Everyone Wins

Recap of episode 12 of Project Runway: Under the Gunn

As this recap series concludes with this installment and designer Anya Ayoung-Chee fades from the limelight, because there isn’t a year-round appetite for homegrown celebrity in the islands, I wanted to journal about a few events that unfolded while producing this recap of Project Runway: Under The Gunn.

During my visit to Trinidad Carnival, a business executive asked me: “How does Anya feel about your column?”  I crossed paths with the Project Runway winner twice before receiving his question.  So I replied: She hasn’t said anything.  I bit my tongue to be diplomatic with an influential exec.  Actually, I think Anya, who knows it’s better to have tongues wagging than silent if you yearn to be on TV, recognize brilliance in the recap series I conceptualized and got published by two daily newspapers in her hometown.


Above: Design by Asha Daniels for the Marvel superhero challenge. Below: Design by Shan Oliver Keith on Team Anya. Bottom: Design by Sam Donovan on Team Mondo. Photos: Under The Gunn/Lifetime TV

But some in Anya’s circle weren’t tickled by how I weaved insider facts, observations, and a variety of real perceptions.  In their mind, the media exists to produce pretty press releases, criticize politicians, and unfavorable sentiments about Anya’s performance as a designer or mentor should remain under a rug.  I flipped that script, but by the sixth column I had hit a nerve that wanted the series sugar-coated.

During that same Carnival visit I was startled, at dinner at Buzu Restaurant, at a performance at Queen’s Hall, and in the VIP lounge at Carnival fetes, I was approached by socialites, local celebs and upmarket citizens who told me they look out for the column: “because it’s so cheeky” and “the writing is so entertaining.”  Many didn’t know Anya was on a TV show till they encountered this recap series.  An editor wrote: “It’s a breath of fresh air for the Guardian.

Twenty-four hours after the Guardian published my sixth submission, which was edited by the paper’s editor-in-chief, I received an email from same editor that read, in part: “You also need to be more generous with your remarks about Anya in the series.  While criticism may be warranted, it must not be relentless.”  This same editor handled my copy on Friday and approved the article to publish on Sunday, without a single delShan12_UnderTheGunnetion.  Her revelation on Monday suggests her office received a call from someone west of St Vincent Street, that persuaded the top editor to suggest I board her censor ship.    I swiftly repositioned this TV show recap series with another daily paper without skipping the seventh installment.

This was a creative writing exercise that came to me as I watched the show’s first episode.  I have been invited to write a column for a daily newspaper.

The premise of this reality TV show asked twelve unknown designers: Who do you want to be and how can we help you get to where you want to be? Three Project Runway alumni with varying degrees of industry recognition took on the task to grow their mentoring skills, while they each groom four ambitious fashion designers.

The final design challenge required the remaining four designers to create a garment inspired by a Marvel comic book superhero. “You are not creating costumes, you are to be inspired,” stressed Tim Gunn. Oscar took top honors for his sleek cloak that covered a complex and incomplete looking pant suit.

Previously we affirmed that Oscar and Shan Keith Oliver are sure shots for the finale.  And I stated that designers Asha Daniels, who tended to “put a lot on heSam12_UnderTheGunnr plate,” to ace a challenge and Sam Donovan, who survived but failed to push the envelope, deserve to be grand finalists, too.  Mr. Gunn and his squad of sharp-tongued judges cast Asha and Sam, both from Team Mondo, in the grand finale.

If emerging designers took tight notes from the mentors on Under The Gunn, they should be familiar with these parting soundbites on what it takes to make it work: Trust yourself, trust your voice, articulate your point of view, take risks, deliver wow factor, and please don’t get in your own way.

Peace out.



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Recap of Episode 11 of Project Runway: Under The Gunn

“I feel like I’ve been to hell and back.” That was the sentiment of designer Shan Keith Oliver after he won the challenge, that made him the last man standing on Team Anya on episode 11 of Under The Gunn. During the formation of teams, Shan was chosen by mentors Nick Verreos and Anya Ayoung-Chee, he rejected Nick. That decision spared him from a load of drama and frantic energy. His mellow temperament paired well with Anya. But so did Blake Smith and Nicholas Komor, who presented portfolios that convinced viewers that their modern point of view could slam dunk almost any challenge.


