Once upon a time, Project Runway viewers could feel superior in their reality-TV-watching habits. Sure, we were talking back to our televisions on a weekly basis, responding to the contestants’ bitchy comments with our own witty retorts, and spending far too much time pondering the long-term career potential of people we’d never heard of just a few weeks’ before. (Often, one designer became a magnet for our hate-watching, usually someone whose sense of self was absurdly inflated.) But despite all that, Project Runway was different: Unlike other reality shows, participants needed to demonstrate more than skinny arms and a psychosis that could be showcased in 30-second sound bites. It was a test of skill and talent.
Season 9, which concluded last night, destroyed that beautiful illusion. It’s been clear for a while that the talent pool is drying up—back in Season 7, Slate’s post-show analysts complained that the contest had become far too predictable—and this year, the contestants were noticeably less talented than in years past. In the last couple of cycles, the producers—Real World creators Bunim-Murray, which took over the show when it moved from Bravo to Lifetime in Season 6—have kept things interesting by manipulating the action, placing a thumb on the scales of fashion justice. This year they applied the whole arm.
There’s always a handful of contestants who clearly have no chance of taking the title. It doesn’t matter what order they’re auf’d in, but always the most polarizing ones in this group—that is, those most likely to make an impression on viewers—get to stick around longer than the mousier folks. That’s the rule of reality competitions, of course. But before this season, an untalented crazy person has never stayed until the very end. In Season 9, Joshua McKinley displayed nothing but a gift for drama and producing tacky clothes, and he took second place. Viktor Luna, who stood head and shoulders above all the other designers throughout the contest, made the inexplicable decision to drop some beautiful items that had won the judges’ approval the week before from his final collection and to replace them with sheer chiffon pieces whose aesthetic was quite different to what he had shown all season. He was consigned to third. Anya Ayoung Chee, a former beauty queen from Trinidad, who had showed appealing poise but sub-par skills, took home the title. For the most part she stayed out of interpersonal squabbles, but the producers barely bothered to hide how much help they gave her—extra challenges were introduced to provide her with more fabric, last-minute twists allowed her to avoid showing inferior work, and in the penultimate episode, she was sent through to the final after sending a tragic bathing suit and a lamé towel down the runway. (An unexpected trip to fabric store Mood in the days before the final show gave her a chance to ditch the drab looks.)
Although Nina Garcia, a native of Colombia, is one of Project Runway’s three regular judges, I can’t help noticing a consistent anti-Latino bias. In Season 7, early front-runner Emilio Sosa showed the best final collection and didn’t win; in Season 8, Mondo Guerra was robbed; and this year, Viktor Luna, whose work was consistently better-made and more interestingly designed than anyone else’s, was shafted.
Will this insult to la raza drive me to abandon reality competitions? No, I’ll simply transfer my allegiance to Bravo’s Work of Art. You see, it’s not just about who’s the craziest, it’s a test of skill and talent. At least until the producers get involved.