Revelations of a former “Styled to Rock” reality star contestant
By Oliver Carnay
For friends who have asked about the experience of being on a reality fashion TV show, here it is. I have never publicly shared anything about it until now. It took years to let the dust settle, and be able to look back with any kind of detachment. I felt so twisted about the way reality TV uses stereotypes, and “writers” to incite conflict storylines, and create a toxic environment of sleep deprivation and pressure cooking tension. Only now have I felt ready to revisit what happened as I re-watched and write a story about being on Styled to Rock.
“Styled to Rock”
“Back in five minutes!” the production manager shouts. We break our line formation of tv reality show cast members standing in front of our celebrity guest Kelly Osbourne, along with the team of fashion design mentors: music producer and designer Pharrell Williams, supermodel Erin Wasson, and Rihanna’s personal stylist Mel Ottenberg.
The daughter of rock legend Ozzy Osbourne sits on set, with makeup melting beneath her purple hair twisted into double buns. “Goodahmn hottass hell en ‘ere…” she mumbles in the cutest British accent. The family resemblence is not unrecognized. “Makeup! I need makeup.” She flaps fanned fingers trying to move the hot Los Angeles air into a more cooling shape as hair and makeup crew come to dab and powder the rock princess.
“Set break!” he shouts while pressing the headset further into his ear. The cast of ten remaining on this reality fashion TV show, hosted by pop star Rihanna, exhale. My tall posture and camera ready smile dissolves to a heatstroke slump as I meet the eyes of my competitors. We are all overheating in this old brick mass of building cooking somewhere near the fashion district of LA. At least that’s my best guess. We were driven here blindfolded in a van. We need a break. The cast of 12 is made up of stereotypes, including a flamboyant gay man in your pick of black, latin, Filipino, or white. The goth girl in a shade of palest white with darkest hair is standing next to her matching kinky latex friend. Another girl with one hand, a heroine with a disability, is a proud member of the cast. The only straight man on the show was cut in the first episode. Who am I? I am the “Free Spirit.” I am a product of transformational festival culture. Go to any “Burning Man”- and you will meet me, clad in my colorful tribal gear, with a leather holster, and dancing with a hula hoop.
I blast out the back door like steam from a kettle to lean on the shady side of a fire escape. Rihanna is already there, high heels dangling as she sits with long pointed fingernails dragging on a fatty hand rolled spliff. She looks up at me and flicks the tip. I sit down with her as she passes the ganja. “Kelly couldn’t take the heat. She’s in there melting now. All the kings horses and all the king’s men are trying to put her back together.” I take a long drag and exhale deep as if an ocean has been between me and fresh air. Rihanna giggles in a throaty arpeggio with, “Royalty? Ain’t none of that in SoCal. We just work, work, work…” we both smile and bounce our shoulders like we’re dancing to the lyrics of her song as if it were playing in a nightclub. One more drag and the rolled paper is burnt to the crutch. “See you inside.” I get up and make my way back through the hall leading to the ballroom. “Don’t go in the green room-” Rihanna calls as the door shuts.
Bursting from the bathroom door to my right, a hung-over Miley Cyrus attempts standing up straight, and sweeps hair from her eyes. Bad idea. She doubles over, folding her body around a waste basket, heaving again. Maybe its Monday. Post weekend. There is no way to know what day it is. We are filming six weeks in a vacuum with no communication to the outside world, no computer, no phones. We shoot on average 2 episodes a week and air them as if done in twice as long. “Pull it together, Miley.” I say as I hold her hair clear of last night’s binge shown in reverse. “Cameras roll soon.” There are no weekends here.