Above: Shan Keith Oliver edits in the workroom. Below: Mr. Keith’s winning design. Oscar Garcia’s emerald green gown. Bottom: Mentor Anya Ayoung-Chee deliberates. Photos: Under The Gunn / Lifetime TV

In last week’s recap we declared that Shan has earned his invite to the grand finale, which will be judged by Heidi Klum and actor Neil Patrick Harris. After acing the quick fix challenge this week, Shan sealed that deal. Winning the finale means he and Anya would be cruising in their own Lexus CT 200h this summer, adding Marie Claire to their resume, and the quiet-spoken family man will jet to Paris to chercher l’inspiration (get inspired).

Shan11_UTGOscar Garcia-Lopez, who is the Don of impeccable construction, is Shan’s main roadblock. During an interview on an entertainment show in Miami that aired before Thursday’s episode, Oscar hinted that he was safe.

So this week, the remaining five designers had to conceptualize instant fashion solutions that “get women gorgeous in no time.” Each had a client with a unique reality. Oscar’s client is petite and wanted an age appropriate look that exudes beauty queen glam. Shan’s client is a mom who wanted clever coverage for a stubborn baby pouch. And Blake’s client has a boyish figure and needed a transformation from dull to darling.

Asha Daniels’ dilemma while trying to please her client and preserve her vision, prompted Tim Gunn to advise: “You have to tell her, I respect you as a client, you have to trust me as a designer.” That is a handy takeaway for young designers with complicated clients.

Oscar11_UTGThe judges saved Oscar though he aged his client. Asha delivered the Beyonce moment her client desired, but Shan snatched the win for pulling-off “a miracle,” according to Anya. Shan started over twice on his garment because of his client’s allergic reaction to his fabric of choice. Meanwhile, Blake suddenly despised his fabric, and took the loss for a dress he admitted is “looking tortured.” Mentor Anya rooted for her struggling mentee to do his best and prove himself, instead he was crowned the only designer not to win a challenge.

As Blake doled out hugs in the lounge, he missed Anya’s parting remark: “I don’t know if it’s a case of where he is in his life, he just has to be more confident with who he is and let it all out there.”

AnyaLasLap_UnderTheGunnIf the judges don’t use a politically correct filter, the three designers in the finale would be Asha, Oscar and Shan. Asha’s critics have credited her for having “a plethora of ideas that are creative.” I don’t expect executive producer Tim Gunn will allow mentor Mondo Guerra to have two contenders in the finale—reality TV is not that real.

As you know, judges on reality TV shows are encouraged to be obscure and serve the audience equal portions of the unpredictable and predictable. So an upset could be coming. From what has paraded on that runway over the last nine weeks, Sam Donovan is as ambitious and deserving as Asha of that finale slot.

The final cut boils down to who the judges shred for having loose threads in the next runway display. We’re tuning in to see who fails to make it work and into the finale.


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Oscar Guns for Finale

Recap of episode 10 of Project Runway: Under The Gunn

The dust from the emotional departure of Michelle Uberreste last week hadn’t quite settled when episode 10 cranked-up.  Tongues and tempers were still acidic.  To make matters worse, for this do-or-die team challenge the outspoken Asha Daniels was paired with the designer deemed the weakest link—Natalia Fedner.  Even mentor Mondo Guerra was a sourpuss, who anticipated a negative scenario from having to collaborate with Natalia’s mentor Nick Verreos: “Some of my personal eUTGshanmotions are going to get in the way.  This is going to be a disaster.”

Sam Donovan on Team Mondo credited Natalia with making “the most progress in this competition.”  But he overlooked that Oscar Garcia Lopez has evolved from an aesthetic that over-draped Cuban cha-cha drag queens from the 1940s, into a powerhouse able to deliver and edit modern ideas with Fifth Avenue finesse.

Either way you pair the designers you hope advance to the finale, Oscar is a winner. This recap series concludes before the final show airs.  Garments in the final show reflect Oscar’s flare for well-draped elegance.  All three mentors walk the red carpet at the final show, which was recorded December 16, 2013.  Actor Neil Patrick Harris joins the delicious Heidi Klum who dons red kinky boots to judge the collections that will determine the overall winner.  Shan Keith Oliver saved the day for Team Anya, and earned his invite to the finale.


