If you haven’t see this over the ten seasons it’s been on, the concept should at least be familiar: Gather about 12-14 people from all over the place with an interest in being famous at X job. Put them together in a living space and force them to do all sorts of impossible work-related challenges. Have three or four assholes on a panel judge them in some of the meanest ways possible.
They shit-can one of them each week and we all listen to the person who got shit-canned say, “I learned a lot and I know you haven’t heard the last of me.”
We then officially never hear from that person again and move on to the next week to start the process all over again.
This week’s fashion challenge was to move away from designing clothes for people that anorexics call thin and try to design something for a “real woman.”
(I hate that phrase, despite its constant use in the program. It’s like models turn in their vaginas when they take to the catwalk. Or like we’re trying to come up with a nice way to say “size four is too fucking heavy.”)
These were all women whose friends had sponsored them. They were too short, too heavy, too “fuck fashion” to be fashionable and the challenge was to create a look for them that took who they were and translated it to fashion.
One of the designers is named Ven. Ven is a talented guy and doesn’t fit the stereotype of “male fashion designer.” Most of the guys on the show seem like they’re picked based on number of tattoos, tightest Daisy Duke shorts and how catty they can be. It’s like they went to Fire Island and hired life coach Jerry Springer to conduct a “Gay Off.”
(I talked to one of my good friends who watches the show and who also happens to be gay. He said, “I finally understand how my friend (Name of an Italian lady he know) feels when she watches the Sopranos and Real Housewives.”)
In any case, Ven has the body shape of a potato with a half-sucked Milk Dud stuck on the top for a head. He’s the kind of guy who the mean joke “Have you see his new shoes? No. Neither has he” applies.
His model for this challenge was a woman who was about a size 12-14. She didn’t like the way she looked so she wore things that were comfortable. And speaking comfortable, she clearly wasn’t comfortable in the world of high fashion.
I get it. When I had to buy a suit for the Cardinal Reunion, I felt like I was walking into “Jimmy’s House of Get Ready for a Random Anal Rape.”
I was tense. I needed help but I didn’t want help. I felt like something at the Westminster Dog Show. I was afraid to touch something to have the sales guy say, “That? Are you kidding?”
So, of course, the first thing Ven does is complain about his plus-sized model, right in front of her. He then starts talking about how they’re going to do certain things because she’s a plus-sized woman. Again, right in front of her. He then proceeds to fuck up his design (a common theme on the show: Try something, fuck it up, bitch about it.) and complain both on camera and to her that if she weren’t such a plus-sized model, this would be better.
The woman breaks down, Ven almost gets kicked off the show and the show ends with this guy still saying, “I’m not designing for people like her.”
Thus, the argument.
My wife, someone who loves fashion but hates clothes because of designers like Ven, is arguing that he wasn’t being that big of an asshole. I, someone who could probably be a lot more fashion-forward because everything for dudes is somehow in my size, am losing my mind about this guy being a complete bag of dick. We argued about this for an hour, went to bed and woke up arguing about it again. The Missus said she was DREAMING about this and wanted to continue the argument because of it.
That’s when it really hit me why this bothered me: This guy was the new bully.
Bullies have been around for forever. They usually were big and strong and demanded lunch money if they were guys. The girls bullied in more subtle ways through power gained by beauty, money and status. However, bullies were bullies. They were the top of the evolutionary food chain and they used their power and your fear to make you something less than you were.
I find it highly likely that people on “Project Runway” including Ven were victims of bullies. The word “fag” keeps coming to mind as the insult de jour. For some of these guys, I’m sure it was even worse that they were coming to grips with being gay and doing so at a time when even the most well-adjusted kids teetered on the edge of insanity. Ven probably was the fat kid in the class as well. He liked fashion. He was quiet: The perfect target for the loud, boisterous assholes among us.
He probably found solace in being good at something and eventually realizing that being able to throw a ball for a high school team wasn’t the end all and be all of life. He left high school, left college and began to find himself in a world where different was embraced. He was chosen for a show that celebrates that in its own way and allowed him to create his own power.
