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'Project Runway' returns in style with a colorful cast

Is Heidi Klum the cool blond reality host that Martha Stewart ought to be? The German-born supermodel reigns over Bravo's ''Project Runway" like a Valkyrie with impeccable posture. She has icy grit as she politely informs her nervous contestants, ''You're out," then kisses them off with a token ''auf Wiedersehen." And she has an irresistibly withholding tone when she tells them, ''You're in," as if to say, ''You're in, but just barely, bub."

And certainly not least of all, Klum projects some of the camp value that Our Lady of Good Things has lost along with her ankle bracelet. In the fashion-designer TV contest, which begins its second season tonight at 10, Klum doesn't just say, ''Project Runway"; she says ''Project Wunway." She doesn't just enter a scene; she catwalks into it, eyes glowing triumphantly across the room. And because she was pregnant while filming this season, she performs her proud strut in the highest maternity fashion, with a bubble protruding from her belly. (One day, her stomach was out, and the next it was in: She gave birth to Henry Gunther Ademola Dashtu Samuel in September.)

Klum presides over one of TV's more interesting reality competitions. Last season, ''Project Runway" became a small cable hit for a few reasons. For one thing, it offered viewers a close-up of the art of dress making. For a culture that pays so much attention to what celebrities wear, we don't know much about how those fashions are created. ''Runway" explored the skill and vision of its designer-players, even while its reality-style personality politics raged. As they were challenged to build clothes from grocery items, or from plain white cotton, the contestants gave us insight into how gowns make it onto the red carpets at award shows.

And the series also offered a group of inordinately ''artsy" reality contestants, which is to say that there were plenty of crazy-and-proud-of-it people with open personalities. The gang was even more expressive and ''rock 'n' roll" than the wannabes of ''Rock Star: INXS." Rather than the cautious executive types on the dating and ''Apprentice" shows, many of these folks had a social-fringe quality that was refreshing.

This season, the series promises to be less revelatory but equally absorbing. It won't introduce us to the mechanics of fashion; it has already done that. Reality shows always lose their novelty the second time around. But the new ''Project Runway" may well be as colorful, not just in terms of unique clothing but in terms of its unusual cast members. By the end of tonight's second episode, it's clear the participants are going to let their egos fly as high as their talents. When a hollow-cheeked LA native named Santino Rice says, ''I want to leave a mark, like Shakespeare," you know the season won't be short of outrageousness.

Also tonight, a contestant named Andrae Gonzalo undergoes something like a breakdown in front of the judges, since deadline pressures have forced him to leave his dress unfinished. You can see his hopes for the dress on his model, but his failure is obvious. When Klum asks him, ''Are those happy tears or sad tears?," it's clear Andrae doesn't know. He's just freaking out in public, his skin so thin he needs to design himself a flak jacket. While it's not enjoyable watching him fracture emotionally, it's a powerful glimpse at the instability that sometimes accompanies creativity and how it can undermine success.

This season also features the return of last season's first loser, Daniel Franco, who risks his self-esteem once again. Saying he has been ''humbled through humiliation," Daniel tries to curb his insecurity and fear without stifling his creative spark. He knows what Andrae is just beginning to learn: Like Klum, and like the fashion industry in general, ''Project Runway" doesn't pamper its players.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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