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'Project Runway': Can Casanova bring the drama?

July 30, 2010 |  7:00 am

Proje5695 After eight seasons, "Project Runway" might well need a little reboot to keep the franchise fresh. After all, "America’s Next Top Model" intensified the stakes this season by offering the covetable prize of Italian Vogue; "Big Brother" introduced the concept of a saboteur; and "American Idol" has lowered its age limit.

So what shakeup did Heidi Klum have in store for the new crop of would-be Austin Scarletts and Santinos? An extra half-hour and an extra competitor. That’s right, on this 1 1/2 hour episode,  the excited designers were told that they were not actually contestants yet. Instead of winnowing the pack down to 16, the producers brought 17 to New York in order to eliminate someone (or several someones). Sure, it was all semantics, but it meant that some poor designer suffered the humiliation of being the first eliminated without the glory of being able to claim a bed in the group apartment or to tell their friends they were officially a "Project Runway" contestant.

That didn’t keep a few of the designers from posturing-- but not very convincingly. "I know this sounds totally vain, but I think 'Project Runway' is the Ivy show," said a petite Hawaiian named Ivy. But as weedy Missourian A.J. pointed out, "I could totally lie and say, 'I’m ready to go and I‘m going to beat everybody,' but we know that anybody who says they’re going to get on there and kill everyone has no idea what they’re talking about."

Most of the contestants seemed unusually self-deflating. Poor Peach, a 50-year-old who admitted she designs for "ladies who lunch," walked in knowing that she’d been cast as the old lady of the group, but insisted that "with age comes wisdom" -- though so far that hasn’t won anyone "Runway" that I can recall. (In fact, "old" or "matronly" are among the most stinging insults judges can throw at designers on this show.)

A few of the newbies did try to brand themselves. Jason did so by making it clear he was a lunkhead by wearing a corset and a silly bowler hat. Gretchen announced herself as "a sustainable clothing designer from Portland" living a "pseudo-hippie lifestyle" (presumably because a real hippie lifestyle requires too much commitment?).  And 21-year-old college grad April declared that she’s inspired by morgues -- shorthand for, "I like to make black, deconstructed goth clothes."

The only contestant with a whiff of drama and bluster was Casanova, he of the thick accent and mustache, who claimed to have done everything from avant garde to beauty pageants. Casanova looked thrilled when Heidi and Tim Gunn gathered contestants in Lincoln Center (the new home of Fashion Week) and asked the designers to pick an item from their own luggage to rework -- and he nearly sobbed openly when asked to hand it to the person next to him. It turned out Casanova had chosen his brand new $1,070 Dolce & Gabbana trousers, and would now be forced to sacrifice them on the altar of "Project Runway" and watch another designer, Valerie, rip them to shreds and transform them into a dress.

Casanova’s own creation was questionable enough that Tim asked of the gown, "Is it sexy or is it vulgar?" "It’s sexy," Casanova insisted. You know it’s not good when Tim persists. "Really?"  Meanwhile, Jason (still wearing his trademark bowler) was wildly distracted by the models getting naked during their fittings. "Project Runway" has never featured a huge number of straight men, but you never saw Seth Aaron or Jeffrey Sebelia gawk. Just as a gynecologist keeps it clinical, a designer should be thinking about form and fit, rather than ogling model’s bare breasts. Awkward.

Because there were 17 contestants, the runway show was endless and the results all over the place. Faux-hippie Gretchen was announced as "the clear winner"  for an exceedingly subtle black dress that incorporated applique sleeves from another contestant’s jacket; as judge Michael Kors pointed out, many different kinds of women would wear it but it was nothing that anyone will remember two episodes down the line.

Whereas some of the losers’ outfits were memorable for their awfulness. And this time, instead of a bottom three we got a bottom six -- way to shake things up! -- and the threat that more than one designer might go home.

April’s gothy deconstructed tuxedo-dress didn’t impress Kors. "Totally tragic," he trilled. "If you’re going to do deconstruction, we’ve got to be able to see you can construct." As for Utah native McKell, Tim had called her creation adorable in the workroom, but the judges seemed appalled by her blue shirt-dress. "To me, it looks like some kind of disco apron" said Kors, while Heidi piled on with, "I think it is butt ugly." (I found it sweet and flirty.) They seemed positively annoyed by Ivy’s outfit, repeatedly pointing out that she had taken a pair of white toile pants and made ... pants. And even worse, "It looks like a small-town hick outfit," according to guest judge Selma Blair. (Again, I disagreed.)

Nicholas’ shiny gown made from a polyester bomber jacket bored everyone, whereas Jason’s outfit -- a kimono that was transformed into, well, a kimono put on backwards and stapled into an outrageously lumpy shape -- definitely made a statement.

The pressure was on Casanova to deliver some drama, and that he did. His dress created out of a jacket was barely a dress at all, and Kors outdid himself trying to describe it. "She’s like a mother of the bride who’s a belly dancer. She’s a sexaholic, but she’s conservative. She’s a pole dancer in Dubai!" Blair chipped in helpfully, "I loved how daring it was in the back, and I also loathed it."

It’s obvious the judges couldn't ditch Casanova -- at this early stage, he seems the best hope for drama. Surely it would be Jason the bowler-boy, who admitted that his dress was "falling apart at the seams." No. "We are intrigued," Heidi declared, welcoming Jason and his hat into the fold of official candidates. Instead, McKell was sent packing from this "audition," even though Tim had complimented her dress. (As he explained in a Times profile, he often feels annoyed by the "crack-smoking judges" and their decisions, noting, "I say hello to them when they come on the set. I frequently don't say goodbye, because I'm mad."

Despite the seeming threat of multiple eliminations, everyone else was allowed to move into the "Project Runway" house. And Tim said goodbye to McKell with his usual kindness and seemingly genuine affection, standing by his warm statements about her dress -- still the most dignified man in all of reality-TV land.

-- Joy Press

Photo: The contestants of Season 8. Credit: Lifetime


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