On Pins and Needles

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Artists, you'd think, would make the perfect subject matter for stories. They drink! They fight! They cut off their ears! So many things they do are fascinating—except, that is, for making art. That may be why so many movies and novels about creative types tend to focus on their personal lives. Even James Joyce ended A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before his alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, pursued his art. Dedalus moving from house to house because his father is broke: interesting. Dedalus rewriting a tricky patch of dialogue: not so much.

Then again, Joyce was no Heidi Klum. O.K., Project Runway, Klum's Bravo reality show about fashion designers, is not a masterwork of Western civilization. But it pulls off a rare feat: it makes the creative process entertaining. In Season 1 last winter, a cast of wannabe Vera Wangs squared off in design challenges that included sewing outfits from grocery-store items (the best entries used a lawn chair and cornhusks). In Season 2 (Wednesdays, 10 p.m. E.T.), one designer concocts a dress so audacious it may fall apart on the runway: it's held together by magnets. Other television shows keep you on pins and needles. Only this one is about pins and needles.

Co-executive producer, host and Victoria's Secret model Klum, on the phone from a photo shoot in Germany ("I was just sitting in a bathtub full of candy!"), says it was hard to convince fashion pros that the show would take the subject seriously. One of those who did was Tim Gunn, chair of the fashion-design department at New York City's Parsons School of Design and the cast's blunt, professorial mentor. "When they called," he says, "I thought, How are you going to cheapen this industry? We have enough problems without this." Instead, the show—co-produced by the team behind Project Greenlight, a savvy look at moviemaking—scored an Emmy nomination. "I think people wanted to see talent in reality TV," says Klum, "instead of mixing worms and maggots and seeing who can drink it the fastest."

Of course, Klum has to think that fashion beats Fear Factor. More surprising is that the show became a hit with the Gap-shopping cable masses. The first season drew 1.3 million viewers an episode on average, a 229% ratings increase for Bravo in the time period. More than 2 million watched the finale. That's not nearly as many as watch American Idol or The Apprentice, but here's what makes Runway better. The contestants are experienced and mature (in Season 2, they range in age from 22 to 51, so they have their own sense of self and aesthetics, unlike the eager-to-please singbots that roll down the Idol assembly line). Runway, which gives the winner $100,000 seed money and a car, has no financial stake in the winner's future—whereas Idol signs its champ to a contract with its producer—so the judges encourage creative risks, not commercial acceptability. And unlike The Apprentice, it ultimately rewards talent, not backstabbing. (Last season the one designer who played mind games, Wendy Pepper, was roundly defeated in the finale.)

Above all, the show has been cast mainly with people who want to be fashion stars more than Us Weekly fixtures. True, the Season 1 winner, Jay McCarroll, was a fast-talking, filthy-mouthed showboat with a thing for giant pink sunglasses. But rather than trying to extend his 15 minutes, he's still in rural Pennsylvania working on a collection and, he says, turning down offers to cash in on his fame. "People throw scripts at me for the dumbest s___," he says. "I'm not an actor! I don't want to play Santa Claus' gay assistant. I have to buckle down and be the designer that I went on the show to be." (O.K., he's not a total shrinking violet: his where-is-he-now? special, Project Jay, airs on Bravo in February.)

Season 2 promises more bold personalities; one cocky contestant tells judge and famous designer Michael Kors that he knows plenty of women who have never heard of Kors. But Gunn says their extroversion is a job requirement, not an act. "I think a big personality allows one to stand up to the slings and arrows that this industry dishes out," he says. "It's not a particularly kind and nurturing place." Neither is reality TV. But as Runway proves, every once in a while, like the fashion world, it can produce a thing of beauty.