There are a lot of reality shows around which are, loosely speaking, about creative pursuits: singing competitions, dancing competitions, mixed and assorted entertainer competitions. Then there are the cluster of reality shows centered on the world of fashion: modelling competitions, fashion designer competitions, fly on the wall docos about fash mags and modelling agencies.

There are also, I discovered last night, sub-species of these shows, such as hairdressing competitions: I watched an episode of a show called Great British Hairdresser, the idea of which is to take “high street hairdressers” and turn them into “top session stylists who get to work with CELEBRITIES”. The tone of the show was oddly sour and the contestants all seemed anxious, and more than usually out of their depth for this kind of show. Perhaps, since it was (I think) the first season of the show, none of them really had a sense of what was expected of them yet.

One of the things that interested me about this show was the glimpses it gave you of the hierarchy of the workplace on a photo shoot. The photographer is like the Queen – you cannot keep him waiting, or send your models late to the set, and you must not get in the photographer’s way when zhuzhing your models – you must wait your turn, humbly, until the great photographer is finished. And this may have been a quirk of the production, but there was never a moment when the photographer himself spoke to the hairdressers, gave them the brief, or told them what they were doing and what he wanted. The information was relayed by the show’s mentor, host, and star, James Brown, who is himself a celebrity hair stylist. What it implies is that they’re so far down the status hierarchy, they don’t even get a face-to-face briefing on the concept they’re supposed to be interpreting, or given a chance to ask questions, which doesn’t seem entirely fair to me.

Especially when the concept was a pretty damn nebulous one. They were asked to do three ages of British music: rock, punk, and New Romantic. punk and new romantic, fine, but rock? Do you mean 50s rock? Early 60s rock, with Beatle wigs and girls in beehives? Late 60s rock, with Woodstocky long hair and beards? 70s glam rock? Prog rock? And since nearly all of those involve long hair for men, and all the male models had short hair, what were they supposed to do? The judges canned the hairdressers for not knowing their “references”, but that one was pretty broad and could have done with some elaboration, I thought.

Most of these shows fetishise creativity (at the same time as they torture their contestants with more-or-less meaningful challenges), but what the hairdressers are really being asked to demonstrate are craft skills, at the service of someone else’s vision, rather than their own creativity. The idea they’re interpreting has always come from someone else, whether it’s the fashion editor or the  photographer or the fashion designer or the make-up artist or all four. In the real world, real stylists probably work rather more collaboratively and consultatively, but first, I suppose, you have to gain entry into the club by knowing that rock means no product (although that probably wasn’t true in the 80s – hello hair metal!), and big diamante lips need big bouffey hair.

Models occupy a different place in the pecking order. They’re much higher status – because they’re where the magic happens – but they’re no more autonomous* than the hairdressers. They, too, are not allowed to keep anyone waiting, and are never allowed to bitch and complain. (I caught just one episode of a fly-on-the-wall show about a modelling agency during Fashion Week, which I found fascinating. At first, it seemed like the most poorly organised event in the world – couldn’t they have booked the models a month ago, instead of doing it all five seconds before showtime with maximum sturm und drang? But I suppose you can’t, really – models get fat, get thin, cut their hair. They are fresh produce, like peaches, or flowers, and the model you booked a month ago might look different when she turns up for the fitting. And on this show, you did get the sense that for the really special girls, there are no rules. They can be cavepeople as long as they look amazing when they work.)  Like the hairdressers, models are supposed to have a broad set of visual and cultural references at their fingertips, which they can then draw on and interpret – a harder ask, surely, for the seventeen year old models than the older hairdressers.

What you get from all these shows is a vision of a creative world where ideas circulate and recirculate, always coming from someone else, somewhere else, and while every one of these shows emphasizes the importance of bringing something new and fresh and personal to what you do, whether you’re a model or a hairdresser or a whatever, the real place where fresh things can happen is almost always somewhere off-camera.

It’s not until you watch something like The September Issue that you feel you’re beginning to get closer to the source: both in the sense of the creators of images, and also the creators of the clothes which set all the machinery in motion (and employ all the models and hairdressers and make-up artists, not to mention the magazine editors). And those clothes – while they are just clothes – are often sublime. Fashion may not be art, but it can be beautiful and dynamic and surprising,  and in the world of Vogue, you’re closer to the heights, where the beautiful things get dreamed up in the first place.

One of the subjects of all these reality shows – including, and especially, The September Issue – is the world of work. And that’s funny, because the industries they depict are the ones we are most starry-eyed about, and leaast inclined to see as ordinary workplaces. Everybody is interested in them because they seem to be glamorous and creative and beautiful, and the people who work in them are fabulous and footloose and fancy-free, and live creative, interesting, varied and exciting lives. But what you realize when you boil them all down is that someone else is still writing the brief, someone else is still telling you what to do, there are intricate hierarchies that need to be observed and understood and navigated, and you never get to do what you want to do. Even Grace Coddington gets her pages reduced by Anna Wintour. And Anna Wintour, who seems to be the most powerful woman on Planet Fashion, must answer to advertisers and magazine people you never see at all.

Fiction rarely delves into the world of work. Even TV drama isn’t terribly interested in it, aside from the select few over-represented drama professions (cops, lawyers, doctors). But as adults, the world of work is where most of us spend the bulk of our time. It’s incredibly complex, and difficult, and stressful; not just because of the work we do but because of the endless complexity of workplace relationships.

And yet when it comes to depicting that world, drama rarely has much to say on the subject (nor does fiction). So it’s left to the people on reality TV to give us a glimpse into the world of work, even though that’s probably not what they set out to do. While the ostensible subject matter of most of these shows is the chance to vicariously ascend to a high-status, high-glamour job, it simultaneously shows you that even when you get there you still have to keep your mouth shut, be sweet to the photographer and push the product.

* On the subject of relative autonomy , I was struck by the difference between the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance and the singers on Australian Idol (both, of course, now defunct).  While the singers got to choose their own songs (or at least pick songs from a song list) and their own wardrobe, and interpret the songs as they saw fit, the dancers had no choice at all. They were given their choreography and given their costumes, and then had to work to express the choreographer’s vision to the best of their ability. The dancers’ ability to express themselves was far more severely constrained than the singers’.

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