“Fuck off.” she says flatly. I continue down the hall to see other cast members mingling between stage lighting and cameras on rolling tracks. A camera crane looking like a bionic dinosaur hinges at the middle joint sweeping in for a slow zoom as the cameramen check tracking on their shot. Pharrell Williams is passing time snacking on peanut m&m’s and humming the hook from his hit track “Happy” just released that year. He is micro dancing, just enough to know he is practicing. Pharrell crosses his feet, and unwinds, striking a pose for his imaginary audience as peanut m&m’s roll out of his pocket on the floor. An arctic breeze seems to stream from him as he spins, making his stiff brimmed Canadian Mounty hat spin like a record. After this taping, he’s boarding a plane to perform in Dubai. It’s nearing time to get back to military formation in front of rolling cameras, so I double back to the green room door to check my make up. As I remember Rihanna saying something about the green room, I open the door to see a cameraman filming Khloe Kardashian, mid-coitus making a sex tape (to be released accidentally of course) and will be sure to go viral. I close the door as quickly as it opened, too stunned to care about my makeup.
“We roll in one minute! Everybody on set!” Shouts the production manager. Kelly Osbourne is looking magazine-cover perfect, and everyone shuffles back to match the placement and posture of the last scene. A bell sounds, and the camera is rolling. I snap out of daydreaming, as I have been standing in the same spot waiting alongside the other contestants for the last five minutes. We need to reshoot the part where Kelly Osbourne walks in, and we all shout with excitement and glee to meet this famous celebrity. The first take didn’t have enough energy. Not surprising. We have been sewing dresses the past 17 hours of the last 30 waking hours dedicated to making this episode. After an appropriate giddy scream, the show goes on.
“Kelly, you’ve been hosting a fashion commentary show… tell us about a fashion moment you’ve had.” Supermodel Erin Wasson purses her lips together and sets her jawline to “fierce” as she turns to look with steely eyed beauty at the celebrity guest, making even small talk dramatic, before choosing the winning red carpet look for this fashion reality show challenge.
The contestants have all just witnessed their models strut with full attitude the finished product of an outfit designed for Kelly Osbourne to wear for her next red carpet event. While we were given the challenge to make a look inspired by punk rock with no use of the color black, Kelly has no idea we were asked to do so. She was informed of such when she saw my leather dress, looking like a leather biker jacket had been deconstructed into a contoured silhouette mini dress with a long zipper to the hem and fancy cowl neckline.
“Can I have that made in black?” She asked her assistant off camera. My dress was designed for her as a nod to the pin-up girls of punk rock, and made to match her lavender hair, in the same shade. It had to be black. With suspenseful pause, Kelly announces the winning look- a skirt set in striking neon yellow, made by the sassy southern gentleman from South Carolina. The winner triumphantly raises his arms in the air, and bounces with tears in his eyes. Kelly Osbourne gives him a hug, and waves to all of us as she exits the set.
Now it’s time to decide the loser who must go home on this episode of Styled to Rock. More long drawn out suspenseful pauses lead to tears and emotions as the loser hangs her head and proceeds to thank the hosts for this incredible opportunity. This is only the third episode, and I am starting to understand how this works. Even though I feel confident as the first winner in episode 1, the competition is fierce. Now we go on to be introduced to the next celebrity, and the next fashion challenge. I hope Miley Cyrus is feeling camera ready. I just want to sleep.
Each episode is filmed in a familiar pattern. A challenge is set in the afternoon with a new celebrity guest, then the contenders go up to the studio to plan for an hour, then we pile into the van to shop for materials in one grossly insufficient fabric store. When we return, we begin cutting and sewing, which continues throughout the grueling night. Any sign of stress, the sewing machine may eat your dress under the press foot feed dogs… and a horde of camera men surround you to get the dramatic break down. Pattern making and construction of any garment is no easy task- and if any part goes wrong it’s over. In the morning after a sleepless night, models arrive to hair and makeup and then get dressed to parade the finished looks in front of the judges. By noon the next winner and loser is decided, and everything repeats again. Somehow there were nights I got some sleep, or afternoons between taping. So much is a blur from the wash of constant tension and sleep deprivation.
Each of us signed a 60 page contract, that made it clear no one was going to paid, except the final winner who would secure a spot on Rihanna’s design team. I understood and signed the contract which outlined this reality tv show is:
a.) not fair
b.) I will have no control over how I am portrayed
c.) working long inhumane hours
d.) a doctor sign to say I am not going to drop down dead under such conditions.
