Thursday, October 14, 2010

Reality Show

On Thursday afternoon, I was invited to appear on a new reality series about vintage clothes. The show revolves around self-prescribed vintage expert Elizabeth Mason, who owns a shop in Beverly Hills. The producer of the show, Mike, wanted me to bring in a few pieces of clothes I thought might be valuable and have Elizabeth appraise them. "If she likes what she sees, she may make you an offer," he peppered in with intrigue. "And if you have anything owned by a celebrity, that would be even better."

As a matter of fact, I did. A beautiful, red double-knit dress coat with a faux-fur trim, owned by Audrey Hepburn. I bought it a few years back from a film historian, who got it from her makeup artist. I'd never considered selling it before, but I'd also never been on a reality show with cameras, appraisers, and a fat check book before. "Let them make you an offer, and then decide," my husband agreed.

So I arrived at the boutique, armed with fashion. When I got there, Elizabeth Mason and the camera crew were out to lunch, but the store assistant said I could look around. It was pretty deluxe. Racks of garments were labeled Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Karl Lagerfeld. I found myself drawn to a wall of vintage shoes, with everything from Manolo Blahnik to Ferragamo (my spell check is going insane, btw). It was pretty overwhelming. I felt like I couldn't shop, so much as reverently observe like being in a museum.

The crew returned from lunch, chatting and laughing. Mike recognized me immediately and greeted me. Then, it was down to business.

"We'd like to keep you away from Elizabeth Mason, so it will be as natural as possible when you meet her for the first time," he said.

"We're going to shoot you walking into the shop with your dresses, and that's where you'll explain a little bit about where you got them, what they mean to you, and what you know about them. How many pieces did you bring?"

"Four," I said.

"And the Audrey dress?"


"Perfect. Now that's going to be the big-ticket item, so let's do that one last. And are you an Audrey fan?"


"Great! So we'll have you rattle off lots of facts about Audrey Hepburn, little trivia and things."


As Mike and I choreographed being "natural," I could see Elizabeth in the corner of my eye mulling about. The shop assistant, Monica (?), shadowed her while Elizabeth bossed her around in the most measured, quiet voice.

"You know, Monica sent me the sweetest text message the other day," Elizabeth divulged to a crew member, off-camera. Immediately, Monica's eyes bulged and she zipped away as if just remembering she left the gas on.

"She said to me: 'I just wanted to thank you for everything you've taught me in the last few days. You're a wonderful mentor.' I thought that was so sweet," Elizabeth arced her shoulders and sighed, with whimsy.

"Alright Sabrina, are you ready to get started?" Mike asked.

I was carrying 8 pounds of clothing, I had a microphone strapped to my bra, and I'd been loafing around the storefront for the last hour and a half while they blocked the shot. I was ready.

"And, whenever you're ready!"

With that cue, I walked past the mall of clothing to a jewelry display case where Elizabeth and Monica were sorting papers and chatting idly. I set my clothes on the counter and waited. No one looked up or said anything.

"Okay cut. Let's try this one more time. When you get to the counter, say hi! I'm Sabrina. I brought some clothes to be appraised today. Elizabeth, greet Sabrina when she gets there."

Greet the customer? What a novel idea.

I shlepped my stack of clothes back to my mark and again perused to the jewelry counter, where Elizabeth and Monica pretended to be in the middle of something.

"Hi, I'm Sabrina. I brought a few things to have you look at," I said.

"We'll finish this later," Elizabeth said to Monica. She turned to me. "Hello there."

As we finally made eye contact for the first time, I could finally see Elizabeth. She was a slender, white, impeccably well-groomed woman in her early 50's. She had a whispy halo of blonde hair on her head, and big green eyes that never changed expressions when she talked or smiled. She kind of reminded me of a Fox news commentator: her speech always friendly, if not meticulously controlled.

"What do we have here today?" She said, eyes piercing.

"Well the first thing is this Saks Fifth Avenue dress and coat set. I bought it for a $1 at a yard sale, but the silk lining is hand-sewn and the material feels really expensive."

"I see. What first stands out to me are these stains by the buttons. Have you tried washing them out?"

"No, not yet. But they look like makeup stains and I'm pretty sure I could get them out with Oxyclean."

"See, I don't think so," she said. "There's one on the lining too and how would you get makeup on the inside of your coat?"

"Is that a real question?"

