Clare-ical Error: Thoughts on The Bachelorette, S 16

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I love when an episode of The Bachelorette reminds us just how insane the show really is.

Here’s what normally happens during a typical season: It lasts for about three months, our lovebirds spend maybe a grand total of 30 hours together (if they’re lucky), and then they get engaged and we are all sappy piles of goo on the floor. Sure, we can pretend to resist it. We can “hate watch.” We can troll the show on Twitter. But in the end, as the music swells and the pretty people cry and the giant Neil Lane rock gets tremulously placed on the Bachelorette’s finger, we suspend our disbelief and just go with it. (Indeed, I have cried during Bachelor proposals when I already knew the couple had broken up. Such is the manipulative power of television.)

Anyway, last night, Clare—beautiful, new agey, old-as-Methuselah-in-Bachelor-years Clare—did something unprecedented. She fell for Dale—that hunk of burning love with the rock-hard abs and elfin ears—right out of the gate, never wavered, never looked back, and basically didn’t even pretend to give a shit about any of the other men. (“That’s my husband,” she said on episode one, which is the equivalent of the private eye saying, “The nanny did it” in the first scene of a murder mystery.) Now, I’m sure there have been other leads who have fallen for someone on day one, and went through the motions of dates and one-on-ones, just to keep up appearances. But never have we had a lead who literally just checked out: I’m good. I’m done. I call game.

We were all spoiled so we knew what was coming next: Chris Harrison gravely entering Clare’s hotel suite, getting moist-eyed as Clare gushed about how Dale reminded her of her dead father (actually, he led the witness there: “Does Dale remind you of your dead father?” he asked), and then saying, famously, “You just blew up the Bachelor.”

Here’s what we didn’t know: That he was about to insist that Dale propose.

Wait, what?

Sure, it’s one thing when the couple has spent 30 hours together—that’s almost two full days! But THIS, now this was positively absurd!

Of course, dear readers, both things are absurd, maybe this only slightly more absurd than the normal premise of the show.

And yet, it all felt extra ridiculous.

Every once in a while, as I’ve written before, Chris Harrison goes into automaton mode. MUST SAY MOST SHOCKING EPISODE EVER. Bleep bloop bleep. MUST SAY FOLLOW YOUR HEART. Bleep bloop bleep. MUST HAVE PROPOSAL. Bleep bloop bleep.

Because there is absolutely no reason why, just because Clare picked and sticked with Dale, the poor bastard had to propose to her on the spot. They could’ve, I don’t know, gone on a second date. Found out each other’s middle names. Discussed what political party they belonged to. And yet, it’s the Bachelor script and they are not budging from it. Proposal it is.

And boy did Dale look like a deer trapped in the headlights when Chris told him his fate.

Here he was, a guy who went on a reality TV show maybe to meet a girl, but definitely to up his Instagram follower count and be on TV, and he was clearly doing well in the competition, which was sweet, but who figured he had a solid 12 more weeks of television before he had to do anything other than look good in a suit.

A day ago, he was thrilled to get a little one-on-one time during a group date, and now Chris Harrison was all, “Propose, peasant!”

But…unlike Clare, who deviated from the script, Dale dutifully played his part, picking a giant ring from Neil Lane (who is apparently on 24-7 Bachelor standby) and unsteadily getting down on one knee, like a gallant giant, and professing his love. He seemed to gain confidence—to believe his own lies, as it were—as the proposal went on, to the point where he was almost convincing by the time they kissed in celebration of their blessed, joyful, and DEFINITELY NOT DOOMED TO FAIL impending nuptials.

And, whereas the final proposal of a given Bachelorette season is usually heart-stoppingly romantic, this was—well there’s no other way to put it—creepy as hell.

Look, I’m not going to deny the fact that Clare’s overall CLARENESS led to the sense of ick. She seemed way too into Dale, in an obsessive, stalkerish way—always smelling his pants and never managing to complete a single sentence without the word “Dale.”

Typical conversation between Clare and another one of her bachelors (and I’m not even exaggerating here):

Clare: “Let’s talk about you!

Bachelor (thinks): <Finally!>

Claire: What do you think of Dale?”

She all but wore a tee-shirt that read, “I’d Rather Be Kissing Dale.”

(And for those who get this reference, Clare managed to be both Elisabeth Olsen’s flower child influencer AND Aubrey Plaza’s obsessive stalker in Ingrid Goes West.) (If you haven’t seen that movie, you must.)

