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From Top to Bottom: Life after Bravo

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For Top Chef et al. fans, a fascinating cover story in this week’s New York magazine on Bravo reality shows. Turns out they’re reality shows: they’re cast for entertainment value, and the contestants don’t immediately become top-tier designers, chefs and hairdressers. Not even close. Among the saddest revelations: that Andrae “AHN-drae” Gonzalo of Project Runway season 2 has been doing celeb appearances at gay bars in Pittsburgh, which depressingly brings up the image of David Brent in the finale of The Office, dressing up as Austin Powers to do a dating contest at a bar with a Big Brother contestant.

Like a reality show–or any number of magazine stories, some of which I’ve written–the article oversells its premise a bit: namely, that Bravo’s shows promise to launch contestants into the big time and then fail them. If anyone seriously expects the winner of Top Chef to immediately become the next Jean-Georges Vongerichten, then yes, the shows underdeliver. But if the goal is simply to give contestants’ careers a boost, the article gives several examples. Yes, you have your Wendy Peppers who trotted themselves out for Battle of the Network Reality Stars, but there’s also Harold of Top Chef, who recently opened a restaurant in New York, and Runway’s Victorianista Austin Scarlett, who is now creative director for Kenneth Pool bridal lines. On the other hand, the network clearly leaves its contestants more or less adrift once the cameras are off. Bravo helps those who help themselves.

But just as on Project Runway, the fun is in the bitching. Runway season 1 winner Jay McCarroll has not done much with his career since the show–in fact, he made a special for Bravo, Project Jay, that was essentially about how he hasn’t done much since the show. “You don’t think I took the f_cking bus to New York the day after I won the show, thinking someone was going to come up to me on the street and say, You’re awesome, here’s money?” he tells New York. “I thought that for two years. But I’ve given up on that.” (He also claims that Bravo chief Lauren Zelaznick asked him to decorate a lunchbox for a fundraiser at her daughter’s school, but she says she doesn’t recall that.) Meanwhile, Santino Rice of Runway season 2 lays into Michael Kors harder than he did on-air: “I think Michael Kors has made an excellent business for himself appropriating everything Halston already did… I mean, his clothes aren’t so bad that they make me upset or mad. They’re just conservative and, in a lot of ways, boring clothes.”

Oh, no, he DIH-n’t! Throw in dirt from Tom Colicchio on the producers’ caring more about telegenicity than talent and details of how much freedom contestants sign away to Bravo (and how they try to work around it) and Jennifer Senior’s article has the makings of an awesome reality show. Maybe Bravo should make it.