Designers Shan Keith Oliver and Oscar Garcia Lopez collaborate on a mini-collection. Top: Shan’s blazer walks the runway. Below: Blake Smith (l) and Sam Donovan. Bottom: Oscar’s maxi dress. Photos: Under The Gunn/Lifetime TV

At this week’s judging, Oscar and Shan were praised for bringing “obvious genius” to the mini-collection team challenge they won.  Sam and Blake Smith escaped judging unscathed.  Asha and Natalia had their necks on the chopping block for an awkward dashiki and ill-constructed dress.  “It looked so much better before I put the pleats down,” cried Natalia about the messy bust of her dress.

UTG01-ep10-episode8The facial cue of judge Jen Rade usually says enough, but her critique is incomplete without her colorful narrative:  “I love a dashiki, but this looks like she yanked a curtain off a motel and wrapped it around herself.”  “This dress is mirroring the worst construction ever seen, why is one nipple over here and one up here?!”  Their collection made “even the models look uncomfortable,” added Rachel Roy.

UTGoscarWhen Tim Gunn revealed the vote to cut Natalia, mentor Nick cried: “This has been life-changing to see how much she has developed into a great designer.”  “Pursue your dream,” he told Natalia, “Thank you for letting me grow.”  Though Team Nick is on its last leg, Oscar is a consistently strong and favored contender.

As her 15 minutes dwindled to seconds, Natalia told the camera: “Although I let the criticism and lack of respect to get to me, I did not take it out on anyone.  It showed me that under pressure I’m a good person.”  That offers a usable takeaway.  To which I add, win or lose, being chronicled with a slight side of pepper, benefits the popularity of those who willfully step into the critical lens of reality TV.


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Anya, Mondo Under Attack

As episode 9 of Under The Gunn unfolded viewers were drenched by venomous comments from castmates on the show.  It was easy to assume this week’s challenge was to explain why everybody hates Natalia.  “I don’t think Natalia deserves to be here.  I’m not sure who she is as a designer,” explained designer Asha Daniels.  “I don’t think she’s trying to bring anything new or different, or take any risks.”  Another Team Mondo designer, Michelle Uberreste added, “Natalia should have gone home, there are other people here with a lot more talent and a lot more drive.


Above: Tim Gunn and Nick Verreos with Natalia Fedner in the workroom. Pictured below: Tim Gunn with judges Jen Rade, Rachel Roy and recording artist Macklemore. Oscar Garcia Lopez with his winning design. Natalia Fedner with her design on the runway. Photos: Under The Gunn / Lifetime TV

””I’m perceptive,” defended Natalia Fedner choking back tears, “I can tell they don’t like me, at the same time I so badly want to show everyone what I have.  I know the other designers don’t see me as a threat.”  Her perception is on target though her designs falter.  Mentor Anya Ayoung-Chee chimed in with two-cents saying Natalia delivers “inconsistent work, incomplete ideas.”  The slinging of hot grease at nervous Natalia was nonstop.

Designers were required to create a garment that transforms from a daytime look to an evening statement.  Judges Jen Rade and Rachel Roy were joined by recording artist Macklemore for the task of applauding and slamming the final designs.  Judges#9_UTG

The bacchanal around Natalia was a distraction from the focus on the complexities of negotiating the design challenge.  Meanwhile, mentor Nick Verreos was ambushed for nurturing co-dependency with his mentees.  Finally, Tim Gunn ushered Nick to an Ah-Ha moment by suggesting he use a socratic approach and pummel mentees with questions such as, What do you think?  How do you feel?

After runway judging of the transitional garment challenge the playing field was leveled, each mentor supports two designers.  Oscar Garcia Lopez from Team Nick stole the show with his sleek, black shimmery design for an heiress of a philanthropic family.  “At the end of the day I’m happy to go home on something I love,” admitted Michelle from Team Mondo, who was eliminated.Oscar#9_UTG

While Anya is usually critical and complimentary in the same breath, her observation of Shan’s design was conservative and borderline clueless.  “I still think there are issues with the construction, at least there is thought and innovation,” noted Anya as the dress that revealed mid-section cutouts and a zippered skirt sauntered down the runway.  In the end, the judges felt: “It has a sexy, cheerleader feel to it; this met the challenge.  It’s youthful, super successful in a really modern way; great construction.”

Judge Rade felt Blake Smith’s evening look befit an ObGyn’s office, not a runway.  Macklemore reinforced that sentiment with his vote: “Would I want my girlfriend to go out in this, absolutely not!”

