The previews for Lifetime’s late summer Project Runway spinoff, On the Road with Austin and Santino, did not fill me with glee. The popular reality alums were shown taking a road trip "To bring deserving women across America a one-of-a-kind look." Oh dear. At first blush, the premise seems to mix the class voyeurism of The Simple Life with the lifestyle-guru gay stereotypes of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The odd-couple structure of competing out-groups troubled me as well: hicks, meet queers. Which would be reinforced at the expense of the other, heteronormative privilege or class privilege?
However, the actual show has surprised and frankly delighted me, navigating clumsily but endearingly around these traps. This road trip interests me as a reversal of the decades-long national migration of gay young men from rural locations to the nation’s cities. The frisson of exploitation in On the Road is the expectation that Austin will shock the rubes with his dandyish appearance, but in practice that element simply falls flat. The occasional peripheral character stares at Austin, but for the most part, people know how to behave on TV. Instead, the show foregrounds the banter of Austin and Santino, who are sweetly funny and seem genuinely, unironically delighted with these small towns and small town folk. Their clients are treated with respect, and never invited to perform "deservingness" or make tearful confessions about their body images. Best of all, Austin and Santino are not always banished to the ghetto of the sewing room or make-up studio, but have identities outside of their dressmaking services.
Throughout the series, Austin also deflects the discomfort of people he meets by actively teaching others how to interact with him, from training fabric store proprietors in the art of air-kissing to his references to himself and his military client as "two gentleman," evoking an identity that means something different to each of them, but that they can share an investment in. His boater hats, parsols, and gentility evoke an aestheticized Neverland American past—he looks quite at home in ye olde towne centers and historic inns the two pass through on their travels. It strikes me as politically rich for Austin to insert himself this way into a pastoral fantasy of American history, because that very fantasy is so often used to exclude gay people from full rights in institutions such as marriage and the military. As I watch it, I find myself hoping, with a naivete that surprises me, that this charm offensive makes a difference in the larger culture war it references.