So yeah, Clare’s manic love made it feel weirder. But then whole show is weird! As are most romantic movies, for that matter! Have you watched The Notebook lately? This was just an accelerated version of the basic weirdness of the show. So in a way, Clare didn’t so much “Blow up the Bachelor” as remind us how messed up it truly is.

Bring on Tayshia!

You Win, Trump Supporters: I Am a Lib and I Am Fully Owned

There is no one unifying philosophy of people who support Donald Trump, but certainly high among their priorities is “owning the libs.” And so I’m here to say: You win. I am owned. My brain has exploded. I am gaslit. I am questioning reality and my own sanity. I am exhausted. I am anxious. I am DONE.

Because here’s the thing: Donald Trump is not just a bad president, he is literally one of the most awful humans I’ve ever encountered in my life.

Okay, I suppose there are worse people: Serial killers. School shooters. Dictators who officially murder their own (as opposed to, shall we call it, the soft manslaughter of COVID misinformation and neglect).

But in terms of someone who is in my face, who I have no choice but to contend with on a daily basis, Donald is the worst.

And he’s not even bad in a sneaky way. This is one of those brain breaking things. His awfulness is so manifest, so on display, he literally couldn’t hide it if he tried.

As I watch him at these rallies: waddling around the stage with a big stupid grin on his face, bloated, puffy, happy as a baby drunk on his mother’s milk, I think: This is repulsive.

And I’m not just talking about his appearance: The alarmingly orange skin, the puffy hair, the Mussolini-esque posture, the herky-jerky dance movements (to YMCA? Dafuq?). I’m not just talking about the fact that his rallies are super spreaders, often held in cities where he’s breaking public gathering laws set by health officials, and only perfunctorily suggesting mask use (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). I’m talking about his absolute and unending need for public affirmation. It’s his heroin. His rallies are his fix. And, like a junkie, he can never get enough.

And what does he talk about at those rallies? Does he express concern for the more than 220,000 Americans who have died from COVID? Does he lay out a plan for a better America? Does he express love for his country at all? No, all he does is lie and boast and spew nonsense about Russiagate and Hunter Biden and whine (so. much. whining) about the biased press. The press are such meanies! They hate poor me. Poor me, poor me, poooooooooor me.

In Iowa, he griped that the press covered the Iowa floods instead of his Nobel Prize nomination.

Let me repeat that:  In Iowa, he griped that the press covered the Iowa floods instead of his Nobel Prize nomination.

But this is par for the course. He has made it clear over and over again that he only cares about himself. That he sees COVID as this horribly unfair thing that happened to him, that ruined his perfect economy, his re-election chances, his good mood.

There’s a word for a person who doesn’t care that 220,000 Americans died on his watch: sociopath.

And so now, his solution to the virus that is rapidly spreading across the country once again is to close his eyes, stick his fingers in his ears, and say, “La la la, I can’t hear you.”

And you guys are going along with it. Because, um, freedom. (Or something like that.)

Look, I could go on. I could talk about the way he grins, satisfied, amused, basking in it, as the crowd chants “Lock him/her up” about his foe of the day: Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Gretchen Whitmer. The media. (That is some serious dictator shit.) I could talk about the way he gives aid and comfort to white supremacists while condemning civil rights supporters like Black Lives Matter and Antifa (both of which are ideologies, by the way, not organized groups). I could talk about the way he only surrounds himself with yes men, people unquestioningly willing to do his bidding, and he fires, rejects, or otherwise throws under the bus anyone who dares to challenge him. (He demands unyielding, obsequious loyalty from others while being the least loyal man alive himself.)  I could talk about his misogyny—ugh, the misogyny—but we’ve been through all that already. I could talk about the separation policy at the border, which is inhuman—yes, evil—a crime against humanity in plain sight. Which should’ve been disqualifying. Should’ve been the end of it right there.

I could talk about the golf—the only thing he likes more than whining is golf—because he’s not a serious man with serious thoughts. He just wants to be distracted, entertained, flattered, fattened, propped up. (He cheats at golf, needless to say.)

I could talk about the endless schedule of FoxNews viewing. The blathering interviews where even the hosts look desperate for an excuse to get off the phone (“Is that my wife I hear calling me?”). I could talk about the fact that every person who has been cast out of his inner circle—from Michael Cohen to Anthony Scaramucci to John Kelly to Rex Tillerson— now says that he’s a crook, a moron, incurious, barely literate, easily bored, self-obsessed, reflexively cruel, criminally unqualified.