Credit Natalia for this week’s takeaway: “Although I am at a disadvantage at being able to edit and construct quickly, the judges see a lot of imagination in me and for that reason I’m still here.”  In other words, having ideas matters.Natalia#9_UTG

After the runway cleared mentors Mondo Guerra and Anya stood defiantly to show their disagreement with the verdict of the judges.  Mondo argued, “Why should someone stay who depends so much on their mentor!?”  Anya vowed the judges will regret their elimination decision.  Then hundreds of viewers raced to Facebook to ignite a firestorm of critiques that denounce Anya and Mondo as ‘bullies,’ ‘disappointing,’ ‘appalling,’  ‘despicable,’ ‘immature,’ ‘arrogant,’ and ‘shameful.’  Read for yourself, visit Tim Gunn: Official Page, Mondo Guerra Fan Page and the Project Runway Page.

We’re tuning in to see if an underdog can shutdown the antagonists and if Anya will be forced to eat her words.


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Recap of episode 7 of Project Runway: Under The Gunn

Going into Thursday’s episode, the playing field was leveled, each mentor had lost one contender.  Mentor Mondo Guerra has three challenge wins—Nick Verreos has one—and has aimed his arrows at Anya Ayoung-Chee who he calls his only competition.  The mentors stand to win a new 2014 Lexus 200h and some neat perks.  The designer who rules the runway walks away with U$100,000, a 2014 Lexus, a trip to Paris and tools to launch their career.


Mentor Anya Ayoung-Chee consults Blake Smith. Below: Mentor Mondo Guerra with mentee Sam Donovan. Bottom: Shan Keith constructs his garment.
Photos courtesy: Under The Gunn / Lifetime TV.

Anya was feeling the heat from being a regular on loser’s row.  She took her own advice and stepped it up.  She dropped the girlfriend persona and donned drill sergeant armor this week to unleash her determination to prove she can mentor winners.   Hands clenched at her waist with shoulders as broad as a prison warden, Anya paced around mentees Nicholas Komor and Blake Smith, who were having difficulty realizing their vision into runway presentations.

During critiques, Anya barked: “You have to step up, you have to prove to me that I made the right choice, you have no more chances.”

“The really sweet Anya that we had has completely left the building,” snapped Blake.

Nicholas, whose portfolio persuaded me to believe he had longevity, also fooled Anya. MondoSam_UnderTheGunn_DRAKESAnya’s sixth sense smelled a fraud and needed proof that Nicholas was not a bootleg designer.  “We’ve reached a point where I want this more than you do,” explained Anya.  “I chose you out of what I believe is a tremendous amount of potential.  It came from work in your portfolio and impeccable construction.  Did you make these pieces?  Then why doesn’t anything look like this?”  That was a thick serving of humiliation.

Nicholas barely defended his integrity then failed to deliver the goods on the runway.

The challenge to create the fiercest look inspired by the steampunk genre came down to Natalia Fedner and Shan Keith, according to the judges. Shan#6_UnderTheGunnDRAKES Natalia invented a pulley to raise her dress.  Shan produced a well-tailored, deconstructed pant-suit fit for a “futuristic warrior”.  Shan heeded Anya’s advice to stay true to your voice and delivered the first win for his team.  Victory was bittersweet.  Team Anya also held the bottom two slots.

“I have realized that the designers are the drivers of their own journey, whether they’re inspired enough or not [to] take the inspiration of being at the bottom and turn into being on the top—I can’t do that for them,” offered Anya as a useful takeaway.

Anya didn’t receive return on investment from Nicholas, whom she saved from the chopping block once before, so it was a no-brainer for her to cut him loose.

We’re tuning in to see how long the taste of victory will last for Anya.


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Recap of episode 5 of Project Runway: Under The Gunn

The contender who amped up the frenzy factor of each episode of Under The Gunn with her lost in translation demeanor, just couldn’t wrap her signature origami silhouette around the challenge to create a stage look for 17-year-old pop princess Zendaya.  But before Isabelle Donola could exit stage left, her mentor Nick Verreos grabbed the mic to properly slam his loopy mentee under a bus.

At runway judging, Isabelle bluntly blamed Nick for being a distraction, and told Mr. Gunn there was persistent friction.  Nick, who was “cautiously optimistic” about his mentee’s potential at the start of this week’s challenge, blew a fuse listening to Isabelle whine.  “It was beyond amateur hour, I have done all I can do,” blasted Nick.  “It’s been draining, it’s been a struggle to give her information.”  He branded Isabelle’s work “a failure on many levels.”  Isabelle sewed her garment on the invert, and got no mercy for bloodshed from her punctured finger.  The ill-stitched shimmery jumper looked “home-made” to the client.  Isabelle took ownership: “The garment wasn’t finished.  [Nick] didn’t step up for me.  I am a great designer, and I know that!”

