Paul Stephens, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Georgia, lives on a dirt road seven hours away from a major clothing...

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Paul Stephens, a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Georgia, lives on a dirt road seven hours away from a major clothing store. When he’s not dodging cows and enduring heatless winters, he’s watching … “Project Runway”?

That’s right: Paul is a “Runway” fan. It would be one thing if he were just a quirky beatnik, but from the Caucasuses to the Cascades, plenty of beer-slugging, football-watching, fleece-wearing men have found their new favorite pastime.

The last two episodes of “Project Runway” (10 p.m. Wednesday on Bravo, with numerous repeats throughout the week) boasted an audience of 3.2 million — and about a third of them were men. What’s with the realignment of our TV-watching universe? The reality series began its third season this summer with a cast of 15 fashion designers competing for an opportunity to show in the world-renowned Bryant Park tents during New York’s Fashion Week.

There’s the curiosity factor, for sure. A show that dedicates 10 minutes to a discussion of an angled seam-line arguably draws on the same demographic that watches an occasional half-hour special on, say, bat mating.


“I like that it’s a glimpse into a world I know literally nothing at all about,” says Seattle writer Jack Hamann, who watches the show weekly with his wife. And there’s the diversity: “This is one of the only shows that a competitor’s sexual preference is both evident and decidedly unimportant,” Hamann adds. And then, probably most significantly, “Project Runway” is a water-cooler show. If you want to participate in conversation, you’d better know who Tim Gunn is.

But are we to believe that more men have been watching “Runway” each week than “Baseball Tonight” — and everything else aired simultaneously on ESPN, according to a Bravo spokeswoman — because of mere curiosity or conversation? With the number of male viewers increasing by leaps (only about 287,000 men watched the show in the early part of last season, compared to more than 1 million today) there’s got to be more to it than that.

Here’s an idea: Despite the fretting over chemises or charmeuse, the elements of “Project Runway” are not so different from sports. Both deal with a high level of skill, both demand performance under pressure and both hinge on the intrigue of competition.

Capitol Hill resident Dave Sharrow, 22, admits that while he doesn’t mind “watching the contestants freak out,” it’s not the hyped-up intra-cast drama that keeps him coming back each week.

“It’s one of the only reality shows where people get kicked off or stay on based on something other than drama,” he says. “The designers are actually talented. And it’s funny because you think, oh, it’s sewing, but they end up making these incredible things. I couldn’t do it.”

For Blake Marks-Landro, 23, it’s about the contestants’ abilities to sketch, design and create a quality product in less than 12 hours.

“If a player shoots 12 baskets and doesn’t miss any, that’s one thing. But if you get him into a game and there’s jostling and a ticking clock, and he still doesn’t miss any? Well, that’s another,” he says.

Unlike real life, “Project Runway” gives viewers not only the struggle, but instant gratification at the end of each show: Someone wins and someone loses.

Marks-Landro, who watches the show with five men and two women every week, and Sharrow, who watches with his male housemate, both admit to cheering for — and betting on — their “home team.”

Of course, another group of men admit they watch “Project Runway,” but not for the competition, or anything else. They watch because they have been coerced into it by the women in their lives.

University District resident William Litsch, 29, who watches with his female housemate, likens the show to the 1987 chick-flick “Dirty Dancing.” “I’ve seen that movie 15 times. I don’t like it, but I watch it.”

But in the end we’re left with the evidence: Tonight, over 1 million red-blooded American men will be engrossed in Gunn’s squinting examination of a pencil skirt, and whether the designer can “make it work.”

Are they watching for appreciation of the talent? For the instant gratification? Because it’s kind of like sports?

“Well, it’s also about Heidi Klum being hot,” admits Marks-Landro. “Really hot. She’s so hot, she should run for office.”

Hey, with Seattle men taking an interest in fashion, my money just may be on Senator Klum in 2008.

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or hedwards@seattletimes.com