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The sanest man in
reality TV

The sanest man in
reality TV


Forget Chloe, Santino, Daniel V.--the real breakout star of the second season of Project Runway was the droll, sage, and sexy Tim Gunn

As the in-house design mentor on the hit Bravo reality show Project Runway, Tim Gunn is the fairy godfather we all wish we could have--nurturing but no-nonsense, seasoned but not over it, frank but fair. The out TV personality, whose day job is Chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons The New School for Design, built on the good will he garnered in Season One to become a full-fledged fan favorite in Season Two. It's impossible now to imagine the show without him. caught up with Gunn on the morning after the Season Two finale, which saw Laos-born, Houston-raised designer Chloe Dao triumph over her two talented gay boy cofinalists: the shaggy-haired, fresh-out-of-college whippersnapper Daniel Vosovic and the I-didn't-come-here-to-make-friends hothead Santino Rice.

"Thank you for your interest in even talking to me," says Gunn humbly. "I'm really flattered. I love The Advocate." The feeling's mutual.

TIM GUNN: I'll start. What did you think of last night's show?

DENNIS HENSLEY: I loved it. Right up until the end, I had no idea who would take it. Sitting in the judging room I was the same way. One moment I thought it was going to be Daniel...oop, now it's going to be Santino...oop, now it's going to be Chloe. I was on pins and needles and just thrilled and also relieved when they finally made a decision.

So you were pleased that Chloe won? I was absolutely ecstatic about it.

For what reasons? Well, I'll give you my unbridled take on it.

Good. We love your unbridled take. (Laughs) Well, thank you. I was absolutely blown away by Santino's collection. I didn't know this guy had this level of sophistication in him. But I have to tell you, I thought, Santino can't win this. I mean we've got Jay for Season One and Santino for Season Two? Every circus sideshow is going to show up for Season Three. So I thought it just can't be Santino for the larger show reasons, though I loved his collection.

I feel like Santino's personality changed a bit between making the final three and showing his collection. It's like he went back to L.A., watched the show, realized he wasn't coming off that great, and calmed down. I agree. I'll share with you very candidly that by the time we wrapped the filming in June, no one was happier to see Santino go than I was. I was so fed up with him. When I visited him in Los Angeles in December, I was expecting the same Santino. Flying there I thought, Oh God, here we go again. When I saw him and saw the collection, I was blown away. I saw this very different guy, and in a weird way he was kind of loveable.

I was ready for Santino to go every week until he started doing his hilarious imitation of you. Then I wanted him to stick around and keep doing it. How did you feel about him mimicking you? I loved it. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I knew it wasn't mean-spirited. There's a little clip on the website where I walk into the studio imitating Santino imitating me.

Then there's the young and yummy Daniel Vosovic. I had big concerns about him, but by fashion week, I thought he was in excellent shape. I really believe that that 13th look we made them do really bailed him out and helped unify that collection. I felt great about him, but he's so young. And I'm not referring to his age, though he is young, but he's very inexperienced in the industry. To win Project Runway you've got to be able to hit the ground running, and he just doesn't have enough background to do what it would have taken to put a collection into production. Chloe, among all of them, is the seasoned experienced professional. If I were just investing--collection sight unseen--I'd go with Chloe in a heartbeat because she knows what to do.

I got the feeling that guest judge Debra Messing really liked Chloe's collection. [Elle Magazine editor] Nina [Garcia] was also very vocal about it. I have to tell you, I adore Debra Messing. She really knows fashion and really knows how to talk about it. It was wonderful to hear her hold her own with Nina.

You weren't a fan of Daniel's handbags. I thought when they went missing, that they'd cut to you tossing them in a dumpster. I may have even uttered, "If I'd known where they were, I would have taken them." Someone just asked me what I liked most and disliked most about each collection and I said about Daniel's, "It's those handbags." I didn't understand them.

Watching the show I get the feeling that these designers could call you for advice in two years and you'd take the call. You're their mentor for life. Thank you. That's how I see myself. I'm here for them. I had a reporter from The New York Times say to me, "I don't want to talk to you, you're so mean."

Mean? Was she high? My response was, "I could think of a lot of negative words to use about me but 'mean' isn't one of them." And she said, "Oh well, you're so brutal with the designers." It's truth-telling but it's not done in a mean-spirited way because in my experiences, if you're mean, then you're discredited. The person listening will shut down.

