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A Utah Gay in the Fashion District: Keith Bryce
Utah fashion designer Keith Bryce will be the first to admit that he gained too much fame too fast. But in 2008, when Project Runway asked him to join the cast of Season 5, he shelved his start-up T-shirt and jeans company Filthy Gorgeous and headed to New York.
At the time, the 26-year-old self-proclaimed “reformed Mormon” was just a freshman in the fashion world. Being a completely self-taught designer with no traditional schooling, the Utah native seemed an odd pick for the show. Only a couple of weeks before filming, he’d purchased his first sewing machine and had just designed and manufactured his very first dress—things the other contestants on Project Runway had done years before making it to the show.
Though he lacked experience and a beefy résumé, the casting of Bryce on a show like Project Runway actually made a lot of sense, drama-wise. Far from being a fashion epicenter, Utah is consistently in the ranks for worst dressed, so why not have a Utah-bred Mormon gay man bring his fashion aesthetic to the Big Apple?
“I could tell right off the bat they wanted me to be the ‘Utah Guy,’ ” Bryce says. “But everyone from Utah will always be the ‘Utah Guy’ no matter what show they’re on. Utah is the way it is. Whenever I go fabric shopping, I’ll have women ask me what I’m going to do with this fabric, and I’ll say, ‘I’m making a dress,’ and they’ll respond, ‘Ha ha, you’re making a dress?!’ I even had this one lady ask, ‘So who’s making these drapes for you?’ ”
Despite being a fan favorite, Bryce was sent home after seven episodes. If you watched, you may remember him failing to create a functional dress from pieces of a Saturn Vue. But according to Bryce, he wouldn’t have had it any other way. “Everything happens for a reason,” he says. “Something like that is a big opportunity for a young designer, and to have that be the start of my career was huge.”
Still, when Bryce returned to Utah, he fell into a depression and refused to work for six months. “Right after the show, I did nothing. I was pretty depressed and broken. I mean, getting on Project Runway was a huge platform for me. I got so close, and I felt that I didn’t show the real me. So I got to this point where I didn’t want to design anything because I couldn’t tell what was good anymore.”
After a lengthy hiatus, Bryce refocused his career and has now moved on to art direction and designing for photo shoots under the brand Keith Bryce. In a sense, being a reality star both propelled and hurt Bryce’s career. In summer 2012, Bryce worked as an assistant on the Katy Perry music video for her song “Part of Me,” but he failed to give full disclosure that he’d been a contestant on Project Runway. When they found out, he got the boot.
Bryce has no plans to return to reality TV. Recently, he taught a fashion-design course at George Washington University, was a panelist at the Miss Utah Pageant and just completed a shoot for UGLY Magazine.
The Virtuous Mormon Mom: Dawn Meehan
For Dawn Meehan, being a contestant on Survivor: South Pacific was a dream fulfilled. “I’m 42 now; I first auditioned for the show when I was 30,” Meehan says during a phone interview. In total, Meehan applied for the show four times, each time getting a little further. When she was cast for Survivor: Redemption Island in 2010, they thought she was too similar to a previous character, so she was denied her chance, again.
“It was a long, hard-fought battle. I had to really think about how much of this is just a pipe dream and how much of this is worth pursuing. I always believed I would be on the show. Literally, when I watched the show, I could visualize myself in those opening credits.”
When Meehan showed up to the audition for Survivor: South Pacific, everything finally fell into place. If there’s one thing we know about Survivor, there needs to be a stereotypical mother figure. Meehan was the perfect fit. She’s a mother of six adopted children, an English professor at Brigham Young University and a devout Mormon—basically, the ideal Survivor nurturer. “Sure, you get the feeling that they know what they’re looking for when they’re casting,” she says. “But I never felt like I was trying to force myself into that mold.”
As much she downplays the role, it probably didn’t hurt that Meehan showed up to the audition wearing a dress. “I guess I was just trying to be authentic. I teach in dresses, and I love it. Someone from casting was like, ‘You know what kind of show this is, right? You’re going to be living outside!’ I was like, ‘Well, I want you to see what I’m actually like.’ The irony of it was they made me play in a dress. I didn’t have any problem with it, though. I thought it was sort of funny.”
Meehan didn’t win, but she shocked viewers by lasting 28 days before being voted off. When the show finally aired, her e-mail exploded with fan letters from all over the world, including one from a Vatican priest. “Apparently, he was a fan of Survivor before he went into the seminary, and he had always wondered what it would be like to play the show and not lie or cheat. He thought I played in such a way that I represented faithful people well.”
During the filming of Survivor: South Pacific, religion became a big discussion point. However, Meehan didn’t spend her time on the island knocking on doors. “I think I am outwardly religious, but I wasn’t a missionary out there. I just tried to be myself. In my tribe, no one else was married and no one else had children—that was just something we didn’t share. I didn’t know if I should tell people that I was Mormon, but once I talked about how many children I had, oddly enough, a few people were like, ‘Are you Mormon?’ ”
Even though Meehan played the game in a honorable manner, she was still concerned about how BYU would react to her being on a show built around deception. “That was awkward. The show started airing after the semester began, so BYU didn’t even know that I was playing. But they were so supportive. The faculty put up signs that said, ‘Go Dawn!’ You know, I think who I am is who I am, and that doesn’t change because I’m playing a game.”
Meehan has no regrets about the show. Because of Survivor, she been able to further advocate for the Utah Foster Care Foundation. She also says that she would go back in a heartbeat, and since the show aired in July 2011, she’s thinks about the show at least six to 12 times a day.
The Happily Awkward Utahn: Skippy Jessop
In 2011, TLC premiered The Virgin Diaries, which was sort of a National Geographic look at the phenomenon of awkward middle-age virgins. I should state that TLC made a point to emphasize that the show was a celebration of virgins, not freaks. Because the show was so successful, they followed up with a sequel centered around Utah native Skippy Jessop, a 34-year-old Mormon virgin who lives in his parents’ basement. The result was, well, one of the best/worst hours of TV I’ve ever seen.
Essentially, the cameras followed Jessop around on a first date. What they captured was nothing short of awe-inspiring: his pre-date routine of shake-weighting while standing on a vibrating exercise machine, him explaining his belly-button-lint collection, him blow-drying his armpits when he got too sweaty, and—oh God, the list never ends.
“I get asked, ‘Don’t you think you made Utah look worse?’ My response to that is I only represented Utahns that are 34 years old, a Mormon, a virgin and living in their parents’ basement. Not everyone in Utah is a Mormon, a virgin and living in their parents’ basement. If you are, then I represented you, and I’m sorry if I did a bad job.”