BEIRUT — From a TV studio nestled in the mountains over Beirut, soap bubbles rain down on a group of scantily clad dancers as they perform a provocative routine choreographed to “Umbrella,” by R&B sensation Rihanna.
Outfitted in white sailor hats, tie tops and mini skirts, the dancers throw their legs into the air as they twirl across the pulsating strobe-lit floor. A crane camera captures all the action from above, gliding over the posh attired audience seated quietly on opposite ends of a catwalk stage.
This is “Mission Fashion”, the latest and perhaps most racy reality show to be produced by Lebanon-based broadcaster, LBC.
Much like the wildly popular “Star Academy,” an Endemol-owned format also aired on LBC, “Mission Fashion” groups male and female contestants from across the Arab world together under one roof to have their lives filmed 24 hours a day by a series of robotic cameras.
But instead of judging singing talent, the show’s at home audience chooses the Arab world’s most promising fashion designer and runway model. Each week, the two least popular contestants are voted off the show via an interactive text message vote during a glitzy showcase known as a “prime”.
During the two and a half hour marathon broadcast — which like “Star Academy” is the culmination of a full week of daily half hour episodes not to mention wall to wall coverage on a 24 hour dedicated satellite channel — contestants show off their creations and modeling abilities punctuated by the performances of Arab pop stars and go-go dancers.
The program, which aired its final episode last month, is also bolstered by its star mentor Elie Saab, a Lebanese designer who has dressed Halle Berry, Beyonce Knowles and Christina Aguilera.
However it was the behavior of the show’s contestants, comprising a virtual cross section of the Arab world, that seemed to draw the most attention.
The mainly male designers were largely and overtly effeminate in their vocal tones and mannerisms. They included a number of young men from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, highly conservative countries that are much less tolerant of homosexuality than Lebanon, where gay culture thrives openly in nightclubs and other venues.
Meanwhile, the female group of model contestants typically adorned skimpy outfits that revealed cleavage and skin well above the knee line.
In contrast to the designers, none of the female models came from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia but there was one young woman from Yemen. The first Yemeni to ever appear on an LBC reality show, according to the station’s spokeswoman, Sally Moussa.
The show also seems to have elicited a far less conservative backlash than previous programs. When “Star Academy” first aired in 2003, its novel concept of male and female co-habitation drew condemnation from religious leaders across the region and voting on contestants was banned by Saudi telecom authorities. Even though “Star Academy,” which is poised to enter its fifth season, remains one of the region’s most popular shows, LBC continues to be the only Arab broadcaster to host live-in reality formats that are aired 24 hours per day.
With some hesitation, Moussa admits that Mission Fashion can be viewed as “sexy” but she says the show has not faced any of the same criticisms as “Star Academy.”
“I guess people are now more familiar with the concept,” said Moussa.