Lindsay Lohan could learn a lesson in damage control from Gunnar Deatherage. With his two-tone hair and catty barbs, Deatherage was the Cruella de Ville of Season 10 of Project Runway. And then something strange happened. Gunnar got nice. So by the time Heidi Klum auf Wiedersehen’d him, some of us actually felt sorry he was out.
"I feel like the whole experience was a mind fuck," Deatherage confided. "The whole competition is about endurance under pressure. It's testing every facet of you as a designer.
"And I feel like a lot of times the judges' comments are extremely contradictory. There was one challenge where they hated my sequin dress that I did for Lord & Taylor. They ripped it apart. And I found it very hard to sit and take a critique from Heidi Klum while she was wearing a sequin dress that was very similar in cut."
Deatherage received his first sewing machine when he was barely a teen.
"I’d already been sewing since I was five or six. By first grade I could put together a pattern and sew it together. And my grandmother sewed. It bonded us. I liked the reaction I got from her. And from my family when I would do something they would enjoy."
How did your brothers react?
"I have one younger brother. He’s in the military. And my father is in the military. I think they’re fine with it. I’m very blessed with an extremely supportive family. I have a family that supports my every endeavor."
Deatherage grew up in the South, but defies stereotypes.
"Louisville isn't rural. But the town is. Where I lived, I graduated with eighty-four people. We have a Wal-Mart, but it's still pretty country."
For fun, do you jump in the mud like Honey Boo Boo?
"No. I'm too prissy for all of that."
What's your ethnic heritage?
"My family is Finnish and Romanian. And that's awesome. I think those are very cool heritages."
With a name like Gunnar, I thought you'd be German. I thought that's why Heidi Klum liked you at first.
"We had German exchange students in high school. Maybe that was it."
Today, Detherage is across the river from Louisville in Jeffersonville, IN.
"I started on my cosmetology license in high school, then got my master's license. I saved money. Then I opened a store. Then a clothing boutique. I knocked down walls and combined two buildings. Lots of clothing in it. Not my own, though. I don't have time to make it right now. Also home interior items on the clothing side. Knickknacks."
Did you bring a metrosexual feel to the neighborhood?
"Definitely. Something the city hasn't seen before."
You're used to being bold. Have you always wanted glamour in your life?
"It's always been very apparent I wouldn't stay in my hometown."
You were just a teenager when Project Runway began. Did you watch the early episodes when you were younger?
"Yes. I definitely think it helped mold me. It's something I grew up watching. And I never thought I would get accepted on it. There was always a part of me that thought it wasn't feasible."
Have any younger versions of yourself contacted you? Glamour-starved boys in small towns who watched you on the show?
"I have received hundreds, and I mean hundreds of emails and notes in response to the bullying thing in the print challenge. I didn't know how people would respond to me opening up about my childhood like that. But I get feedback on everything from Tumblr to email to Facebook. From kids who are being pushed around in school. And from adults too.
"These people are sending me their stories, and opening up to me. But I'm not a counselor. And I don't know if there is a right or wrong thing to tell these kids. It's just me acknowledging them."
Deatherage created a symbol for his childhood bullying: a bird surrounded by two hands. It can be read as either a spirit crushed, or a soul released. Used as the basis for his design in the print challenge, it defied the direction to incorporate one's cultural heritage. Was Deatherage showing that trauma is more deeply ingrained than traditions from the old country? If so, it was lost on the judges who voted him off.
In the print challenge, your theme was bullying. It almost seemed like the judges were bullying you. Did you feel that?
"Yes and no. No in the fact that they at least appreciated I put a lot of thought into the print. But I feel like they were looking for things to pick at me about my outfit. Whether they liked it or not, I thought they were nitpicking on things. But if that was my time to go, that was my time to go.
"At least that was something different, that they hadn't seen from me before. Then you have Ven, on the other hand, who has done the same detailing. That was his fourth or fifth challenge he had done that in. So I felt more picked at than bullied."
There was that judge. I don't know why, but I always block his name out. The guy that had first won the print challenge, and won Project Runway All-Stars...
