Waxing Episodic: The glorious ‘Project Runway’ season one finale

In HitFix's new feature “Waxing Episodic,” we reflect on an episode of television we'll never forget.

I don't know a single person who believes “Project Runway” is at its best now, but the decade-old reality competition is still chugging along, and that's a remarkable feat for a show that peaked in terms of sheer entertainment value at the end of its first season. 

Yes, season one

Say what you will about the subsequent cycles, which have included some of the most hilarious contestants (Santino Rice, Laura Bennett, the loopy, lovable puppetrix Elisa Jimenez) and undeniable talents (Christian Siriano, Mondo Guerra, Leanne Marshall) in reality history, but “Project Runway” has almost always required trumped-up workroom drama to keep us coming back. Season three succeeded with the Jeffrey Sebelia cheating allegations and season eight offered up an irritating, intriguing teacher's pet in the form of winner Gretchen Jones, but the duller seasons have lacked that bit of feisty viciousness between competitors that made season one a near-Shakespearean triumph. 

The Bravo show's debut featured a shocking amount of weirdos. Didn't “The Real World” take at least three seasons to get this crazy? The cast included textbook narcissist Daniel Franco, harlequin dressmaker Starr Ilzhoefer (the “tumor dress”!), and the fabulously powdered and pert Austin Scarlett, who usually looked like Norman Bates in mother drag. But even those contestants were rendered forgettable when the show wound up with its final three combatants in February 2005: the serious costumer Kara Saun, wisecracking visionary Jay McCarroll, and the calculating, slightly out-of-touch Virginian mom Wendy Pepper. Throughout the season, Wendy's so-so designs and “Survivor”-type machinations made her seem like a sure bet for seventh or eighth place. Lo and behold, she vaulted to the finale thanks to two key victories in a Banana Republic challenge (that she absolutely deserved to win) and a dubious Grammy dress challenge. This didn't sit well with Kara and Jay, who felt Wendy had been putting up a dastardly facade during the run of the show. Their rancor would erupt during the two-part season-one finale.

The moral question at the heart of this battle was: Is it a crime to avoid elimination in a talent-based reality TV show even when you aren't that talented? Did Wendy break any rules by “succeeding” in never putting out the week's worst design and earning Heidi Klum's “auf wiedersehen”? The answer: Turns out that narrowly avoiding elimination is not as horrible as being an entitled cheater, which is what Kara Saun turned to be.

I was always confused by “Project Runway” fans who hated Wendy Pepper. The woman was harmless; she was prone to breakdowns and spats, but she was never an idiot. (And trust, there were some idiots that season.) In fact, she wasn't a villain at all, not in the sense that she was ever a jerk or even a toxic presence. She was well-aware that she was in over her head among more talented folks. In the following clip, you can see how Kara, a professional costumer whose solution-based approach to challenges made her an obvious frontrunner, is attempting to find a problem with Wendy's game and only coming up with vicious things to say. “I was nice to you! I gave you a makeover”; “You're going to need your soul one day, Wendy, and you don't have one.” Such typical high school bully drivel. My favorite part is how mad Kara gets when Wendy suggests that her iciness and cruelty might also be strategic. Truly a spat for the ages.

God, Jay's comment (“If I coerce them to fight physically, I automatically win!”) is pure gold. 

Later when the contestants had to pick out cheap shoes for their models to wear during the final runway, Kara revealed a heretofore unseen dark side. She contacted a fellow designer outside of the show who created custom-built shoes for her as a favor. Such favors were not a specified allowance in the rules — and Wendy, who found herself in a standoff with Kara after their blowout, voiced her concern. 

“I'm going to tell you that Jay and I shopping at the store for five-dollar shoes is hardly comparable to you custom-designing shoes and putting an arbitrary value of five dollars on something that looks like your shoes,” she told Kara. “I just heard you on the phone equate a shoe at a sample sale for five dollars to a shoe you custom-designed and had made to your specifications, and that, my dear, is not fair or above board, Miss Perfect. It just shows how you're so f*cking morally corrupt and you walk around saying other people are all f*cked up but you're perfect; but it's okay for you to fudge when it works to your advantage, but god help anybody if they fudge for their advantage.”

Suddenly the real tension between Wendy and Kara had been exposed. Wendy was a questionable talent who actively played a game. Kara Saun was a real talent whose insistence that she wasn't playing a game turned to be an excuse to cheat. It's the kind of fight that happened because both parties didn't understand “Project Runway” yet. They didn't realize it was an equal balance of petty backstage warfare and actual fashion discussion. It's when Kara and Wendy both quit trying to figure out proper “Project Runway” behavior and decided, “Whatever, I'll just do what suits me” that both of their true characters came to the fore.

Would I rather Kara Saun design my eveningwear than Wendy Pepper? You bet. But I wouldn't want any personal contact beyond that.

Their scuffle was delicious melodrama, but I admit it was even more exhilarating to watch the actual runway shows, which were — at the time — a wild new frontier on reality shows. Those are Wendy Pepper's designs at Fashion Week. Those are Kara Saun's gorgeous, albeit derivative “Aviator”-themed designs at Fashion Week. Best of all, those were Jay McCarroll's stunning, color-blocked ensembles with sweaters and earmuffs and scarves galore absolutely triumphing at Fashion Week. Never before had high-end fashion been served to us in an un-condescending way; now that rarefied, unknowable industry felt inviting and thrilling.

Though Kara Saun still got to use her damn shoes in the show thanks to a terrible producer decision, we realized at the end of “Project Runway” season one that we'd witnessed the arrival of a fresh, hilarious, inventive, and cool new talent in Jay McCarroll, who was rightfully declared the winner. We also got a brilliant and essential education in the true nature of a reality show villain, and “Project Runway” (and most other reality shows) have been chasing that exciting, enlightening lesson ever since.

Photo courtesy of Blogging Project Runway

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