It’s all there. We’ve seen it over and over again for four years.

So why? Seriously why the hell do people adore this man? Why have Republicans followed him over a cliff? Why do people attend his rallies, wear his merch, idolize him?

What am I missing? As I’ve written before, the things you think are great about him are not the case. He is not strong. Strong men don’t bully. Strong men don’t boast. Strong men aren’t so vain they require pounds of orange makeup that revoltingly bleed onto their starched white collars when they sweat. He is not a good businessman. He’s in debt up to his eyeballs. He is not draining the swamp. His is the swampiest administration of all time (at least 10 of his close associates have been indicted). He installs his children in positions they are unqualified for like a mob boss, like a king.

But he does do one thing brilliantly: He own the libs. I’ll give him that.

And I get it: Owning the libs is fun. You can point and laugh. But then what are you left with? A man who doesn’t give a shit about you. A man who literally said, “I don’t want to shake hands with these disgusting people.” (That’s you. You are the disgusting person.)

Yes I am owned. But if you are a supporter of the president, allow me to suggest the person owned even more is you.

This is a personal website and the opinions in this blog are strictly my own.

Who’s the Worst Person on Vanderpump Rules? A Scientific Analysis.

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I understand that a lot of you are using this pandemic to read one of the Great Books, catch up on some prestige TV, or even do this thing called “cleaning the house.” I, however, have been binging the greatest television show known to man, Vanderpump Rules.

The thing I love about Vanderpump Rules is that it is filled with objectively horrible people—and yet I love each and every one of them. Or, at the very least, I’m wildly entertained by their awfulness. (But I’ve developed actual…feelings for them too? I just bawled my eyes out at Tom and Katie’s wedding. I’m not proud of this fact.)

Anyway, I’m through 5 seasons so I feel qualified to rank the cast on their overall awfulness, with 1 being the least awful and 10 being the absolute worst.

This is completely scientific data and you can now accept this is as canon.

[EDITED TO ADD: I AM NOW FULLY CAUGHT UP ON SEASON 8 AND WILL ADD AMENDMENTS ACCORDINGLY]

  1. LISA VANDERPUMP

By far, Lisa is the least awful person in the Vanderpump Universe. She gives lots of money to LGBTQ causes as well as animal charities, she runs her businesses like the HBIC that she is, she wears hot pink power suits with wide-brimmed hats, and basically carries herself like some sort of 80s soap opera diva who’s about to get into a catfight with someone named Crystal.

I LOVE her.

But this is not to say she isn’t awful! She is!

For one, she has way too many exotic animals for a person who does not live on a farm. She has miniature ponies that wander her property at will and a gajillion Papillon dogs that she dresses in bowties and tulle skirts and an actual SWAN that she sometimes brings into West Hollywood. That can’t be right! She bosses around everyone, including her much put-upon husband, Ken. She’s constantly demanding that people bring her tea and white wine and she often cuts people off mid sentence, like a real life version of Ru Paul’s “SILENCE!” on Drag Race. She has never pumped her own gas or so much as ironed a shirt. Her husband buys her Rolls Royces on a whim. (Okay, half these horrible things are actually just goals.)

Worst behavior: Swanning around West Hollywood with an actual swan.

Best behavior: Lisa’s finest moment, the minute I knew I had to stan her for life, was when she hopped onto that Vanderpump Float at the West Hollywood Gay Pride parade the morning after the Orlando Pulse massacre. While most of her employees cowered at home, she defiantly got on that float and spit in fear’s eye. What a woman.

[Post S5 amendment: I still love Lisa but her insertion of herself into her young castmates’ lives has been increasingly obvious and desperate as the series has gone on. I preferred above-it-all and aloof Lisa. But it’s her damn show so she can do as she pleases, I guess.]

2. TOM SANDOVAL

Like all the cast members, Tom has many horrible qualities. His Season 5 hair alone could be grounds for bumping him several notches down this list. He’s one of the vainest humans alive (but to his credit, he knows it). His band is horrible. His modeling runs the range from Blue Steel to Blue-ish Steel. I once saw him act in front of a green screen and the green screen did more emoting.

