If American Idol is the Eden of reality star judgeships, then NBC’s Fashion Star has to be the River Styx and the beginning of the end. For one thing the series doesn’t actually have anyone called a judge on it. Instead Jessica Simpson, John Varvatos and Nicole Richie are referred to as ‘mentors’. You might not know it but NBC insists that Simpson, Richie and Varvatos are three of fashion’s biggest names. (Anna Wintour might beg to differ.) For the recently debuted Season 2, the ratings demonstrate a show that’s still struggling. Is that why the show slashed the prize contract from $6 million in the first season to $3 million for the second?

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Richie, Varvatos and Simpson are supposed to guide their teams of four aspiring clothing designers to succeed with fashion buyers from Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Express. Otherwise, the designers have to face the blink-and-you-missed-it elimination. This results in a muddle of mentor roles. If you ask me, Fashion Star is a cable show that stumbled onto network and can’t compare to the superior Project Runway. So I feel forced to say this: Nicole Richie, you can do better. I’m not sure Paris Hilton’s former sidekick has a personal style that has “influenced a generation of fashionistas” as this past show claimed. But she’s certainly the sharpest needle in the sewing room on Fashion Star.

For one thing, Richie is constantly directing her designers unlike Varvatos and Simpson, especially prodding those more whimsical or esoteric designers to be more mainstream and buyer focused. “You can’t just be an artist. At a certain point, you have to be a business woman as well,” Richie told a contestant in Season One. And it’s a POV she retains in Season Two. She’s also entertaining with nice comic-timing. “If you can pull this off, the intricacy of this dress will be ridiculous. I’d wear it,” Richie told contestant Daniel Silverstein this week. “If it sucks, I’m not going to wear it or be your friend or talk to you ever again.”

Contrast that to the collection of clichés that came from Simpson after her team showed their wares on the March 22 show. “This week you really stepped it up and showed America that you can design for each and every one of them. I feel like a proud Mom,” Jessica said. What’s most amazing is that the woman whom the show describes as creator of the “highest grossing celebrity fashion brand in history” got it out in one reasonably coherent sentence. That doesn’t happen often enough. No matter how much Simpson furrows her brow or worries about her low brow brand, the weakest of all the Fashion Star mentors always has something to say. It just often doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Simpson’s best moment on Fashion Star was in Season One when she told a dismissive male designer that “I really want to hit you across the face right now” after he scoffed at the idea of women like her and Richie critiquing his work. Since that one red meat moment, it has been all pablum from Simpson. She keeps repeating herself. “There’s a lot of pressure because it’s my name on the line here and if it’s not going to be something that I’m going to wear then I’m not going to support it,” she said in the first show of this season. And she said it again – “The pressure is on because my name is on the line here” – in the third show this past Friday. Oh, and let’s not forget her vision of having “hoochie mamas walking down the runway”.

Contrast her with Varvatos and his background at Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren and his upmarket men’s line and boutiques. Varvatos does have the most legit claim to being an expert in the fashion field of all the mentors. Unfortunately, like Idol’s Randy Jackson, Varvatos has the industry clout and credibility but lacks any charisma. As a mentor, Varvatos fails to show any leadership backstage. Either is his advice banal (“Little details in life are the things that make or break you,” he told his team this week) or defeatist (“Good luck with that,” Varvatos told his team member the other week). Otherwise, Varvatos out on the runway is clapping away and fist pumping. In other words, embarrassing himself.

When Fashion Star returned for its sophomore cycle, it ditched mono-emotion Elle MacPherson as host. However, cackling auctioneer Louise Roe is even worse inside Hollywood Center Studios. Of the buyers –  Caprice Willard of Macy’s, Terron Schaefer of Saks Fifth Avenue and Express’ Erika DeSalvatore – only Schaefer has any real personality. Otherwise there’s dead air. Beyond trying to look pensive, they actually don’t do much of anything.