I admire the way you're able to be both brutally honest with the designers and empathetic. It's obvious you want them all to do well. Were you concerned with how much to critique the designers without being unfair or playing favorites? Most definitely. Part of it has to do with how open they are to me. Some people didn't want to hear a single, solitary word from me. Zulema being at the top of that list. Others were needier and wanted me to tell them what to do when I just couldn't. That's disallowed by the producers. It can't look as though I made these decisions. What I can do is probe and query them, "Well, what are you thinking about? What options do you see?" What became so obvious about halfway through Season Two was how almost everything having to do with their success was determined when we were shopping at Mood [fabric store]. If they came back with the wrong ingredients they were simply washed up or it was a case of, "Now, we really have to make this work because you have the wrong stuff." So I became more watchful at Mood as we moved to the end of Season Two but even then I couldn't tell them, "Don't do it!" I remember for the 13th look challenge, we went to Mood, and there Daniel is with swatches of all the fabrics from the collection, and he's looking at these colors that just completely baffled me. I just looked at him and said, "What are you doing? Daniel, look at these colors. What resonates to you with these colors?" And he picked the camel, and I just said, "That's it, I'm going." It was his decision. I just believe in telling them the truth because I just want them all to succeed. I really do. The further we get into the show, the more painful it is for me to see one of them go. Anyway, shut up, Tim.

No, don't shut up! Kara didn't make the final three but she did get to show at fashion week because if she hadn't, TV viewers would have known in advance who the final three were. What did you think of Kara's collection? To be honest, she could have won the whole thing with that collection. I saw her collection in early January, and I said to her, "This is magnificent. How did this happen?" And she was all, you know, Kara, kind of slumped over and mopey and like, "Oh, you don't really think so." I was like, "I do. Look at my face!" When it was all said and done, I said to her, "Had you been one of the final three you would never have designed this collection because you would have been full of self-doubt." She had a whole, "No one gives a damn about me, and I don't really give a damn about this, so I'm just going to do the work I really want to do and let everyone else be screwed" attitude. From all the conversations that I was within earshot of after they all showed, no one thought Kara would be out next. Many, many, many people were citing her as being the winner. She's going to enjoy great success from this experience. I'm absolutely confident.

How much of a calling card is appearing on the show for these designers? What it's doing for these designers is really fantastic. It is a launching pad not just for the winner but for all of them who want to use it in that particular manner. It's part of why I was so pissed off at Daniel Franco, and I'm completely befuddled by why Zulema chooses to behave the way that she does. But for the rest of them, they're going to go places and we're going to be very proud when we have our Project Runway Alumni Association.

Has there been anything in a design that you thought would crash and burn but somehow the judges took to? The last challenge of the season, the signature piece for the collection, I really thought that the judges would rip Santino to shreds with that gold concoction. I was disarmed to hear Nina say, "Well, it's the only editorial piece up here." But when she said it, she was right. But that doesn't necessarily mean someone would wear it.

Are there designs that look great in the room but don't look good on TV? Yes, and the inverse can also be the case. For example, the dress that Zulema designed that was the cause of her being out looked so much worse in person than it looked on television. And the jumpsuit that Santino designed for Kara looked pretty good in person. On television, it looked absolutely horrendous. Nick's suit for Daniel, on the other hand, looked equally bad in real life and on TV.

If you had appeared on a show like this when you were starting out in fashion, how would you have fared? I would have crashed and burned. I think I could have made it through probably three of the challenges. The psychological wear and tear, the fatigue, are tough. We never say, "Okay, this afternoon we're going to take you to Coney Island and give you a breather." They have to have such fortitude and such stamina and such focus.

What's been your favorite challenge? I loved the Garden Party challenge. That was the only challenge this season when I thought, No one is going to finish. Everybody could be out. Then when it was all done I thought, My God, any one of these could win. Andrae's elimination for me was like the Olympics. He lost by a nanosecond. They were all stunning. It was my proudest moment for all of them.

I love Andrae, although among the group of people I watch with, he wasn't a favorite. What do people not like about him? Can you characterize it?

I think they never got past his early emotional meltdown on the runway, but I think he seems sensitive and generous, and I don't mind the orange shorts in the workroom. I totally agree with you. I share your perception. He's a very considerate and thoughtful guy, and he's really talented.

