'Stylista': Reality Right Off the Rack

Vying to be top
Vying to be top "Stylista," from left: Johanna, Cologne, Ashlie and DyShaun. (Photos By David M. Russell -- The Cw)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Not only is there really no such thing as a "stylista," but also neither should there be. Nobody should want such a person to exist, and certainly nobody should aspire to be one. But logic, propriety and what I like playfully to call simple human decency are no obstacles. Thus does "Stylista" premiere tonight on the CW network.

What we can't fight we must confront and try to understand -- like a big green monster from outer space. Most new TV shows are copies of one or more shows that already exist; "Stylista" apes the structure of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" while attempting to mine the same old lode as other reality shows set in the fashion world, the CW's own "America's Next Top Model" among them.

"Eleven aspiring trendsetters" -- as a booming announcer describes them -- are brought together for eight weeks of frenzied competition. One trendsetter is eliminated at the end of each episode until a single combatant is left standing -- and winning. The grand prize includes "a highly coveted editorial position" at Elle magazine, free use of a Manhattan apartment for a year and, of course, a generous clothing allowance.

The winner must not only fit the part but also, perhaps more important, look the part. We have entered a hyperventilated universe in which all that matters is appearance, although contestants are told that to succeed at a fashion magazine, they must also be prepared "to live and breathe style." What -- not eat it, too?

It's doubtful any of the contestants, all in their boring 20s, would list "Peace Corps worker" or "community organizer" as a second choice of occupation, although one young woman, Johanna, 28 -- whose current address is the District -- worked previously as a "military analyst." (Another contestant, 22-year-old Ashlie, was born and grew up in Washington, according to program publicity.) The kids can't be dismissed as witless airheads, either; a young woman named Cologne previously operated her own fashionable clothing shop and named it "Oh de Cologne." Cute.

Regardless, they're all happy to pitch right in and behave in ways they know will please the producers, mainly dissing and hissing fellow contestants. "I hate that girl," one says of another, seemingly before they've even unpacked (yes, they live together in quirky quarters, like the roommates of MTV's "Real World").

A young woman named Megan is set up promptly to be the show's resident Omarosa. "I think Megan is going to be difficult to work with," says a boy. "She's like a walking time bomb." Earlier, he complains about her "negative energy." One of the women says of Megan, "She's like a little tick that I want to flick off of me." This is before Megan has barely said boo, mind you, but the contestants were obviously goaded into snap judgments by the producers.

That's one of the ironies of the "reality" label, since producers go into these projects knowing what elements of conflict they want hyped. The shows are only technically unscripted, because they're written in the editing. The "Ugly Betty" figure in the piece, though she is certainly not ugly (but then neither is Betty), is an overweight contestant named Danielle. Editing of an early sequence makes it look as though Danielle is being shunned and scorned by others -- but this could be an entirely misleading impression created by cunning cutting.

Resemblances to the movie "The Devil Wears Prada" are obvious; the job that the competitors are vying for is essentially the position that Anne Hathaway had in the movie, and "Stylista" has a very bossy boss in Anne Slowey, Elle magazine's fashion news director. She's not the fire-breathing shrew played so merrily by Meryl Streep, but she's obviously a toughie. She reviews the appearances of the contestants soon after they arrive, telling one of them: "Your cleavage is busting out. It's in my face."

The wisdom imparted by Slowey and by Joe Zee, Elle's creative director, hardly sounds like hot insider poop, however: "First impressions are important" is among the priceless gems. "If you're going to live in my world, you either get it or you don't," lectures Slowey before reviewing the contestants' first assignment: buying her a takeout breakfast from a local deli.

"Stylista" is -- what is the phrase? -- like a little tick that you want to flick off, but it's no worse than other reality games that have come before and will come after. It celebrates and elevates life's most trivial drivel, but if that were a crime, reality television would quickly go the way of the crooked quiz shows of the '50s.

Stylista (one hour) debuts tonight at 9 on Channel 50.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company