Vaults, London – until 5 March 2017
It may be Kate (Nesba Crenshaw) sat at the head of the runway on a platform, studying us, judging us, undressing us, but we know that Tom Brennan’s inspiration for this character is Anna Wintour. A short bob and impenetrable sunglasses, both the unmistakable trademarks of a fashion icon. We nervously take our seats and remain subdued – this is exactly what she wants, exuding power through an icy stare that reveals nothing but threatens all. The host of The Episode sits among us; once you know that Jay (Lolade Rufai) is a part of the production you can’t help but compare her to Tyra Banks. Bubbly, vivacious, luscious lips top off a stylish figure and legs that seem to go on for days. Jay is always smiling – that’s her job. If the contestants cry, smile through. If someone gets brutally murdered or takes their own life, switch to sad, remorseful eyes whilst retaining that larger than life smile as if it’s superglued to your face. The audience will trust you, believe that everything is fine, just as long as you are composed, you are smiling, you are in control.
It takes dungaree clad DW (Isabella Hubbard) to bring some semblance of normality to the show. Even then, she has a style – she exudes the impression that she is above fashion, she doesn’t care about appearances. But the denim, the intentionally messy hair, it gives the game away. As a camerawoman, a researcher, DW covers current affairs, hard-hitting journalism – you know, real news. The estimated 2 trillion dollar fashion industry isn’t real, isn’t meaningful. Except that to the contestants it is, it’s everything. It’s literally life or death.
Brennan’s show shines a harsh spotlight on the uglier side of the fashion reality programme. But, there is nothing that hasn’t been seen before. As long as there has been reality TV, there have been documentary programmes that dig beneath the surface and reveal the ugly underside of a seemingly gleaming, glamourous and gorgeous façade. A twist at the end catches viewers temporarily off-guard, but it is ultimately the last 5 minutes that provide the most insight. Transformed from fashion guru to backwater mum, Crenshaw makes no excuses for her unfortunate daughter – she was troubled, insecure; she should never have been on the show, they all knew it would be too much for her. As she reels off the reality programmes that she watches, filled with pride that her daughter is a famous piece of the pie, the sheer volume of titles that trip off her tongue is staggering. Then more come, and more. In that monologue we realise that we have become a society obsessed with watching other people whose lives, we believe, are more exciting that our own. We aspire to be other people, because if we can’t be them we can at least watch them spectacularly crash and burn. It’s the schadenfreude that justifies our menial existence.
The Episode itself is a fairly forgettable show, not unlike another episode of a fashion reality show that is currently on its 23rd season. Brennan’s point however rings true, leaving us wondering whether we are living our own lives or simply observing others from a safe distance.