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Nina Garcia Blog
Category: "Johnny Sakalis"
I have been amused by the flurry of news stories surrounding Joe Wilson's outburst in Congress in the past week, and I was reminded of them when I saw this week's episode of "Project Runway." Contrary to popular belief, the hardest part of participating on a reality television show is not the loss of privacy, but rather the adherence to the truth that is demanded of you when all of your behavior is documented on video. It's Truth 2.0, essentially.
This week on episode five of "Project Runway," we saw poor Johnny Sakalis go down, and although his design skills paved the way for his descent (watch the "Project Runway" video extras — he has a crippling faith in the power of trims), it was his practice of manipulating reality that is no match for the challenges of the show.
When I was on Season 2 of "Project Runway," I quickly learned that "keeping something between you, me and the fencepost" doesn't actually work if there is a camera mounted on the fencepost at all times. So if you have something you want to say behind someone's back, you should just say it to their face, because they will find out about it eventually, since the whole thing is being filmed. It also means that if you've got something to say, it better be consistent or you'll get caught.
Evidently this is something that Johnny has learned, because he stays emphatically "on message" this week, trotting out his steam-iron stump speech and honing it until he gives the best version of it for the judges on the runway. And yet, even if his story is an honest representation of something that might have occurred in the workroom, it isn't exactly true.
Under the policies of Truth 2.0, honesty is no longer the best policy. You must also tell the truth. Using steam to shape a dress made out of paper is not a crazy idea; paper is a cellulosic fiber, so it should be respond to steaming, but also be vulnerable to it. However, regardless of the level of honesty Johnny's steaming story possesses, it is not the truth about why he discarded his first dress and rushed to design another in the last minute instead. (See photo.)
"Honestly," even if he suffered some horrible mishap in the workroom, the "Truth" is that Johnny's convictions for his designs crumble under the pressure of critique, and his subsequent design statements serve to accommodate what his sewing lacks in virtuosity. (Again, check out the "Project Runway" videos of his workroom conversations with Tim Gunn) With all of Johnny's outfits, except the one that he does with Irina, if you compare what he initially shows Tim with what he eventually sends down the runway, there is generally a stark difference between "before" and "after."
Instead of exploring how his initial design conviction might be augmented to address a question that Tim raises, Johnny always opts to abandon that element entirely. In the pregnancy challenge (episode two), his dress has a small bolero (see image below) that he promptly discards after speaking with Tim. In the model challenge, he is excited about a trim that he also ends up abandoning when it fails to elicit affirmation from Tim. Finally, after Tim is underwhelmed with his newspaper dress, Johnny crumples up the whole thing and throws it in the trash.
And yet none of this is that terrible. People have doubts. They try one thing, and have to switch horses in midstream to avoid catastrophe. What is fascinating about "Project Runway" — and by extension, the digital age itself — is that duplicity is completely untolerated, and with cameras everywhere, and so many ways to check in, chat and update your status, it's now easier to spot the truth counterfeiters than it has ever been. When Tim comes backstage to send Johnny back to the workroom, there are no "goodbye hugs." There is no "we'll miss you"; it is stern negation and expulsion. As soon as Johnny leaves the room, Tim assures the group that, indeed, they were on to him all along, and that such falsehoods are "ridiculous."
So now we’ve seen it, Episode 1 of “Project Runway” Season 6, and I think that I might just like where the show is heading. I wondered whether Lifetime’s programmers wanted to make the network more “Sassybitchilicious,” or if “Project Runway” would be tempering reality TV’s standard practice of schadenfreude with an infusion of pathos. To my surprise, it looks like the latter might be true for this show, and its new spin-off, “Models of the Runway.” It seems like Lifetime has decided to focus on the inspiring stories of people triumphing over adversity through the power of their creativity, instead of a hackneyed parade of gender caricatures bludgeoning us with dated catchphrases. What a relief!
