Kelly Cutrone delivers Madison Avenue by way of Sun Tzu. "The fashion industry is war, which is why we have a take-no-prisoners kind of attitude," she announces at the beginning of her reality series "Kell on Earth," which premieres Monday night (Bravo, 10 p.m.).
For the last couple of years, Cutrone, the founder and owner of the tastemaking fashion public relations company People's Revolution, has served as a boss / spiritual advisor / den mother for the fashion aspirants of MTV reality fantasias "The Hills" and "The City." On these shows, she wields something like magic; young blonds from Southern California secure gigs in her office and, presto, with a little pluck and Cutrone's encouragement, are blessed with the opportunity to design their own fashion lines. If they're lucky, Cutrone will also set them up on dates with male models and let them know when their BFFs are holding them back.
In these situations, Cutrone thrives as the voice of outsider reason. She's brash and unfiltered, with a withering gaze matched only by her disdainful tone. She's a self-styled truth-teller, but really she's a strategist, cultivating loyalists without giving too much of herself away. She's the moral center of those shows, without having to appear in every scene.
But as the central voice of insanity on "Kell on Earth," which revolves around the happenings at her firm, Cutrone suffers from diminishing returns. She's no longer the special mentor with life-changing wisdom: She's a manic demi-tyrant with lasers for words.
At times, she's warm and encouraging, especially with her 7-year-old daughter, Ava, or when she tells her assistant Andrew Mukamal, a geeky, grungy, gay boy toy, "I'm actively looking for a sexual partner for you." But even her moments of kindness have a mildly sinister air, as if her goodwill were being deployed in service of muting the effect of later meanness.
And there is plenty of that. Cutrone has a scratched-up voice and is almost Kanye West-ian in her bluntness. "This is not group therapy, so get over it," she tells the staff. "We're not really mean but we'll say mean things to you for sure."
In moments like this, "Kell on Earth" plays like a documentary on management style that might air on CNBC. "America's going through a really hard time," Cutrone notes grimly, "and I have to protect our business."
Which means, apparently, peppering underlings with a steady stream of maxims that are unremarkable in content and even phrasing, the stuff of a thousand management guru seminars. (In fact, Cutrone is also releasing a self-help book this week, called "If You Have to Cry, Go Outside: And Other Things Your Mother Never Told You.") For example, to Stefanie, her former assistant, who's now a junior executive: "I think that the lesson for you this week is just because you've delegated something [that] doesn't mean it's getting done."
But where Cutrone wins is in delivery, that particular combination of superiority, sympathy, certainty and disinterest.
"Just know if you're crying or you're having a bad day, and you've been knocked around, the best thing to do is come back," she says, empathetically, in a meeting at the outset of New York Fashion Week. "If I stopped this business every time somebody said something mean to me, or I felt bad, or I felt like I was losing everything, I wouldn't have been in business more than a month."
Translated into English, this essentially amounts to a blanket license for further abuse.
But to be berated by Cutrone is a thrill -- otherwise, why would so many people submit to it? This episode features another of Cutrone's sacrificial lambs, Ashley Dupré, a former prostitute who had sexual relations with then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (as a result of the sex scandal, he resigned from his office in March 2008). Last spring, Cutrone sat her in the front row of a show for one of her clients, designer Yigal Azrouël. The next day, Azrouël fired Cutrone, though it's difficult to say whether Cutrone got the short end of the stick.
On Monday's episode, she admits it was a shortsighted mistake, just before she invites Dupré to her office for a friendly chat. They seem to have a remora-shark-like relationship, each benefiting from the other. But Cutrone has boundaries. When Dupré suggests that she and her friends might crash the upcoming Azrouël show, in some sort of weak conceptual stunt, Cutrone turns sour. You sense the chess game in her head doesn't include many more moves for Ms. Dupré after the cameras stop rolling.