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Who's got more swagger -- Tyra Banks, the fashion designers on "Project Runway" or the avian flu virus?

By Heather Havrilesky
Published December 4, 2005 1:00PM (EST)

Muster a little bluster
Swagger. That's what you need to survive in this crazy, mixed-up world. Swagger. You've got to feel a little bit overconfident about your worth as a human. You've got to have a little bluster, a little strut in your step, some puffery, some pride. You need a certain spirit of arrogance if you're going to get what you want, when you want it.

Look at Mick Jagger. Without his swagger, he's just an odd, little guy with weird teeth. Look at David Letterman. Without his swagger, he's just an odd, big guy with weird teeth. Look at the French. Without their swagger, they're just opinionated chain-smokers in oily sweaters clutching man-bags. Look at Cuba. Without its swagger, it's just another scrappy second-world island in the Atlantic.

It doesn't matter how weird your teeth are, chickens, or how many times you fall off a stage and shatter your kneecaps or fall off a horse and shatter your collarbone. You don't have to be good-looking or talented or even very intelligent or remotely sane, as long as you have swagger in spades, swagger galore, swagger to spare!

Runway brides
Feeling a little flaccid and timid in the face of so much swagger in the world? Try this exercise: Picture yourself busting through the double doors of an old western saloon in some massive cowboy boots that make a satisfying "galumpf, galumpf, galumpf" sound as you stride in. Now picture anything that stands in the way of your goals, whether it's a deep-seated fear of success, a relentlessly critical mommy, or chronic halitosis. Take that obstacle, and manifest it in a sniveling little rat of a man who sidles up to you at the bar and asks if he can buy you a drink.

"Howdy there, stranger, can I -- ?"

Don't let the little rat man finish his sentence! Reach for your pistol and blow his little rat face to smithereens! Watch with satisfaction as he drops to the floor.

Now that's swagger! Whether it's embodied in a spontaneous, unprovoked act of violence or in the designs of the front-runner in the new season of "Project Runway," swagger is all you need to succeed in the world today.

Just look at Jay McCarroll, the winner of the first season of "Project Runway" (new season premieres at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, on Bravo). Without swagger, McCarroll was just a plump guy from a small town in Pennsylvania with a penchant for brightly colored knit caps. Compare him to his former competitors Kara Saun, a Los Angeles sophisticate with lots of talent and skill, or even to the terrible Wendy Pepper, who sells her designs through a boutique in Virginia, and you might wonder how poor Jay could even compete.

But that brings us to the nice thing about "Project Runway": The judges know that in the fashion world, swagger goes a long way. Why give a designer $100K to start his or her own line, if that person can't embody the quirky artist persona that wealthy socialites prefer when they're mulling the purchase of a $15,000 deerskin and ostrich-feather coat?

That's an important distinction between "Project Runway" and many other competition-based reality shows. While "Project Runway" embraces swaggering oddballs and misfits as only the aristocrats and inhabitants of the New York Times Style Section can, shows like "The Apprentice" and "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart" take aim at the far more conservative tastes of the upper middle class.

The conformity at the heart of the "Apprentice" franchise is best embodied by the last scene of "The Apprentice: Martha Stewart," when, right after saying goodbye to the dismissed job applicant, Martha writes him or her an odd little "See ya, wouldn't wanna be ya" thank you note. The notes usually go something like this:

"Dear [Fill in Applicant's Name], You've quite a talent for speaking your mind, which I'm sure will serve you well in whatever little mediocre job you find moving forward. Sadly, I don't need such an unpredictable, coarse demeanor and unrefined presence in the mix at my company, where the culture is decidedly WASPy and passive-aggressive. So, best wishes with all of your endeavors. Smell ya later!"

I added that last part because I worried that you might not understand the main point of the letter otherwise. See, members of the upper middle class are very subtle in their disapproval of others. Maintaining appearances is important to them, particularly to those who've risen up from working-class roots and can never quite shake the fear that they'll be thrown out of the country club for wearing wrinkled slacks or pairing a hearty red wine with broiled shellfish.

Aristocrats, on the other hand, have rooms full of cash with which to back up their outspoken, brazen remarks. They know that they can say all the snotty things they like, they can wear 3-foot-tall hats with live canaries and fresh fruit in them, and not only won't they be shunned from the ranks of the elite, but they'll probably make it onto the style pages.

Think Paris Hilton. Think Dorothy Parker. Think the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Think Brooke Astor. Swagger separates the trashy sluts from the glamorous A-list celebrities and the bitter drunks from the outspoken toasts of the town. It's also what separates McCarroll's bold, strange designs from the more predictable fashions created by Saun and Pepper. Sure, Saun's line has much more widespread appeal and would probably sell much better than McCarroll's (except for one pretty cool dress, Pepper's stuff looked like the work of an ambitious but fairly limited fashion design student), but McCarroll has the outrageousness and the courage of conviction to make a name for himself.

Or not. I mean, we're talking about fashion design, here, one of those really promising careers, like filmmaking, where you spend millions before you get paid, if you ever do. Mostly, though, you just spend lots of money.

I'd say more about swagger and how it relates to the new season of "Project Runway" -- and oh yes, it does -- but I really don't want to spoil a second of the first two episodes for you. So, go watch them, and get back to me.

Stay-at-home bomb
Without swagger, the avian flu would be just another virus that gives your average chicken an excuse to skip work and not cross any roads for a few days. Throw in some swagger, and you've got a global pandemic that could kill half of those it infects. Woohoo!

