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I haven’t watched Project Runway since Michael Kors left, but I have a lot of fond memories of it. In its day it was really original, and Tim Gunn is obviously peerless in this genre. Lifetime’s newest show, American Beauty Star, which debuted last night, seeks to replicate some of Project Runway’s magic and, as Adriana Lima suggested Tuesday night at a party in New York City to celebrate the show, its longevity.
After watching the first episode, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. American Beauty Star is kind of like when Jack Skellington in Nightmare Before Christmas tries to take Christmas back to Halloween Town. It has recognizable qualities of the original, but is more ghoulish and eventually devolves into utter chaos and confusion.
As the name suggests, this show is seeking to find the next big thing in beauty. It features six makeup artists and six hairstylists (more on this arrangement in a sec). Adriana Lima is the supermodel host; Sir John, Beyoncé’s makeup artist and L’Oréal ambassador, is the Tim Gunn; former Vogue beauty director Sarah Brown and photographer Russell James are judges. Rotating guest judges will include Michelle Phan, Behati Prinsloo, Christie Brinkley, Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Elaine Welteroth, and Michelle Williams (the Destiny’s Child one). The grand prize is $50,000 and a beauty editorial in Teen Vogue.
Adriana and Sir John seem a little bit stiff and awkward, but I felt a lot of empathy for both of them. When you’re not used to it, speaking in front of a camera is the most uncomfortable thing ever, and as much time as the model and makeup artist have spent around the lens, it’s clear they’re new to the words part. Adriana has a certain sparkle in her eye, though, and I get the sense she’s having a lot of fun. Sir John is no loquacious Tim Gunn. He does, however, have a pretty brutal “I have no idea what that is you’re doing to that poor girl’s face” glance, which I’m looking forward to being further honed as the show progresses.
The contestants range from an 18-year-old boy from England who’s been on X Factor and does makeup to relatively established YouTubers to an ornery salon owner named Sandy who would look at home on the back of a Harley. The fake eyelashes ran rampant and the sass quotient was high. But honestly, I had no idea what was happening during a good two-thirds of the show. As Adriana said, “In the world of beauty, things can get ugly really fast.” Um, yes.
I didn’t have a clear idea even how many contestants there were at first. I do, however, have a great idea about who all the brand sponsors are. Orly! Bronx Cosmetics! Ardell! Algenist! Huda Beauty! Completely Bare! The set looks like an Ulta, with shelves of products and obvious branding everywhere. I heard Sir John give more reminders about all the products available for the contestants to use than tips for doing good makeup. The nature of this show obviously lends itself to a lot of product sponsors, but it was almost a relief for me when the real commercials came on. (Have you seen the new H&M commercial where Naomi Campbell lip-syncs to “Wham Rap”? It’s so great.)
So what I think happened is half of the contestants were put in charge of creating a look on a model that would give the judges a good idea of who they were. They were then paired with the other half of contestants as teammates who we did not meet in the beginning and who really didn’t speak much for the remainder of the show. The most confusing thing, though, is that some were makeup artists and some were hairstylists, and if you asked me to point out on the cast list who is what, I couldn’t do it. The “workroom” scene was disjointed and weirdly edited.
After the looks were done, the models were shot by a photographer, then everyone went to the runway. The best part of a show like this is the reveal, but ABS totally stole this pleasure from its viewers. The editing was so frenetic, with very few zoomed shots, that I could barely even register any of the looks, much less make fun of them.
The contestants then came out. A bunch were pronounced safe from the get-go, and then the judging proceeded as per usual for the remainder of them. Sarah Brown is articulate and is clearly playing the Anna Wintour role here, stern and unsmiling. Guest judge Ta’Rhonda Jones from Empire started off kind and empathetic, but even she seemed irritated by the end of the judging. An unexpected look won, and all the other contestants said snarky things. The end.
Who's my favorite contestant? I'll let you know as soon as I figure out which ones are the contestants. #AmericanBeautyStar— Melissa Achey (@MelissaAchey) September 22, 2017
This show could have been vastly improved by giving viewers a longer premiere show to really introduce the contestants and concept. And I think combining the two disciplines is a big mistake. Makeup has such a huge following now that the producers should have just stuck to that instead of muddying the whole thing up with hairstylists, too. It’s like comparing apples and hairstylists.
And finally, with YouTube and Instagram, do we even need this show to find new artists? There was a fair amount of snarking about “no Instagram looks,” but a lot of these contestants were sporting that look themselves. And with the exception of Christian Siriano and Michael Costello, these shows are not really known for actually helping contestants break out in the industry — they probably have a better chance doing it via social media these days.