Reality bites. As an actress niece of mine likes to point out, every time a reality TV show airs, it means money out of the pockets of hard-working actors. They could fill that time slot with another scripted drama–they could create Art. Instead, we see ‘reality.’ One could even make the case that Reality TV is ontologically disorienting, phenomenologically warped; it’s not about what’s real, but what’s ‘real’, it constructs a post-modern ‘reality,’ a carefully scripted, carefully edited selection of scenes that were staged and filmed and crafted and honed and polished and probably even rehearsed, mostly in an effort to make shallow, petty people appear shallower and pettier. It’s Jersey Shore, it’s American Gypsies, it’s Swamp People, it’s The Real Housewives of Wherever. It’s the Kardashianization of American society. It’s the End, the Apocalypse, Ancient Rome, The End of Western Civilization. Or something.
And then there’s Clinton and Stacy.
I love What Not To Wear.
I have spent my life in the theatre; studying it, teaching it, directing plays, writing them, even, on occasion, acting. Costumes matter. It’s amazing what a good costume designer can do, the way costumes can enhance, or maybe even help create a character. We are what we wear, and studying that, both historically and contemporaneously, provides a marvelous insight into human culture, human psychology.
Liking costume design doesn’t mean I can actually do it. I know just enough so, when I’m directing, I can sort of nod knowledgeably when my designer takes me on my first rack walk. “Hmm, yes,” I opine sagely. “Yes, that’ll work nicely. Well done.” My great friend Janet Swenson (a costume designer of rare and extraordinary talent) knew me well enough to see right through me, which is not to say we didn’t have our disagreements when working together. But we always wanted the same thing. We wanted the clothes to reflect the characters.
I also can’t do it in real life. I would be perfectly capable of dressing like a hobo all the time. In fact, I only dress like a hobo part of the time, when my wife isn’t there to say things like “you’re not seriously going out in public dressed like that, are you?” The homeless bum look works for me. It’s not that I value comfort over fashion, I value comfort over everything.
In case you’re hopelessly in dark right now, What Not to Wear is a reality TV show; it’s on TLC. It stars Clinton Kelly and Stacy London. The idea of the show is: ordinary people who go around dressed badly get nominated (turned in, really) by their friends. It’s like a fashion intervention. Clinton and Stacy film them surreptitiously for a couple of weeks, commenting all the while on their terrible taste, then confront them. The target folks then get fashion advice from Clinton and Stacy, and a credit card with five grand, which they can use for a New York shopping spree. They get a hair and make-up makeover, and then they get to show off their new look for the friends who recommended them in the first place.
Here’s why I love the show: Clinton and Stacy are incredibly good at this. The people on the show are not fashion models. They’re very average looking people; sometimes, quite unattractive people. But Clinton and Stacy never put them down (they tease them good-naturedly in the early going, but it’s very light-hearted). Instead, they’ll say things like “you’re short, but you have lovely eyes, and you’re a little small-busted. So a good look for you would be. . . .” And it’s amazing–these people (almost always women) look terrific after their make-over. They really do; they look way better; not just more attractive, but more confident, more self-assured.
And that’s what’s really wonderful. These women, they’ll admit they dressed badly not just because they didn’t know how to dress well, but also because they were insecure, they didn’t want to be noticed, they wanted to blend into the background, they didn’t feel good enough about themselves to make the time and effort to dress well. Clinton and Stacy build their confidence. They take very average looking women and they say ‘you’re actually really beautiful; if you wear different colors or different styles or wear your hair differently, your unique, personal beauty will have a chance to shine.’
Clinton’s especially good at this. He just comes across like this great friend, warm and sympathetic and kind. He and Stacy have a great rapport–they seem to like each other, and like the people they work with. Clinton’s gay–I only know that because I happened upon a magazine in the doctor’s office where he talked about marrying his partner in New York–but it’s not Queer Eye or something–his orientation isn’t front and center on the show. Instead, his expertise is the focus.
I love people who are good at their jobs. We have a mechanic we’ve been taking our car to for twenty years now, because he’s just amazing. We have a guy who mows our lawn who’s like the best lawn-mower ever. I admire competence. And there’s a sub-genre of reality TV shows that feature that, people who are really really good at something, like Mythbusters, or Cake Wars, or Antiques Roadshow. I think shows like that promote expertise, promote excellence. I think it’s good to be good at stuff. Nobody’s better than Clinton and Stacy.