Leah Collins
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Reality is the New Black

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Contestants flock to auditions for Fashion File Host Hunt, looking for a chance to become the new Tim Blanks. Meanwhile, fashion journalism veterans wonder if CBC's Factual Entertainment Division trivializes their reporting reality

Julie Montpetit is preparing for her close-up. The camera pans from her black platform pumps to the nut-coloured leather belt cinched high on her waist. She’s perfectly composed until you meet her eyes, which are tearing up with fright, pink and wet under the spotlights.

It’s a Friday morning in downtown Montreal, and any other day of the week this low-ceilinged room in the basement of the city’s CBC building on René-Lévesque Boulevard East would be an unassuming rehearsal space. Today, contestants pace in front of mirrors memorizing lines while a local evening news crew lurks in the hallway preparing to report on the scene. As for Montpetit, she’s standing in front of a backdrop with theFashion File logo splashed over it, staring at the camera, getting ready to introduce herself. She’s a Montreal school teacher and loves fashion. Like so many people from Vancouver to Halifax, she wants to be the next host of CBC Newsworld’s Fashion File.

Fashion File has been on Newsworld for 17 years. In that time, the program has become an international export, airing in more than 75 countries. For every one of those years, Tim Blanks delivered weekly fashion news from the world’s runways. But the well-known host resigned earlier this year to take a position at Condé Nast’s Style.com. “TV is a lot different now than when Tim started,” says producer Chris Chilco. “We’ve been on the air with the same host for 17 years. That doesn’t happen anymore.” Banks’s departure necessitated a revamp, but Chilco thinks it was probably about time anyway. The first step is recruiting a new host, and Fashion File‘s methods certainly show just how different TV has become.

On September 27, countrywide auditions began for a reality series called Fashion File Host Hunt. The prize will have more real-world cache than any other reality game show. The winner of the 10-episode series becomes Fashion File‘s new host and a monthly columnist for Fashion magazine (St. Joseph Media, which publishes Fashion, is the show’s production partner).

The Host Hunt website suggests star-struck mall-shoppers need not apply. Among other qualities, candidates must have strong reporting skills for both TV and print, good interviewing skills and a solid knowledge of the fashion industry. These resume items may give Host Hunt an aura of seriousness atypical of reality fare, but the question remains why CBC decided to indulge in the genre just one year after publicly balking at the thought. And the country’s top fashion editors complain that introducing the values of reality TV to fashion journalism diminishes the quality of their work.

• • •

In the Montreal studio, each candidate receives the same drill. There is a question about why they should be the new host, and a question about their personal style. There’s a stand-up, and a chance to record some farewell niceties for Tim Blanks. There’s plenty of enthusiasm and enough designer style to fill 50 Holt’s bags, but it’s difficult to tell whether anyone has any skill outside of the dressing room. For on-site producer Corinna Lehr, the real test comes later. “This is just an audition, absolutely,” she says. “The show will be the more legitimate job interview.”

In the Host Hunt waiting room, in the basement of the Montreal CBC building, there are plenty of journalists – from those who’ve covered the Middle East to the latest season of Project Runway – and there are also publicists, designers, lawyers, ex-models, actors and a tour guide.

Whatever the motivation, glamour is a long way off, even by reality-audition standards. By the 9 a.m. sign-in time, only nine hopefuls are in line. By the end of the sign-in period (which, for stragglers, is extended past its noon deadline) not quite 30 have passed through. Lehr says they had approximately 40 in Halifax two days prior.

Hopefuls are led downstairs to a low-ceilinged rehearsal space that could pass for an old church basement. Not much can be heard above the buzz of fluorescent bulbs but nervous whispers and small talk. Two would-be fashionistas at the casting director’s desk ham it up for the behind-the-scenes camera by staging a faux interview.

The pace is slow, much to the relief of those waiting. Michael Sinnott and Brent Madigan are next up. “I thought I saw a lot of heads outside and was like ?Oh no!'” says Sinnott. “But when I got here at eight there weren’t that many people.” Madigan adds, “I thought it would be more Canadian Idol style, but no. It’s got me more excited.”

• • •

Last October, CBC president Robert Rabinovitch was quoted at a meeting of Parliament’s Heritage Committee saying, “?We do not do reality programming. If we just were chasing audiences, or just were chasing rating points, we could do reality programming.” Since then, CBC has not only developed reality shows like the upcoming Host Hunt, it has also launched a new corporate department – dubbed the Factual Entertainment Division – dedicated to the cultivation of similar programming. “Another way to say reality,” says Chilco.

Rabinovitch was grilled at a meeting of the Heritage Committee, held on September 27, 2005. New Democratic Party heritage critic Charlie Angus asked him: “I’m wondering, did something change dramatically in the six or seven months between deciding on that show and when we were told that we would not have reality TV?” Rabinovitch told Angus his remarks from 2005 were ambiguous, that the CBC would broadcast a different style of reality TV and that the Factual Entertainment Division would avoid “shows that stress plastic surgery, sex and humiliation [and the] eating of insects.”

