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Television Review

Reality show sets 'The Devil' in Elle

Contestants on The CW's ''Stylista'' try to impress magazine fashion news director Anne Slowey. Contestants on The CW's ''Stylista'' try to impress magazine fashion news director Anne Slowey. (David M. Russell/The CW)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Staff / October 22, 2008

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Ah, New York. The place to be young, ambitious, and humiliated. That's what reality TV has taught us, right? Especially when set in the cutthroat world of fashion.

Or maybe it's just the mean-kids ethos of "Stylista," the new CW reality show that premieres tonight at 9. A collaboration between the producers of "America's Next Top Model" and "Project Runway," "Stylista" takes aim at another pillar of the fashion industry: the tastemakers who edit a snooty magazine. In this case, it's Elle. But for their template, the producers seem to have taken a few too many cues from the fictional magazine in "The Devil Wears Prada."

To wit: The contestants descend on Elle's headquarters in various levels of mousiness, and are immediately given the spirit-crushing task of arranging a $40 breakfast for Anne Slowey, Elle's fashion news director. She's the reigning judge and villainess here, with flowing blond locks and a botoxed forehead, and she has clearly worked hard to perfect a Meryl-Streep-style tough-love scowl. So has photo editor Brett Ramey, the series' closest thing to a master of ceremonies, who affects a monotonous, disinterested delivery as she orders the contestants to style mannequins or create mock magazine pages.

Yep, these Elle folks have the coldness down; they're all haughty versions of Nina Garcia, with no Tim Gunn or flamboyant Miss J to offset the inherent nastiness. The closest we come is Elle creative director Joe Zee, who is cute as a button - in a Stanley Tucci way - but a bit too mild for his role. Asked to critique the contestants' clothes, he's cutting, but not creatively so; his most interesting moment comes when he tells one young man that "The scarf just gives me anxiety."

If he's anxious, though, the contestants are full-blown neurotics, and neophytes to boot: They're so young, inexperienced, and catty that they're difficult to like and even harder to watch. (Even the nicest one, a blonde named Cologne, needs remedial classes for mascara application, stat.) At first, we're most inclined to focus on heavyset Danielle, shunned by her teammates for not looking the part. But she's quickly overshadowed by Megan, a nasty and rich 22-year-old who owns her own boutique, knows her pin tucks from her darts, and immediately starts collecting enemies.

Her first victim is Kate, who's criticized for wearing outfits that show too much cleavage - and cries uncontrollably when asked to wear something a wee bit more demure. By episode two, Megan has turned to Ashlie, the overconfident daughter of a fashion model, who turns out to be a tougher foe. "I will continue to be obnoxious because you are evil!" Ashlie cries out to Megan one evening in their fancy loft.

So are they all, alas; the tasks at Elle are obnoxious enough, but living in close quarters with these folks looks like some deep level of hell, and in their confessionals to the camera, the contestants confirm that it's so. There's a lot of crying in bathrooms, a nasty stress-related rash and, in the second episode, a panic attack so severe that it requires intervention from an ambulance. The fashion world can get ugly, indeed. But when things look tough, the rest of us can simply change the channel.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. For more on TV, go to www.boston.com/viewerdiscretion.