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The Globe and Mail

With Fashion Star, product placement is the program

It was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to sell frocks on television.

The reality genre veers into uncharted territory with tonight's debut of Fashion Star (NBC, CTV Two, 9:30 p.m.). On the surface, the unscripted series looks to be simply another reality-style competition set, in this instance, in the heady realm of New York fashion.

The host is former supermodel Elle MacPherson and there are three celebrity style "mentors," namely, Jessica Simpson, former Paris Hilton BFF Nicole Richie and fashion designer John Varvatos.

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The trio ostensibly works to finding the next great designer, as evinced in The Devil Wears Prada-esque promos that have aired in recent weeks.

And tonight's Fashion Star opener sets the tone for the series with a flashy runway show, in which the requisite reed-thin models strut up and down the catwalk, pouty faces and fashionista attitude firmly in check.

It's the same old fantasy milieu long perpetuated by the fashion industry – which recently moved a little closer to home with the kickoff of Toronto Fashion Week – but look beneath the glittery exterior and it's apparent that Fashion Star is an experiment in modern product placement. Welcome to prime time's first infomercial.

It's worth noting that Fashion Star hails from a fourth-place network, and was very likely conceived by NBC's sales division, rather than the programming department. Reality television has previously found fodder in the fashion world – most notably in the hugely popular cable series Project Runway – but rarely has the sales pitch come this hard.

How it works: 14 unknown designers receive a TV platform to launch their collections upon an unsuspecting public. The aforementioned runway opening, we learn, is for the benefit of buyers from the U.S. retail chains of H&M, Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue (covering the range of cheap, mid-range and high-end couture).

Following each runway walk, the viewer waits to learn whether the buyers will bid on the rights to carry each design in their respective stores, or whether the screen in front of them will flash the words, "No Offer." Bids are tallied and totalled and the winning designs are revealed later in the program.

Once product claims are staked, the show clunkily segues into the mentoring segments, which allows for the tidy mini-bios of the designers, each of whom has naturally been chosen for his or her wacky eccentricities.

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The group includes the fiery Salvadoran drama queen Oscar, a good ol' Texas boy named Ross and the weird New York-based designer Kara, whose gender seems uncertain.

The celebrity mentors are on hand to advise the neophyte designers and share with them the knowledge gleaned from years in the fashion business (Varvatos, sure, but Richie and Simpson?). Since the mentors have no official input into the process, there's a painfully forced quality to their exchanges with contestants.

The show has been promoted incessantly with a viral clip of Simpson sniping at a designer's suggestion that she's unschooled in men's fashion. Simpson claims she's offended – "not a little bit, a lot a bit"– and says, "I really wanna hit you across the face right now." She's still not much of an actress.

But Simpson's ramblings are irrelevant in the grander scheme of Fashion Star. Once the buyers settle on a favourite item of clothing, one of the stores will commence taking orders for it.

As related breathlessly by the host, Fashion Star is the first TV program that allows viewers to see an item of clothing one day, and buy it the next. It's that easy!

What's remarkable about the shilling is how matter-of-fact it is. Last time we checked, network television is still wholly sustained by on-air advertising. Fashion Star insidiously introduces the notion of commercials in between the commercials.

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In case you're wondering how the stores can already have the new items in stock, keep in mind Fashion Star was taped last summer and fall (which also explains why Simpson, currently on the verge of giving birth to her first child, does not look the least bit pregnant). As we speak, there are warehouses full of this stuff, just waiting to be shipped.

So it goes in a dog-eat-dog economy. If Fashion Star is a success, expect to see the same principle rolled out in future network programs – reality or otherwise.

And likely just in time for new mothers to buy Snooki maternity wear.

John Doyle returns tomorrow

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