Nina Garcia was just settling into her seat on a flight from Rome, eager to take a nap, when the teenage girl sitting next to her recognized her as the tough-to-please judge from Project Runway. ''I was like, 'I need to rest!''' recalls Garcia, who spends her days working as Elle magazine's fashion director. ''She just wanted to talk for eight hours about Project Runway!''
So, it seems, does anybody else who's gotten hooked on Bravo's behind-the-seams reality series (airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m.). A competition that follows 15 budding designers as they spin sartorial gold out of everything from luxurious silk to recycled plastic, Runway has blossomed into an undeniable hit. After scoring its second consecutive Emmy nomination for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program, the show nabbed its best-ever ratings on Aug. 2, when 3.4 million viewers made it the most-watched broadcast in Bravo's history. ''It's exciting to create something that people actually enjoy,'' says exec producer and host Heidi Klum. Couch potatoes who never gave a hoot about hemlines and bias cuts are tuning in obsessively. And ''the celebrities who watch...,'' marvels judge Michael Kors. ''Marc Anthony was telling me that he and Jennifer Lopez love the show. I said, 'So Jennifer loves the show?' He said, 'No, we both love the show!'''
When two of the world's biggest stars are in a frenzy about a reality series, something is up. We think we've figured it out: Here are five reasons why we, like Garcia's chatty seatmate, can't get enough of Project Runway.
1. It never should have worked in the first place. Let's be honest: A reality show featuring unknown designers toiling at sewing machines doesn't exactly scream exciting on paper. But that's the genius of Project Runway, which has transformed the hokey stitch-and-bitch trend into sexy drama. ''It's the democratization of fashion,'' says Garcia. ''It's the H&M's, the Targets, Project The Devil Wears Prada. The timing could not be better. Designers have become like rock stars.'' And that's just what exec producer Harvey Weinstein was banking on when he pitched the idea in 2003 as ''the sister to Project Greenlight,'' his critically acclaimed let's-make-a-movie reality series. ''People are fascinated with the creative process especially how clothes are made,'' Weinstein says. ''I thought this could be great.''
Bravo went for it on one condition. Runway could never devolve into ''people in black, talking about designing a gown with, you know, a birdcage and a clock woven into someone's Marie Antoinette wig,'' recalls Bravo president Lauren Zalaznick. She got her way, but there was still the matter of making that whole sewing thing riveting. Which brings us to...