Each of us understood and willingly chose the hardships of filming fueled by the fumes of hope of winning fame and glory.
The story writers were working constantly to ensure as much drama could be squeezed out of every incident. For a reality show, I had no idea there could be so many writers. When walking through a crowded room, the production team would first yell, “Talent walking!” as to notify anyone talking about storylines to shut up- as surprise is a crucial element in writing reality tv. Writers will send someone to incite riots in any way they can. I have been told I’m two-faced, rejected, getting fat, and made to look like a clown. One day in a private recording for audio, the assistant was asking me to repeat phrases to use later as voice over in post editing. “ Say, ‘that bitch.’ Different ways for me.” I refused. It’s not something I had said or would say.
The refrigerator was always stocked with red bull and hard liquor. Limited resources led to a fight over materials between 2 cast members over a manican. We all had a messy cry at some point. While I am sure the story crew were all hoping for a queer love scene, that never happened. Despite it all, what made it on camera was centered around conflict. There was no filming when a tearful goth girl couldn’t finish her dress in time, so myself and the kinkey latex woman helped with six hands to sew the dress all at once to completion. That kind of cooperation does not inspire ratings.
On the chopping block, up for elimination it’s me and Autumn, the goth girl. I’ve helped her finish her projects in previous episodes, and this time it wasn’t finished again. The filming was delayed for hours until she was able to put something on her model. Autumn heard a scathing critique with “this dress is criminal, it doesn’t respect the woman in it. It’s completely unwearable.” My burning review was also hard to hear, “it could be sold as merchandise for the rapper Sean, but he wouldn’t wear it to an album release party.” I knew I could survive this episode and go on to the last episode if I wanted.
“I feel like you are torn, like you want to go home. You said you look forward to working with your clients again.” says Erin Wasson, and it’s true. I have 32 weeks of back orders for clients who embrace the leather designs I care more for than this pop star culture.
“I do look forward to working with my clients again. And if you can see that staying here any longer would be a waste of my time, or a waste of yours. Send me home now.” The judges have a conversation between them, where Pharrell Williams, bless him forever, points both his hands in the place I had been standing as he says, “On paper, you have got to go with the one who is going to get it done for you.” He is arguing the case for me to stay. He has always been supportive of me.
In the back room, a camera films Autumn and I talking, “Do you want to go?” She asks me. “It’s not in my nature to quit. But I am already living my dream,” I tell her.
The judges bring us both back out, and we are about to hear their final decision. The story and production crew have been talking for nearly an hour about what to do. The have made up their mind, and speak through headsets to the judges.
“Ahni, you are going home.” I am flooded with relief. Erin goes on to say, “Ahni, you are some kind of special. I am honored to have met you. You do incredible work, and you have so much to celebrate. You have so much to look forward to in going back home.” After the cameras have stopped rolling, Erin invites me in her dressing room to say more encouraging things. I am so emotional, I can’t even remember her words, but the flavor of respect she had for me still stays.
My goal with this tv show was exposure that would lead to recognition for the design work I have already done with my online store Resonating Threads,” which began in 2009. Later I learned any mention of my own brand, or even my full name was edited out of the show. While I wanted to end the experience as the winner, I knew the value was in showing as much of my work as possible to a wider audience. Winning for winning sake was not enough for me, and the chance to be part of a design team for a pop star was a prize that would take me off the path of my own dreams. I was devastated to find out how the show was edited to warp reality into an entertaining shit-show of caricature personalities. This world of tv and celebrity and drama was not what I wanted to support. Even the hope of fame and glory was faded as I realized was just smoke and mirrors not worth chasing, what I was already doing with my work was far more meaningful. I was in 9 of 10 episodes that made the final cut for the full season. I was ready to leave this place and return to my clients to fulfill their orders through my brand in the Resonating Threads shop. I chose to go, the writers from the show all know it. I am that Free Spirit. I choose to write my own story. Hollywood has no place to tell me what I should want.