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October 30, 2013 4 min read


The pop star has big plans for reality TV.

LOS ANGELES – Rihanna isn't here, but she's still cracking the whip.

On a sweltering day downtown inside the workroom of Styled to Rock, Rihanna's new competition show (launching Friday on Bravo, 8 p.m. ET), the pop star's eye, wallpapered onto a large wall, looms over a room of stylists busily adjusting outfits on dress forms. As a cluster of tightly toned models arrive in the hallway, cameras circle like flies.

This week's challenge? To craft image-making looks for Big Sean and his fiancé, Naya Rivera.
"This is a lot of pressure," Laura Petrielli-Pulice, a 35-year-old latex designer from Chicago, taking a break on the sun-drenched roof a few minutes later, says with a sigh as cars whiz by on the 110 Highway. Petrielli-Pulice is one of 12 designers Rihanna handpicked for her reality show, a remixed take on the genre popularized by Project Runway, this time with rock-star requirements. Each week the stylists are challenged to create memorable performance or red-carpet-ready looks for some of Top 40's biggest names, from Miley Cyrus to Kylie Minogue.
"I know that there is always undiscovered talent out there just waiting for an opportunity like this and I wanted to find them," says Rihanna by e-mail. She's executive-producing the series, which was shepherded by the now-defunct Style Network. The show was recently acquired by Bravo (also owned by NBC Universal). With Bravo's long history of fashion programming, "We thought it would be a good fit for us," says Jerry Leo, Bravo's executive vice president of program strategy.

For mentor-judges, Rihanna cast her chief stylist, Mel Ottenberg, along with musician/designer Pharrell Williams and veteran model Erin Wasson. Since the pop star is on the Diamonds world tour, her on-screen involvement is heaviest in the first and final episodes, but she's been keeping up-to-date through Ottenberg.

"We text a million times a day," says Ottenberg in his dressing room, sifting through a rack of Rihanna's own stage clothes, from a strappy dress she wore onstage on SNL last November to a sheer pink lace ensemble she performed in at the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show.

The contestants have been mostly inside the cavernous Casa Vertigo for five weeks -- no phones, to TV, no Twitter. "These kids sew here, they sleep here they eat here, they cry here, they design here, they laugh here," says Wasson. One floor up from the sewing room, outfitted with spools of rainbow-hued thread and bond spray, is a loft space, converted into a massive bedroom with 12 queen-sized beds lined up, dressed in red and black comforters.

Privacy is scant. "Everyone around me snores," says designer Andre Soriano, 27, a San Diego-based coutourier.

While the designers take a break, Ottenberg and Wasson stroll through the design space, critiquing as they go for the cameras. One contestant has spent hours free-handing a lion pattern into a leather shirt with an X-acto knife. "It's like The Lion King," says Wasson dismissively. Another has crafted his-and-hers red-and-black looks, deemed "too matchy-matchy," by Ottenberg, who looks particularly worried about a red hoodie draped over a boxy black shirt, meant for Big Sean.

If these two truly loathe the look, the show throws a curveball: Contestants may not make it past the "edit," losing a shot at even showing their designs to the visiting artist.

Williams, in the middle of a Song of Summer blitz with Blurred Lines and Get Lucky, is lounging in his dressing room in a Mark McNairy camo hat overlaid with daisies ("which I'm sure the producers can't wait until I take off because I've worn it so many times"), a Bee Line blazer and tunic and snakeskin Lanvin chucks. He says a performer's style "is supposed to be another version of your communication to the world." The storied music producer ticks off his style inspirations, from Chanel to Commes de Garcons.

"The producers just made a really smart choice aligning themselves with a person like Rihanna," says Williams. "She has great style because she represents endurance and perseverance." He shrugs off the lofty mentor title. "I'm more of a help," he says.

But no one here knows Rihanna like Ottenberg, the man behind her much-Instagrammed, no-holds-barred style as she jets from sold-out venues to red carpets to fragrance ads and promotion for her fashion line, River Island. The show's pace has been brutal for the contestants, "but I'm always reminding them that this is actually what it's really like if you want to design with someone on the level of Rihanna," he says. "It's no joke."

"To be completely frank, the world of design is not a kind industry," says Wasson. "We've reiterated many a times to the contestants that really seize this opportunity, because if it's not you, it's 1,000 other people behind you that are waiting to fill your shoes."

Bravo is just hoping Rihanna's fans tune in. "She brings a different kind of energy to the channel, a slightly younger energy," says Leo. But for the winner, it's a chance to sew straight into the big leagues, with a $100,000 prize, a spread in Glamour and an invitation to join Rihanna's design team on the line.

This is the real deal, says Rihanna. Thanks to her tour schedule, she and the Styled to Rock winner have not had a chance to work together yet, "but we will have some collaborations in the works once the show finales," promises the pop star.