You know that scene in Office Space where the guys check on the progress of their penny-raking scheme and realize, to their horror, that their sinister plan ended up siphoning way too much money? That’s what this episode must have been like from the Project Runway producers’ point of view. They put together a fine little challenge (albeit a rerun from last season), having the designers design fabric based on meaningful moments from their lives. They set up the This Is Your Life motif with photos from the contestant’s past. And then for good measure, they flew in the designers’ moms and/or boyfriends, because goddammit this episode would have some wistful-piano-music moments or somebody was losing their job.
But the addition of the moms (et al.) made the pennies of the Project Runway realm—salty, delectable tears—come pouring in too fast. All of a sudden, the show was awash in sobs, and it was too late to turn off the spigot. Having underestimated the emotional fragility of the cast, and caught off-guard by one earth-shattering storyline, the show’s creators found themselves in the bizarre position of editing down huge stretches of bawling just to bring the show in under 90 minutes. Crying scenes, on the cutting-room floor? Madness!
The first few minutes gave every indication that this episode would be a snooze. Tim was joined in the workroom by Tracey Something, Global Director of Marketing for HP, and Ms. Something rattled off one of those speeches that traces its origins to an all-staff email reading, “Conference Room B is reserved from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today for an IMPORTANT BRAINSTORMING SESSION.” Reading from the PowerPoint slides in her mind, Ms. Something intoned, “As we all know, technology is playing a greater role in fashion today.” Oh lord, we were really in for it.
After the infomercial, the contestants found childhood snapshots on their personal HP TouchSmart units, the computers for people who like to pretend that the iPad doesn’t exist. The group feigned interest in Michael’s baby pictures, and he reflected on his mother in a testimonial: “We had a moment where we weren’t as close as we were, but we got close again.” In other words, Michael’s life story is the description for every episode of Family Ties ever made.
It was a banner day for Christopher, The Contestant That Camera Time Forgot, as the producers allowed him to appear on screen and praise the wonders of HP TouchSmart. He gushed that HP’s industry-almost-leading technology helped him create a print that expressed his viewpoint, whatever that may be. “The gray lines in it represent San Francisco, where I’m from.” OK, sure.
Mondo seemed awfully mopey as he worked on a bold purple-and-yellow check pattern. April couldn’t figure out why he was so sullen, and he would only insist that the print represented a very personal story, so she shrugged and walked away. Then, in an interview, Mondo explained that the plus signs forming the backbone of the pattern were inspired by his HIV-positive status.
Project Runway typically punctuates these big revelations with a thud or a whoosh, but no sound effect was needed to amp up the gut-punchingness of this moment. The wrenching details came out: He had been positive for 10 years, and his family didn’t know. And he was expressing this pain in the competition by way of a vibrant, almost celebratory print. It seemed to be a signal that Mondo did not want us to dwell on his sadness, so while his story certainly remained the focal point—given that it was the rare piece of PR drama that didn’t rely on high pressure or sleep deprivation—the show had the good sense to keep moving along.
Tim coyly told the designers that they had some surprise guests, and then the moms came pouring in, tears, hugs, et cetera. Everyone got the day off to hang around town in picturesque, pre-planned relaxation.
The moms offered some illuminating glimpses into how the designers’ personalities were formed. “To me, you’re always a winner,” said Michael’s mom, and the character of Michael made a bit more sense.
Gretchen told her mother that she had won the Marie Claire challenge. Mom’s response: “That’s what we wanted. Something that would give you some exposure.” The way she said that one pronoun—“we”—painted a decades-long backstory of stage-mothering, which brought Gretchen’s air of prim entitlement into sharp focus. I was hit with a vision of little Gretchen Jones, runner-up in the Young Designers of Portland competition, crying quietly backstage while Mother looked away with a steely glare of disappointment and redoubled determination.
Mondo went to the park with his mom. As we learned in an interview, when Mondo was 17, he came out to her, and she told him to stay in the closet for the rest of the family’s sake. If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to look at the photos of young Mondo on Lifetime’s site—say, this one, or this one. Apparently, Mondo’s dad looked at the kid in those photos and concluded, “My child is definitely 100-percent straight.” That is some high-test Catholicism, boy howdy.
