The Great Santino

An Edith Head for headcases

Despite what ABC's vulgar promos might have you believe, this season's most endearing breakout star wasn't Drew Lachey. Sure, Nick's pie-eyed bro leapfrogged over his partner to a Dancing with the Stars victory. But Nick and Jessica's shocking and utterly unanticipated split cast an unfortunate pall over the proceedings, did it not? We can only hope that a third Lachey brother--Rick? Darius?--will emerge from obscurity and restore balance to the universe, possibly by lopping off Joe Simpson's Magical God Balls and ensuring that no more Simpsons will be sired. Cross your fingers.

Admittedly, the less-famous Lachey danced a killer paso doble, but this winter, American viewers were captivated by a much more intriguing fellow: He's a lanky Angeleno with a better catwalk stomp than Kate Moss. He's the swarthy, difficult Lilith to Drew Lachey's whitebread Eve. His hair pleads for Frizz-Ease. His competitors plead for mercy. He's Santino Rice, the shit-slinging villain of Project Runway 2, and I love his bony ass more than I can say. You can have your dreamy Daniel Vosovic and your competent Chloe Dao: Santino is a contestant for the contentious, an Edith Head for headcases.

Why would I defend a man who has most PR fans crying foul? For one thing, he's extremely cute. Santino looks like an unaccountably attractive cross between Vincent Schiavelli, Osama bin Laden, and a guy I dated in high school who recently banned me from his MySpace page. Santino sports heels and fedoras and do-rags, sometimes all at once. He favors a modest layered look, leaving us to guess as to whether he's hairy. (I've wondered about this for many hours in the dark, and I suspect he is. Hairy.)

During the makeover episode, an industry type marveled at Santino's bone structure, leading Santino to compare himself to Brad Pitt. Perhaps the comparison was self-deprecating, but it didn't need to be. He's easily the most striking PR contestant since Austin Scarlett pranced into our hearts last year.

And then there's Santino's enviable chutzpah: This is a man who wasn't afraid to dress Sasha Cohen as a turkey, stitch 500 gold paillettes on an otherwise attractive gown, or glue a jumpsuit onto poor Kara Janx, his fellow designer. During the season he routinely constructed tasteful, exquisite garments, earned early praise from headmaster Tim Gunn during the design process ("Carry on"), then proceeded to systematically wreck the aforementioned garments with garish embellishments. This compulsion of Santino's was destructive, impudent--a gagging manifestation of his distaste for pedestrian design (and, arguably, for women). It smacked of self-sabotage, which made it even cooler. And just when it seemed like Santino's reign of terror-by-paillettes might be winding down, he'd dodge yet another elimination.

Each week, the judges warned Santino that he needed to reign in his mojo, learn when to stop, temper his genius. Accusations of "overdesigning" flew fast and furious, but Santino never flinched in the face of criticism. His triumphs (the braiding on the Nicky Hilton dress, the bodice on the turkey costume, the luscious Barbie frock) always managed to overshadow his failures (the jumpsuit, the ghastly Bavarian-themed lingerie, the rest of the turkey costume). When other contestants opted for soft curls on their runway models, Santino demanded antlers. While Chloe seemed to default to the same bolt of blue cloth week after week, Santino took risks with feathers, embroidery, and uncommon hues.

Sometimes this approach worked, sometimes it flopped majestically. Yet Santino's creations always spurred a lively--and sometimes livid--dialogue among the judges.


Of course, Project Runway is as much about design as Survivor is about survival skills. On both shows, talent is a boon but not a guarantor of success. The fact that Santino has garnered the most media attention of any Season 2 contestant has nothing to do with his sartorial instincts and everything to do with the fact that he's a mouthy brat. He accused Michael Kors of designing for old ladies, snickered when another contestant, Andrae, burst into exhausted sobs on the runway, suggested that Diana and Marla had never gotten laid, derisively called Chloe a "good patternmaker," and once, inexplicably refused to help Kara carry a heavy dress form.

This behavior wounded his peers and chafed the judges, but surprisingly, Santino was never treated like a true pariah. Maybe it was his spot-on impressions of Gunn and Kors that endeared him to the fold; it's hard to stay mad at someone who can diffuse workroom gloom that easily. Either way, the boy had a quality that the other PR bully (Zulema) lacked: charm.

By the time you read this, the winner of Season 2 will have been announced, Daniel Vosovic will have improbably gotten even dreamier, and Heidi Klum will be free to resume procreating with Seal. It's anybody's game at this point. My money is on Vosovic, though the outcome will likely be determined by a producer, not a garment. Santino may not emerge victorious but I have a feeling he'll linger in viewer's minds even when Season 3 is well underway. What more can we ask of our villains or even our heroes?

Meanwhile, I'm not-so-secretly praying that Santino goes all the way. In this case, hope is the thing with turkey feathers.

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