For the past two months I've been watching "Project Runway" obsessively. So obsessively that I actually figured out how to program my video recorder so that I wouldn't miss a single backbiting, bitchy, ball-busting episode in the event that I had something better to do on Thursday nights than eat dinner in front of a TV screen.
"Project Runway"— a reality show in which contestants compete with each other to create the best clothes within specific themes, materials and time limits— is a guilty pleasure. If I'm going to veg out while consuming my veggies, I could at least watch a PBS documentary on global warming or maybe "Antiques Roadshow," so I could recognize a Ming vase should I run across one at a garage sale.
On the other hand, one of this season's "Project Runway" contestants is Patricia Michaels, a renegade clothing designer from Taos (where I live) who marches to the beat of a different drummer, most likely one with an instrument made out of a hollow cottonwood trunk. Patricia's designs are so eccentrically original— so Taos, in other words— that they continually confound both the other contestants and the judges, who admit that her textile creations are unlike anything they've seen anywhere. So it's my civic duty to watch the show and send Patricia positive energy.
Dresses from duct tape
My second rationalization is more elaborate. The contestants on "Project Runway" are not schlubs prone to eating disorders or hoarding cats and used car parts. They're designers, for heaven's sake. Like me. Only better.
I mean, there is no way I could construct a prom dress out of duct tape. Not even when it comes in rainbow colors and psychedelic patterns. Therefore, I'm witnessing artistes in action— just as if I were watching a PBS biopic about Jackson Pollock or Bob Dylan.
But of course the truth is that I'm hooked on "Project Runway" for the same reason people get hooked on reality shows featuring morbidly obese dieters, preachers and their wayward daughters, or irascible chefs hurling insults and crockery across their kitchens. It's the psychodrama that seduces us. More precisely, it's our identification with the players in these simulations of real life conflicts.
Meltdowns and hugfests
Basically we're all more or less schizophrenic, possessing different personae that take turns possessing us. Creative types are particularly apt to exhibit contradictory personality traits that co-exist in the same body.
Some of our sub-personalities we like, some we'd just as soon subject to mercy killings. The semi-scripted nastiness, emotional meltdowns and reconciliatory hugfests— all staples of reality show group dynamics— give us a way to vicariously indulge, consciously or unconsciously, our own internal dramatis personae.
So, while watching "Project Runway," I cheer when Patricia Michaels triumphs. Not just because she's a homegirl, but because she's who I like to think I am: iconoclastic, staunchly independent, and down to earth.
You don't see any other contestants scurrying around Mood, the designer fabric megastore, in white tennis shoes. They're stumbling up and down the aisles in platform sandals and high-heeled booties, and I bet they secretly suffer from lower back pain, not to mention frequently sprained ankles.
My inner bitch
As for Michelle of the radically asymmetrical haircut, discoid tattoos, and defensive physical boundaries, well . . . Michelle is who I like to think I'm not.
She's articulate, witty, and capable of severing a fellow designer's Achilles heel with a verbal barb. She nailed Stanley, whose confidence borders on arrogance, with a well-placed jab: "Stanley is going to do something that some other designer did back in the '50s." Michelle is my inner bitch, and I love her for saying the kinds of horrid things I think but am too nice to let pass my lips.
Of course I'm always delighted when Stanley gets taken down a notch, whether by Michelle or by steely-eyed judge Nina Garcia, who undoubtedly runs a tight and terrified ship at Marie Claire. Why? Because Stanley is a male version of one of my more unattractive sub-personalities: my outspoken, perfectionist Little Miss Can't Be Wrong, who also deserves to be deflated from time to time. Stanley, bless his smug heart, takes the bullets for me.
Daniel's ludicrous combo
On the other hand, Daniel, with his Dali-esque moustache and Texas accent— a ludicrous but endearing combination— is my better half. He's the most sincerely empathetic, and prone to tears, of all the contestants, and the only one who declares himself a team player. Daniel's my kind-hearted, maternal self.
(To be sure, this particular self emphatically did not care for Daniel's buttercup yellow linen shorts suit with out-of-control epaulets. No human woman, other than the emaciated adolescent who modeled it, could possibly fit into this garment without bits of her bottom hanging out.)
And, last but not least, there is Richard— continually frowning, self-pitying and universally rejected as a teammate.
In a recent challenge, Richard's truculent inability to execute a French seam while acting as Patricia's sewing assistant resulted in her ditching her original design for a hastily patched together garment that looked like a toga adorned with vertical strips of fringe and nearly resulted in her being pronounced "out." I wanted Tim Gunn, the show's elegant paterfamilias, to slap his hands with a yardstick.
Poor Richard. He's the guy everyone (including me) loves to hate. This probably means that in some dark corner of my psyche, there's a petulant, self-pitying little persona I've managed to keep so suppressed that no one knows it's there, including me.
Come to think of it, I don't really know how to sew a French seam either.