There’s been so much controversy surrounding the badly-behaved Black women of reality shows like Basketball Wives and Love and Hip-Hop, we forget that one of the most iconic—and positive—reality TV divas of our time is Tyra Banks. Back in 2003, the model made the successful transition to reality television with the addictive America’s Next Top Model.
Subjecting aspiring models to campy challenges and dramatically delivering the judging results via their photographs, Tyra demystified the intimidating world of fashion for television viewers across the country and launched the careers of plus model Toccara Jones and actresses Yaya Dacosta and Eva Marcille. All the while, she was solidifying her personal brand as a black woman about her business.
In the last year, Black fashionistas have picked up the baton Tyra created with ANTM. In March 2012, celebrity stylist June Ambrose starred in VH1’s "Styled by June", while Nicole Richie joined Jessica Simpson and John Varvatos as a mentor on NBC’s “Fashion Star”.
Last February, Rihanna announced she was executive producing reality competition “Styled to Rock” in the UK. (She’s bringing the show to American television via the Style Network.) And in October, model Joan Smalls hit the small screen as co-host of MTV’s “House of Style” reboot. Even Naomi Campbell is entering the reality TV fray, executive producing and debuting on “The Face”, set to premiere on Oxygen February 12th during New York Fashion Week.
With the return of Lifetime’s “Project Runway” on January 24th and “Fashion Star” on March 8th, contestants Samantha Black and Tori Nichel specifically look forward to showcasing their skill and talent—not the ability to create drama.
Not that fashion doesn’t come without drama.
Whether we’re talking about huge sartorial personalities like Naomi Campbell; or the over-the-top excess of the images and lifestyle presented on the runways and magazine editorials, fashion is known for its celebration of spectacle.
Tori Nichel (who goes by her first and middle name for branding purposes) admits these aspects of the fashion industy definitely lend themselves to entertainment. But, the New York-based Michigan native says, there’s a big gap between what people think a career in fashion is, and the reality.
“All my friends thought I was going to be designing in this huge studio in front of this big window, and you know, sketching all day, and playing with colored pencils.” She says, “It would be a great life to have to do that all day everyday, but it’s not the reality of fashion. …[If you’re] a true hardworking designer…you’re definitely much more in the trenches.”
Having clocked 14 years in the business rising through the design ranks at high-end and mass-market brands like Dana Buchman, Kenneth Cole, Tibi, and Kmart where she was Design Director, Tori Nichel says it was the true-to-the-industry premise of “Fashion Star” that made her want to be part of the show. “You’re designing a collection and presenting it to buyers for a chance to sell your stuff in their stores.”
For Tori Nichel, being on “Fashion Star” was part of a strategic decision to re-launch her eponymous womenswear line. “With the opportunity of ‘Fashion Star’,” she continues, “this was the first time in five years where I felt like it would be a great time to reenter the marketplace…and just come back with an even more distinct point of view.”
Black says of her role on “Project Runway” Season 11, “I don’t care if [I] become this great reality star,” “I really just want my business to be where I want it to be… where I’m in boutiques and the stores where I want to be; and also my line is…seen as a great American brand.”
The designer who has interned for Michael Kors, Jill Stuart, and the late Alexander McQueen says being considered an “American brand” versus an urban brand can be a challenge for Black designers. “The fact that I’m black, I have so much more criteria, and things I can and cannot do in order to get to the next level, or to be seen on a certain platform that I don’t think other people have to even worry about.”
Black explains, “I can’t have an all-black cast of models. I have to be very careful with my music selection for my fashion shows. I also have to be careful when I shoot my lookbooks.”
She continues, “I have to make sure that when people look at my clothing or the way that it’s photographed, or anything like that, that they don’t think automatically, ‘Oh my God, it’s a black designer.’ I have to always be trying to make sure that I’m first seen as just a great designer, and then the fact that I’m black or anything else comes after.” She admits, “It’s so crazy to me, but it’s kind of like my reality.”
Black believes the presence of a diversity of Black fashion talent on the small screen is a step toward breaking down the racial assumptions that can limit talent and expression. “[It’s] showing black women in a positive light, in more of an authoritative role. This is their show, you know? They’re not a supporting cast member.” She adds, “I think that in itself will start to change just how certain people see black women, the black culture period. …[I] am happy to be one of the positive people that will be hitting the airwaves.”
Tori Nichel says it’s important to remember dramatic personalities might make good television, but they don’t guarantee a successful career in fashion. “It’s not going to be because they were on television for one year or two days. It’s their talent, their skill, their poise and professionalism that will give them the longevity and a successful career.”