One of the things I love about the show is that it's very gay-positive in a very matter-of-fact way. Absolutely. It has a similar feeling to the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons. You know, it's who everybody is. Most of the males in this department are gay. It's just a matter of fact. And the percent of men who excel here is larger than the percent of women. There are people who kind of raise an eyebrow and ask, "Why is that? Is that a Tim Gunn bias?" No, it's that these guys have been through so much to get here. Family pressure and peer pressure to not do it and about their sexuality. So since they've been able to withstand all that and rise above it and get here, they're bound and determined to make it. They have this passion to beat the band and they're going to succeed. And they do.

Were there any straight male designers on the show this year? I can't think of any. Oh, that goddamn Daniel Franco. Excuse me. Daniel will tell you he's straight. Sort of like, "Hello, I'm Daniel Franco. I'm straight." It's like, "Okay, and your point is what?"

What specifically drives you nuts about him? I'll just be very blunt about it. He's a poseur. He was always aware of where the cameras were. Speaking to him I would say to him, "Daniel, please respond looking at me. Don't look for the camera." To him, it was always a performance opportunity. Maybe he acts like this at home, I don't know. I'll reveal to you what it really is that got under my skin about Daniel. He had a meeting with a big, big, big fashion director here in New York, and after the meeting she contacted me and she said, "He is no more prepared to have the conversation that I wanted to have with him than the man in the moon is." I was stunned. I thought to myself, This guy is strutting around everywhere with a model in tow wearing one of his looks. This guy is a charlatan.

And that reflects badly on you and the show. Oh absolutely. I was mortified. Mortified. It just really struck a very raw nerve in me and I haven't been quite the same towards him since.

If we were going to put you on a show with Zulema, Wendy Pepper, and Daniel Franco, how much would we have to pay you? Oh, Jesus. Are you trying to kill me? What's more important to me than the money is being in Tahiti for a month afterwards to recuperate. If I could construct the whole format of the show, we would have mud-wrestling among the three of them.

What's your favorite moment of working with host Heidi Klum? I love Heidi whenever we're not on camera because she's making great quips. She's so smart and she is really, really funny. Remember that weird moment with Guadalupe in the reunion show?

Where she did that nutso stream-of-consciousness monologue that included references to Johnny Cash and Walk the Line? My God. That clip was from three hours into the filming. One of the reasons I said, "This is a bunch of bullshit!" is that that was the third time we had all heard her go through this story, and the two previous times she was completely unintelligible. Forget about the wacky content, you couldn't understand her. And Heidi turned to me and said, "We're going to have to use subtitles for this." And she was right.

Where's the strangest place you've ever been recognized? The weirdest stuff has been when cars are moving, going down Fifth Avenue or wherever and people shout out from cars.

Famous people love the show, too. I recently interviewed Beyonce and she's a fan. I heard about Meryl Streep through Bravo, and I've had dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker twice. What was so incredible is she said, "I can't believe I'm sitting with Tim Gunn." I said, "I can't believe I'm sitting with Sarah Jessica Parker!" What's so funny is that she never wants to know even an inkling about what's coming up. She wasn't able to see last night's show because she had her movie premiere, so she was trying to devise ways of making certain that no one told her who had won. I told her, "You better run right home to your Tivo."

Perhaps Season One winner can lend her a set of headphones from his collection. By the way, would you have picked him as the winner? Yes. I love Jay. I just want Jay to do something with his talent!

Are you involved in casting for Season Three? Yes. I'm helping narrow the pool down to about a hundred, and then I step away and Miramax and Bravo step in. For Season One, I said to the producers, "You can't have both Jay McCarroll and Austin Scarlett. No one will believe they came from the same planet, let alone the same show." Well, was I ever wrong.

Do you feel like the show is getting young people excited about design? I know it is. I hear it all the time on the street, and people write and say that, even from the parents of our Parsons students. I got a call from one parent saying, "You know, I never realized what my son does there all day and now I do. I realize how challenging it is and how demanding and how many different kinds of resources within one are required of people to do work like this."

How has doing the show affected your main job at Parsons? Fortunately, we do the main portion of the show when Parsons is out of session. And the producers are very respectful of my schedule. Fashion Week is the only time that it's really tough but it's a labor of love. I wouldn't be critical of it for a second.