The first chance he got to take his skill and his power and give some hope to someone else, he turned into a bully.
Earlier this month, I got a phone call from home. Mom was having a week that feels like you fell off the top of a giant pine tree and the branches are smashing into you constantly. You hope to hit the ground and die, if only because you want this shit to be over.
Problems with sick family, bad kids, weird administrators and general bullshit were beating her up. She had the grace and strength to handle all of that.
Except for one thing.
The district had decided to install new computer programs to chart and track kids. Even more, it mandated that the faculty members all have their own personal websites that could be used to contact parents and provide homework information and such. The district hired a guy to help oversee the training of the faculty and this guy was supposed to be an expert on the topic.
The in-service day of training turned into what you would expect: Faculty fumbling around, computers that were older than my car not being fast enough to do things right and general mayhem. Of course, the expert was an expert, not a teacher, so this became a lot of “Well, that SHOULD work.” When it worked for a few people, thanks to their previous knowledge and the fact they had faster computers, his sense that failure was based on human error appeared justified.
Of course, when you coupled my tech-phobic mother with the slowest machine out there (a PC, no less for a Mac person), you have the makings of trouble. She couldn’t get things to pull up, she couldn’t get things to link and she had trouble making her stuff work.
She became the perfect target for a bully.
The man kept saying, “Well just do what I told you to!” When it didn’t work, he mocked her in front of the class. When someone asked for help, he nodded in my mother’s direction and noted “Why don’t you ask her?” as others laughed.
I could feel her pain. I could feel her embarrassment. It just seeped through the phone in that broken, crippled way.
“I just… I SWEAR to you…” she said as she broke down in tears. “I am NOT stupid! I WILL learn this and I WON’T retire until I do…”
The computer guy should have known better than to be like this. From every account, he was probably the guy other kids picked on. He probably liked modems instead of models, SCSI instead of sports and programming instead of playing. Of all people, he should have been the one to say, “I know how it feels when it seems like everyone else is laughing at you. Let me help you.”
Instead, the instant he had the upper hand, he played it in the most merciless and mean-spirited way possible.
I could feel it building. I wanted to grab my Louisville Slugger and drive two hours and fuck this guy up. I wanted to just rage against him and scream, “See if you can .html code your way out of this you FUCKING FUCK!” It was the same way I wanted to stick Ven on a treadmill and say, “Let this lady watch you run until you’re the size of the models you think are worth designing for, asshole.”
Then, I realized why that wouldn’t work. To beat a bully, you have to beat him at his own game. The reason kicking the unholy shit out of the bully I faced in sixth grade worked was because he was using violence to perpetuate superiority. I out-violenced him and thus was left alone.
I couldn’t out-design that turd in a striped shirt, but I sure as hell could do something to help my mother. I told her everything was going to be all right and that we would fix this somehow.
The next weekend, I headed to Milwaukee for a card show and basically locked myself in The Computer Room with Mom for about four hours. We slowly went through each program and we got her website to work. I helped her add images, links, email references and more. We used her scanner to grab photos and homework. We found references online to her previous awards. We built it together, slowly and scholarly. We also managed to get her classes updated, her kids added and her parents emailed.
“You’re really a great teacher,” she said with a smile. “If he had been able to explain things this way, I know I could have gotten it.”
Later that week, I called Mom to tell her my book had finally published. Before I could get excited and share my news, she interrupted me and said, “I’ve gotta tell you something first! I updated all my classes homework by myself! I got all the kids over there and everything!”
She sounded elated, a mix of triumph and giggles.
She then told me that they had another session and she was one of the few people to have a website done.
“I wasn’t going to show my site,” she said. “I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but then that asshole said, ‘Well, maybe we should look at HER site!’ and it got a big laugh. So I told him to open it up and the room fell silent. He mumbled, ‘Nice job on adding those photos. How did you do that?’ I told him it was because he was such a great teacher.