Reality TV shows are always best taken with a grain of salt. What viewers see, especially in pre-taped shows, is usually both scripted and edited to accentuate contrived “storylines” that will keep people tuned in.
Even so, it’s hard to account for what happened in last week’s episode of All On The Line, which featured New York lingerie designer Layla L’Obatti and her boyfriend/business partner Josh Verleun of Between The Sheets Lingerie.
AOTL, hosted by Elle magazine’s creative director Joe Zee, is meant to “help struggling designers make their dreams come true” by giving them access to Joe, his market know-how and his enviable Rolodex of industry contacts.
Instead, at the end of last week’s episode, Layla and Josh left crushed and empty-handed, with JZ sniping at them until the credits rolled (and afterward, if you read his blog). A meeting with buyers from Neiman Marcus had disintegrated and the couple looked worn out and worn down after weeks of head-butting with Joe.
(It took us nearly a week to see the show, which isn’t broadcast in Canada. If you haven’t seen the episode, you can view it here online or buy it on iTunes if you live in the U.S.)
Since last Tuesday the show has had a polarizing impact on viewers: Josh and Layla have been swamped both with support and vitriolic hate mail. Yes, hate mail — for a lingerie designer.
To understand how all this unravelled, you need to appreciate the cartoonish “storyline” that emerged from the AOTL show. It goes something like this:
Bitchy, delusional designer can’t make money selling lingerie. Wimpy boyfriend coddles her and pays the bills. Their relationship is on the skids and they can’t get married for the simple reason that she has hoovered up all his cash and he can’t afford a ring.
JZ steps in with a plan: forget lingerie and start making ready-to-wear dresses that people will buy, capitalizing on the “lingerie-as-outerwear” trend. Layla balks. Neiman Marcus walks. The kids get what they deserved, which is nothing.
The problem with this narrative is that it’s as fake as a Hong Kong knockoff, the result of highly selective editing of countless hours of tape shot over three weeks last winter. It makes for riveting (and grim) TV, but people who know Layla and Josh will barely recognize them on AOTL. The couple’s entire lives are reduced to a single issue: can they sell enough underwear to buy a ring and, to quote Joe, “live happily ever after”?
The creative differences between Joe and Layla are authentic, but AOTL’s humiliation of the couple was shamefully choreographed. The show clumsily tries to make it look like the pair are falling apart, which is both wrong and reprehensible. In one creepy segment, Joe takes Josh to a high-end Manhattan jewelry store, ostensibly to get ideas for the buyer presentation. While there, and with cameras rolling, Joe tries to goad Josh into buying an expensive engagement ring for Layla — knowing full well that he can’t afford it. Ugh.
The episode is littered with Joe’s snide put-downs of Layla and Josh, whom he describes as “a controlling designer and an incredibly gracious doormat”. Layla’s work “looks lazy, cheap and amateur.” They can’t succeed by “selling a couple bras and panties.” Josh is just a “bottomless chequebook”.
Layla ends up the villain of the piece simply because she didn’t agree with Joe’s advice for her company. Not surprisingly, the collection she presented to NM’s fashion-forward Cusp label appeared half-hearted. And Josh? Well, somehow AOTL manages to gloss over the fact that his day job is working as an environmental lawyer for a well-known conservation group. Eco-warrior by day, doormat by night?
“People rightly feel sorry for Josh; he got screwed by editing,” Layla told us. “People rightly hate me. Hell I hate how this show makes me look. But I can sleep at night because I know that is not who I am or at all how it went down. Not sure how they’re sleeping.”
The real reason the BTS segment didn’t deliver the rosy outcome that AOTL promises was the huge disconnect between Joe and Layla from the beginning.
Joe’s industry credentials are widely known, but it’s clear he neither appreciates nor cares about lingerie, repeatedly describing the $30-billion industry as a niche market that is too small to make money in. Hundreds of lingerie brands and thousands of retailers will be puzzled to hear that.
Rather than focus on what BTS does (make very nice loungewear and lingerie), Joe tries to steer them toward the RTW trade because that’s what HE knows. At one point, he is surprised to learn that BTS has a highly-regarded diffusion luxury label, and even Keith Pollock, editor of Elle.com, tells him: “We don’t do a lot around lingerie design.”
Given his predisposition, one has to wonder why Joe Zee would devote an episode of AOTL to a lingerie label at all. Asking Layla to turn her back on BTS and design dresses instead made as much sense as telling a poet to start writing sci-fi fantasy novels because, well, that’s what sells.
But make no mistake, the real focus of the program is Joe himself; AOTL exists primarily to elevate his status, in the same way that The Apprentice is little more than a promotional vehicle for Donald Trump.
Although he insists “I have nothing to gain from this,” Joe utters another, more revealing comment when his project with Layla starts to go south: “I’m really concerned,” he says. “My reputation is on the line.”
Ah, so there it is: all on the line, indeed.
And what does a true New Yorker do after an old-fashioned mugging? If you’re Layla L’Obatti, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back to business. In the next few days, we’ll have a look at what she’s done with the collection she pitched on AOTL. You’ll be surprised.