The making of a fashionista

A Journal intern is transformed by TLC’s ‘What Not to Wear’

There are some events in life that are, by their very nature, difficult to fathom. Incidents that are so completely unexpected that processing them in their entirety seems impossible and people must resign themselves to the fact that only time will allow the strange complexity of the situation to fully penetrate their minds and memories.

I know this because I’ve spent the last few weeks attempting to do this. My experience, however, was not dealing with anything particularly serious or monumental in the standard way — no births or deaths, no promotions or marriage proposals. No — I had just spent a week in New York filming a reality makeover TV show.

The show? TLC’s top-rated "What Not to Wear." The focus? Me: College student, restaurant hostess and news intern Katherine Rautenberg.

Some background on the show: "What Not to Wear," produced by BBC America, was adapted from a British program that goes by the same name. It is hosted by fashion gurus Stacy London and Clinton Kelly, who, at the beginning of every show, "ambush" an unsuspecting person, usually in a public place, and tell the person that she (or sometimes he) has been nominated by friends or family members for the show because of their outdated, wacky or inappropriate fashion sense. They admit to the person that they have been secretly taped for almost a month so that they have footage of the offensive wardrobe, then offer them $5,000 to buy a whole new set of clothes, shoes and accessories — but only if the person agrees to turn over their entire current wardrobe for criticism and subsequent discarding. The participant is then flown out to New York City for an entire week of learning style rules and shopping. The experience culminates in a hairstyle makeover and a makeup lesson before the participant heads back to his or her hometown, newly beautified, to make a dramatic entrance in front of family and friends at a lavish reveal party.

I’ve seen the show plenty of times before with my mother and sister, and I’ve often said out loud to both of them that it would be amazing to be on the show. Who in her right mind would turn down a free trip to New York, $5,000 worth of new clothes and a makeover by professionals? However, I’ve also never thought that I fit the bill: What makes the show so consistently dramatic is that the participants featured are usually in desperate need of help. They’re middle-aged and have had the same hairstyle since 1972, or they’ve lost a lot of weight and don’t know how to dress for their new figure, or they wear stirrup pants and belly shirts to the office.

I’m 22 years old, in pretty good shape and about to graduate from the University of Minnesota — not one of the show’s cookie-cutter candidates. But, as it turns out, that’s why the "What Not to Wear" casting directors were drawn to me several months ago after my mother nominated me via the show’s website. The fact is, I’m very aware of my image. I adore fashion — reading about it, people-watching, going shopping, not to mention spending far too much time at home coordinating outfits and trying things on when I could be doing more productive things. My obsession with fashion has led me to adopt a sort of offbeat look, a style that my detractors have referred to more than once as a "crazy streak." Brightly colored tights or leggings were a staple, not to mention gold lamé and lots of items from vintage or consignment shops. When I was offered an internship at the Downtown and Southwest Journals, I knew sequined tennis shoes wouldn’t be appropriate, and I ended up buying some trousers and sweaters in a hurry — items that I believed would pass for "business casual," but that struck me, personally, as "blah."

So, unbeknownst to me, my friends were notified, my closet was raided, and I was secretly filmed around Minneapolis for nearly a month before my internship coordinator gave me a call and told me that the show would be taping an ambush at the Mall of America on Oct. 23. Would I be interested in going out to cover it? Of course! Nothing the next day went as I had planned, however. After revealing in front of a giant crowd — not to mention plenty of cameras — that I had been set up, I was rushed back to my one-bedroom apartment, where a film crew had already moved my furniture around to set up a scene where Stacy and Clinton could arrive, go through my secret footage with me, then throw out all my clothes. Still reeling from the surprise of the mall announcement, I fumbled through the rest of the evening, watching in shock as all of my clothes were criticized and tossed into a recycling bin.

They left me a few things, mostly a couple of basic tops and shoes and two or three pairs of pants. Those probably wouldn’t have even made the cut, except that I had two weeks before I met up with the show again in New York. That’s when I realized that I had never thought about a lot of the details of the show before. Everything is edited together so seamlessly to make it look like everything happens in rapid succession. No one thinks about the outtakes, the retakes (upon retakes upon retakes), the unused footage and the time lapses. I had two weeks to ponder this, but I wasn’t ready for New York at all. It was easily one of the most overwhelming weeks of my life: exhausting, hectic and frustrating, but also full of fun moments, small revelations and opportunities that probably aren’t going to come my way again any time soon. It went something like this:

Off to New York

(Sunday, Nov. 11) I’m picked up at the airport by a Lincoln Town Car that drives me to my impossibly posh suite at a hotel in the Union Square area of New York. The director of my episode, Brandon Cruz, and the associate producer, Liz Lonergan, meet me and treat me to an amazing (and expensive) dinner while going over the week’s itinerary. I am suddenly extremely nervous, despite the fact that I believe the most difficult parts of the show are over.