Mondo. That's right. I remember they showed him encouraging you in the workroom. Telling you to make this challenge personal. To dig deep. And out of everyone, you dug the deepest. And when Mondo won the print challenge on his season, he got very personal and talked about being HIV positive. And so I thought he kind of turned on you. You got more personal, and out of everyone, you took his instructions to heart. And it almost seemed like he attacked you for it.
"I feel that. I think so. I think there was definitely...I feel like, and I don't think this is the first time it's happened. We're given instructions, and I'm a very good listener, and I think that's the cosmetologist in me. Because it's my job to listen. And to execute what I'm hearing. I feel like I did a very appropriate job of executing the task at hand. And I felt multiple times before that I thought the instructions given at hand were overlooked."
Did you feel that the print challenge, that Mondo feels it belongs to him? That he finally stood out in that episode when he told his story. And that he resented you because you stole his thunder because you also had a very personal and painful story?
"Maybe he did. But I didn't catch that from him. He's a very blunt person. And I'm blunt as well. Was it my absolute favorite thing I made on the show? Absolutely not. But as for Mondo, that was kind of his challenge. He really nailed it. It put him on the map."
One stress factor they added during Deatherage's print challenge (in addition to the constant sleep deprivation) was bringing in friends and family--especially mothers.
It seemed like a brainwashing tactic to break you down. The highs, the lows. You love a familiar face being there. But then you can't get your mind back on sewing.
"Right. That's exactly what happened. It's amazing that your family came. And a really awesome experience to share with my mom. But I thought it took away from the concentration that had been put on the competition."
And once you have a family or friend around, they're going to rave. Anything you do they're going to say, "That's great!" Because they want to be supportive. But at that moment, all objectivity flies out the window. Because they're going to love whatever you make regardless of whether or not the judges do.
"I definitely feel the same way about that. I feel that. Of course, it's my mother's job to love what I'm making."
Right. She's not going to suddenly be Nina Garcia and say, "Well, I think the print should be...the scale is too big. Let's bring it down a third. Or, let's try it with this color." Your family is not going to start talking like that.
"My mom and I have a very fine relationship. And I know if she didn't like it, she would tell me she didn't like it. And she enjoyed my print. I was making it very personal."
Last week when you were voted off, did your mom watch that with you?
"She lives in Florida now. And when she saw it, she wasn't happy. I'll tell you that."
The challenge where people really warmed up to you was Fix My Friend. Where you suddenly set the tone of being really nice to these people, and really engaging with them. And that's when people finally saw you as a good guy.
"That's the challenge where I was the most true to myself too."
And the show gave you good editing on that because on the runway, you set the tone as the contestant who really got along with his client.
In sharp contrast to Ven. People seemed horrified by what he said. He didn't flat out say it, but the gist was: "How come everyone else got Twiggy, and I got stuck with the fat girl?"
He didn't say 'fat.' Nobody said fat. I guess the politically correct term was 'real' woman. Were Ven's comments shown out of context? Or was Ven really that insensitive?
"Um...Ven can be very insensitive. I think he's very disconnected at times. I don't think that he understood what he was doing when he made the comments that he did, and reacted the way that he did. But there's an absolutely right and wrong way to go about that situation. Terri [Herlihy], his woman, was no larger than my woman. And you can't be upset about having to make something for a normal woman. Because where I'm from that's all I do. I'd love to make something for a Size 2. Absolutely. But how practical and probable is that?"
When I first saw Ven interact with Terri, I was outraged. But when you look at this from the point of view of a competition, Ven does have a point. Is it fair in a challenge to give one person a Size 4 model, and another one a Size 14, 16, 18, or whatever? Because the judges aren't impartial. I mean, two of the top three designs featured slender models.
You can't deny there's a connection. And as much as these judges get on their high horse, they would never dream of letting this 'real' woman concept infiltrate their industry. Come on. How many plus size models does Nina Garcia put on the cover of Marie Claire magazine? How many plus sizes does Michael Kors add to the mix at his fashion shows? They talk big, but end up giving better scores to designs modeled by thinner woman.
"I agree. "
So, as socially awkward as he was, maybe Ven had a legitimate point.
"Maybe. The thing I wonder is if his model Terri would have acted the same if I would have worked with her."
Right. And I thought that if your model had worked with Ven, maybe she would have laughed it all off. So I wonder how much of the tension was due to Ven, and how much was the model's reaction. I'd like to give her the benefit of the doubt, though.
