The most talked about guy on TV these days ain't on CSI, he's not Bill O'Reilly or Letterman, it's not "Earl". It's almost Jeff Conway but certainly not Tony Danza.
He's Santino Rice.
The towering, beady-eyed, ponytailed, stilleto'd "Project Runway" fashion designer is on the tip of everyone's tongue, polarizing the nation at the speed of our President. EVERYBODY - from the 14th floor janitor at 30 Rock to the American Airlines flight attendant who served me coffee yesterday - has an opinion about Santino. There's rampant speculation all over the internet regarding his sexuality, many thoughts about why he wears stilettos (see "Designing for a Socialite"), and exclamations in every direction about whether he's super-hot or super-not.
For the record, he's said in interviews that he's bisexual. As for the stilettos, it's a statement! You gotta have a gimmick.
On one thing almost all agree, the designer is very talented. He's won two challenges, counts Nicky Hilton as a fan, and gets a lot of attention for his designs alone.
"Santino is the designer that will surprise you with the risks he takes. You can't ever discount his strong point of view - and that's what makes him a compelling designer," executive producer Rich Bye says. "The judges always respond to risk taking over playing it safe."
"Runway" fanatic and supercool actress Kristen Johnston is already betting that Santino and Nick Verreos will make it to the final three
But is he a villian? You see, people are reacting very strongly against he and his big personality. Thus the call I take every Thursday morning from The Voice of the Heartland in St. Louis, Missouri.
"I can't deal with that Santini! He's not nice! I can't watch him!"
It's my mother, Evelyn Cohen, who swears that he's this season's Wendy Pepper. She also swears that his name sounds like "Martini" but that's another matter entirely.
Why is he disliked? What has he done to anyone besides show unbridled vanity and a drive to succeed? Is it just too much drive?
"People dislike his arrogance and some people think he has a chip on his shoulder," Executive Producer Bye says. "He's not afraid of saying what he thinks of his fellow designers, even if it's really harsh." The actor John Benjamin Hickey called from the set of his new film (think "Dangerous Minds" with Hilary Swank conquering the inner city) to chime, "I want to see something matter to him besides winning, something like creating something beautiful... It IS a contest, though, and he's so gifted and f--d up and he is great television and I will stay tuned to hopefully see someone slap the s--t out of him!"
Funnylady Kathy Najimy, who loves her some Diana Eng, says "I think Santino is a great designer but he needs to personality-down a bit.. calm it! Just buy it, cut it, and design it.... lose the bravado a bit."
Yo Sanitino - ya might want to pay attention to Najimy, she happens to be a champ on another fine Bravo show, "Celebrity Poker."
Who better to have the last word on the matter than the king of Parsons, and "Project Runway" den-father, Mr. Tim Gunn himself? "His unyielding passion and unbridled determination to succeed are two outstanding characteristics, but they would mean very little without talent. Santino is, indeed, talented, very talented. He has a clear point of view and a spot-on vision for his designs. At the same time, that vision can be thwarting if the client doesn't share the same aesthetic (not unlike Austin...), because Santino finds it difficult, if not impossible, to step out of his skin and design for another point of view."
Thank you, Tim! As for you, Santino, we'll be watching.