Tammy Swift, The Forum
Fashion is a nasty, nasty business.
I've always suspected this, especially after seeing fashion designers decree that all women in America should be wearing lime-green hot pants with mukluks.
And it became more apparent this fall, when I found myself embarrassingly obsessed with "America's Next Top Model" on UPN. As host Tyra Banks ran a gaggle of half-starved mannequins through a series of embarrassing challenges, she coached them as if modeling was as difficult as nuclear physics.
After each challenge, the young girls were paraded before fashion-industry judges whose cattitude made "American Idol's" Simon Cowell seem like Florence Henderson.
The worst of the lot was over-the-hill, self-declared "supermodel" Janice Dickinson, whose Botoxicated face and collagen-stuffed lips just barely escaped suffocation from her collarbone-high breast implants. Dickinson - old enough to be a sister of Emily Dickinson - used her vitriol, over-the-top histrionics and cobra tongue to reduce more than one inexperienced model to tears.
Sure, it was trash, but it was great trash. The models' trips to Tokyo, the outrageous runway fashion and the reminder that beautiful people can be miserable, too, were all great fun.
Now I've found a new addiction. Bravo network's "Project Runway" - a contest to launch the next hot fashion designer - is a reminder that reality TV can be smart, original and engrossing.
"Project Runway" has it all: supermodels, back-biting, ridiculously tough challenges and amazing fashion. Supermodel Heidi Klum infuses her hosting duties with a lovely android's charm, and fashion icons like designer Michael Kors are called in to judge the style circus.
But the designers - most of them young, hungry and a bit neurotic - are the real draw. Their ranks include the hugely popular Austin, a waifish theater-costume designer who routinely wears meticulously folded ascots, spit curls and rouge. Austin's skill and eye for making beautiful clothes are unsurpassed, although he'll have to depart from his ultra-feminized, 1950s-style silhouettes to win.
The "Project Runway" chat room - which, I'm embarrassed to admit, I've visited - is crammed with Austinphiles, who are devoted to his flamboyance and fragile sweetness.
Nearly as popular is Jay, a sassy vintage-clothing-store owner whose rock 'n' roll-themed fashions routinely push the edge. Outrageous, irreverent and hilarious, Jay's blunt honesty and street-smart sensibility are polarizing.
Viewers also were riveted by Starr, a neurotic corporate attorney-by-day/designer-by-night who cried at the drop of a stitch. She was recently ousted for her Morticia Adams-style fashion sense (one of her gowns was actually themed after cancer), and yet audiences still love to lambaste her online.
Another heavy is Wendy, a 39-year-old mother/dressmaker who believes the show is her last chance to make it in fashion. Wendy's insecurity and long-shot status could make her a sympathetic figure, until one realizes her white-and-black-streaked hair and slashes of makeup aren't her only similarities to Cruella DeVil. Indeed, she possesses a blood-thirsty ambition, a giant chip on her shoulder and a pincushion where her heart should be.
Other contestants who remain include Nora, a 21-year-old with great technical skill and an even greater ego; Robert, the resident beefcake; Alexandra, a monied and privileged princess; Kara, an experienced designer with talent and maturity; and Kevin, an experienced designer with a talent for irritating people.
The show's weekly challenges fuel the chemistry of this peppery crew. One week, the contestants are assigned to make a dress out of items from a supermarket, then are given just a few hours to create it. The designers wind up using everything from corn husks, ironing board covers, mop heads and tin foil to fashion garments that look remotely haute couture.
And, by the time the finished projects are plastered onto models and shimmied down the runway, most of them succeed. It's nice to see reality show cast members who actually have a better talent than wearing a tube top while eating maggots.
In an "Apprentice-esque" twist, last week's episode had the designers split into teams to design a new look for up-and-coming pop-rock chanteuse Sarah Hudson. Then - following their design project - each teammate has to "rat out" the weakest link in their group. The pressure to make this cut-throat choice so devastated poor Austin that he pitched a crying jag worthy of Blanche Dubois.
In the end, all this high style and theatrics are highly watchable. If you don't get Bravo, now is the time to cozy up to someone who does. Do it now.
Remember: Guilty pleasures are always in style.
Swift writes a weekly column for The Forum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.