Chilco echoes Rabinovitch, saying Host Hunt aims to be more sophisticated than typical reality TV fare. “The genre isn’t going anywhere but there’s plenty of room to make it smarter.” But reality TV, especially of the reality search variety, can also be nothing more than a sophisticated marketing exercise. Chilco doesn’t denyHost Hunt is an ideal promo for the launch of a rebranded Fashion File. “It works nicely with promotion,” says Chilco, “but I don’t think it was thought up as a promotion.”

With the departure of a high-profile host like Blanks, there might also be the suspicion that Host Hunt was dreamt up out of desperation. Not so, says Cathie James, the Factual Entertainment Division executive in charge of the program. James says the program’s development has nothing to do with failing numbers. “It’s not a matter of ?Ohmigod, the numbers are going down! We’ve got to fix it!’ says James. “It’s more the CBC really needs to grow and improve something.” Although Newsworld does not make audience figures public, James says, “Fashion File is one of the most successful CBC television shows of the last 20 years.”

• • •

It’s Saturday morning, the second day of auditions in Montreal, and the energy in the waiting room is high. Field director Richard Yearwood has just chased the first group of 10 from the lobby to the waiting room. He’s laughing and jumping from interview to interview. His bobbing camera gets a chuckle from a woman in Jackie O glasses and stilettos who’s been avoiding his probing lens. An hour and a half later, he’s revving up group cheer sessions for the camera.

Clusters of hopefuls file into the basement 10 by 10, teetering on this season’s must-have high-heeled boots and pulling demo reels from oversized purses. Some have been waiting upstairs since 8 a.m. Others, like one former fashion model, are casual visitors lured in by today’s CBC building open house who’ve been culled by casting volunteers. This suddenly quickened pace is definitely truer to the genre’s form.

Whether or not CBC will succeed with Host Hunt won’t be known until the series airs in February. While we await the verdict – flop or hit – reality TV’s tacky reputation makes industry professionals such as Flare editor-in-chief Lisa Tant nervous. “I work my ass off,” she says, and the same goes, she says, of colleagues such as Blanks, whom she regularly sees when covering catwalks. “If you go in there and you’ve got what it takes and they’re putting you next to somebody who just has a perky attitude and just looks good on TV, frankly, I think it’s insulting.”

Jeanne Beker, host of Fashion TelevisionFashion File‘s flashier competition – has a similarly critical view. “Can’t imagine that a bonafide, experienced, credible journalist would want to subject him/herself to a reality show competition of this nature,” she writes from her BlackBerry. “But then again, maybe they’re not looking for a bonafide, credible, experienced type.”

• • •

Back on Friday, the first day of try-outs, Paris Mansouri is beaming as she leaves the audition room. Petite, with sleek black hair and wide, excited dark eyes, she has a tendency to burst into quick repartee. “I went to J-school for Jeanne Beker,” Mansouri says, and indeed, she bears more than a little resemblance to the fashion journalism icon. Mansouri does casual work for CBC Montreal’s radio news. She has reported from the Middle East and was a senior editor for the Egyptian fashion magazine, Enigma. Fashion File, however, is her dream gig, as it has been since she was a kid tuning into Fashion File and Fashion Television every week. “That’s what I knew of journalism,? she says. Mansouri found out about Host Hunt through her work at CBC and doesn’t have any qualms about doing a reality show for the spot instead of a simple, internal job interview. “It’s TV 101 to attract viewership,” she says. “Maybe people would feel that a show to get the new Peter Mansbridge would be wrong, but it doesn’t discredit this program.”

The Host Hunt team says the show is conceived as a contest, but that only the most serious, qualified person stands a chance of winning. Fashion editor-in-chief Ceri Marsh, who will play a yet-to-be-defined role in the show, says, “Anyone has a shot, but they’re not the one who wins – obviously the most skilled person will succeed.”

Another contestant, Guy Gerbal, knows this. Covering fashion, like covering the news, takes dedicated reporting. Today he’s just one applicant in a room, but from 2000 to 2004 he was a member of the Fashion File team, assembling reports for its French-language counterpart, Griffe. Gerbal left Griffe when the show stopped, but now he’s jumping at the chance to rejoin the team again – this time as host.

With his arms crossed tightly across his chest, Gerbal appears nervous. His eyes dart around the room as he sizes up the competition. He points out a couple of local fashion insiders kiss-kissing across the room. “It’s difficult,? he says. “I don’t know, maybe some people are just coming for fun, dreaming of being on TV.”

Gerbal’s gaze continues to flit back and forth until casting director Larissa Mair catches his attention. “You’re up,” she says. Gerbal exhales loudly. He brushes off his slacks, takes a script from Mair and prepares to audition. It’s time to face reality.

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