Do your Parsons students ever razz you about the show? Well, most of them are watching, but they're a little shy about talking about it. I find when I'm in the elevator with five or six of them, one of them will bring up who was eliminated last or what the design challenge was, and they'll talk about it. When I say, "Make it work," now the room sort of giggles, but it's a phrase I've been using here at Parsons for years. It's a good phrase to use because it just means rally those resources that you have as opposed to sitting there scratching your head thinking, Well, if I could just have another hundred dollars and go back to Mood, I could fix this. Well, you can't, so do it.

Who's been the biggest success to come out of Parsons that you've been involved with? Undoubtedly the Proenza Schouler boys, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez. Talk about risk taking. They're so fully indoctrinated into the fashion industry that people are shocked that they haven't been around for 20 years. It hasn't been quite four years yet since they've been out. I'm just deliriously proud of those guys.

You seem like you're really enjoying the attention you and the show are getting. Oh, I'm having a blast. When we were shooting Season One, who knew what this would really be? I could easily have ended up on the cutting room floor. And my role in the show is so much like what I do at Parsons day in and day out, so I didn't have an ego about it. I just keep pinching myself. When I learned that I would have this mentor role on the show, one of the first people I told was my mother whose response was, "Are they crazy? You're so old!" Gee, thanks mom.

What's your favorite perk of being on Project Runway? It sounds so Miss America-like to say, but I just love being part of the whole thing. One perk of this was that I was sent out to Los Angeles to cover the red carpet for the Oscars for the Today show. It was thrilling. God, that's something I could talk about for the rest of my life.

Which Oscar dress was your favorite? I thought Nicole Kidman was magnificent. Uma Thurman. The only thing I will say about Nicole Kidman--my God, the Botox! She's got a face that's a mask. It's kind of horrifying. I mean, she can make a grin but that's about it. Shut up, Tim. Also, Charlize Theron, I hated that dress but just seeing her there and her carriage, it was electrifying.

She was like, "I'm going to stand here and work this dress until you fall in love with it." I kept waiting for someone to walk up to her to say something and have her turn and go, "Talk to the bow."

Of course, I was disappointed that Brokeback Mountain didn't win Best Picture. So was I. When I saw that movie, I had to sit in the theater for ten or fifteen minutes to gather myself together to leave. I was a mess. I get weepy thinking about it.

I understand you're single. Has being on the show affected your dating life? Frankly, no. No one seems to care. (Laughs) No, I'm teasing. This is when you're going to think I'm just some dried-up old prune, and maybe I am, but my radar isn't up for it. I mean, I love my life. I used to say that I'm married to Parsons School of Design. Now, I say that Project Runway has made me a bigamist. My days at Parsons are long and intense, and I'm so happy just to go home and close the door.

What do you like to do when you're not working? I love walking in the city. I live in the West Village, so I head west to the Hudson River, and I walk all the way down the tip of Manhattan and back up again. My therapy is TV. I'm a TV addict. I love Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D List, Blowout, Showdog Moms and Dads, Grey's Anatomy. TV's my little escape shuttle.

What's something in your own wardrobe that would surprise people? Wow, that's a good question. Don't I sound like the dullest person in the whole world? Gee, what would it be? Well it's not often I get really stumped. Um... maybe a pair of cargo shorts?

If you were going to a red carpet event and you had to pick one designer from either season to make a suit for you, who would you pick? Kevin John from Season One. I respond very well personally to his whole aesthetic and to his tailoring abilities and to his ability to understand a client. There are designers on both seasons whom I love and I have great respect for their point of view, but it's not me. One of the advantages, if I dare say it, of being a man on a show that deals mostly with women's wear, is that I'm not shopping. I'm not looking at things thinking, Well, how would I look in that? so I can really understand their design philosophy in a way that's really unencumbered by any of my own stuff.

If Mattel were to make a Tim Gunn doll, what would it say when you pulled the string? "Gather 'round." "Make it work." "Carry On."

Lastly, I think you should go in and ask for a big raise for Season Three. You're the heart of the show. Well, you're wonderful to say that. I appreciate it. I have to say the producers are brilliant and Bravo's strategies for how to promote the show are brilliant. It's really a collaboration and I just feel so lucky and proud to be part of it.

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