But Tom is also a sweetie pie. He cares deeply about his friends (arranging to get Schwartzie’s triplet brothers to his wedding was a Gold Medal level of friendship). He cries easily and often—I love that in a man! He’s pretty witty—I probably laugh at his confessionals more than anyone else’s (other than perhaps Stassi’s). And, unlike Jax, he’s actually trying to be funny.

Worst behavior: He was incredibly cold and cruel to Kristen after their breakup. I know that Kristen is a hot mess, and possibly even deserved it. But he should’ve had a little sensitivity to the fact that he moved on very quickly (with the woman he cheated on her with no less) while she was still mourning. Instead, he was a total dick.

Best behavior: Second only to the procurement of the Brothers Schwartzie was his behavior at Pride after the massacre. When he cried that day I got the strong sense that it wasn’t out of self-pity or fear but genuine anguish over what had occurred in Orlando. Dude is an empath in the extreme. And then he (along with his girlfriend Ariana) had the balls to show up to work that day, even though it must’ve been a little scary. Beyond that, he had the presence of mind to pull Lisa aside and tell her how proud he was to work for her (with tears in his eyes, natch).

[Post S5 amendment: I think Tom might be a bit more…eccentric than I even realized. Spending $15,000 on a motorcycle with sidecar just because you have a vision for your grand Tom-Tom entrance is A LOT. Also, assigning Schwartz the sidecar without even consulting with him is a little insulting. I’d be pissed if I was relegated to “sidekick in sidecar” status. Me thinks Tom loves being an impresario a little too much. In a way, owning part of Tom-Tom has brought out the most obnoxious side of him. He’s still a sweetheart, though.]

  1. SCHEANA SHAY

This might be controversial? I get the feeling lots of people hate on Scheana. Okay, she’s tacky. Okay, she had lifesize glamour shots of herself and her (now ex) husband hanging in her apartment. Yeah, she uses enough Botox to cure all the migraines on the West Coast. Sure, she styled herself as a pop star despite not having an ounce of “talent.” But I actually find her rather touching—she’s a person with sunshine and rainbows in her heart who just wants everyone to get along. Perhaps because of that, lots of people think she’s fake. I don’t agree. I think she is a genuinely kind person—albeit not necessarily the sharpest tool in the shed—who is often walked all over and taken advantage of.

Worst behavior: Encouraging her addict husband to keep drinking because he was no fun when he didn’t drink. Guuuurl.

Best behavior: Every time she forgave someone who was a dick to her. Which is to say, pretty much every episode.

[Post S5 amendment: Okay, I finally got to see how annoying Scheana can be. Both her clueless obsession with Rob and her insistence on calling her little model buddy (don’t make me look up his name) her best friend over and over again grew tiresome fast. What I’ve learned about Scheana is that she believes that if she says something often enough, with a cheerful enough voice, and a big enough smile on her face, she can actually will it into existence. Life doesn’t work that way, girl.]

  1. KATIE MALONEY

I know a lot of people think Katie is a bitch because she steps all over her dear, sweet, puppy dog of a boyfriend (now husband) Tom. But here’s the thing about Tom Schwartz: He’s a nice place to visit but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live there. I mean, imagine being married to an indecisive man-child, who never steps up for you, runs away from all responsibility, can’t hold down a job other than the occasional modeling gig, and thinks baby talk is the answer to all conflict? Trust me, it would drive you to tequila, too.

Worst behavior: Tequila Katie is real and it’s … terrifying. Apparently she sends hateful text messages non stop for several hours. She also throws drinks in people’s faces. But even sober Katie is no picnic. I’m pretty sure she was sober when she kicked Tom out of her car and told him his penis was broken.

Best behavior: Katie seems like an actual adult who can handle responsibility? This makes her something of a unicorn in Vanderpump Land.

[Post S5 amendment: Katie might be meaner than I realized! I’m halfway through S8 right now and the way she surgically cut Kristen out of her life is ICE COLD.]

  1. TOM SCHWARTZ

It’s impossible to hate Schwartzie. It’s like hating a basket of kittens. He’s cute. He’s funny. He’s the life of the party. But he also works my last nerve. It took him six years to propose to Katie and once he finally did, he spent the majority of the engagement making passive aggressive comments about how expensive the wedding was going to be and how he didn’t really want to go through with it. Then he asked Ariana to be a groomsman—essentially circumventing Katie’s desires. The one time in his life he got an actual job he had a panic attack and literally ran away. When conflict arises, he’s generally seen helpfully…doing nothing. Imagine being married to that! It would be hard!