"And it looks like you have the matching dress AND jacket? See, that seems a bit costumey to me. People don't really wear matching coat and dress sets like they did in the '60s."

"I suppose not."

"If I were you," she said, "I would throw away the dress. Just try to rock the jacket."


The producer chimed in. "Okay cut. Elizabeth, why don't you tell Sabrina what you think the jacket and dress are worth?"

"Certainly," Elizabeth said. "You know, I really wouldn't put much value on it. It's not by a designer."

"Well, it's Saks Fifth Avenue."

"Right, but it's not a designer," she insisted. "I would say it's worth the dollar you paid for it."

As she shuffled my dress and coat aside, I began to sense something. Annoying. Happening.

"Tell me about this dress," she said.

"Well it's a 1940's cocktail dress made by Omar Kiem, who custom-made party dresses for the stars in the '40s and '50s. I'm really in love with the super full, silk tafetta skirt," I said, splaying the material over the counter.

"I can tell you right away, it's not from the '40s." She said.

"Okay. Well I actually researched it and the tag comparison on Vintage Fashion Guild specifically points to the '40s."

"It doesn't matter what some web-site says, you can just tell by the style. Also, it looks like there are a few tiny holes in the skirt. That's called silk rot. Did you try to fix these?"

"No, my assistant patched it up."

"I would fail her in my Home Ec class. These holes can't be patched up. The silk is falling apart, little by little. If you wear this, it's going to fall apart."

The producer interrupted, "Okay, and what do you think it would be worth?"

"Barely anything. I'd say $200 as a reference piece for a designer."

"Why don't you show the holes to Monica and try to mentor her?" The producer suggested. "That would be great. Let's get some of that."

While Elizabeth repeated everything she just said, except facing Monica, I quickly realized this whole set-up had nothing to do with appraisals or selling. The producer kept having to remind Elizabeth to put a price tag on something, and she always talked around giving a number. She also could never see past anything with a stain or a hole, which I found very odd given that we're talking about vintage and that's part of what we do. We love clothes that are old.

When it came time to bring out the big guns, the producer pulled me aside for a pep talk. "Now with this item, I want you to get really excited and say, 'This is my PRIZE possession. I bought it a few years ago and it means everything to me.' And pump up the energy."

I couldn't tell if he was coaching me to "be excited" because I'd been dull the whole time, or they were just really banking on this Audrey Hepburn dress. But I said exactly what he told me to, figuring it was better than rattling off some random Audrey Hepburn trivia.

No sooner had I said "Audrey Hepburn coat" that Miss Elizabeth Mason's permanent smile began quivering at the corners.

"How much did you pay for it?" That was her first question.

"It's been a few years. Maybe $500."

"Oooh," she winced. "$500 is a lot of money for you."


"Do you have a picture of Audrey Hepburn wearing it?"


"Who signed the certificate of authenticity? Was it Audrey?"

"No, Audrey Hepburn is dead. It was signed by her make-up artist friend, who worked on virtually every movie in the '50s and '60s."

"I see. Well, I actually designed a dress for Julia Roberts, which I resold with a picture of her wearing it. So you see, that's proof it belonged to her. But as far as you know, this could have belonged to anyone."

By that logic, most things at the Hard Rock Cafe could belong to anyone...

"So obviously, this item has the most value because of what it represents to YOU. That makes it invaluable," she said.

A million different defenses sprung to mind, but I knew I couldn't use a single one. If I defended myself, they would have footage that could make me look like a bitch. All I could think to do was not show even a suggestion of emotion. Whether it was excitement or disappointment, I knew what made good reality TV and I wasn't about to give it to them. Not a real Audrey coat? Oh well!

The experience was a ludicrous waste of time. After shooting my segment with Elizabeth, she literally walked away without so much as a "thanks for stopping by." She completely ignored me when the cameras stopped rolling. I wasn't aspiring to be best friends, but after no one was making any offers and I'd done all of this for free, the very least she could do was acknowledge my participation for the last 2 hours.

The absolute WORST part was shooting my intro/exit interviews, where they wanted to talk about my experience and what I thought of Elizabeth. "She was very knowledgeable. It was informative."

"Okay, could you try to be more specific? What did you like? What did you not like?" the producer prodded.

"I'm happy my '60s Calvin Klein coat is worth $2,000."

"Okay, try that with a little more enthusiasm."

"My Calvin Klein coat is worth $2,000. So that's nice."

Back to Reality,

Sabrina London