The takeaway, courtesy mentee Sam Donovan: Asha#3_UnderGunn_DRAKES“Time management is one of the things you need most.”  Nervous energy impeded how Isabelle processed directions. While tough love was a trending theme of episode five, tolerance is a message that has permanent residency on this reality TV show.  The anonymous few who coward behind fictitious names to comment online that there are “too many queers in the fashion industry,” miss the message of tolerance that Anya supports through her conduct on this platform.

White, black, plus-sized or gay, Anya is collaborative, respectful and professional without bias or hesitation.  Determination and aspirations may get you in the door, but unless you intend to remain stuck in a conch shell, accepting diversity in its many hues, shapes and flavors is mandatory for success on the world stage.  Same applies to sports, entertainment, business and politics.AnyaIsabelle_UnderTheGunn_DRAKES

While Anya scores big for being a poster girl for tolerance to the global movement, she struggles to inspire her team to bring their A-game.  Mentor Mondo Guerra made Anya eat dust once again on the runway.  Asha Daniels, who Mondo boasts “has the potential to grow the most,” nailed the tomboy with edge look requested by the client.  Judges called her garment “grungy and glamorous” and Zendaya rocked it at a tour stop.

Previously, Anya planned to reinforce that a mentee “get to risk being yourself fully, I want to impart that.”  After she failed Brady, she doesn’t want to “sway [designers] away from what’s natural to them.”  Words yet to translate into wins


From top: Winning design by Asha Daniels. Asha in the workroom. Mentor Anya Ayoung-Chee with designer Isabelle Donola. Above: Mentor Mondo Guerra (2nd from left) with his cast of mentees. Photos: Under The Gunn / Lifetime TV

.According to mentor Mondo, the battle to impress Mr. Gunn and set an unknown designer on the path to become ready-to-wear royalty, boils down to Team Mondo which “has the most creative” designers, and Team Anya, which has “a lot of talent.”   All three teams are neck-and-neck by body count, but with three consecutive challenge wins Mondo is proving his might as a mentor.  We’re tuning in to see if Anya can derail his winning streak.


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Making The Cut

Recap of episode 2 of Project Runway: Under The Gunn

“In the workroom it gets kind of tense, there all sorts of psychological games that start to happen, my mentoring is also going to be about how to play the psychological games,” advised Anya Ayoung-Chee to her four mentees.   Well, that teaser excited radars, who wouldn’t want to peep the playbook used to negotiate the illusion of honesty and authenticity some use to get ahead in the reality TV game.


There is no debate, Anya has an abundance of talent and ambition.  To make the cut to join her boys club, each designer endured her soft-spoken scrutiny.  In case you missed her notes: Anya’s not fond of nervous energy as witnessed with Natalia, nor over-styling which is Oscar’s trademark, and your garment better not underwhelm as evidenced by Stephanie.  Yet, each of Anya’s rejects got plucked from obscurity by mentor Nick Verreos and given the chance to knock her out.

Anya’s charged with grooming four young men for runway battles that will change their lives.  Brady Lange’s style is relaxed and youthful, Shan Keith channels the urban vibe that Anya digs, Blake Smith and Nicholas Komor are mellow souls that deliver edge with upmarket finesse.

From the 15 candidates, only 12 became mentees advancing to challenges to be judged by entertainers, editors, and the divine Ms. Klum.  Anya filled three slots in round one of mentee selection, and found herself “in a bind,” to quote Mr. Verreos, with just one vacancy and many bold voices to choose from in round two.  “I didn’t expect this seven to be as strong as they are; they are pushing the boundaries more,” admitted Anya.


Photos: Under The Gunn/LIFETIME TV

Mentor Nick revealed his arrows are aimed at Anya: “I don’t know how Anya is gonna discuss construction with these designers when she barely finished a garment her whole season [on Project Runway].”  Ouch!