Worst behavior: Suffice it to say that being drunk, sloppy, self-pitying, partially in drag, and stumbling around New Orleans like a broke-down showgirl during his bachelor party wasn’t exactly his finest moment.

Best behavior: His lunch with Stassi. She chose him as a vehicle to mend fences with Katie, assuming he’d be an easy mark. Instead, he was firm, held his ground, and actually stuck up for Katie! Who knew? 

[Post S5 amendment: None. A Schwartz is a Schwartz, of course of course.]

  1. ARIANA MADIX

The thing about Ariana is that she doesn’t feel any need to be nice—ever. It’s wild. I’ve never seen someone who’s so self-confident that she literally DGAF about other people. To be clear, I’m all for a woman who is secure and independent, but she wears her sense of superiority—particularly when it comes to other women, I’ve noticed—like a badge of honor. Her whole deal is, “If I don’t like you, why should I bother faking it?” All of civilization is based on that unspoken contract, Ariana! It’s important!

Worst behavior For a woman who clearly prides herself on being chill and cool and above it all, she sure got awfully bent out of shape when she found out that Kristen was doing improv.

Best behavior: Every time she tells Tom she loves him but doesn’t want to marry him. It’s refreshing!

[Post S5 amendment: Okay, Ariana makes a lot more sense now that I know she suffers from depression. I genuinely worry about her. I hope she’s getting the help she needs because she’s more than just a Cool Girl, she’s a cool girl.)

  1. KRISTEN DOUTE

Here’s how bad Kristen is: Sleeping with her boyfriend’s best friend and lying about it wasn’t the worst thing she did. No, instead, the greater sin was turning the tables and accusing said boyfriend (Tom Sandoval) of cheating on her, making him a guilty, weepy, apologetic mess. Then we come to find out that she didn’t just cheat on Tom with Jax, she cheated on him multiple times! With multiple guys! The hell? Then she moved onto James, who she was clearly just using in a futile attempt to make Tom jealous. Then she did everything in her power to break Tom and Ariana up (remember the mystery woman from Miami?). It was all so incredibly self-destructive and messy, I kinda felt sorry for her. The good news? Kristen got into therapy around Season 4 and seems to be doing a lot better. (As of Season 5, at least.) She’s actually a pretty cool girl when she’s not Hot Mess Central.

Worst behavior: *Waves generally at the above writeup*

Best behavior: I sort of love how unintimidated she is by Lisa Vanderpump. Lisa would scare the shit out me. Katie’s all like, “You don’t like me? Sucks for you.”

[Post S5 amendments: No real updates but I just saw a YouTube video where she gave a tour of her new house and it’s boho-chic-errific. Go Kristen!]

  1. STASSI SCHROEDER

Stassi is a spoiled brat who bosses her friends around and pretty much expects the whole world to revolve around her. She seems to think that having a birthday means everyone should worship you for a week. She demands utter fealty from her friends—her enemies must be their enemies, her opinions must be their opinions. She dumped Katie because of a perceived betrayal, kept waiting for an apology that (thankfully) never came, and finally crawled back to her two years later. But was she humbled? Self-reflective? A better woman? Not at all. The minute she got back in Katie’s good graces she drove a wedge between Katie and poor Scheana, who was left in the cold.

Worst behavior: She constantly pretends to like people when she wants something from them and then dumps them the minute they are no longer useful to her.
Best behavior: To her credit, she is responsible for two of my favorite Vanderpump lines:

  1. “We are not rich in money but we are rich in awesomeness.”
  2. “Jax shouldn’t feel bad about being a sociopath, I mean, Tom Sandoval is probably a narcissist, Kristen meets most of the criteria for Borderline Personality Disorder, Ariana has a superiority complex, Katie has anger management issues, Scheana’s a hypochondriac, and I’m an alcoholic, so he’s in good company.”

Girl gives good confessional.

[Post S5 amendment: Stassi is definitely growing up and goofy, splotchy, dad-jeans-wearing Beau brings out the best of her. There are still some mean girl flareups and temper tantrums, her birthday is still a freaking minefield, but she’s a lot more pleasant all around. That being said, it’s never not going to irk the hell out of me that she has a book contract and I…don’t.]