So how psyched are you for the avian flu, anyway? Can you, like, wait until it gets here? Why doesn't it hurry up and mutate already, so the worldwide party can begin? Well, you can start gearing yourself up for all the hoopla by watching National Geographic Channel's "Race Against the Killer Flu" (9 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11). The promotional materials that accompanied my advance tape of the show seem to indicate that the bird flu may have already hired some serious P.R. professionals in anticipation of its upcoming media blitz.

"What can we do to outsmart a microscopic killer that may just be an evolutionary tick away from causing massive fatalities?" the promo gushes, and you can almost see little hands quivering in happy anticipation as they type. "Would a global pandemic lead to civil disorder and chaos? Would martial law have to be imposed?"

Wily flu! We can see right through your hype! You think that by employing just the right publicity strategy you're going to break wide? What a joke. If you could just buy international popularity, then Paris Hilton would be a globally recognized celebrity and not just some sad little tart with a penchant for terrorizing small dogs.

Oh yeah, she is a worldwide star. At any rate, the bird flu's publicists have clearly done their homework. This bone-chilling documentary will make you feel as if a global pandemic is as inevitable as it is horrifying. I'm betting that, even if you're curious about the bird flu -- which you really should be, and not just because the bird flu has its own free giveaway tent, promotional video, FAQ and blog -- you won't be able to make it past the first half-hour of this hourlong program. The little graphics that depict the virus, traveling through the air when a sick girl on a plane coughs, then landing on doorknobs and railings and suitcases? That alone is enough to turn you into an obsessive-compulsive germaphobe for life.

And even if you're secretly looking forward to putting plastic around your windows and wearing a surgical mask everywhere you go, I guarantee you that it won't be nearly as fun or as sexy as the bird flu is making it out to be. Despite the breathless expectancy of its promo materials, the National Geographic Channel's doc will educate you, scare your socks off, and most important, ensure that you never leave your house again.

Bird by bird
You know who the bird flu kind of reminds me of? Tyra Banks. You see the resemblance, too, right? Don't they both have the same kind of swaggery appeal, the same self-seriousness disguised behind a mask of wide-eyed vulnerability? "Who me? I wasn't messing with those chickens/impressionable young models. I was teaching them about life, about love, about healing!"

Tyra scares me in the same way the bird flu scares me. One minute, she's all teary-eyed and vulnerable and brutally honest about her shortcomings, and the next minute, someone's coughing up blood.

As impossible as it sounds, I actually missed Tyra's confrontation with longtime rival Naomi Campbell until it was rebroadcast this week on "The Tyra Banks Show." But, oh Lord, was I glad I happened to catch it this time around! Basically, after 14 years of hating on each other publicly, Tyra invites Naomi to her show so that the "healing" can begin. Apparently what Tyra considers "healing" is interrupting Naomi every time she opens her mouth to blame her for yet another scarring episode from poor teenage Tyra's life. Tyra tells Naomi that she terrorized her, claims that she almost quit the industry because Naomi was soooo mean, announces that Naomi is at least partially responsible for one of the worst times of her life, and then blurts out that she eventually quit modeling in part because of Naomi's dirty tricks.

Despite Tyra's accusations that Naomi got her kicked off several fashion shows, Naomi still comes across as a less virulent strain of diva. You get the impression that, sure, Naomi was a partying, self-centered, troublemaking drunk at some point, and sure, maybe she felt a little threatened by the younger black woman gracing the catwalks in an industry that once had room for exactly one black model per show. But Naomi doesn't remember those times very well, and who cares? It was a long time ago. Get over it, freak donkey.

But naturally, the two have to cry and hug awkwardly at the end of the show, or else everyone will recognize it for what it is: an excuse for Tyra to air her grudges on national television.

Oh well, I guess having your own talk show has its perks. Let's just hope that scientists get the upper hand on Tyra Banks' exploding ego before it starts to mutate into new formats and becomes a global problem. "Race Against the Killer Tyra": If Tyra's show gets renewed, will it lead to civil disorder and chaos? Can we protect all 6 billion of us on the planet from this outrageous narcissist?

Cloak and swagger
Swagger is a wonderful thing, chickens. It makes chickens like you feel good about yourselves, even though you're just chickens. Simply by putting on a big pair of cowboy boots and galumpfing about, your self-esteem grows, and you feel a deeper sense of satisfaction with your life. Maybe you even galumpf, galumpf right out the door and into the fashion world, where your love of outrageous colors and whimsical knit caps lands you in the realm of the cultural elite! Or maybe you become a sought-after runway model and move to Paris and before you know it, you have your own reality show! See how far swagger can get you?

But don't go too far, chickens. Don't start believing your own hype! Even as you send out press releases and hire pretty girls to dance on tables at your gala events, it's important to remember what it's all about -- whether it's all about the music, or all about the designs, or all about throwing gala events where pretty girls dance on the tables. The point is, you've got to remember who you are and what you stand for, even if you only stand for warm socks and really good cheese. You've got to remember that, even when people fix your hair and pick your wardrobe and walk your dogs and handle your kids and tell you that you can do anything you want to do, that doesn't mean you actually can do anything. It's up to you, chickens, to keep your swagger in check, because no one else is going to do that for you.

Which means that, when someone approaches you about having your own talk show, you say, "No!" Do you hear me? You say no to talk shows, chickens! Say no or you'll curse the world with your awful talk show, and soon you'll have a media empire, and soon after that -- doh! -- you'll get struck down in your prime by the avian flu!

Then people will tell jokes like, "Why did the chicken cross the road?" "To get its own talk show, only to be struck down by the avian flu shortly thereafter!" Is that what you want, chickens? Is it?

I didn't think so.

Next week: Which "Survivor" finalist has enough swagger to stand up to those angry thugs on the jury? And which "Apprentice" finale will have more swagger, The Donald's or The Martha's?

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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