Nina Garcia can’t act. She can barely conceal her revulsion when a contestant on Project Runway trots out a skirt the color of paprika on devilled eggs, and she certainly can’t act as if she isn’t personally offended by such a garment. She can’t act as if Heidi Klum’s constant waffling between German-dominatrix authority and Betty Draper-esque petulance doesn’t send her into a weekly rage coma. And she can’t act comfortable when she’s asked to strut around, along with regulars Tim Gunn, Michael Kors, and Klum, the green screen in Project Runway’s opening credits this year, woodenly declaring that it’s all about “attitude.” But why would we want her to act? Nina Garcia is a fierce—and I mean that both ways—fashion critic, an opinionated and fashionable lady, and an editor with 30 years of experience in journalism and design, but she is not a television personality.
Despite this, over the course of nine seasons, Garcia’s deadpan critique has become an integral, if not the integral, piece at the heart of Project Runway’s cult success, balancing out Gunn’s nutty professor, Kors’s catty curmudgeon, and Klum’s fussy, pretty, mean girl. Kors and Gunn are just as authoritative in their critical judgments, but they both also translate to television better (as does the indubitably foxy, stern, though surprisingly populist, Klum, but more on her in a moment). Over the years, Gunn has evolved into a kind of intellectual camp counselor, and Kors has mastered the art of the bitchy, cutting simile (“She looks like Barefoot Appalachian Lil’ Abner Barbie”), making them more conventionally legible presences on the small screen. In other words, whether it’s Gordon Ramsay, Tyra Banks, or that creepy fellow always leering about on The Bachelorette, the balance of Project Runway’s judges at least loosely conform to reality-TV character types.