In the studio

(Monday, Nov. 12): Before heading to the studio, Liz takes me to Nick Arrojo’s hair salon. Nick is the resident hairstylist on the show, a soft-spoken, insanely talented man who routinely charges at least $500 for an appointment. I was confused, though — I thought Nick always did the haircut in the studio after the shopping was done.

"He does," Liz assures me, informing me that most people have a consultation earlier in the week so Nick has an idea of what to do when he comes to the studio on Thursday. I get ready to answer questions about my hair, but am struck dumb when he simply runs his hands through my hair for 10 seconds before chirping "See you on Thursday!" in his crisp Manchester accent.

After the "consultation," I spend the rest of the day in the studio with Stacy and Clinton. After a catered lunch, I change into a series of three outfits that the producers had confiscated from my old wardrobe and brought to New York. After each outfit is put on, I am fitted with a wireless microphone and escorted into the 360-degree mirror — a tall booth with mirrors on all sides and unforgiving, dressing-room-style fluorescent lighting overhead. I go inside and explain what I like about the outfit and where I would wear that particular ensemble, then Stacy and Clinton barge in and explain why it doesn’t work.

After ripping me apart, the über-chic hosts show me mannequins dressed in outfits serving as alternatives to the ones the producers chose for me. They explain why the outfits work for me and my body, basically giving me the rules I’m supposed to follow: look for patterns, texture and color. Cropped jackets. Chunky jewelry. Skinny jeans and flat boots, two of my previous wardrobe’s staples, are OK! But they’re also dying to get me into high heels, which I fear — how do people walk in them?              

Solo shopping day

(Tuesday, Nov. 12) Solo shopping isn’t really solo at all. The stores are already chosen for you. A camera is constantly on you, asking if things seem easy or difficult and what is going through your mind at that moment. Trying things on isn’t easy, since someone has to come in and put a wireless microphone on you every time you change into a new outfit, then you have to come out and justify what you do or don’t like about it. The boutiques are super expensive, and I have a sneaking suspicion they chose stores that specialized in clothes similar to what I used to have before Stacy and Clinton threw them away so I would be tempted to ignore the style guidelines they set for me and revert to my old shopping habits. I go to three stores on camera, but only find three items total and become frustrated really quickly.

To my surprise, during the middle of the afternoon, the cameras leave and a woman I’ve never met before shows up. She introduces herself as Amy Salinger, my stylist. I am skeptical and confused. We hop in a cab together and she explains that the show hires people like her to take the participants shopping off camera since it can be a time-consuming process, and, as she told me, "Five thousand dollars is a lot to spend in only two days, especially if you don’t know your way around New York."

Amy works as a personal shopper and consultant for individuals with a fair amount of disposable income in New York, and as a result she knew how and where to find more bargains than you could possibly imagine.

Shopping with the hosts

(Wednesday, Nov. 13) Liz takes me to meet Stacy and Clinton outside another boutique. Inside, they go over my purchases, but only the things I bought on camera yesterday without Amy’s help. When the cameras stop rolling, they veto some of the things Amy and I picked out together — it turns out they have the final say on all of my purchases.

Stacy and Clinton pick out a few things for me to try on. We review my style guidelines a few more times, and just like that, they’re gone.

The final transformation

(Thursday, Nov. 14) I’m not at all apprehensive about my hair and makeup; I’ve seen the show enough to know Nick does a fabulous job with hair and Carmindy, the resident makeup expert, could make anyone’s skin look flawless.

Nick transforms my shoulder-grazing dirty blonde layers into a soft reddish angular bob, and Carmindy evens out my skin tone and shows me how to do a smoky eye without coming off as too severe. I love my new look and change into a series of recently purchased outfits that meet with Stacy and Clinton’s approval. I have to do a lengthy interview with Brandon, the director, as soon as I’m done, but I am touched when I find out that Clinton has stuck around longer than he needed so he could say goodbye and wish me luck.

Back to Minneapolis

(Friday, Nov. 15) Liz, Brandon and I are all on the same flight to Minneapolis in the early morning. I’ve given a sizeable list of names of family, friends and co-workers that I want to be at my reveal party, which is going to be held in a private lounge at the Guthrie Theater. Local camera crews are hired instead of bringing the New York staff back to Minneapolis, and freelance hair and makeup artist Susan Towle makes me look as glamorous as Nick and Carmindy did in the studio only 24 hours earlier. I spend the day modeling more new outfits in and around the Guthrie. When people arrive for my party, I am stowed away in a dressing room and filmed putting the finishing touches on my outfit while Liz and Brandon have my guests give interviews and sign release forms. When I finally enter, I am overwhelmed by the applause and excitement from everyone. I then have to re-enter to the same effect twice more to make sure they have every camera angle available.

It was a whirlwind week with dramatic highs and lows, but I’m so glad that I took advantage of this chance. I’ll probably never view "reality TV" the same way again, but I ended up with new friends, a new look, beautiful new clothes and an extraordinary story to share.

The show will air sometime in February.

Katherine Rautenberg lives in Stevens Square.