  1. JAX TAYLOR

What to say about Jax, the human embodiment of he male id? He is all appetite—for sex, for alcohol, for going to the gym, for carousing with the boys, for objectifying women, for getting regrettable tattoos and copious amounts of plastic surgery, for creatine, for more sex (and oh, for gossip—dude gossips like a sorority sister). He cheats on all his girlfriends—and lies about it with a convincing amount of shock and righteousness. He treats his current girlfriend (as of S6) like she’s the hired help and buys her a boob job that he insists was her idea. (For the record, she wanted Cs; he convinced her to get DDs.) Is he a sociopath, as Stassi diagnosed? Not quite. He definitely didn’t seem particularly remorseful when he slept with one of his best friend’s girls, but he did tear up at Katie and Tom’s wedding, so there are some human emotions lurking down there someplace. Probably.

And while Jax is clearly a horrible human being—the second worst in the Vanderpump Universe!—he’s also weirdly. . . lovable? He’s like this big, shaggy, dumb lug of a guy who just wants to have a good time all the time. It’s remarkable—and perhaps a testament to his inexplicable charm—that he has managed to keep all his friends, as he’s screwed over (or literally screwed) every single one of them. He should be studied in psychiatry classes.

Worst behavior: Jax went through this weird period where he thought that if he did something terrible but then told the truth about it, not only should he be absolved of all wrongdoing, he should actually be applauded for his remarkable honesty.

Best behavior: I’d say helping to bring Schwartz’s brothers to the wedding—but that was clearly all Tom’s idea. So instead, I’d say his Eternal Jaxness is a source of great amusement to me. Stay Jaxxy, Jax.

[Post S5 update: Jax is a married man now and he seems relatively more mature and stable but I don’t trust it. Not one bit. His overreaction to Tom confronting him about the homophobic priest? What was that all about? He’s also a lot less fun than he used be. Bring back sociopath Jax!]

  1. JAMES KENNEDY

It took me a while to figure out how awful James is for two reasons: One, god help me, I have a soft spot for a skinny boy with gravity defying hair and a bonus British accent.

Two: He actually wasn’t that bad when we first met him. He basically just followed Kristen around like a lovesick puppy.

I first began to realize the depths of his awfulness when he cheated on Kristen, tearfully and contritely lied about it, and then gleefully said to the camera, “Yeah, I nailed her!” (or maybe it was “banged” or “took to pound town”—you get the idea).

It was all downhill from there as James revealed himself to be a misogynist, constantly saying girls were too ugly to bang, Donald Trump-style (mind you, these were the girls he actually HAD had sex with), as well as a mean drunk, a pugilist, and a complete and utter brat. (When someone makes Jax seem like a sober elder statesman, you know there’s a problem.)

The worst part? Instead of acknowledging that he’s a total asshole when drunk, he claims that people don’t like him because they’re “jealous.” (His enabling mother agrees.) Yes, James, Lisa Vanderpump fired you from Sur and Pump because she was jealous. Nailed it.

Worst behavior: Referring to himself as the “White Kanye.”

Best behavior: *Crickets*

[Post S5 update: I’m glad he’s getting sober.]

BONUS Pumper

LALA KENT

When I wrote the original post, I didn’t know Lala well enough to write about her but now all I want to do is write about her. What a fascinating, inscrutable, complex character she is. I’m pretty sure if I knew Lala in real life she would scare the shit out of me. Girl will kill you where you stand and calmly light a match on the sole of your shoe as she watches you die. That being said, she has layers: The suckling of actual baby bottles? The need to have her friends physically stroke her at the dinner table? And I thought Tom was eccentric. But then she turns around and is this kind of fearless, take-no-shit woman who stands up for what’s right, and suffers no fools. She’s also the best musical performer of the Vanderbunch, which is not saying much. Anyway, in closing: She’s sometimes the worst person in the Pump Universe and sometimes the best! How fun for her!

 

Is This the Greatest Reality Competition Winner of All Time?

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Thoughtful picture of the hosts, so the thumbnail doesn’t spoil anyone.

I’ve been home sick all week with what I hope is not the coronavirus (fingers crossed!) so I was able to binge watch all of Netflix’s Next in Fashion.

The show is serviceable enough, a shameless rip off of Project Runway that improves on some elements of the hit Bravo show (namely, its diverse, international cast) and comes up short on others (teams? Really, people? Did we learn nothing from Drag Race’s All Stars 1?).

