but it feels like, ‘Oh, poor you. Are you working?’ To this day, I still rattle off a résumé. And then I realized: Nick, they’re not judging you. They just want to know, ‘Where can I buy your stuff? You have to be doing fabulous stuff, because—you’re fabulous!’ ”

Then he brightens. “All that being said, honey, I’ve been on TV! And to be honest, every day I live and breathe it—it’s my life! It’s when nobody asks what I’m doing that I’ll be trippin’. ”

Eerily, as if on cue, his BlackBerry starts to buzz—a message from Miss California, also his client. He reads it aloud: You are on TV right now. “Oh, great.” He tries to look blasé, but he’s clearly elated. He looks at his partner. “Do you want to put it on, David?” David flips on a huge TV. “Oh, great,” Nick says. “Lovely.” He starts to giggle. They’re re-airing the Season Two finale, and the gang’s at Mood, selecting fabrics. Nick suddenly appears in the foreground, cheerful and easygoing, wearing a lustrous Hermès scarf. “Ooooh, there I am. Ha-haaaaaaa!” He smiles and stares.

The competition reality shows on Bravo may be driven by skill, but they still resemble Big Brother, Survivor, and other trashier reality programs in several crucial respects, one of which is that the participants are forced to live in freak isolation from the rest of the world and claustrophobic propinquity to one another. The producers say this isolation preserves the integrity of the competitions—you can’t win fair and square if you’re allowed to call a colleague for pointers on searing squab—but the measures still seem a bit extreme, and their effect, intended or incidental, is to push the contestants to the breaking point. And it’s when everyone’s working at the edges of their nerves that they go from ordinary citizens to reality-show stars. “I’ll take out everybody in the room before I kill myself,” says Santino. “So the stress I got from the show—I just gave it all back. I was the loudest, brightest shining thing in everybody’s face.”

The contestants on Bravo shows are not allowed money, credit cards, cell phones, newspapers, magazines, televisions, or Internet access. They cannot make independent excursions without a chaperone; they have to schedule phone calls through the producers, who monitor their every word. They can’t listen to iPods, can’t listen to the radio (among other reasons, Bravo would have to pay for the rights to the songs). They can’t even have sex with one another to pass the time. (An STD could result in a lawsuit—unlike hookup reality shows, the contestants aren’t tested beforehand for communicable diseases.) In fact, the contestants are left with little to do on these shows except drive each other barking mad. “Plus, they’re drinking,” says Tom Colicchio, head judge of Top Chef, as he himself simultaneously nurses a coffee and margarita outside his new restaurant, Craft Los Angeles. “Not during the challenges, usually, though no one would stop them if they did.”

Sleep deprivation is rampant, especially on Project Runway, where participants usually rise at six, work until midnight, and go to bed at 1 or 2 a.m. Season Two of Top Chef was additionally complicated by the summer weather in Los Angeles, the hottest on record—the building in which they filmed had no air conditioners. There were days when it reached 110 degrees outside, and far worse in the kitchen. And that was before the contestants fired up the six double-ovens.

“Some of the fights these guys had were brutal,” says Colicchio. “When Betty went ballistic at Marcel, that was not acting.” He thinks. “Though there was something about Marcel that got under everybody’s skin. He clearly, clearly was annoying people.”

Marcel Vigernon—talented and totally evil, his hair overmoussed in a roosterly ’do—is perhaps the best example of the other crucial respect in which Bravo competition reality shows resemble their lowbrow counterparts: their unerring casting. “If Bravo has shown expertise in one thing, it’s casting,” says Allen. “And it’s unbelievably hard to do. The producers have to sift through hundreds of people to get down to fifteen—we have the evil gay guy, we have the pretty blonde woman, we have the ethnic rotund guy from Philly—and they’ve found some unbelievable characters. Dave Martin on Top Chef—the 40-year-old man who cried whenever anything went wrong. How do you find that person?”

Before he auditioned, Harold Dieterle was a bit naïve about all this. He recalls his first e-mail exchange with Randy Bernstein, the casting director of Top Chef. “He was like, open call is this day,” says Harold, as he portions a pinkish heap of snapper in his new kitchen. “And I was like, open call? I’m not going to an open call. I’m a chef, man.” He told Bernstein he’d cook him a meal at the Harrison instead. “Afterwards,” says Harold, “he said, ‘Listen, you seem kind of normal. You’ve got to show your personality. It’s the most important thing.’ ” He stops cutting mid-fish. “So I’ll be honest with you: I absolutely, positively played the game. Before my final audition, I got totally overcaffeinated and was a total egomaniac. I told them no one can cook as good as me.”