Jay McCarroll, baby-faced and hoodie-clad, works in the sort of space you’d expect from a fellow who dreams in fabric. It’s outfitted with four sewing machines and oceans of material arranged in brilliant spectral sequence; his spring 2007 collection hangs on a rack in the corner, anchored by a quilt skirt so audaciously outsize it could easily double as a bedspread. But bedding itself is missing from this studio, as is a kitchen and a shower, which matters more in this case than it ordinarily would: Though he’s the first- season winner of Project Runway, Jay, 32, is still homeless in New York.
“I haven’t been living anywhere for two years,” he says. “I sleep at other people’s houses. I sleep here if I’m drunk.”
Jay was one of the Bravo network’s first guinea pigs in the competition reality genre, a brightly imaginative new form that mixes the more mundane conceits of The Real World and Survivor with contests involving genuine skill. In exchange for a few weeks of reality-style exploitation, contestants have a chance to show the world what they can do—with a sewing machine, with a pair of scissors, in a kitchen, in an undecorated room—and in the aftermath find their careers in full bloom. But the shows, it turns out, are the easy part. “I have a fucking gazillion e-mails from all over the world from people asking, Why isn’t your stuff out there?” says Jay. “Yet financially, I have no way to get them a product because I got pushed out of a boat and into the ocean, as if, Oh, you can survive now.”
This isn’t what one would assume, of course. One would assume he’d be a money magnet after his star turn. Certainly Jay assumed as much. “You don’t think I took the fucking bus to New York the day after I won the show, thinking someone was going to come up to me on the street and say, You’re awesome, here’s money?” he asks. “I thought that for two years. But I’ve given up on that.”
Had Bravo not invented Project Runway, Jay would probably still be back in Lehman, Pennsylvania, where he ran a vintage-clothing store (before that, he was producing online porn). But because of the show, Bravo and Bravo watchers expected quite a bit more from him. Project Runway wasn’t some competition gimmick like Fear Factor or The Amazing Race, where the contestants’ skills only served the needs of the show. Jay’s talents were practical and real, and Bravo gave him a platform to showcase them. If he couldn’t succeed in the aftermath, why were we watching? Of what use was the show?
That’s pretty much how Jay saw it, too. He’d worked for five straight months, with zero pay and little sleep, to appear on Project Runway and create a collection for Bryant Park. Audiences adored him. The show owed much of its success, let’s face it, to him. So what did Jay get out of it?
The trouble is, celebrity came easily to Jay. Business did not. On the show, Jay was wicked and entertaining and cheerfully provocative, but he hardly had the means, savvy, or professional temperament to navigate the New York fashion world. (His first voice-mail message to me, ever: Hey Jen, this is Jay McCarroll … Um, I am free tonight and all day tomorrow to do this bullshit. Fucking call me, would you?) “A week after I won the show, I met with two ladies from Banana Republic at the top of the Soho House, which is like, big time,” he says. “And they were like, ‘Oh, we can give you numbers for factories to get your clothes produced.’ But that was totally not anything like what I needed. What I needed was someone to sit down with me and say, Here’s how you start a fashion label.”
Before long, the blogs started to howl that Jay’s work was nowhere to be seen, and Tim Gunn, the kindly host and soul of Project Runway, was wondering aloud to the press why Jay hadn’t gained more momentum; he also castigated him for being a diva.
“My hands have been creatively crippled for two years—all those fucking eyes on me, reading that I’m a waste on blogs,” he says. He looks genuinely unhappy now, and younger than his 32 years—a reminder that there’s an enfant in enfant terrible, a person one feels just as apt to protect as to throttle. “I was just an artist before this happened,” he adds. “Now I’m an artist with a fucking clock ticking.”
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.”
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.”