In this first episode, we meet the cast and we hit the ground running, with the story of Johnny Sakalis leading the way. Upon being introduced to him, we learn that Johnny has made it onto “Project Runway” only after auditioning for three of the show’s previous seasons. On this, his fourth try, we learn that the final obstacle that he has had to overcome, in order to truly be ready for the show, was winning a battle with an addiction to crystal meth. And he is not alone. When it comes to struggles for this cast, well, every child has “got his own.”
I highly recommend watching the audition and casting clips on myLifetime.com. You get to see the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the cast in context, and many of them this year, like Johnny, have either tried out for the show before, or have some personal struggle that has prevented them from pursuing their dreams of being a professional designer. Some of the most compelling stories come from the Eastern Bloc contingent in this year’s class. Nicolas Putvinski speaks of how his scientist parents were exceedingly unhappy to have a child who wanted to be “creative.” Could that also be a euphemism for “gay”? Gordana Gehlhausen’s mother apparently burned her clothes on several occasions because she happened to fancy outfits that were antithetical to such harrowing Soviet institutions as “Marxism Class.”
And the list of obstacles doesn’t stop there. Christopher Straub couldn’t afford to go to fashion school, and traded away the opportunity because of a death in the family. One of them is red/green color-blind, and another had to move back home with their parents after school. Several members of the cast want to turn their struggles into victories for the minorities that they represent, whether it be their race, sexual identity or body size. Indeed, Qristyl Frazier is an unstoppable force of positive energy, to the point of insisting that “plus” is not a size, but rather a qualifying adjective for sex appeal. On top of that, if you think that the ones with perfect L’Oreal Paris Skin Genesis complexions haven’t suffered enough (and they are a contingent too), remember that they’ve probably spent the last year getting stern reminder letters that they signed a nondisclosure agreement in order to be on the show. Not only have most of them put all their eggs into one basket, but they’ve packed that basket in a wagon that was hitched to a star, that for several months, threatened to become a black hole.
But in Episode 1, we see the resilient human spirit distinguish itself more than anything else. Even though Johnny breaks down in a crippling crisis of self-doubt, Tim Gunn talks him back from the brink, asking, “But are you being too hard on you?” He ascends from the ashes, dubbing Tim “a god” and creating a dress with an unusual silhouette, but nevertheless, one that Heidi Klum would wear “in black.” Mitchell Hall, after creating a dress that doesn’t fit because it is smocked (without an elastic bobbin thread!!!???) finds a way to redesign his entire ensemble on the day of the runway show. (See photo on right.) By the way, now that we get to hear them speak on “Models of the Runway,” Yosuzi, Mitchell’s model, has the most incredible smoky voice. What a pity it is to hear her depart!
The winner of this challenge is as much a surprise as the loser. The judges eschew awarding Ra’mon’s red-carpet gown the prize, finding it too “safe,” and Christopher, despite the obstacle of not knowing what a godet or smocking is, manages to create a dress, again, that Heidi Klum would wear, but that also charms guest judge Lindsay Lohan. She aptly notes that it would be improved by subtracting one row of ruffles.
Qristyl creates a dress with two focal points and is chastened by Michael Kors for Frankensteining two different dresses together. Talk about human spirit! I don’t think this is the only time that Qristyl’s positive energy will serve her well in the competition; plus, I think she is a very quick study.
Michael Kors lobs one of his signature similes at Ari’s dress, likening it to a “disco soccer ball.” (I heard that he’s in the beta group that’s testing the new “iPhone laugh-meter app.”) Nina praises Ari’s conceptual point of view, but then wisely falls in line with what Heidi would wear. There is some suspense while we wonder if the judges will find Mitchell’s nudity, or Ari’s Bai-Ling factor worthy of “auf-Wiedersehening,” but in the end, the first lamb sent to the slaughter is our cockeyed optimist from Kansas City, Mo., Ari Fish. I’m sad that we won’t get to see how her “Buckminster Fuller” approach to fashion plays out on the show. Nevertheless, as with every cast member from “PR,” you can always find us on the internet. Sure enough, Ari Fish is alive and well (and probably still doing some fantastic handstands), and living in Berlin, and I’m certain that she’d be the first to remind us that “life is a cabaret."