June 13, 2024

Most reality fashion competitions dangle some sort of “life-changing” prize at contestants: an infusion of cash for your business, placement in a retailer, mentorship by an industry heavyweight.

A new series, coming to Paramount Plus on Friday, offers something else entirely: the chance to redefine beauty standards, disrupt the fashion industry and become a role model for an entire generation. And to think those “America’s Next Top Model” winners were content with a $100,000 Cover Girl contract!

The premise of “The Fashion Hero: A New Kind of Beautiful” is as complicated as its ambitions are lofty: take 22 “regular” people from around the world — winnowed down from 200,000 expressions of interest — fly them to South Africa and watch them compete to become “the fashion hero,” loosely defined in a trailer as someone “born from the online movement (who) is not afraid to have the conversation about the damaging effects of unrealistic beauty and fashion standards.”

The diverse group of contestants, who range in age from 21 to 60, and include three Canadians, ultimately vie to become the face of an international brand campaign and to win cash prizes totalling $50,000.

According to its creators, however, this show is less about competition and more about — wait for the reality show cliché — the journey. “(The show) is a game changer as it aims to change minds and alter the perception of beauty,” executive producer Caroline Bernier said in a press release. “The series celebrates the uniqueness of each of the wonderful contestants’ journeys as viewers see their incredible mental transformations.”

This takes the form of “emotional and character-building challenges,” designed not for drama, it seems, but for the contestants’ personal development, building their confidence and resilience. Cue guest coaches René Elizondo, Janet Jackson’s former choreographer; celebrity trainer Drew Manning and Canadian pop artist Jordyn Sugar. It’s all shepherded along by the series’ host, Backstreet Boy AJ McLean.

And while this newest series might be particularly sincere in its stated aim to “break down barriers,” it’s also just the latest expression of the new breed of kinder, gentler fashion reality television show.

Whether it’s Prime Video’s “Making the Cut” or Netflix’s “Next in Fashion,” there’s a collegiality and inclusivity to these shows that borrows far more from the neighbourly spirit of “The Great British Baking Show” than it does the “cruel to be kind” ravages of “America’s Next Top Model,” which couched the degradation of contestants — eliminating someone after she refused to pose nude, dressing up another as an elephant representing gluttony after she gained weight — as simply preparing them for the harsh realities of the fashion world.

Less than five years after “ANTM” ended, it’s impossible to imagine the internet tolerating half of the things that passed utterly unremarked in the early 2000s. Similarly, this new crop of fashion reality shows reflects the millennial and Gen Z-influenced standards of our own time, where diversity — of race, of gender, of body, of sexuality — is simply expected and anything less than respectful, safe environments isn’t tolerated, particularly in the aspirational realm of entertainment.

We’ve also learned the lessons of reality television past and the toxic toll that entertainment-at-any-cost can have on the people who get the “villain” edit, or are manipulated by producers who might not have their best interests at heart. (The history-of-reality-TV podcast “Unreal” has an excellent, albeit disturbing, episode on this.)

In a world where an endless catalogue of real-life horrors is just a scroll away, the last thing we want to see is someone being humiliated over a crooked hem or a badly executed idea, particularly when, somewhere in the back of your mind, you might suspect that the fast fashion clothing you’re wearing as you watch it was produced by someone working in conditions a thousandfold more awful than designing an entire collection in 24 hours.

At the same time, this all comes at an interesting time in fashion: after promising starts, the relative lack of diversity — particularly in the representation of bodies that aren’t a size 00 — on the latest Fashion Month runways hint that perhaps any recent progress might simply have been dispiritingly cynical lip service after all.

The upcoming Met Gala, a.k.a. “the fashion Oscars,” celebrates the work of Karl Lagerfeld who, while undeniably a genius, was also fatphobic and held contentious views on MeToo, migrants and LGBTQ rights like gay marriage. Law Roach, a stylist who’s dressed names like Zendaya, Bella Hadid and Ariana Grande, recently “retired” after what “the lies, the politics, the false narratives” of the fashion business finally “got” to him.

And, just last month, Stella Jean, the only Black designer on Italy’s fashion council, withdrew from Milan Fashion Week in protest over its lack of support for designers of colour, embarking on a hunger strike.

“Bold Glamour,” a filter that does a particularly terrifying job of convincingly altering your face into Bratz Doll lite perfection, is doing the rounds on TikTok, even as research continues to emerge about how filters distort body image and damage self-esteem.

That television doesn’t always reflect reality — even when it’s reality TV — is hardly news. As the contrast between the cosy, welcoming world of today’s fashion competitions and the far less ideal reality of the “real” world demonstrates, we’ve still got a very long way to go until everyone is, as they say, in style.

And perhaps shows like “The Fashion Hero,” in all their aspirational, inspirational glory might just help us get a little bit closer to that ideal.

The best fashion reality shows

The OG: Project Runway

A stalwart since 2004, this is the original fashion reality competition, whose format — designers have a limited time to design and fabricate a look that is then scored by judges — created the rough template for every show that came after.

The Project Runway followup: Making the Cut

After she retired her catchphrase “In fashion, one day you’re in and the next day you’re out” as “Project Runway” host, Heidi Klum (along with other “PR” alum Tim Gunn) jumped ship to streaming for an otherwise quite similar show that highlights the work of more established designers.

The Netflix contender: Next in Fashion

Hosted by “Queer Eye’s” Tan France and Gigi Hadid (replacing last season’s host, Alexa Chung), this sunny, breezy competition feels like the cooler kid sibling of “Project Runway” but still pulls in iconic judges, like Helena Christensen and Donatella Versace.

The beauty equivalent: Glow Up

Also on Netflix, this show is “Project Runway” for makeup artists, who each week compete to create the most mind-blowing beauty looks judged by legends in the game like Val Garland and Dominic Skinner.

Sarah Laing is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for The Kit, writing about celebrity and culture. Follow her on Twitter: @sarahjanelaing

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