I loved watching Harold on Top Chef. But he was a far cry from the egomaniacal terror he made himself out to be during auditions. He was diplomatic and good-looking, had that great local-boy accent (with just a soupçon of Long Island). His grace must have surprised the producers. “Yeah,” he says. “During our confessional interviews, they were getting pissed off at me because I wasn’t, you know … ”
Bernstein says that talent was still his primary consideration when he and his partner first set out to cast Top Chef, and that casting, no matter how programmatic people are about it, is an inexact science. (He and his colleagues had no idea that Marcel would be such a worm, for instance, because he was so quiet and nervous on his audition tape.) But as an objective matter, it was impossible for the two of them to sample the food of the hundreds of prospective chefs. Only during final auditions, when the pool had been whittled down to 35, did they have such a luxury. And by that time, they’d relied just as heavily on traditional reality-programming casting formulas as they had on people’s résumés, with an eye toward diversity, aesthetics, and dispositions. (Before Top Chef, Bernstein had worked on Treasure Hunters and I Want to Be a Hilton.) When I ask Bernstein how he found the strong-and-silent almost-winner, Sam Talbot (or “Sexy Sam,” as scores of bloggers now think of him), he tells me that another reality-show producer tipped him off that Sam had been in the running for The Bachelor.
“For the first two seasons, you could tell the producers were like, This isn’t a cooking show, it’s a reality show,” says Colicchio. “The top chefs could always hold their own, but you walked into the kitchen and knew: These other six people, there’s no way they’re going to be able to compete.”
Like Michael Midgley, for example. “Mikey,” says Colicchio. “In the beginning, I was complaining, ‘What is this guy doing here?’ And the producers were saying, ‘Yeah, but wouldn’t it be great if he really could cook?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, it would be great. But he can’t.’ ” (Of course, then he made a great fish dish, though he was hopped up on Vicodin at the time.)
Colicchio emphasizes that the producers didn’t try to influence his judging. Sam would never have been eliminated if it were up to the producers. (Colicchio was ultimately responsible for that call, prevailing over a disappointed Padma Lakshmi at 4 a.m.) And this season, the producers of Top Chef deliberately set out to find stronger contestants. “I think they’re realizing now that the core of the people who tune in are hard-core foodies,” says Colicchio. “Most of my friends who are chefs called me after the first season and said, ‘How can I come on as a judge?’ ”
Yet back at Perilla, I discover that Harold has gotten plenty of invitations from non-foodies for his services, like the e-mail he recently got from a woman in her mid-forties from the Midwest. “She basically asked straight up if she could purchase some of my … DNA, I guess. Some seedlings,” he says. “That was awkward. I mentioned it to the fellow who helps me with specific events and stuff, and he was like, Oh my God, that’s the greatest idea ever! We’re gonna put it right on eBay!” He gives the snapper a baleful look. “Former reality-show contestants. I’m sure there’s a huge untapped market there.” He portions his last fish and, without looking, tosses it into a tray, as effortlessly as a point guard passing a basketball behind his back.
As it turns out, the former contestants of Bravo’s competition reality shows aren’t the only ones trying to make the most of their moment. So, too, is Bravo itself. As recently as five years ago, the station was still part of the flyover country of the cable dial, a backwater that mainly featured cheesy knife commercials and Inside the Actors Studio and bad ballet. But last month, Bravo was nominated for nine Emmys—Top Chef and Project Runway among them—and these last two quarters were the network’s best ever. This transformation happened mostly under the reign of Lauren Zalaznick, now beginning her fourth year at Bravo. At this moment, she’s sitting with ten executives in the conference room, doing a postmortem on Shear Genius and Top Design. She notices that the ratings for Shear Genius sharply dropped on a particular week. Was it a rerun?
“That was the finale of Lost,” explains the presenter.
“Yeah, I hear that show’s really gonna catch on,” she says, giving her eyes a slight roll. “They should really stick with it.”
