The coinage stylista plays on the model of fashionista, a term so terribly abused that it has come to describe any person with an above-average concern that her bag not clash with her shoes. The newer word is clearly also suspect: It glints with militant frivolity and, moreover, typographically suggests some dermatological disorder or designer mouthwash. Still, it has a kernel of worthiness, style being the man himself and all that. The "11 aspiring trendsetters" on the reality show Stylista (The CW, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) are, as their miscues and tender tantrums demonstrate, several trials short of becoming men and women, and a further maxim applies. When your correspondent was a turnip less ripe yet than these contestants, he sat at the knee of a stately old local-newspaper columnist who declaimed, "Style is you finding out who you are, what you're about."
Such is the theme of this coming-of-age competition, one that it approaches with an appreciable sincerity given its own synthetic terms. In vying for a "job" at Elle magazine, these dear children are trying to discover themselves. In the exaggerated fashion-magazine ethos Stylista posits, "finding your own voice" is a matter of bringing polish and creativity to the genuine expression of a core self. That's in the metaphorical sense. In the literal one, it means improving your accent, maybe affecting a hazily posh one in which the vowels have been cut and sanded so that no one can discern the meanness of your background or the quality of your borrowed French.
The youngest of the participants is 19-year-old Devin, an NYU student who avers in an entitled whine that she would give her "left arm for that position—not even kidding," clearly not having considered how that circumstance would limit her ability to imperiously hail a cab while holding a camel-hair coat. The oldest is 26-year-old William, who hails from Boston but attended "a university in Oxford" and took this sojourn as an excuse to start dressing like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and speaking like David Hemmings in Blowup. The most richly abominable is Megan, a 22-year-old boutique owner frequently heard administering insults in a tone redolent of expansive leisure time devoted to sharpening claws. The fattest is Danielle, who, in her role as the Ugly Betty underdog, tends to talk like a normal person.
Perhaps all of them will end up sounding like photo director Brett, one of their mentors and taskmistresses here. Brett's got a nonspecific upper-class drawl going on, as if her jaw is always returning to Locust Valley from the mall. In one segment, she follows the words "empire waist"—ahm-peer, sweetie—with a caesura so the kiddies can note her correctness. Surely none will reach the ridiculous heights of articulation achieved by Anne Slowey, Elle's fashion-news director and Stylista's queen bee, who has prepared for the vamping her screen role requires by studying Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Bette Davis in everything, and, perhaps, actual frost crystals. In elimination scenes, the phrase "You can leave now" is what she says to the winner. The only problem with Slowey—and this is especially disconcerting given the program's obligatory focus on her footwear—is that she walks funny, plodding gingerly, as if not yet accustomed to how the chunkiness of the season's accessories has reset her center of gravity.
In Wednesday night's first challenge, the youngsters scramble to fix Slowey breakfast. Sadly, none demonstrates the cleverness either to spend the allotted $40 on narcotics or to present a fellow castmate's head on an attractive serving dish. All race to a local deli, getting to the counter with their nerves worn and their hands full. (Here, contestant Kate, whose sartorial instincts favor a streamlined trampiness, briefly lodges the head of a pineapple in her cleavage.) Mightily does the flatware clatter against the trays as the competitors shakily wait for review.
Viewers of a particular sensibility—that is, mine—will find themselves unwholesomely engaged by the tone Stylista brings to scenes about laying out sidebars and rethinking silly hats. The show feels approachably lo-fi (wardrobe by H&M, cinematography by no one interested in the beguiling gold of them thar Hills), and the references to aesthetics are just arch enough to convey that it's in the know as a work of trash about mechanical reproduction. The contestants, being somewhat more literate than your usual reality-TV cretins, say dumb things in an interesting way. (Poor, poor, unfortunate Arnaldo: "I think in the box, out of the box, and sometimes take the box and turn it into a triangle.") Stylista is not a guilty pleasure; the guilt is the pleasure, and never more so than when Kate, freshly savaged by Megan, whimpers with terror at her newfound capacity for contempt: "I've learned what it feels like to hate other people." Chin up, honey. You are only on the precipice of adulthood. With practice, hating people is as fun and easy as an afternoon of backgammon or an hour of bad TV.