Like, Literally

'The Rachel Zoe Project': My Addiction

Despite finding the stylist’s Bravo reality show appalling, Jacob Bernstein can’t stop watching it.

Douglas Friedman / Bravo

They say porn is addictive, and the same is true of The Rachel Zoe Project, a reality show on Bravo about Hollywood’s best-known celebrity stylist. For a long time, I didn’t watch. A few years ago, I wound up at a dinner with Zoe and practically got a rash from sitting at a table with her. I cannot remember almost anything she said that night, because none of it was particularly interesting, but it was all about herself, and how “busy” she was, to the point where a doctor had diagnosed her with vertigo. “Have you ever seen the movie?” someone at the table asked, to which the answer was no. (As far as I could tell, she seemed to know almost nothing about Hitchcock, or anything else outside her narrow range of pop-culture pastiche.) Also, though the dinner was at one of New York’s best restaurants, Zoe would only eat steamed vegetables, which had to be prepared specially for her.

Yet this season, two friends of mine became riveted by the show, in that way people frequently do by reality television.

You must watch, they told me. It’s absolutely appalling.

So I did, and indeed, it was appalling.

Most people would find a way to be a slightly better-edited version of themselves on screen, realizing that the world is watching. Not Zoe, whose main job consists of pulling dresses for celebrities to wear to red-carpet events, and who gets about as stressed by each instance of these affairs as intelligence officials planning an assault on the mujahedin. The more she complains about impending disaster—and impending disasters that never transpire are the entirety of her show on Bravo—the more words such as “like,” “totally,” and “literally” fly from her mouth. As in: “The only thing about a move that stresses me out is total strangers handling my archives and couture pieces. That literally gives me a panic attack.”

Currently, on Season 4, Zoe (who was born Rachel Zoe Rosenzweig, but changed her name professionally for all the obvious reasons; she now pronounces what used to be Zoey as Zoh) is pregnant. And though women have been doing this for, like, 50,000 years, Zoe has found all sorts of ways to be dramatic about it. For instance, here she is on labor: “If I start watching videos, I will literally not give birth.” At another point, she recalls how she felt upon being told she was carrying a boy rather than a girl: “I did cry for a week or two. Maybe even three. Because I always had this plan in my mind I would have this little baby girl and she would come to Paris with me and sit on my lap during couture shows.”

Why is Zoe now “over it” and no longer crying? “I found really cute clothes for a boy, this really cute leather jacket for him to wear,” she says on a recent episode.

But at some point, around the third episode of the new season, I got hooked and it didn’t matter anymore that every single thing Zoe says is literally ridiculous. In fact, that seemed to be the fun of it. She stages a presentation of her first collection as a designer, and though every “major” fashion editor in the business is supposed to be there, the only one I see is Hal Rubenstein of InStyle. Yet she still manages to get Neiman Marcus to carry her line. (Though I can imagine that the store’s fashion director, Ken Downing, would have myriad reasons for appearing on a hit Bravo show, getting airtime for Neiman Marcus.) It is impossible to stop watching because it is nearly impossible to imagine how someone so clueless has achieved so much. And because Zoe seems so clueless, it is impossible to hate her for it. At a time when America is in decline, The Rachel Zoe Project provides a fantastic escape: a message that incuriosity and a lack of talent need not be a road barrier to building an empire.

Though Zoe has sometimes seemed like a fashion-world P. T. Barnum, telling The New York Times in 2007 that her clients’ appearances in the tabloids are more effective at moving merch than Anna Wintour, her show is demonstrable proof that she’s entirely unironic about what she has accomplished. So what if she’s not Grace Coddington, the brilliant Vogue stylist whose coffee-table book is practically the only evidence of “reading materials” we see on screen in Zoe’s new 7,000-square-foot home? Zoe has still won.

Evidence of this triumph is everywhere on camera, from the house itself to Zoe’s enormous collection of Birkin bags to the new Range Rover sitting in her driveway. As she and her minions watch last year’s Oscar host Anne Hathaway parading down the runway of the Kodak Theatre in a red, floral couture gown from the Valentino archive, a dress that Zoe picked out, she notes how fabulous her life is. “It’s like, this is the ultimate dream for me … To be able to spend this moment at this point in my career surrounded by people I love in my new house and about to give birth to my first child. Life doesn't get much better than this." It’s hard to disagree.