The most unreal of things have come into your possession: a royal title, a spot in the pantheon of fashion, a painting Warhol did of you. What most assume you would not desire instead is reality—of the tawdry television variety, in particular.
And yet on House of DVF, which aired on E! from 2014 to 2015, Diane von Furstenberg opted to search for a global brand ambassador—twice. Diane herself long ago reached the tippiest top of the social ladder without her foot so much as shilling for ShoeDazzle to get there, so to see her expose her circle to a group of women who would have trouble landing a sponsored post for tummy tea is baffling. But I watched both seasons when they aired and then again on streaming and have even paid to own them now that they’re not available any other way.
What made me first visit House of DVF was Diane. Whatever commercial interests led DVF the brand to agree to the unreality of unscripted TV, there is sincerity behind all of DVF the person’s interactions with the women on the show. For over 40 years, Diane has said that her clothes are designed to make women feel confident and independent and it is the easiest thing to buy when you watch her.
But though gazing at the mannered life of Diane for an hour a week was what brought me to House of DVF, the chaos of it is what kept me there. The 10 women have been winnowed down from thousands of others who want the title of brand ambassador. And yet these chosen few who are vying to wear wrap dresses and cut ribbons at store openings for a year go almost immediately from being chastened for wreaking havoc with the merchandise in the 10 minutes they’re left unchaperoned in DVF’s Meatpacking district showroom to being tasked with various duties involving celebrities and dignitaries at an event at the United Nations.
From meltdowns over not having charged phones for Instagram takeovers, to stalking Diane instead of seating guests, to audible arguments in the hall during acceptance speeches, these missteps take place throughout the season while honorees like Gloria Steinem are on stage. The disaster culminates in paramedics cutting through milling guests like Sarah Jessica Parker and Alicia Keys to get to one candidate, Rhianna (among the she lists for the brand ambassador position: her self-estimated half-a-million-dollar wardrobe), who is hyperventilating from what she says is dehydration, though another candidate speculates that she is “on something.” For nearly four years, this is the most embarrassing thing to happen in the building.
That’s just episode one of the first season. Undaunted, Diane continues to entrust these women with major responsibilities. Run the press preview of her collection when they can’t answer the most basic questions about it? Yes. Plan the luncheon that will introduce a new home fabric line to Architectural Digest? Sure. Handle the pre-show rehearsal for New York Fashion Week? Why not? Design a wrap dress to walk down the runway at the collection celebrating the 40th year of one of the most iconic pieces of clothing? Just another weekly challenge. Sensible Amanda from season one speaks for the viewer when she says, “This is a big event for the company and a lot goes into it and I’m surprised that Diane is handing this over to us.”
By the time you get to nearly the end of season two, it does not surprise you that a woman who made her entrance on the show talking about her birth in an alley in the outer reaches of Los Angeles says, “I never thought for one minute that Alli from the Valley would be on stage with Hillary Clinton, the most powerful woman in the world.”
It bears mentioning that these are aggressively regular girls. They wear gold lamé bows in their hair, show up to be photographed for a magazine spread sporting flash tattoos, and engage gala guests in conversation about Cincinnati. When Diane reminisces about the Côte d’Azur in season one, Staten Island-accented Lenore confesses, “I thought she said ‘the zoo.’” In season two, sweet and provincial Leigh directs an entire beachy photo shoot that’s supposed to look like it was set in São Paulo, which she later learns is a city.
Things get really cringe-inducing when the women are foisted on Diane’s friends and fellow fashion people. At the CFDA Awards, season one contestant Kier tries to crowd into shots with Diane on the red carpet. When she’s shooed away by an usher, she instead leans down to the Olsen twins to ask for a photo and someone says for them, “We’re going to keep walking.” Not having noticed the disaster in her wake the first time around, Diane invites two girls the next season. One of them, consistently clueless Maytee, decides to play paparazzo and stops Betsey Johnson mid-red-carpet interview for a shot.
Even that, though, can be watched with wide eyes, unlike the moment where Mayte’s fellow contestant Cat refers to Diane as “Anna” to Anna Wintour herself. “No, I’m Anna. She’s Diane,” Wintour says. I, a person who has very literally bumped into Anna Wintour and barely lived through apologizing to her while she pretended nothing had occurred, cannot look straight at that scene several watches later. “I’m pretty confident Anna liked me anyways,” says Cat.
“Nobody likes you,” Diane later tells Cat. Except, that is, for her, she says. Diane loves all the girls. She tells them she loves them repeatedly, collectively and individually. She delights in their exploits. A crystal-bedecked sample gets ruined when it’s worn in the pool during an authorized pool party the candidates have thrown to style celebrities for the Hamptons Classic– Diane dismisses the details about the dress, but wants to know more about what happened with the men who were there. Sorting through tabloid printouts her staff hands her about season two Hanna Beth’s broken engagement to a C-list actor and the subsequent social-media fallout that the DVF staff is worried could affect the company, Diane says, “She looks great.”
When Grace Cha, senior vice president of communications, posits about the candidates, “They might not even be trainable,” Diane does not ascent. “Something that I always love is to be able to give young girls an opportunity of a lifetime,” she says at the start of the show.
Diane sits down with them in her office, or meets them in her apartment in Paris between attending Paris Fashion Week shows, or has them seated next to her as she’s chauffeured in her British racing green Bentley. While she takes these minutes, they are not rushed. She probes politely, patiently listens, offers her advice with no sense that anything else is vying for her time, and then announces where she is off to: “I am going tonight to the Time 100 Gala. I am on the icon list with the pope.”
When the women fail spectacularly at being brand ambassadors, their dismissals from the program aren’t dismissive. Diane sets them free with what she has observed should be their true path. “Fashion is not for you…go be a photographer,” she says to Codi who clearly put her emotions into the photos she took for a project instead of the project itself. To free-spirited Cree: “So you be a very very very fashionable healer.” When a chain plays a part in Chantal being let go, she tells her, “You got rejected because of a stupid chain and therefore you are going to become jewelry designer.”
The women look relieved. They hadn’t been real with even themselves about what they wanted in life. “I appreciate so much what Diane has given me because she gave me the perfect exit,” Chantal says. Diane sends them away with DVF shopping bags packed with never-revealed contents but what she mostly gifts them is a look at themselves.
While on the cusp of choosing Hanna Beth as a brand ambassador, Diane, contemplating her own reflection in the makeup chair as she preps for the Met Gala, says, “As I’m thinking it through, one thing bothers me about Hanna Beth. I still have a question I want to ask her.” That question turns out to be, “Do you inject in your lips or something?” Hanna looks panicked, caught, shakes her head, and gives a no that’s not a word but a sound.
Diane does not call her out on the obvious lie, but she asks if she’s aware that her own reason for not ever getting plastic surgery is because she believes the most important relationship a person has is with themselves and she didn’t ever want to not recognize herself. It’s then that you realize the only person who truly hasn’t altered their personality for reality television is Diane.
“I’m not completely sure whether I’m satisfied with Hanna Beth’s answer but she has to be who she really is because that’s where beauty is,” she says. And then—hair bedecked by feathers, body dressed in her own design—Diane gets up and goes to the Met Gala and she takes Hanna with her.
Chandra Steele’s work can be found in Paper Darts (forthcoming), Vol. 1 Brooklyn, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Scofield, Litro Magazine, Newtown Literary, Meat for Tea: The Valley Review, and The Molotov Cocktail. Rick Moody once said she wrote the best description of a racetrack he has ever read. She has never been to a racetrack. More of her writing can be found at chandrasteele.com.