But there is one thing you can never take away from Season 1 of Next in Fashion: It has single the greatest winner in the history of Reality TV.

No, I’m serious. A fiction writer, conjuring a kind of Bridget-Jones-esque, “you go, girl” underdog could not have created a more lovable and compelling character than Minju Kim.

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Nonthreatening!

When we first meet Minju, who is South Korean, there is zero indication she’s going to take the crown. She’s partnered with her friend, the puckish Chinese designer Angel Chen. The two women are very close, but Minju seems like a sidekick, a big sister to Angel or maybe even (god forbid) an auntie figure. Where Angel is young, glamorous, and impossibly cool—in her oversized kelly green puffer coat and with her punky hair, she resembles no less than a young, Asian Bjork—Minju’s appearance can charitably be described as librarian chic. She wears artful cat-eyed glasses and apron-style frocks and shabby sneakers. It’s hard to figure out her age. Is she 30? 40? Her hair sometimes seems greasy.

She is established, right away, as the more technical of the two designers. The idea is that while Angel dreams big and bold, Minju has the sewing skills to carry the looks off. This seems like the kiss of death.

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 I could never pull off that hair

Also, Minju’s personality doesn’t exactly scream winner: She’s self-deprecating and shy and girlishly giggly. She expresses a lot of insecurity and doubt. She defers, almost always, to her partner. She talks a lot about her cats.

But then something unexpected happens: Angel and Minju make it to the final eight, at which point, the teams are separated.

Now Minju is on her own. It seems evident that Angel will make it to the finals and Minju, the technician who is not a visionary, will soon go home.

In fact, that’s not what happens. They both advance in the next round and Minju display stunning creativity on her own. And in the round after that, Angel is the one sent packing, as Minju advances against London designer Daniel Fletcher into the two-person finale.

I want to be clear about this part. If this were, in fact, a rom-com style work of fiction, Daniel Fletcher would be a lot less appealing than he is in real life. I mean, he has ALL the elements of a villain: handsome, privileged, preppie. But dude is just so darn nice. I mean, seriously, Daniel is just the sweetest sweetheart who ever sweethearted, always looking out for his fellow designers and generally acquitting himself with humility and grace. So yeah, the movie version of this season is going to have to take some creative license with his character—if not quite turning him into a full on villain, at least making him a bit more of a wag.

That being said, as a menswear designer with an established label, Daniel does have a built in advantage in the finals. A lot of his patterns have already been designed and it seems that while Minju is still conjuring concepts out of thin air for her 10 final dresses, Daniel has already rattled off four completed looks.

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Damn Daniel!

All reality shows do this kind of bait and switch, making you think that someone is hopelessly behind or otherwise screwed, until they miraculously pull it off for the finale, and Next in Fashion is no exception. Minju frets and sweats and panics until the actual runway, at which point, she sends out a remarkable collection. (Can’t really fault the show for that. It’s baked into the mix.)

But then they throw in another element to add to Minju’s underdog mystique. We meet her family, including her sister, who is her business partner on the label they run together. Turns out, Minju’s sister is, quite literally, the boss of her and constantly tells her kid sister to dial down her creativity to keep their clothing more wearable and saleable. There’s an astonishing moment when, as Minju’s Frida Kahlo inspired collection—all bold colors and artful patterns and fascinatingly inventive silhouettes—stomps down the runway, Minja’s sister bursts into tears. Not just because she’s proud of her sister (although she certainly is that) but because she realizes that she’s been HOLDING HER BACK. Basically, Minju is like this creative little caterpillar who has been constricted—by society, by self-doubt, by her own sister (and no doubt by gender expectations in Korean culture that I am unfamiliar with)—who finally gets to blossom into her fullest, most beautiful butterfly self.

When she wins—I mean, of course she wins!—there isn’t a dry eye in my (or anyone else’s) house. Brava, Minju! Best. Reality. Competition. Winner. Ever.

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I can’t even with the cuteness

 

 

Go Team? Thoughts on Netflix’s Cheer

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Courtesy of Netflix

Cheering can be lethal.

That’s not a sentence I would’ve uttered before watching Netflix’s riveting docuseries Cheer, but there you have it.

I’d seen this level of competitive cheerleading before—the kind that involves throwing girls high in the air and “basket catching” them, often while in a human pyramid formation—and I thought, “Wow. That can’t be as dangerous as it looks.” Wrong. It actually is that dangerous. People get injured all the time. Concussions, contusions, dislocations, and fractures are routine. It’s just a matter of time before someone actually dies. (Edited to add: It’s already happened.)