In her knitted tank tops and shag of steel gray, Zalaznick hardly looks the role of a network executive, nor does her office, a shadow box of primary-colored kitsch, suggest the part. But she’s done a lot in her 43 years. Before coming to Bravo, she ran the Trio network; before that, she oversaw programming and development for VH1; and before that, she was a producer of independent films, including Kids, Safe, and Girls Town. Her instincts are shrewd, her manner unfussy and direct. She says that what crystallized Bravo’s programming philosophy for her wasn’t Project Runway so much as Bravo’s previous smash hit, Queer Eye. “We had to define what pop culture meant on Bravo,” says Zalaznick. “And what pop culture, as defined by us, has come to mean is five affinity groups: fashion, food, beauty, design, and pop. It’s not coincidental that the five guys in Queer Eye each represented one of those things.”
Nor is it coincidental that four out of five of Bravo’s competition reality shows each represent one of those things. When Zalaznick first got to Bravo in May 2004, Project Runway was already in the works. The series originated in the offices of the Weinstein Company, and when Heidi Klum said she was interested in hosting the show, that sealed it—the company soon found Project Runway a home at Bravo, which was already beginning to attract an urban, high-income audience with Queer Eye. Bravo executives came up with the idea for Top Chef as soon as it was clear Runway was a hit, and last year, they added two more competition reality shows, Top Design and Shear Genius. Though the last two had respectable ratings, they were critical bombs. “Here’s my crazy biggest note about Top Design,” says Zalaznick. “Where’s the carpet? Didn’t the Pacific Design Center have a rug store? It drove me insane. But the general problem is the white-box problem”—that the contestants were forced to decorate identical vanilla spaces each week—“and that’s a great producer’s challenge.”
Zalaznick may have added that neither Top Design nor Shear Genius was produced by Magical Elves, the company that so deftly produces Chef and Runway. But more to the point, Bravo may be discovering what so many networks do when they attempt to endlessly replicate a programming formula: It works a little less well each time. For Love or Money wasn’t as good as Joe Millionaire; Law & Order: Criminal Intent isn’t as good as Law & Order. In the future, says Zalaznick, she’d be more inclined to focus on cultivating new programs in each of the five original Queer Eye categories, rather than introducing a slew of new competition reality programs. Of course, Bravo just announced a new series called Make Me a Supermodel, a flagrant rip-off of America’s Next Top Model. Sometimes old habits die hard.
In addition to looking for new programming ideas, Zalaznick is trying to make the most of her existing franchises. Back in June, the network announced it’d be teaming up with Pangea Management, a sixteen-month-old company based in Santa Monica, to help manage the careers of future contestants (with the notable exception of those from Project Runway, still owned by the Weinstein Company). The arrangement may raise the specter of the old studio days, when movie stars didn’t own their careers, but Zalaznick makes no apologies for it. “Everything associated with Bravo isn’t just driving a rating,” she says. “It’s driving a business.”
Before they enter these competitions, Bravo’s reality show contestants already forfeit a fair number of creative freedoms, signing away their life-story rights in perpetuity, agreeing not to appear on other networks without Bravo’s permission for a full year after their shows have aired. They also surrender the goods they create during the competitions (though in Project Runway’s case, the proceeds go to the Weinstein Company, which in turn go to charity). Laura Bennett, the elegant matriarch from Season Three, is the only former contestant I could find who bought back some of her work—her husband spent $13,000 on projectrunway.com for seven items from her Bryant Park collection, under the handle “Bad Daddy.”
After enduring the rigors of the shows, however—the sleeplessness, the loneliness, the intense public scrutiny—many of the contestants believe, with some justification, that they’re entitled to the financial rewards the world offers them without Bravo’s intervention, especially when many of them were responsible for making the shows so interesting to watch. When Laura, hugely popular with fans, failed to notify the network she’d signed a contract to host a style show on MSN.com, they called and demanded an explanation. So she pointed out: “What do you have to offer me?’ ” (And now she’s in talks with Bravo about doing something for its Website and iVillage.) When Harold, still under contract, was asked to participate in a Top Chef cook-off between contestants from Seasons One and Two, he complained about it to the New York Post, which took Bravo by surprise. “But I was like, This shouldn’t come as a surprise,” he explains to me. “I let them know that I didn’t want to do it. I had a million things going on.” And Jay has the fewest qualms about offending Bravo of all. “The only gig that Lauren Zalaznick ever offered me after the show,” he says, “was to decorate her daughter’s lunch box for some charity thing for her school.” (Zalaznick says she has no recollection of this request.)
