Q&A with Jean Jennings of Motor City Masters on truTV

Q&A with Jean Jennings of Motor City Masters on truTV

A few weeks ago, I had the fortune of watching the premiere episode of Motor City Masters in the company one of the show’s judges, Jean Jennings of ‘Jean Knows Cars’ fame. It was a delight to celebrate her accomplishments in the automotive community by gathering around a big-screen TV and cranking up the sound so we didn’t miss any of her sure-to-be-accurate commentary.

Tonight, the third episode of 10 in the truTV reality series will air.  We had a quick chat with Jean ahead of the beach truck-themed episode to get her “tru” take on the show and its contestants.

Scroll to the end of the interview for a sneak peek at tonight’s episode!

Q&A with Jean Jennings of truTV’s Motor City Masters

Be Car Chic (BCC):  We’re one-third of the way through the season. Do you have any favorites that you can share at this stage of the competition?

Jean Jennings (JJ):  Well you know, I was so excited that they found women competitors, and when I talked to the producers, I said, “You really have to make an effort to find women. I’ll really appreciate it if you do.” So they found two  – a younger woman who’s a student at CSC and an older woman who’s claim to fame is custom paint.

Here they are, both kind of quiet and kind of hesitant so I’m watching them very carefully to see how they’re handling being bowled over by the guys on the show. I knew Joann from a Mustang build, and her painting is absolutely exquisite.

BCC: Others have likened Motor City Masters to the Project Runway for the car obsessed, which makes sense because the two shows share production companies. Would you say that’s a fair assessment? How does the MCM format lend itself to building car concepts in roughly the same amount of time designers would have to make an outfit for the runway?

JJ:  It’s one of the more difficult reality competitions because they have to work as a team and create a single, cohesive vehicle but also have their own identities shown within that design. And they’re in that pressure cooker – they don’t get to leave their hotel except when they’re at the studio working.

We have two separate groups – a group of experienced designers who draw cars for a living and other people making them. Then we have the group of people who make cars but don’t draw them.  – Jean Jennings, judge on truTV’s Motor City Masters

The Project Runway format resonated with me originally because I’m a Project Runway fan, and I understand what it means when they say, “Now designers, we’re going to the Museum of Natural History, and you each get to choose a bug and build a runway design reminiscent of your bug” and “Now, designers, we need you to build a dress from duct tape.”

The difference is Project Runway doesn’t work in teams. What you do is take 10 contestants to start with, split them into teams and give them 5 technicians to help them. The challenges seem crazy, but they’re so fascinating you really want to see what they’re going to do.

Malia [Jones] is a pistol. I liked her because she was very feisty and she had no problem trashing everything in her way. She really had something to say. And you think, “Oh, look at that really cute girl; she’s a surfer and a model.” No, she’s like a small dog that thinks she’s a giant.

– Jean Jennings on Motor City Masters guest judge and professional surfer, Malia Jones.

BCC: How is the wide gap in design skills and life application a challenge for some contestants, say Camilo, and how can it be leveraged, for someone like Darby, to be an advantage?

JJ:  The most interesting thing to me is that I walked onto that roof and said, “What is he doing here? He should be a judge.” (“He” being Camilo Pardo, former designer of the Ford GT) He didn’t win the first challenge so I think it’s interesting to have someone like Camilo to set the bar so people know what they have to compete with.

While Camilo sets the bar, Darby is the young incoming girl at 20 years old. It’s just part of the student and the professor story. She’s very talented with virtually no real-world experience.

As judges, we loved walking through the studio to see where they were going.  To get the whiff of their controversy and their agony. What everyone sees on TV, we never saw that. We didn’t watch them on secret camera; we just heard the whiff of the tension. 

BCC:  What have you learned from being part of MCM, most surprising thing you’ve learned?

JJ:  I think that it’s interesting and probably surprising that  – I’m thinking about the fact that the designers were challenged right off the bat buy the builders. “You’re sissies you’re just drawers, you can’t do anything” and very qquickly you see those designers completely covered with the crap they’re working with and they’re working with the techs. Interesting to see how quickly they adapted.

This episode is about the beach trucks. You’re going to see who wins the challenge  – a surprising winner in a medium is not their forte. And it’s going to be a very telling episode – that you know, both of these – they are factions and they have to cross back and forth with their areas of expertise. To get respect, the drawers are going to have to build and the builders are going to have to draw.

[For] any designer, any creative person, this is very personal. If people don’t like it, it’s like a knife in your heart. You’re not just building widgets and sending them down the line. These are very creative people; they’re looking over their shoulders constantly and juding themselves.

BCC:  We got a sneak peek at the third episode. How are you liking the leading ladies of MCM? How are Darby and Joann influencing their fellow contestants, and how do you think they’ll positively influence female viewers, particularly women who either are in the industry or would like to be?

JJ:  Tonight, you’re going to see Darby grow in leaps and bounds in only three episodes. She’s on the one hand, a goofball, never seen the ocean and has to build this beach truck. And then she’s wearing her arrowhead (which defines her as an archer in her mind). She couldn’t present the first [concept car], but you’re really going to see her address that tonight.

Joann – you’re going to see somebody who’s really nice and extremely talented get completely run over by the guys. And there’s almost like there’s no place for this niceness [in the competition], and this real quiet talent. That’s distressing to me and it’s not a good message, but I’ve seen it in the industry my entire career of 30 years. I’ve seen women at the top walk out because they’re tired of it.

The other lesson is here’s a woman who’s very talented in a man’s world, and in her world, what she does is highly, highly valued. She is a phenomenal custom painter.  – Jean Jennings of ‘Jean Knows Cars’ on Motor City Masters contestant Joann Bortles.

Darby’s story is “there’s nothing difficult about this”. There is nothing that makes this a man’s occupation. You can do anything if you learn how to use the tools. If you love cars and know how to draw, you can go to school and become a designer. She beat the professor. The next part is getting the chops and just sticking it out.

If it works against you to be a woman, then you have to ignore it; and if it works for you, take it!

BCC:  Finally, the most challenging question of all. Which is more difficult – selecting winners of each challenge or hats to wear to each challenge?

JJ:  (Laughs with what I perceive as some relief that it’s not actually a tough question.) Well, I can tell you that the executive producer of the show came all the way up to my dressing room (which was way far away, at the top of a big staircase). I had a long table with all my hats on it, and he would point to a hat and say, “That hat is not seeing the light of day.”

What was important was that I didn’t look like a total parade float. I love my hats, but I tried to make them appropriate.

Once I discovered the bad news – that I would be doing all the execution (she makes a point not to call it “elimination”) – I wore my black top hat, pointy hat. I got an actual giant black hat made by Ignatius Hats that I called the “sorting hat”. That was the first one the EP said wouldn’t see the light of day.

Catch Motor City Masters on TruTV Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m. EDT. This week’s theme is beach trucks with guest judge, professional surfer and model, Malia Jones.  Get in on the conversation via Twitter by using the hashtag #MotorCityMasters.

Editor’s note: This article was corrected on 7/8/14 at 8:17pm to reflect my lack of Harry Potter knowledge. Jean’s hat is now correctly referred to as a “sorting” hat and not a “swording” hat, made by Ignatius Hats. The latter, however, could make more sense for the eliminations.

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Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.