The road ahead is no stroll in the park for these mentors.  Their brand and street creds may be tainted based on the pointers they pass to their contenders.  Tim Gunn, the show’s patriarch, is there to spoon servings of wisdom.  “Mentoring is very individualized based on the designer with whom you are working,” he advised.  Anya’s approach to design, business and mentoring is informed by her mentor at 6 Carlos Street.  We assume as she tweaks her team, she’ll impart that she learned the ‘M’ in Meiling is for meticulous, which should be evident in the details of a garment.

The formula for selecting teams felt like the recipe for paella.  Anya was glued to gut moves and used gender to her advantage.  On the flipside, Mondo was hardnosed and deemed over-designing a red flag and dismissed designs for being safe.  While Nick scoured for “who can do everything, not something that’s in stores now; I want to see the future of fashion.”  Odds are that Shan and Brady won’t get much playtime with the mind games of the workroom, we’ll be tuning in to see how long team Anya can make it work.


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Anya Goes ‘Under The Gunn’

If you’re one of the fashionistas who have been surfing cable TV channels to find what stylista Anya Ayoung-Chee has been up to since branding her name to a bikini mas section last Carnival, surf no more.  Last Thursday, Anya, who is officially a reality show starlet with nine lives, showed up on the new fashion challenge reality show ‘Under the Gunn’ on the Lifetime channel.Anya_UTGTim Gunn, the heartwarming mentor to emerging designers on Project Runway, stepped off the catwalk and onto his own stage with a show branded with his name and accessorized with his flare and flavor for coaching.

The show is fashioned after the singing competition series The Voice, where mentors build teams to coach into battle to crown just one winner.  Anya, the winner of season 9 of Project Runway, wears a mentor cap on ‘Under the Gunn’ along with popular PR alumni Mondo Guerra and Nick Verreos.

Gunn introduced Anya as “one of the most recognized fashion designers to emerge from the Caribbean, who has continued to grow her lines.”   By comparison his reveal of the other mentors was punctuated with celebrity name-dropping: Katy Perry, Carrie Underwood and Beyonce as clients of mentor Nick, and a generous plug for Mondo’s eyewear collection and shoe line.

Being on reality TV has become a progressively tough spotlight to navigate for some, due to the barrage of homeschooled bloggers who scrutinize every smirk and twerk to spark scandal-worthy buzz.  Anya seems undiscouraged and game to negotiate the ebb and flow of the real world of reality TV.

It wasn’t obvious that she was wearing her own designs, but she has ditched the shaven head style and filled out some in the face.  For a moment I wondered if there might be a mini-Anya in the oven.  But then I recall hearing she quietly swapped Imageher fiancé Wyatt Gallery for another lover that we’re yet to be formally introduced to.

Back to the show.  The sense that these mentors are speaking unfiltered truth on a relateable level to their peers, gives this show an edge that’s not part of the Project Runway format.  If you distill the notes Anya, Mondo and Nick share, you’ll find useful takeaways that can be embraced as golden rules to attaining success in the cut-throat business of ready-to-wear fashion.

To build her team of four, Anya’s process entails assessing “how they work, what they present and their perspective [point of view].”  She believes mentoring ought to be tailored to who you’re mentoring.  Anya shunned Camila for being a safe, one-note act, but desired Michelle for her “tenacity and ability to find solutions.”


Photos courtesy: Under The Gunn / Lifetime TV

Students and intuitive designers who never had a mentor coach their career should take notes.  We anticipate a few hard pills and tough love, the diva debates and weeping Wilmas in each episode.  Since Mondo promised “the boxing gloves are gonna come out,” we’ll also tune in for a trampy beat-down.

While ‘Under the Gunn’ encourages audience interaction, Trinis can’t vote for their Anya to win a 2014 Lexus CT 200h car and a guest editor gig with Marie Claire magazine.  If her team fails she leaves the show without top prize, but she still has seven reality TV lives in the bank.


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Gerard Gaskin explains how ethics, rejection and transsexuals,

influenced his 20-year photo essay about intuitive performance artists

Three months before Gerard Gaskin’s first photography book rolls off the press, we linked up via Skype to touch base amidst the flurry of activity around his monumental moment.  He was in Syracuse, New York, his new home.  I was at a juice bar in North Miami.  In the twenty years we’ve known each other, we’re more familiar with chatting long distance than in person.  Before the book launches I wanted to tour his mental journal for insights to his process while developing his documentary project into the book, Legendary: Inside the House Ballroom Scene (Duke University Press; U$45).

