This website and Automobile Magazine generally take up enough of Jean’s day, but this past month, she has added a new item to her portfolio: reality-show star. Jean has been filming a new series that will improve the viewing public’s appreciation for good design and could ultimately even cleanse the highways of ugly cars.
Well, in truth, that may be too much to ask. But when Motor City Masters premieres this summer on truTV, viewers will be engrossed in the nuances of automotive design as contestants, all with established backgrounds in the subject, meet a series of weekly challenges in the pursuit of a $100,000 prize and a new Chevrolet Camaro Z28.
As the result of watching the reality show, viewers will gain a refined understanding of good design.
In typical reality-show style, contestants are eliminated after each episode, so the surviving pair face off when meeting a challenge in the final episode.
To judge their efforts, producers chose Jean along with Harald Belker, who trained at Art Center College of Design and has drawn every sort of car, from Hot Wheels toys to sci-fi movie vehicles. A changing cast of celebrity guests provide additional judging assistance.
I recently visited the production, which was under way at a studio in an obscure part of Long Beach, California.
I found Jean on the set, regally ensconced in a director’s chair, her brown eyes gleaming and her head delicately topped with a peach-accented hat to complement her blouse.
With about half of the season’s ten episodes already in the can, secrecy had nevertheless been maintained, so everything about the show was news to me, and I had to ask what made her want to do it.
Besides the opportunity to escape Michigan’s winter, she said Motor City Masters was giving her the opportunity to apply herself afresh to familiar subject matter. “The coolest thing is to do something different with what you know,” she said.
I needed no reminder of her extensive reporting on design, which has led to friendships with some of the most talented people ever to create cars.
But I wondered if her taking this opportunity involved some risks. Mindful that Bunim/Murray Productions was behind Motor City Masters, she read the treatment “very, very carefully” and liked it. “I’m a big fan of Project Runway because of the format,” she said, naming one of the company’s hits. “And this show’s the same format. They have contestants who have actual talent, they have judges from the business, and then it goes crazy from there.”
As one who has occasionally let his adverbs stray off and later walked into her office to find them, I know that Jean will not hesitate to speak her mind about hits and misses. Getting into the flow of the show wasn’t likely to be her problem.
What has gratified her, though, was affirming that she had plenty of substance, even when teamed up with Harald. It “pops out in the funniest way,” she said. “Between us, we are almost constantly in sync. I had no idea I knew what I knew.”
Even the most popular designer in the world is subject to criticism, to the consumer’s point of view. That’s why the judging aspect of this show is important.
Executive producer Rick de Oliveira, whose background in reality TV goes back to the second season of The Real World, said Jean was chosen after being recommended by people in the auto industry who knew she understood the consumer. And in this regard, she has made a big impression on the contestants.
“They have come to really understand that she has a very strong voice,” de Oliveira said. “And that voice: I don’t care if you’re the most popular designer in the world, you’re going to be subject to the criticism, to the consumer’s point of view. I think that’s a really important judging aspect to all this. Jean brings that practicality. We’re trying to relate this back to an audience that needs to be educated.”
Motor City Masters host Brooke Burns, whose breakthrough came on Baywatch, said she, Jean, and Harald have struck up a “three amigos” relationship. What’s impressive about Jean, Brooke said, is her realness. “She is such a natural on camera. She has such a great sense of humor and a spin on the way she writes. That definitely comes across. It’s wonderful to see someone from day one be so natural, expressive, and obviously smart. She knows her stuff. She’s not faking.”
Being a part of the show has opened her eyes to what makes a car unique, Brooke said. And she hopes the enthusiasm spreads.
“I know that it’s inspired me.” Repeating the old show business saying, “The camera tells all,” she said: ”We’re having fun. We’re being inspired. I certainly hope that translates to the American public, that they will also enjoy watching the show and be inspired to look at car design in a new way.”
What I’m Driving in L.A. Jean Jennings, March 6, 2014