x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Model behaviour

Television Only in Dubai can friends watching reality TV think, 'We can do that!' and decide to produce their own show. The result? Make Me a Model.

The director Sacha Plumbridge gets her make-up touched up before filming an episode of <i>Make Me a Model</i>.
The director Sacha Plumbridge gets her make-up touched up before filming an episode of Make Me a Model.

How's this for a new reality show concept: Imagine that, for a full season, the cameras follow two good friends - say, a radio broadcaster and a fashion designer - who have never worked in television before. Their challenge is - get this! - to create an original reality show from scratch.

Alas, Make Me a Model, which debuts on City 7 TV next month, is not actually a reality show about making a reality show. (Sorry to disappoint the postmodernists out there.) It is instead a pretty classic makeover show, the sort where ordinary people have their lives gleefully hijacked by fashion professionals. But the show's two creators and executive producers, Stephanie Smedley and Sacha Plumbridge, are indeed novices in television. They also host the show together. So watching their antics on screen is a little like watching a reality show within a reality show. You could call it Reality from Scratch.

Smedley and Plumbridge both belong to a recognisable species of Dubai savant - the sort of person with a supreme knack for following his or her nose into prominent but vacant cultural niches. Smedley came to Dubai as an estate agent and hated it, then casually sidled into a career co-hosting a morning radio show on Dubai 92 with her husband. Plumbridge left behind her own fashion label in Australia when she became a new mum and came to Dubai, where she's dabbled in fashion, written for magazines and managed a modelling agency. The two women met and made fast friends when Plumbridge began filling a regular guest slot on Smedley's radio show. Before long they were trying to cook up a big project they could work on together: either a book or a big magazine spread or maybe, just maybe, a TV show.

The idea for Make Me a Model was not hatched in a network boardroom during some corporate brainstorming session. It came to life on Plumbridge's couch one night as the two friends were lounging around watching reality shows piped in from overseas. They started developing the concept then and there, and then simply pitched it to City 7, which accepted. Here it's worth pausing to consider: where else in the world would two women in the middle of non-television careers be able to launch a TV show straight from their living room sofa? And for that matter, how many cities of 1.5 million people produce their own local reality shows?

The story is a parable of Dubai's boomtown cultural landscape. "I love that about Dubai - there's just so much possibility," says Plumbridge as she sits behind the enormous wheel of her Land Rover, her daughter's car seat in the back, driving to a rendezvous with the City 7 film crew and this week's makeover candidate. "You come here, you say, 'I want' - and you get it." In each episode of Make Me a Model, an ordinary Dubai expatriate is preened, groomed, reassured and refashioned for a week before posing for a professional photo shoot that then appears as a real fashion spread in a Dubai magazine. At the end of the episode, the candidate is taken to a store, ushered to the magazine rack, and shown his or her images splashed over three glossy pages.

"If they love it or hate it, it's too late," Smedley says, "because it's in a magazine. So we're going to get a real reaction." (This is the somewhat cruel part of being a reality TV host: The candidate's personal growth is not really the point - "good TV" is, and a meltdown here and there is always welcome.) Smedley and Plumbridge are particularly proud of the on screen bit with the magazine. They can't think of any reality show that was done it before.

Another hallmark of Make Me a Model is that it doesn't only focus on cosmetic interventions. (Though it does offer some doozies on that front: a skin treatment involving a sheep's placenta is on the menu for one of the early episodes. "It's similar to Botox," says Smedley, "but it's organic.") Just as important, Smedley says, are the stunts devised to help the makeover candidates conquer their deepest fears.

To be a fashion model you've got to ooze confidence," says Smedley, a slender and youthful woman with a Geordie accent and strawberry blonde hair. "Kimberley, the girl that we're doing this week, is terrified of wearing dresses. She's also terrified of heights. She's as terrified as one as she is of the other." "So today," Smedley says, "we're going to put her fears in perspective." The gambit seems perilously made-for-TV: Smedley and Plumbridge think Kimberley can get past her fear of dresses by facing her fear of heights. They aim to send Kimberley up in a power parachute - a giant motorised fan and a couple of seats harnessed to a regular parachute. Unbeknown to Kimberley, take-off is scheduled for late this afternoon from an airfield in Ras al Khaimah.

