Was “What Not to Wear” Our Most Underrated Reality Show?


The good news: The TLC makeover series What Not To Wear’s ninth and tenth seasons are now available on Netflix Instant, and if that’s not amazing Christmas Day binge fare, I’m not sure what it is. The bad news: I think we just spent ten years (well, at least nine, considering that’s when Clinton Kelly began as a cohost) forgetting to acknowledge that What Not To Wear was potentially the funniest reality show on TV. After a decade-long run, the series co-hosted by Kelly and Stacy London aired its final episode in October. I’m realizing now that I haven’t processed fully how great the show is, and that might be because hairstylist Nick Arrojo’s hypnotic brogue lulled me into submission. Let’s give the show its due now.

1. It’s educational.


For those of us who already have a pretty good sense of what not to wear, What Not to Wear seems less than revelatory in theory. But one of the awesome things about the show was how Kelly and London broke down the old idea of an innate “sense of style” into learnable rules. A deep V-neck is responsibly sexy and can elongate your neck. You can show off a great frame in clothes that are not skin tight. A flat is more professionally casual than a flip-flop. Sure, the outfits Kelly and London contrived for makeover subjects sometimes may have been anodyne, but that was precisely the point: They gave their charges basic options for appropriate outfits so that they could adopt their own sense of style based on those rules.

2. Most believable and fun “fruit + fruit fly” relationship on TV. Ever.


First of all, we should all be using the term “fruit” more. It just feels good. Second, in the age of TV shows featuring gay men with female best friends, we’ve only seen a few gay/gal relationships that are truly indelible. Will & Grace comes to mind. Marc and Amanda on Ugly Betty come to mind. But I actually like Clinton and Stacy the most, and not just because they’re actually, y’know, real people: They clearly didn’t have to be prompted to crack each other up because like any great fruit and fruit fly, they knew that amusing one another was the quickest way to establish authority. “We think we’re hilarious,” their chemistry suggested. “So believe what we say or else. We could go on enjoying ourselves without you.” Sigh. Love.

3. It handles personal issues as well as it handles style issues.


Where What Not to Wear secretly shines most is when Stacy and Clinton find themselves trying to address a client’s major self-esteem issues or relationship woes. In a recent episode from season 9, Clinton asked a woman named Jackie why she wore such breast-baring tops, and she claimed she felt she had to keep her husband’s attention using eye-popping fashions. Clinton rightfully said a man who requires that kind of spectacle is an assh*le. On a show about holding yourself to a certain standard, it makes sense that those lessons end up crossing over into personal territory.

4. These are people who are not afraid to knock you the hell down a peg.

The TV makeover genre often feels way too inoffensive and smiley. You get the feeling sometimes with Ty Pennington types that they’re fixated on remaining likable, and that fixation often prevents a sincere dialogue from occurring. Clinton Kelly and Stacy London are not afraid to be strident in the name of defending their work, which is good and tough work. In this clip, Clinton gives a deadly but diplomatic retort to a woman who tells him he could use Botox. “Do you like playing dress-up? I’m not interested in taking toys from a child.” That is a fabulous line. There are people who wish they could write that line, let alone come up with it on the fly.

5. Pardon the sentimentality, but: It actually seems like Clinton and Stacy care.


I’m sure it gets tiring to recommend the same straight-leg pant or blouse pattern 100,000 times (How many times has Clinton recommended a print because it “creates interest”?), but I believe Clinton when he says he keeps in touch with at least 100 of the people featured on the show. People with a sense of humor are flat-out more likely to care about other people. If you have a sense of what can make other people laugh, you have a sense about what is good about other people. That sounds stupid and is true. 

6. Carmindy was always the shiniest person on Earth.


I always love when Carmindy appears for a makeup tutorial and her pearly glow enters the room about 10 seconds before she does. Intimidating resplendence. By Carmindy.

7. The criticisms come from a personal place.

Not only are Clinton and Stacy London veeeery smart people (Clinton’s a Northwestern journalism graduate; Stacy’s a Vassar alumna), but their uppity snark is based in sensitivity and experience. London has talked about her struggles with weight issues, eating disorders, and a lifelong battle with psoriasis. Forcing yourself to become articulate about personal obstacles is probably the best way to ensure you can help somebody else articulate theirs. It’s never lost on me that these two are so helpful to others because they’re so doggedly self-aware.

Will you miss WNTW? And will you be spending Christmas vacation watching leftover episodes?