That’s the most insane thing about this series. There’s not an episode where someone (or multiple someones) doesn’t come crashing to the ground with a terrifying thud (those mats on hardwood floor don’t provide much cushion) and we wait, our hearts in our mouths, to find out if they’re okay. Notably, the kids themselves don’t always know if they’re okay. Every fall is followed by moans and tears of pain and dread and fear. Essentially, these kids are put through hell.

Cheer follows the Navarro (Texas) Cheerleading squad as they head to the national championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. The team has won numerous times before, including last year. Anything but first place would be considered a failure, upping the already enormous pressure.

Guiding the team to victory year after year is steely head coach Monica Aldama, a truly compelling figure who is the series’ secret weapon.

Monica looks nothing like what one might expect a cheerleading coach to look like: She resembles no gym teacher I’ve ever seen and she doesn’t even give off a perky, compact, former-gymnast vibe. Instead, she is tall and lithe and glamorous, with silk blouses, fashionably wide-leg pants, and perfectly highlighted hair. She looks a bit like Jennifer Aniston crossed with Nancy Lee Grahn from General Hospital (Google her). She seems, in some ways, like she’d be more at home at a Wall Street conference table than a sweaty gym, not surprising because she also possesses an MBA.

She’s a tough love kind of coach—having her kids do pushups when they drop someone, for example; never indulging their tears—but we’ve seen that sort of thing before. What makes her so fascinating is the almost queenly way she presides over the high-stakes practices—her face nearly inscrutable as one kid after another thwacks to the floor. By the end of the series, I really did come to believe that she cared about her kids in her own way (I was on the fence for a while), but what she cares about most deeply, even obsessively, is winning. So every time someone falls you can see her brain beginning to calculate the fallout: How bad is the injury? Will the kid need to be replaced? If so, who will replace them? Will she be able to whip the new person into shape? She is, essentially, moving pieces around a particularly perilous chess board.

And yet, her charges absolutely adore her. One girl says she’d take a bullet for her. A boy says she’s everything he wants to be when he grows up.

Cheer, of course, allows us to get to know these kids—all of them, to an extent, as well as Monica’s loyal right hand man, a former cheerleader himself (whose devotion to his boss made me think of no less than Gary on Veep).

But it focuses primarily on five kids.

There’s Gabi, the most famous cheerleader, an Instagram influencer whose parents are dangerously invested in her cheering career and social media success.

Then there’s Morgan, a stoic and determined girl who pushes through fractured ribs to please her coach.

There’s LaDarius, a gifted athlete (the kid can tumble for days) who is also a childhood trauma survivor. Quick to anger, he channels all of his pain into his sport.

There’s Lexi, who has been in and out of trouble all her life, who found structure and a surrogate family on the cheer squad.

And best of all, there’s Jerry, a big-hearted sweetie pie who manages to spread positivity wherever he goes (he’s the kind of person about whom millennials say is “too pure for this world.”) One of the series’ biggest mysteries is whether or not he’ll make “mat” or be a backup at Daytona. (You’ll root for him hard.)

Interestingly, many of these kids are survivors of trauma—family death, abandonment, sexual assault. Two of these kids—as well as the team’s student-coach—admit to having felt suicidal at times. I’m not quite sure why so many troubled kids are drawn to the Navarro team—is it because they specifically crave the discipline and certainty of Monica’s methods? Or is this statistically true across cheerleading?

Frankly, as a non athlete, it’s hard for me to really understand the appeal of the sport at all. These kids mostly seem miserable at practice—crying, self-flagellating, getting hurt. On top of the pressures of the sport and various pressures at school and home, they also have to deal with the dark side of social media. (When Lexi’s nudes are anonymously exposed on Instagram, Monica personally takes her to the police to report the incident, one of the coach’s finer moments.) It’s a lot.

And yet, they love it. It guess it comes down to that agony and ecstasy thing. Cheerleading, like all sports, contains the highest of highs, the lowest of lows. After watching the show, directed with incredible intelligence, restraint, and empathy by Greg Whiteley, I’m still not sure if I think cheerleading should be a thing. At the very least, there should be a national conversation about the dangers of cheerleading, in the same way that there’s been a conversation about football. But man, these kids sure can fly.