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MasterChef Junior’s secret sauce is that it is one of the most endearing shows on television. Forget the dishes (which are on par with those you’ll find on any cooking show that isn’t The Great British Bake Off); it’s the kids who really make the show stand out from every other cooking competition out there. On no other show will you find humans so excited to get a white apron, or judges willing to be doused in corn dog batter to the delight of contestants. Despite all this highly contagious excitement, there’s reason for close-watching cynics (me) to wonder if part of the show’s magic is manufactured: the kids’ almost-too-damn-adorable outfits.
Enough kids to throw a pretty bomb party at Chuck E. Cheese's have arrived on the show with some sort of signature style or accessory. There was Hawaii Jack, who looked like he raided a Tommy Bahama; Dara with her cartoonishly large headbands; Southern gent Logan, who came on the show armed with 30 homemade bow ties; and Sam of the mystifying vest-T-shirt-tie combo. And taking a deep breath to speed through the rest: Samuel’s vests, Cory’s eccentric buttoned-up outfits, Addison’s sporty backwards caps, Amaya’s bright bows, Jaeclyn’s Boca-Raton-ready leopard-print fedoras, Eddie’s bow ties, Mark’s hats, and Cydney’s floral headbands.
One of the more remarkable things about kids is that they can wear a bow tie for seven consecutive episodes and get away with it. Kids dress themselves in the darndest things, and all that. Logan, who won season 2, was one of the first contestants on the show to make a big statement with his wardrobe. The now-14-year-old (he was 12 when he won the show) tells me that there was nothing forced about his love for bow ties.
Logan had been wearing bow ties since he was 6. When he went on MasterChef Junior, he wanted to wear something “snazzy,” and bow ties were the obvious move. Logan’s godmother hand-made 30 of them for the show — some even had cooking themes.
It was a natural choice for Logan, and the stylists on the show were excited about the eccentric look. The furthest the show’s employees went was to help him mix and match the ties, though. “When it comes to picking a signature look, you have to make sure that it's still you,” Logan says. For others, like Jack, it was luck. The chef told Vulture, “It’s sort of my thing to cook in Hawaiian shirts and it sort of gives good luck to my food.”
Troy DeVolld, who’s served as producer on programs like Dancing With the Stars and The Bachelor and has written several books about reality television, says the styling process Logan went through wouldn’t be unusual on other television shows. Contestants are often encouraged to bring clothes from home and then have the items thrown into outfits by the show’s stylist. He calls MasterChef Junior “one of the best shows on the air, period,” mostly because of the sincerity of the contestants.
“You really feel that the kids are individuals, because I don't think they think about how they present themselves,” DeVolld says. If anything, based on the energetic outfits seen on the show, contestants on MasterChef Junior are encouraged to wear things that are colorful and vibrant, he believes.
DeVolld says the show is unique because grown-ups wouldn’t be able to get away with this type of behavior. “If I saw a show that had adults wearing stuff from this color palette, I would think that something was really screwy. But with the kids it feels authentic and fun.”
One of the most important qualities for adult reality television contestants to have is relatability, which often translates to a dull wardrobe. “If you do anything that's too different or odd, in a lot of those shows I think it actually works to your detriment,” DeVolld says. It’s a problem MasterChef Junior is able to avoid simply by having contestants that adults viewers don’t need to find relatable — it’s enough that they’re adorable. It allows the kids to have more flexibility when it comes to their wardrobes.
Whether it gives kids a competitive edge is another story entirely. I asked GQ’s digital deputy editor Kevin Nguyen, who runs a MasterChef Junior betting pool, if he noticed people he plays with picking up on signature outfits. He says it’s hard to get a grip on the outfits in the beginning of the season, when bets are being made, but participants in his pool have gravitated toward stylish contestants on occasion. “A lot of people picked Cory from [season 3] just because of his outfit,” Nguyen says. He does believe that the signature looks have another advantage, though. “A lot of the kids don't really have personalities yet,” he says. “I think it’s just a way to make them distinguishable and memorable.”
But the signature looks don’t not work. Two of the four winners — Logan and season 4’s Addison — had go-to accessories. Season 1 runner-up Dara wore headbands, and Hawaii Jack made it to the top four that year. And there’s a reason besides glory for the signature looks: “After the winner, the kids with signature looks are the second-most memorable,” Logan says. “You really remember, oh, there's the kid with the Hawaiian shirt, there's the kid with the bow tie.”