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Project Runway
Nina Garcia, Michael Kors, and Heidi Klum gaze at contestants during the new Bravo reality show, "Project Runway." (Photo Courtesy Of Bravo)

'Project Runway' is a fabulous take on reality TV

Donald Trump is the big cheese on ''The Apprentice," and a few other rich men -- Richard Branson, Mark Cuban -- have tried to make gouda as reality TV ringleaders. But none of them can compare to Heidi Klum, the German-born supermodel, Victoria's Secret icon, and ruthless ruler of the global runway.

As the mentor-dominatrix of a reality contest called ''Project Runway," she's awesomely expressionless while leading 12 designers through an ''Apprentice"-like competition. Gazing up at her adoringly, the jittery wannabes wait for her pronouncement on their fashionability -- either ''You're in" or ''You're out." And she delivers the verdicts in the final minutes of each episode with the poise, unflappability, and compassion of a steel rod.

To borrow from Heidi, this new Bravo series is definitely in, if you find amusement in fierce fashionistas and extravagant clothing that only skeletal models will ever wear. Premiering tonight at 10, the lighthearted ''Project Runway" deserves a less stuffy title, something like ''Glamourama" or ''Dress You Up, Dress You Down." Its 12 contestants are colorful types who aren't trying to veil fiendish strategies so much as drape flattering veils. They're a lot easier to watch than most reality players -- Jay, for instance, who is going for his dream after working for a porn website. Between his post-Flintstonian outfits and fellow contestant Austin's tasteful way with lip gloss and mascara, there's an eyeful of fun to be had.

Sure, ''Project Runway" includes the requisite humiliations. ''I look at the fur," famous designer Michael Kors says to one hopeful, ''and right away I'm in Prada-land." Ouch!

Like most reality shows, ''Project Runway," which will give its winner prizes, including an Elle layout and $100,000, is a hybrid of others that came before it. Along with its similarities to ''The Apprentice," it borrows the judges panel (including Kors) from ''American Idol," the shared living quarters from ''The Real World," and the weekly immunity from ''Survivor." And it takes its overall tone not only from ''America's Next Top Model" but from ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," another Bravo show. Whether or not any of the players are gay, straight, bisexual, or transgendered, everyone on the show -- from consultant Tim Gunn down to teary young player Starr -- shares the Fab Five's love of making others look good.

Not surprising, like all the shows it borrows from, ''Project Runway" doubles as a product-placement vehicle. Clothes and stores are mentioned, featured, recommended. It's a shameless reality of TV right now, and not just of reality TV, as even wholesome scripted series such as NBC's ''American Dreams" devise plot twists involving this car company and that soup brand. Viewers need to wear their consumer armor all the time and remember they're watching paid advertising buried within -- and not separate from -- their entertainment.

And entertainment there is in ''Project Runway," as tonight's challenge has the players creating a sexy dress for a night on the town -- with materials purchased at a supermarket. By the end of the hour, we see fashions -- all of them meant to be taken seriously -- made from potato chips, shower curtains, feather dusters, lawn chairs, and cotton swabs. Of the endless and tedious stream of new reality shows hitting TV every week, ''Project Runway" is the only one with a dress made of corn husks.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

Project Runway
On: Bravo
Tonight, 10-11

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"Project Runway" airs on Bravo tonight at 10 p.m.
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