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.
Nina Garcia has a harder time packaging her expertise for television audiences, and she’s consequently a bit more inscrutable than her fabulous friends. She rarely finds anything charming, she wears a constant look of vague unease and disapproval, and while Kors and Klum affably roast contestants, Garcia withers them. She picks clear—and clearly talented—favorites early, she has no patience for sloppiness or dramatics, and she’s absolutely the force that keeps the show credible in the face of its occasionally hot and messy, who-ate-my-peanut-butter reality-TV inclinations. Indeed, when Garcia—alongside Kors—went AWOL during much of season six’s disastrous California adventure, it was hard not to imagine that it was her absence as much as a Woody Allen-esque L.A. allergy that caused the show to suffer. Project Runway is a New York show about the theory and practice of design, and Nina Garcia keeps it honest.
Never, however, has Nina Garcia been a more important presence, or a more fascinating character, than she is right now. To fully understand this, we must turn to the end of last season and the epic battle between finalists Mondo Guerra and Gretchen Jones. Over the course of the season, Mondo had become a fan favorite due to the domination of his exciting pattern-clashing outfits, his fun-to-say name, and the emotional midseason revelation that he’s HIV positive. Gretchen, on the other hand, started strong with a couple of early wins but clearly became exhausted as the season went on, a deterioration that reached its apex with a challenge during which she orgiastically engaged in the popular, though taboo, Project Runway activity of throwing her fellow designers “under the bus” in front of the judges. Gretchen was as clear a villain as Project Runway had ever created.
But villainy was not enough to put her out of the running. In the finale, Garcia and Kors vigorously declared themselves partisans for the unlikable but undeniably competent Gretchen, whose collection was wearable, smart, and, as Kors would repeatedly insist, “on trend.” Klum—who was backed up by guest judge Jessica Simpson on air, but who was also apparently supported behind the scenes by Gunn—insisted that Mondo’s brash, graphic collection was the culmination of a superior effort. Neither side seemed inclined to back down, and, in the end, Gretchen—or rather, Garcia and Kors—triumphed. But it’s readily apparent to anyone who watched that final episode that this controversy was rooted in a philosophical split, a paradigm crisis for a reality TV show that has always styled itself as something more.
Project Runway is a reality TV show, to be sure, but, as a kind of prestige program, it avoids many of the conventions that animate more garden variety, voyeuristic cringe-fests. The contestants on Project Runway don’t have sex with each other, they don’t go out to clubs, they don’t even seem to eat outside of the occasional gossipy sushi break during work sessions. The contestants snipe and cry plenty, but they tend to lead relatively spartan lifestyles after the obligatory opening champagne toast, and, going along with that, their judges seem infrequently swayed by the impulses that control competition shows that are less focused on discernible skill or more focused on public performance. Project Runway has always distinguished itself, along with Top Chef, as a competition between talented artists judged neither by B-level celebrities clawing their way back into the limelight or by the crowd, but by critics and professionals who are—but don’t necessarily belong—on television.
Gretchengate was indicative, ultimately, of a fissure in this structure. Mondo’s collection was fun and young, but more importantly, Mondo was an attractive winner and a great reality TV character. The people wanted Mondo and, in this bizarre circumstance, Klum—zillionaire supermodel and wife of Seal—was the voice of that people. But the vote for Gretchen was not necessarily anti-populist. Garcia and Kors are, respectively, a fashion editor and a mass-market designer. In voting for Gretchen, a designer with less magnetic talent, less ostentatious innovation, but with an eye for marketable fashion and a strategic curatorial impulse, they voted on behalf of another group: actual shoppers. And so these dueling populisms—the television viewer vs. the shopper, the crowd vs. the market—revealed a still visible rift in the judges’ panel.
