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Trinidad & Tobago: Project Runway’s Social Media Queen

The season finale for Lifetime network's hit reality show, Project Runway, is almost here and the pressure is on! Trinidad and Tobago’s Anya Ayoung-Chee, a designer who has made it into the top five – thanks to her undeniable flair for fashion and the unwavering support of her fan base – not only has a shot at winning this season's coveted prize, but has also become a stiff competitor for Twitter’s fan favourite competition.

Created to help attract more viewers, the fan fave competition has been heated; it draws to a close at midnight on October 26. Fans, especially viewers from Trinidad and Tobago, have been feverishly including her Twitter hashtag #PR9Anya in all their tweets, as these will be counted to determine the winner. Ayoung-Chee has managed to retain the lead for several weeks, but was recently pushed into second place by Anthony Ryan, who was ousted from the general design competition, and now enjoys the fan favourite lead. Today's stats show Ryan having 52% of the votes and Anya, 43%.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Anya Ayoung-Chee. Image by Flickr user Bill Bedzrah (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Trinidad and Tobago’s Anya Ayoung-Chee. Image by Flickr user Bill Bedzrah (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Not only will the eventual fan favourite win the popularity vote, he or she will be awarded a cash prize of US $10,000. Should she win, Ayoung-Chee has pledged to donate the sum to children’s charitable organizations, no doubt an extra incentive for her supporters.

Dynamic personality

A dynamic personality, Ayoung-Chee seemed primed to enjoy a high profile at the show's outset. Her early revelation that she’d only learned how to sew a mere four months before the competition, her frankness about having learned how to compete on the international stage (Ayoung-Chee was Trinidad and Tobago's Miss Universe delegate in 2008) without letting other people's negative energy affect her, not to mention host, judge and executive producer Heidi Klum’s liking for her – catapulted her into the spotlight.

From week to week, Anya is a topic of discussion – if not for her designs and winning streak throughout several challenges (one that earned her design a US $20,000 prize and an editorial shoot in Marie Claire magazine and another that saw her dress featured on Amazon.com as part of Heidi Klum's sportswear line), then certainly for a bit of designer rivalry, with some more seasoned contestants feeling incredulous about her performance, despite her relative inexperience.

On Facebook, Ayoung-Chee has close to 16,000 “likes” and over 2,000 more people “talking about” her; the other contestants have only hundreds. Are all of Ayoung-Chee’s fans Trinbagonians? Unlikely – but what is certain is that she has solid, tangible support from a sizeable segment of her online compatriots, the virtual wind beneath her wings. Of course, Ayoung-Chee is also an American citizen, having been born in New York to Trinidadian parents. She moved to Trinidad when she was just two years old, was raised there, and is as Trini as her undiluted accent and her cool Caribbean sense of style.

Support from netizens

Netizens, of course, are all supporting Ayoung-Chee for different reasons. Carnival Fete-ish was clear about why she cheers her on:

Even if she were a complete stranger, I tend support to my fellow Trinis without restraint. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Project Runway show interesting and low enough on exaggerated drama that I could tolerate it even if Anya weren’t on it. However, Anya IS on it

I have stated on Twitter that I am not a fan, I am a supporter. I want to see her do well. That scandal* could not have been easy, and she has an amazing sense of style and I mean hey, she’s from Trinidad! Why wouldn’t I support her. She has gone up against a group of people with more experience than her and held her own very well. I think that her being on the show and doing well is great for Trinidad as it gives exposure to our world of fashion and I’m all for good publicity.

(*The scandal which Carnival Fete-ish refers to is a sex tape, allegedly leaked by a third party, that put Ayoung-Chee on the front pages of local newspapers and piqued online interest in her). But the attention that Ayoung-Chee is getting from her appearances on Project Runway's ninth season is all about her great designs…which leads to the Trini pride factor.

Popular fashion blogger Afrobella, who is also a member of the Trinidadian diaspora, tweeted during episode 12:

@Afrobella: Project Runway made me shed a tear tonight! #PR9Anya @AnyadeRogue – the Trini pride you inspire at home and around the world is amazing!!

Another supporter, @SammyJo947 tweeted:

@SammyJo947: @AnyadeRogue was smashing as usual; more than deserves to be in the top 4.