That's the plan, anyway. But Smedley and Plumbridge are late leaving Dubai. Daylight is beginning to fade, and the cameramen don't have the equipment for a night-time shoot. When 5.00pm rolls around, Plumbridge and Smedley are still racing up Emirates Road in one car while the City 7 crew races up in another. Tense mobile phone conversations bounce between the vehicles; the shoot may have to be scuttled. If this really were a reality show about Plumbridge and Smedley making their reality show from scratch, this scene would be one of those hand-held, aggressively edited, pulse-racing sequences.

The crew arrives at the airfield first, just as parts of sky are fading into purple and orange. Everyone moves fast, piling cameras and microphones out of the car. But the pilot of the power parachute - a tall, bearded American - comes up and delivers the bad news: "Sorry, you might as well not set up. We can't do it." Regulations forbid flying at night, he explains. When Plumbridge and Smedley arrive, the cameras are rolling. The pilot delivers the same news to them. They look crestfallen but unvanquished. They plead: "Just 10 minutes in the air? Please!"

And that's where Reality from Scratch would cut to commercial. The makeover candidates on Make Me a Model are selected for their unvarnished authenticity, their looks (plain but with potential), and their back story. Or, more specifically, their "coming to Dubai" story. One candidate Smedley and Plumbridge are particularly excited about is a Rugby coach who will be receiving, as part of his makeover, Dh100,000 worth of cosmetic dental work to clear up a few scrum-chipped teeth.

"He's a great guy, actually, really salt of the earth," says Smedley. "He's South African. He was working with his brother in South Africa and he left, just on a whim, with the equivalent of Dh500 in his back pocket ? and he walked across Africa for about a year and a half. Just walked. And met all these crazy people, and it changed him as a person - and he ended up in Dubai working in finance." What's remarkable about "coming to Dubai" stories is that one like this can sound so plausible - just an extraordinary variation on the "left-home-for-Dubai-with-500-dirhams-in-my-pocket" tale.

"That's what we want to capture," says Smedley, "that it's real people who come here, and why they come here, where they've come from, what they've left behind, what they're doing now - and the fact that they're not all two metres tall, very slim, bronzed and perfect, but they can still model fashion. Because fashion is about everyone." "It's all about how you're styled, and the lighting, and the make-up and the hair," she says. "We wanted to get that across and make people feel good about their bodies, rather than push the plastic surgery front. You know it just gets rammed down your throat here. Because it is the capital of plastic surgery all of a sudden, isn't it?"

There is something a touch incoherent - authenticity is good, so authentic people deserve dramatic makeovers - about all this. But cognitive dissonance, it seems, often makes for good television. Back from commercial, Smedley and Plumbridge stand on the dimming airfield pleading with the bearded American pilot to grant them 10 minutes in his power parachute. The pilot pauses, then says, "Well, I guess you can ask the boss."

The cameras whip around to reveal an Arab man in a polo shirt with his arms folded in front of his formidable chest, looking every bit the boss. "All right," says the airfield manager. "Ten minutes." With the dramatic tension broken, everyone scrambles for the power parachute, a vehicle that the tremulous Kimberley later describes as "a little thing that looks like my brother welded it in the backyard."

Kimberley, who reads the news on several Dubai radio stations for a living, runs over in baggy bell-bottomed jeans and an oversized Billabong T-shirt. She seems dressed precisely not to draw attention to herself. Yet now she is being strapped into the little vehicle with three cameras trained on her every nervous tic. "Are you OK?" Smedley asks. "No," Kimberley responds before zipping down the runway and into the air.

As Kimberley circles overhead, the cameras train on Plumbridge and Smedley, who are hamming up their reactions - hopping up and down, waving both arms, expressing disbelief to each other and shouting up at the power parachute. After a while, Kimberley begins to wave back from on high. When the vehicle skitters to a landing, she seems shaken but poised. "So how do you feel about wearing a dress on Thursday?" Plumbridge asks in a loud voice. Kimberley stands up and takes off her helmet and radio headset. "Aw fine," she says, "I'll put the dress on."

And with that, everyone on the film crew for Reality from Scratch - oops, Make Me a Model - knows that they have their scene.
jgravois@thenational.ae