Post-visit emotions ran the gamut. Christopher said that seeing his partner was “like spaceship engine fuel,” and sure, he said it with the same android-esque tone as always, but you could tell that on the inside, his servo-modulation fluid was at a lower viscosity than it had been for weeks.
Conversely, Andy found that the family visit quelled his competitive fire. He could only go through the motions of designing, as his energy was sapped by homesickness. Then Tim came into the workroom and teared up because only seven designers were left and oh Christ SOMEBODY had to pull themselves together or this show was going to melt off the screen in a sea of saline.
After the critique and a bit of actual workroom time, which was almost beside the point in this episode, we came to the runway show. Heidi strutted out in a black dress dotted with Wonder Bread balloons and paired with Scrooge McDuck’s wrestling-championship belt. “I’m not out here in jeans and a T-shirt,” she later proclaimed, as if that would not be an improvement.
There was little consensus among the judges—fitting for such a scattered episode—so all of the designers lined up on the runway in a showcase of mediocrity. Andy’s pointy vest somehow managed to evoke the leggings of the Denver Broncos’ uniforms. Michael had tried so hard to spruce up his dull print with pleats and gold accents that he ended up creating something that the jack of clubs might wear. Likewise, Valerie designed an overly layered skirt for the queen of spades, and plagiarized her napkin dress from the party-store challenge in the process—a fact that the judges did not miss.
Valerie was out; she sweetly said goodbye by telling each of her fellow designers what she loved about them.
The no-doubt winner was Mondo, who sent his model down the runway in some seriously kick-ass high-waisted pants. He complemented those with a sleeveless blouse, made from a silvery print that seemed to float against the stark lines of his plus-sign print. The judges fell over themselves with praise—when Mondo’s model took off her jacket, Nina Garcia nearly passed out in ecstasy.
Guest judge Rachel Roy looked for a fly in the ointment: “The one thing that holds me up is the inspiration, things that he’s been through in his life.” Uh-oh. Roy had no way to know what she was stepping into—only the TV audience knew about Mondo’s HIV status—but I hoped that she would pull up before she got in any deeper. She did not: “The print you created is so perfect, and I would assume that no one’s life is perfect.” But hey, that was only the most awkward possible thing she could have said.
Then Mondo revealed the inspiration for those plus-signs, stunning everyone in the room. There was no schmaltz or manipulation, just a genuinely moving scene. As he discussed his HIV on the runway while standing next to his fantastic design, Mondo experienced a moment of terrifying vulnerability and also great triumph. It’s weird that in an episode with a rehash corporate-plug challenge and tearjerker gimmicks, we ended up spotting that rara avis of reality TV: authentic humanity.
— I'm much obliged to Donna for recapping the episodes that aired while I was in Japan. Thank you, Donna!
— “I’m not going to guarantee that I’m going to wear it.”
— Nina: “I think overall, this was a very emotional challenge for a lot of them.” Kors: “Totally. Very personal.” Heidi: “Rachel, which was the worst one?”
— Kors: “He took something that could be an incredibly difficult situation, and he said, ‘You know what, I’m going to find the positive in this.’” Yeeeeesh. The ol’ cringe reflex got a workout during the judging tonight.
— Without the model selection, what is the point of Heidi greeting the contestants on the runway at the beginning of the show? She comes out, announces that it’s time for the next challenge, and the designers just sit there like, “Yup.”
— “The judges said last time that my concept was not clear. This time it’s going to be ringing like a gong.”
— I usually watch the show on a slight DVR delay, but tonight I watched live. Was it just my jet-lag-induced stupor, or are the commercial breaks on Lifetime essentially a montage of abusive men and anthropomorphic cleaning products? And why was that little girl so guilty about using mouthwash?
— Thank you, Extremely Buff Handlebar-Moustache Makeup Guy, for teaching us the “international sign for lashes.” (You make a wokka-wokka Pac-Man motion with each hand. Obviously.)
— “I’m from California, and there’s been a water influence throughout my life.”
— “Holy maccanoli, it’s my mom!”