Wuzdescene seemed to sum up the general feeling nicely:

…Wow ….. what pride ….. and happiness ….. fuh Anya …. and fuh Trinbago ….. cuz yuh know us ….. we like tuh see weself on TV ….. especially if is in America!

Even Tumblr users have joined in the Project Runway chatter; there, you’ll find Ayoung-Chee’s fans debating with critics. Take, for instance, gabeschmabe.tumblr.com, who said:

Give the girl some freaking credit. If she is just lucky, good for her. Every major designer has had more than their fair share.

Still, the next few hours will be nail-biting ones for fans, as they attempt to help Anya gain on Ryan’s lead. Carnival Fete-ish noted how stiff the competition is:

“I’ve been on a relentless Twitter campaign with some other dedicated fans/supporters and while she held the lead for quite some time, it seems that the recently ousted Anthony Ryan and his fan base have resorted to multiple accounts and bulk tweeting to put him in the lead and attempt to keep him there. I can understand their motivation, but is it a match for mine? I guess we won’t know until the last tweet has been counted at the end of the season…”

Popular Carnival blog Trinidadcarnivaldiary.com, also invited readers to help push Ayoung-Chee back to first place, encouraging people to use Hootsuite or TweetDeck to schedule multiple tweets for her that included the #PR9Anya hashtag – and to get their friends and family to do the same.

Being popular on social media networks doesn’t just happen. You must have a compelling story, an approachable personality, and a deep level of engagement – all of which Ayoung-Chee has going for her – so, even for those who may not be fans, she still engages interest on a deeper level than just wanting to see another Trinidadian make an impression internationally.

Fashion blogger inkblotphotography was very pragmatic about Ayoung-Chee’s chances:

When this season began, I was completely ready to be objective about Anya's work. Solidarity aside, I've been watching this show for long enough to know that the competition challenges designers to move past their regular aesthetic. Not all designers are good at doing that. So far, I think I've been pretty good about being objective. I was very open about not liking her work with Olivier in the stilt walker challenge, and I wasn't immediately keen on the maxi dress from last episode.

That said, I am completely and totally ready to go full Stan for Anya this week… I think she's shown enormous growth so far as a designer (her usual design aesthetic tends to be a bit more regimented) and I'm SO glad she's finally shown that she isn't just ‘that girl who just learned to sew'.

This perspective certainly addresses concerns that Au Courant Daily raised early in the season:

She has the design bit down-pat, but I've always wondered if the one-time beauty queen can indeed manage the technical aspect of fashion design on her own, something that a designer can't totally avoid, whether in real life or in the parameters of a show like Project Runway.

Can she handle the patterning + grading, material selection, and, quite frankly, the actual sewing of a garment from conception to completion? Whether by hand, or by industrial machine?

So those will be the sort of issues for Ayoung Chee to confront during the upcoming season of the popular show. We're rooting for her, and I sure do hope she goes the distance and produces some outstanding designs along the way.

This is, of course, exactly what she’s done with an aesthetic Au Courant calls “individualistic” with “a very identifiable design lexicon around simple shapes and bold, ethnic patterns”.

Undoubtedly, Ayoung-Chee is making the most of the momentum she’s gained. She has increased her confidence, expanded her international visibility, and built new networks from the experience. She is also focused on getting her line, Pilar, (named in honour of her late brother) into outlets abroad, and designing a section for a currently undisclosed mas band for Trinidad and Tobago's 2012 Carnival celebrations.

Aisha Williams, who blogs for a local ad agency, had this to say:

Even if she doesn’t win outright…Trinis will do their mightiest to ensure Anya wins Fan Favourite. Tech-savvy Trinis have shown their might against Project Runway’s international fanbase. The raw stats get even more interesting when we note that Fan Favourite is based on the number of Twitter hashtag mentions (#pr9anya) and Twitter Followers is based on the number of Tweeps. I say interesting because, you know, Trinis supposedly don’t do Twitter.

With all of the buzz around her, how does Ayoung-Chee feel about the unwavering social media support she’s had? In an interview with JayBlessed.com, she said:

It is so overwhelming. So overwhelming. What I love about it, is that it is so genuine. It doesn’t feel fanatical, it feels so real and I just… I just all of a sudden want to know these people. I want to know them. It is so validating and humbling.

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