A book symbolizes the pinnacle of a photographer’s career.  Gaskin, originally from Trinidad and a graduate of Hunter College in New York, has been devoted to honing his craft and shaping his legacy.  He won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.  He began documenting the House Ballroom scene in 1993, it’s now a book because he won the 2012 Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize.

We’re both at that station in life where paying forward our knowledge is a priority.  In that spirit, Gaskin, 45, shares insights from his experience creating this work to serve aspiring documentary photographers in and beyond the Caribbean.

First, here’s an indoctrination to the culture Gaskin embraced to record ‘Legendary’:  The House Ballroom scene dates to the 1970s and was born in Harlem, New York.  The vogue dance style branded by this subculture, started as the Pop Dip anmy book 5119710a28a copyd Spin performed by gay inmates at Rikers Island.  Today, House Balls are where gay black and Latino city kids, who are often high school educated intuitive artists, stage theatrical battles in the wee hours of the morning to earn street creds for having an incomparable avante garde aesthetic.

House Balls borrow the choreographed storytelling of Broadway to present the gratuitous exhibitionism of Miami Beach and the narcissism of Paris Couture Week, in order to elicit the spirited frenzy of Rio Carnival.  House Balls start at midnight and require seven hours to allow contenders from various Houses in four categories: Butch Queens, Femme Queens, Butches and Women, to work the judges for the coveted ‘10’ scorecards.  There aren’t any deep-pocket sponsors of the arts invested in validating the dramatic portrayals and dance battles that unfold on makeshift runways as performance art.  Yet, House Balls have spread across the U.S. like kudzu and have over 30,000 followers.  Gaskin has photographed Balls in Los Angeles, Boston, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.  Here are his shoot notes, each packed with a useful take-away:


Follow as Inspiration Shifts: “I would hang out on 42nd Street (in NYC), near a peep show on 8th Avenue; it’s a place where the ‘girls’ of the Ball scene worked.  The Ballroom project started with me wanting to do portraits of femme queens (transsexuals).  At that point the hottest photographer in the US was Annie Leibowitz, she was doing amazing Amex ads and work for Vanity Fair.  I wanted to do Vanity Fair portraits of femme queens—very stylized.  It wasn’t supposed to be very documentary driven.”

Establish Mental Focus: “I always think that access was the thing every photographer tries to get.”  (It took Gaskin six years to attain full access in this community.)  “Going to the Balls, I try not to think about too much.  When I started photographing the Balls all I did was shoot as much as I can.  When I started laying out pictures, I started to figure out what I don’t have. That became a routine.  What iconic image do I want to create.  Then I would get one, but if I didn’t like it.  I would go back and ask where do I need to be to make the image better.  Those were things I thought about before I got to a Ball.  I like to get to the Ball early, when the doors open I want to be there.  Sometimes I just photograph trophies on the stage or [folks] getting ready.  Being there for the duration was what I was there to do.”


Define Your Motivation: “The thing that drove me to the Ballroom scene is my exploration around sexuality.  I have a cousin who was born on the same day, he lives in Toronto and he came out.  He was shunned by my family.  It’s interesting how my family dealt with sexuality.  My family is a really religious catholic family.  Homosexuality is a really strange thing.  In turn, I wanted to deal with that idea.  That was the beginning of me seeking out the project.”

Rejection Isn’t Defeat: “There are 30,000 ‘kids’ in this scene, one ‘kid’ saying no doesn’t cancel a project.  I just turn my camera away, and walk away.  I have photographs of people who allowed me to take their picture, but when the book was coming around and I was [seeking] permission to use their picture in the book—they flatly told me no!  Balls are still a scene where people are afraid to be seen.  Though many are much more comfortable with having their picture taken [than ten years ago].”

Identify Ethical Boundaries: “The idea of the photo essay has changed Imagebecause of how scripted reality TV is, it’s more structured to tell a point.  [Editors] are not interested in allowing people to do what they want to do.  When clients call me, a magazine is not going to send you to shoot somebody for two weeks.  They have structured ideas that they ultimately want from that person.  [They might] say, we want them getting ready in the morning, so we literally stage that idea.  Or they want them interacting with children, we stage that idea, too.  If someone is putting on makeup and they’re done and ready to go, but I wanted that image, I ask them to re-do it.  They don’t need to take off their makeup and put it back on.  But I want them to act like they’re putting on makeup again.  In the ’90s I wouldn’t do that.”

