Project Runaway: On the Road with Austin and Santino

Curator's Note

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.


Hi Victoria,
Great post! I too have gotten sucked into this show, even though I was skeptical at first. I agree that the show has managed to avoid becoming a circus sideshow act, and I applaud Austin for the bravery he shows in going places where he would normally not be welcome.

Here's my question: I wonder whether the 30-minute format is part of what's saving the show from exploitative indulgences? In a 30-minute (or less, if you factor in commercials) show, they really have to pare down to the show's essence. If the show was an hour, would we see more scenes of uncomfortable-ness? I, for one, would stop watching if that happened... Project Runway feels somewhat bloated nowadays since Lifetime has given it the 90-minute treatment.

Hi Nedda,

Thanks for the comment.  I'm glad I'm not the only one who likes this show!  For the record, I think that 90-minute format is the dumbest thing Lifetime has done with PR (on a list of dumb things).  "Bloated" is the perfect word.

The previews for "On the Road" made it look like circus sideshow television, and it's hard not to read that as a barometer for what the execs at some level expect or want from the show.  The emphasis on "deserving" women, and "We're not just changing looks we're changing lives" nonsense has been foregrounded in the publicity, but not so far in the actual productions.  I worry that with more time (or even just more seasons, as what seems like a little shoestring adventure hardens into a promotable formula), these are the elements they would expand. 

Right now "deserving" means almost nothing on the show.  Yes, these are nice women, lots of single moms, brides, people with special talents.  But what is striking is how average they all seem.  And their lives aren't being changed--they're just getting a nice dress.  Everybody deserves something nice once in a while.  This is the quality I fear the show would lose if given too much time.  I would hate to see it turn into a long therapeutic discourse on female empowerment through fashion and the friendship of witty gay men.*  We have enough of those already! 

*I say "gay men," but for clarity's sake, I should note that Santino is bi, according to several interviews with him.

First, great post, Victoria!  I, too, find the show to be a surprising morsel of sweet encounter.  I think the heart of the show is acceptance, especially seen in some of the scenes with just Austin and Santino.  Their friendship seems refreshing and based in mutual respect, which is especially compelling when following this season's increasingly antagonistic Project Runway.

Moreover, that respect, as you aptly point out, extends to the women they meet and dress.  I think the key element of these encounters is the foregrounding of the fact that they are making one dress for a special occasion.  They repeat how amazing they find the women and communities they encounter and don't push to change them in any significant way.  While I love What Not To Wear, I'm always troubled by the undercurrent of wardrobe change=life change that Stacey and Clinton espouse.  There are certainly links, but I appreciate On the Road with Austin and Santino for its acceptance of the way people choose to express themselves through fashion.


Hi, Charlotte.  I like the friendship of A & S as well, and do think it radiates outward.  I think their personal style also sets a tone of individualism that is quite different from most makeover shows.  These are two guys who have no investment in the narrative of class rise through the acceptance of a fashion uniform that is so prevalent elsewhere.  Actually, I think Clinton and Stacy would take away Austin's floral scarves and tell Santino to get a haircut! 

(And a shout out to Yael Sherman. who gave a terrific SCMS paper on WNTW this past year).

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