More than any former Bravo contestant, it’s Jay who has fought the bitterest fight for his intellectual property, though it wasn’t with Bravo itself. After he won the first season of Project Runway, he discovered that the Weinstein Company would forever own a 10 percent stake in his brand—and he didn’t yet even have a brand—if he chose to take their $100,000 prize. He turned it down. The company has since dropped the clause. But the fight left Jay without any money, and it left Bravo with an embittered winner—and one whose orientation wasn’t necessarily all that commercial to begin with. “I think the problem Bravo has,” says Colicchio, “is that they lose credibility when Jay doesn’t do anything.”
Zalaznick points out that the new arrangement with Pangea—optional, not required—would help address exactly the kind of confusion that insta-celebrities from Bravo face, providing career guidance, helping sort wheat from chaff, negotiating deals that’d keep them in the public eye. “Reality shows and the characters that inhabit them all run a risk of much too short a half-life,” she says. “And that’s where a lot of these folks can be saved, not to be overly dramatic about it.”
Excitement at the Avalon hotel in Los Angeles. Santino is in the building! Someone at reception instantly recognizes him, telling him how much he loves his work. Santino walks outside to settle by the pool, and two women by the bar frankly stare at him—one with her shades off, just to make sure.
“Yeah, people feel like they know me,” he says, when I point out all the starers. “There’s no barrier there. I’ve been at parties where there’ve been a lot of actors, but people don’t feel like they know them.” So reality-show stardom is more cumbersome, in some ways, because we’ve all been trained to leave Gwyneth Paltrow alone. “And in one respect, it’s great—I’m with friends at a club, and it’s ‘Come right in’ and bartenders buying me drinks, telling me I was robbed or whatever.” Robbed, because Santino didn’t win his season. “And then there are other days,” he says, “when it’s Please, can we not do this right now?” He orders a Cape Cod. “I don’t blush easily,” he says. “But I’ll go some places, especially concerts, and I’ll have 15-year-old girls jump on my back or grab my crotch. And I get into grown-up mode, like, Where the fuck are your parents?”
For some people, Project Runway was all about last season. For me, it was all about Season Two, which had four totally outrageous multiethnic designers—Santino Rice, Nick Verreos, Andrae Gonzalo, and Daniel Vosovic—who shared suite 35D in the Atlas apartments. Santino was by far the biggest provocateur, and it hardly mattered that Chloe Dao, a designer of pretty but unremarkable clothes, actually won. “No one wanted to interview Chloe,” Santino says. “I’m sure I did like 500 percent more interviews. That’s what I won.”
Though Santino is by no means Runway’s biggest success story, he is, arguably, its biggest star. He’s prodigiously talented, smart, opinionated, arrogant—sublime, in short, falling into the classic reality-show category of characters one either loves or loves to hate. He also falls into the classic category of outspoken, gossip-prone reality-show characters that Bravo cannot control. “Between Heidi and Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, the judges were like a three-headed monster,” he says. “They all basically have the same point of view. I mean, have one avant-garde person who has an art-as-fashion approach, rather than fashion-as-commerce approach.” Then, of course, he made an almost perversely beautiful collection for Fashion Week, and the judges said there wasn’t enough of him in it. “And it’s like, Really?” he asks. “Gee, that’s funny, because I made this shit!”