Learn Guerrilla Marketing: “When I started shopping this book I had a box of photographs, an artist statement, a book proposal answering certain questions: who’s going to buy the book, who’s my target audience.  People would say, we’re interested but what does it look like.  Around 2006, I made the dummy, [it] was 6” x 8” with 50 pages.  Almost everything in the dummy is in the final book.  You need to create a dummy digitally.  Publishers want you to have an audience, they want pre-sale.  You have to have a timeline and raise money yourself.  It’s easier to do guerrilla marketing yourself than to have some marketing firm think they know your audience.  I was about to launch a video [to post on] Kickstarter.  They told me not to launch between Christmas and February because no one gives money then.  I was waiting to launch my Kickstarter project, and Duke called and said I won.”


Photography courtesy Gerard Gaskin.

Almost Famous

Abroneka is aiming to become R&B royalty

Unknown girl group Abroneka wants to become a household name, but they won’t sing soca.  They have been writing, rehearsing, and perfecting their harmonizing skills for over seven years, now, they’re being shopped to US record labels and are banking on becoming Trinidad’s first R&B export.

The kids-from-the tough-inner-city-with dreams-of-stardom storyline is a  familiar script.  The reason Abroneka’s first chapter is worth your attention is largely due to the credibility of the accomplished team that grooms their sultry vocals, arranges their music, and polishes their tracks.  Champion Sound Studios has mastered Road March and Soca Monarch-winning tracks for Machel Montano, Iwer George, Fay-Ann Lyons, JW & Blaze, and Shurwayne Winchester, while patiently preparing to introduce Abroneka to the North American market.

METRO went in studio with Crissy Abigail Fraser, 23, Rhonda Bobb, 26, and Kandis Dyer, 28, before they set off on their version of an Olympic quest to earn platinum and popularity.  A chance meeting in 2005 on the set of Synergy Friday Night Live brought the trio together.   After each girl displayed her vocal chops, Rhonda secretly noted who she would team up with to form a group.  “Then I took a breath and popped the question: Allyuh want to start a group?!”  Junior Lewis coached and produced them, then brought Abroneka to Martin Raymond at Champion Sound Studios.  Abigail says Albert Bushe, their former vocal trainer, called their sound “soca pop, a mixture of R&B, soca and dance music.”  That was 7 years ago.  Today, the tracks they have shipped to US record labels are strictly in the R&B and dance genres.

What will distinguish Abroneka from EnVogue, Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child is yet to be determined.  At the moment it’s not lyrical content.  Abigail, Rhonda and Kandis summarize that though their ballads are sung with vibrancy, they tend to write about “heartbreak, a first time crush, and bad experiences.”  But for good measure, they paired an uplifting message with an upbeat tempo for a track titled “Dancefloor Ain’t Gonna Be Lonely”.

Abigail and Kandis hail from the Beetham, and Rhonda is from Maraval.  By day they’re retail sales clerks.   But when dusk descends they’re in the studio breathing life into their lyrics.  They’re disciplined and determined to realize a musician’s ultimate dream.  “We all come from a musical family, it’s in our blood,” shares Rhonda.  “The area where I grew up is a bit hostile,” explains Abigail, “there is a lot of heartbreak, a lot of poverty, a lot of negativity that could make you either go negative or positive.  I take [all that] and use it as a positive and write a way that people can get out of it.”

Their singles “Close Your Eyes” and “I Like It with the Lights On” are destined to attract contracts and airtime in America’s key urban markets.  To get Abroneka in the mood to convert lyrics into groovy tracks simply requires a beat.  “When we hear a beat we flow with it,” shares Abigail.  When arranger Gregg Assing played a beat for the girls, they instinctively felt it was “sexy, nice” and directed them to close your eyes.  “We started harmonizing, once you have the feeling the words flow,” adds Rhonda.

When they attain success they have another mission:  “My community made me grow up to be a very headstrong young lady,” admits Abigail.  “I want to give back educationally.”  To become recording champions representing T&T, Abroneka dismisses the “comfort zone” mindset they say Trinis enjoy, and embraces the Jamaican hunger to win.  “They [Jamaicans] push harder, they really fight for what they believe in, what they want they really go for it,” asserts Abigail.  “There is talent here, not just soca and wining.  They can write, produce, sing any kind of music…they have the talent, they just don’t have the hunger the Jamaicans do.”  Yet, Abroneka will fly the Trinbagonian flag when they mount that Grammy Awards podium.


Recently published.

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