At the heart of this controversy is the seemingly insurmountable problem of the imposing, confident, verging-on-pushy female lead—a problem both Gretchen and Nina share. In a recent episode of the current season, contestant Joshua McKinley berated fellow team member Becky Ross for designing “dowdy” clothes, refused to allow her any input into the design of their team’s collection, threw her under the bus on the runway for making the aforementioned “dowdy” clothes, and was rewarded with a special prize for leadership skills. This is not to say that Project Runway operates a rigid double standard (far from it), but that being surly, good at your job, and a woman doesn’t necessarily make you a sympathetic television character. It’s harder, it seems, for women to go full-on Don Draper and still capture the television audience’s heart.
This is a predicament with which Nina Garcia is familiar. Her unlikability is less kitschy than other reality TV bad cops like Gordon Ramsay, yet she has mercifully avoided—likely resisted—any image makeover from Project Runway’s producers. Indeed, her distinctive bristle and principled lack of patience have long made her a kind of folk hero among viewers. Which is why it’s so unsettling this year to see Garcia cavorting like an anchor on The View in the opening credits sequence. Traditionally, these credits had featured each of the new season’s contestants uttering an inspirational declaration about “making it work” or being “fierce.” This season, the contestants silently float in the background while the judges do all the talking. A distinct move to brand the show as belonging to the fearsome foursome, this sequence also seemed to signal perhaps the moment when Project Runway would finally begin its campaign to domesticate Nina Garcia.
These suspicions seemed to be confirmed in “All About Nina,” a recent episode in which contestants were charged with the formidable task (gasp!) of dressing the Cruella de Vil of the Project Runway gang. A few seasons earlier, the show had concocted a similar episode in which contestants designed an outfit for Klum. In that episode, she thundered around the workroom like Veruca Salt, broadcasting a predictable mixture of indignation, design ignorance, and pouting to the cowering designers. It was a perfect television performance, but it was clearly just that. As Klum barked at the contestants, she was also improvising—paying visible and individual attention to ways in which she could enrage or otherwise undercut them. Her job in that room was to create a nightmare called “Heidi Klum.”
What was most fascinating about “All About Nina,” though, was not how it depicted the blossom of a television personality, but rather how it depicted a personality stubbornly resistant to television. Garcia was brusque, awkward, and blunt to the point of rudeness in some of her consultations, and she made no effort to hide her overdeveloped gag reflex. But the performance was nowhere near as spectacular as Klum’s, though the producers quite deliberately edited the footage to make her abrupt critiques read more like zingers.
Moreover, the show’s climax featured a bit of delightfully telling palace intrigue straight from the halls of Marie Claire that only served to further cement the curious character of Nina Garcia. Joining the judges at the runway show, as she has for an episode each of the past three seasons, was Joanna Coles, editor of Marie Claire and apparent love child of Tilda Swinton and Simon Cowell. She’s also, notably, Garcia’s boss. This would otherwise be immaterial, but in this particular episode, it was a recurrent theme, as Coles repeatedly noted in regard to especially heinous outfits that if Garcia wore such a garment “to work,” she would be asking to be “fired.”
The tenuous status of her job—that she could conceivably be let go for wearing an ill-fitting coat dress to the office—as well as the explicit power relationship on display here added a fantastic roundness to the often impenetrable Garcia. But the imbalance between Coles and Garcia was not just revelatory of professional hierarchies. Coles, whenever she appears on the show, adopts a distinctly Cowellsian manner with the contestants, slightly harsher than Garcia, and more gleefully quippy. Seated next to each other, Coles appeared as an alternate-universe Garcia, transforming every act of criticism into a song and dance, grasping at every opportunity to recall Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. Next to Coles, it was radiantly clear who Nina Garcia could be and who, thank heaven, she’s not.
At the end of the episode, Kimberley, the winner of the challenge, is filmed showing up at Marie Claire’s offices to meet Garcia for a photo shoot. Garcia is wearing both the new outfit and a look of mild embarrassment about the cameras following her to work. As the episode closes, we see a taxicab advertisement featuring Garcia in the winning outfit, and it’s a fitting image. Nina Garcia is such a strange, churlish animal because this show—a heartfelt ode to the sublimely mean, unpleasant, and occasionally bitchy creative process—needs her to be precisely that.