I ask what he thinks of Michael Kors’s clothing. “I think Michael Kors has made an excellent business for himself appropriating everything Halston already did.” Then he reconsiders, but the effect makes the insult more stinging. “I mean, his clothes aren’t so bad that they make me upset or mad,” he says. “They’re just conservative and, in a lot of ways, boring clothes.”
Shortly after appearing on Runway, Santino had achieved such an extraordinary level of notoriety that he was able to announce a run-of-the-mill yard sale on his Website and unload almost all of his old T-shirts and jeans—not things he sewed, but things he wore. (Sometimes he sees them reappear on eBay.) The Discovery Channel, which owns the rights to Project Runway in most of Asia, flew him to Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore for a big promotional tour, during which he judged some fashion competition where an entrant made a hand-embroidered T-shirt of his face. He hangs out with the Hilton sisters, charges at least $5,000 to make appearances at events, and makes couture dresses for $3,000 to $10,000 a pop. His income, he says, has at least quintupled since appearing on the show. “Not only do I not have to do grunt shitwork anymore,” he says, “but I’ll never be put in the situation again where someone thinks they can be shady to me in a business deal.”
But Santino still doesn’t have his own work space (he shares it), still doesn’t have a modest label he’s selling to stores. When Bergdorf Goodman phoned him after the show, asking if he’d be interested in doing a small collection for them, he told them he didn’t yet have the means. Ultimately, his goal is to be another Armani—someone who does both a stylish diffusion line and haute couture—but for now, he’d be content simply to have his own apartment, to stop paying rent. “I fall into this weird area where everyone thinks I don’t need help anymore,” he says. “I was in Canter’s Deli the other day, and this woman was like, ‘I was rootin’ for ya,’ and I was like, ‘Well, don’t stop rootin’ for me—I need all the help I can get.’ I feel like I’ve done nothing yet.”
So how realistic is it for a struggling clothing designer to appear on television and have a big-time label when the show is over? Not very, of course. Most people will never know this level of success.
Andrae, Santino’s former suitemate from 35D, is acutely aware of this. When he auditioned for Project Runway, he was waiting tables at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, because his boutique wasn’t making enough money. After he was eliminated, the Walt Disney Concert Hall is exactly where he returned. “I was still working there while it was airing,” he tells me over lunch. “Boy, was that surreal. The guests were freaking out. They were like, ‘I can’t believe it’s you! You have to take a picture!’ He gestures to an imaginary plate. “And I was like, Uh, I have this tray.”
Even with a boost from Project Runway, it takes years to build a fashion business. “Unlike American Idol, where your voice is your vehicle and you can be on a marquee in Vegas the next week, this industry is very, very different,” says Gunn. “Unless you have a huge financial machine behind you that allows you to have businesspeople and a publicist and access to Bryant Park, it happens in small increments—it’s not, you’re on Project Runway, there’s interest in your work, and—pow!—you’re in Saks and Macy’s.”
Which means Bravo may have to wait a while before it can claim to have launched America’s next big designer, if ever. The career of a chef may be a bit easier to get off the ground, in the sense that restaurants involve one investment in one space, but the failure rate in the restaurant business is still frightfully high. In the aftermath of these shows, Bravo’s guiding criterion seems to be to help the contestants who are most inclined to help themselves. It’s not a venture-capital firm, after all. It’s a small cable network, trying to stay on top of the lives of nearly 100 alums. But holding the hand of each would be hard. “This show is an opportunity,” says Heidi Klum, the host of Project Runway. “But guidance? You do that with children. As an adult, you have to find your own way in this world.”
Which is why Andrae has decided he’s going to make a change in his life. Appearing in Pittsburgh as a former reality-show star isn’t going to give him a career in fashion, this he knows. “You get everything you’re promised from the show,” he says. “I am now a famous fashion designer. But that is so different from a successful fashion designer.” And so his current plan is an eminently mature and unglamorous one: He’s looking for a modest, semi-anonymous job in New York as an associate designer for a larger label. “Third designer from the left,” he says. “Sign me up.”