" Ugly Betty." "Make Me a Supermodel." " Project Runway." TV's love affair with fashion hasn't slowed since " America's Next Top Model" debuted in 2003. The more style shows pop up, the more starry-eyed 18-year-olds march off to fashion school -- flooding an already crowded industry.
So what's a struggling designer to do to get noticed these days? Become a reality TV star, of course. This season, two up-and-coming L.A. designers, Emily Brandle and Ashley Paige, join a growing list of local talents -- including Jeffrey Sebelia and Rami Kashou -- who've snipped, sniped and sniffled on national TV in hopes of turning their fledgling companies into real-life success stories.
The mission: Starring in her own TLC reality show, "Ashley Paige: Bikini or Bust," airing Fridays at 10 p.m., that chronicles the hard knocks of running an independent fashion business in Los Angeles.
In the real world: Paige is the head designer of her own swimwear company, which launched in 2001 and specializes in super-pricey ($340 to $2,000), handmade knit bikinis worn by buff-bods, including Fergie and Juliette Lewis.
On reality TV: She's a smart, sometimes-spacey hippie chick who holds séances to raise money, hunts for a new boyfriend online and breaks the bank trying to rescue homeless animals -- all while dealing with her sweet but opinionated mother, who's sage advice includes, "If you throw spaghetti against a wall, some of it will stick."
Why she wanted in: After a few cameos on reality TV shows, including "The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency," Paige had her agent shop the concept to TV networks. Her main motivation was to attract investors, but, "I feel really comfortable in front of the camera," she says. "I always thought I was a behind-the-scenes girl, but as far as acting and being crazy and clowning around goes, I like it."
Design aesthetic: Amped up arts and crafts. Styles range from basic, two-toned string bikinis to intricate, '30s-inspired ruffled suits and sequined one-pieces.
Notable sidekick: Paige's mild-mannered knitter, Juan Magana, who smiles through the chaos and remarks (in a thick Spanish accent), "It will not be easy to be Ashley's boyfriend." Paige's team also includes a group of tense young female assistant designers and personal assistants -- who are among the first to tell her when she's acting crazy.
Why she's watchable: She lets it all hang out. "I knew going into this that I had to be an open book," says Paige, who in one scene admits to being lonely and in another endures a verbal beat-down from her bearish, tattooed landlord, Big Daddy Carlos, for being late on her rent. "I couldn't pretend to be a diva or this fashion empire girl," she said. "I live rent to rent, season to season, bikini to bikini."
The worst thing that could happen: Paige's business has been chugging along for years -- garnering lots of editorial attention but little cash -- so there's little chance of catastrophe here.
Potential payoff: Her permanently up-and-coming status turns into full-fledged fashion superstardom.
Would she do it all over again? "Oh, yeah. I'm alive for another six months because of this show."
In the real world: Brandle co-designs upstart L.A. label Smoke & Mirrors with fellow Otis College of Art and Design alum Melissa Chaplin.
On reality TV: The verdict's still out on her on-air persona (only two shows have aired, with future episodes shrouded in more secrecy than a CIA experiment), but she's been amiable and low maintenance so far -- and friends are betting she'll stay that way.
Why she wanted in: "It's the hottest show right now," Brandle said, "and it's the best way to showcase my brand to a larger audience." Though breakdowns at the sewing machines usually upstage the clothes on "Project Runway," the all-business Brandle announced on camera, "I came here to do a job, and I'm going to do it."
Design aesthetic: Only the Bravo mafia knows what she'll make out of a case of Twizzlers, but Smoke & Mirrors is ladylike with an edge -- mixing '50s silhouettes (pencil skirts, high-waisted shorts) with '80s attitude (form-fitting minidresses and leopard-printed tops and frocks). She made a white shift with a dramatic stand-up green collar for the grocery store challenge -- out of a tablecloth, balloons and a bouncy ball -- that fell right in line with her feminine, fashion-forward style.
Amusing sidekicks: Blayne Walsh, an admitted tan-orexic who created a glorified diaper out of neon jump-ropes, and Suede, a blue-haired denim designer who refers to himself in the third person ("Suede is gonna rock it!").
Why she's watchable: Her no-nonsense manner could potentially make her a referee in cutting-room catfights. Plus, she's got great personal style. Clad mostly in Smoke & Mirrors, Brandle sewed her grocery look while wearing a leopard-print dress and a Grecian, gold braided headband. "I wear a lot of heels on the runway," she said, "because in that environment, it's all how you present yourself. I'm not nearly that dolled up in real life."
The worst thing that could happen: Being "auf Wiedersehen-ed" next week (but Brandle finished filming only two weeks ago, so it doesn't seem likely that she's up for elimination soon).
Potential payoff: Winning the $100,000 prize and taking her brand global. But as past winners have proved, reality TV fame and fortune don't always translate into real-world success.
Would she do it all over again? "In a heartbeat."