"She has a Facebook page now called Terri's Redemption. And they contacted me a couple times, and I offered to make her a dress because she was so upset. But it's just...it's definitely still playing the victim role. I think the anti-bullying Terri's Redemption Facebook page has turned into the let's-bully-Ven Facebook page. Because they're blasting him on there. And I don't agree with that."
It all reminds me of an earlier season. When they did the Mom challenge.
"With Jeffrey and uh..."
Jeffrey Sebelia and Angela Keslar's mom. When they all swapped moms and designed outfits for them. And some people thought Jeffrey was being a total asshole to Angela's mom. But some people also thought the mother was being a bit manipulative and playing the victim role.
Jeffrey did apologize to her off-camera. And Ven posted an apology to Terri. But it seems like once you're identified as a Size Bully, you'll never be forgiven. And in some cases, you'll be relentlessly bullied for it in return. Look at how vicious Terri's supporters have been about ripping Ven's work apart, and calling him fat.
"You know, trying to design a Size 16 dress on a Size 4 mannequin is not easy to do. I don't think there is any way for them to classify what a real woman is because everyone is shaped so differently. And to have the same exact expectations out of every one of them was very unreal of them to do."
Have you ever had to take one of your Size 2 or Size 4 dresses and have it re-created for a Size 16?
"I've done that. Absolutely."
And does it translate? Does it look as good?
"It does not have the same effect. But I don't think it's because the dress was graded up. It's just the design of one dress, the lines cannot be the same on a larger size. The body does not form the same. And you have to design a dress around a body. And I think that's what that challenge should have been about."
Well, a big part of fashion is the fantasy element. Obviously, most women who look through fashion magazines aren't going to look like the models. And that's an ideal you can aspire to while knowing you won't necessarily look like that. But it's still fun.
And despite all the Dove campaigns, and Jessica Simpson traveling the globe and celebrating her curves, the marketplace shows that women don't want to see Size 12 models for the most part. They still want that fantasy to look at. And Project Runway supports this by casting very thin models for you to work with.
And don't you think fashion really messes with women's minds?
"I think in some ways it does. Absolutely. You know, I look at fashion as art, so I look at it differently than a lot of people. You know, my main goal in fashion is not to make money with it. I just want people to appreciate it. But I think from a viewer's perspective, and having friends who are definitely not a Size 2, I think it can sometimes be discouraging. Because you're supposed to take these beautiful outfits--and a lot of them are not made even near their size--and these larger women can use them for inspiration. But they can't go out to the store and buy that. It's just not in their size. And I think that's kind of sad."
This is why I think you did so well in the Fix My Friend challenge. It's because you cut hair. It's because you sit down and get to know a person intimately. And if it's a regular customer, you really get to know them. But it sounds like you take for granted the fact that you're going to get to know a woman when you meet her. You're going to compliment her, you're going to find something attractive about her, and put her at ease. Do you think that's true?
"I do. I've got clients that I've done their hair for the past four years. And I know some very intimate things about them. I think it's about being able to listen. It's a very large thing. Even with stylists. The client sits in the chair and she's ready to talk about herself. I don't talk about myself until the client brings it up. I like to listen. And you can't always do exactly what you want because they are the ones that have to wear it around, or they are the ones that are paying for it. So I feel like the beauty industry helped me immensely in that challenge."
For a lot of women the ritual of getting their hair done is so much more than just getting their hair done.
"It's therapy. "
Exactly. And if you have a good stylist it's because they're good at cutting hair, but it's also because they care about their client.
And do you think that's one of the reasons you were successful in that challenge, because you brought that empathy with you to Project Runway?
"I think that's every bit why I'm successful. You know, I don't love to do hair all the time. But I value the things I learn from it. I learn every single day I do hair. I really do. And it's not even about doing hair. It's what I pull in and learn from it. It's from the people you meet. I can cut hair with the best of them. And I really love what I do. But at a certain point, you can't chase the money. The money will come to you. And the bond you create with people. And how they talk to you. To open up to you. And I listen to them. That's what I really care about."
Let's talk about the Lexus challenge.
You and Kooan--before he dropped out--you guys had to create a dress for a former Project Runway contestant.
And you guys almost won. Heidi even said she liked your design best. But what I want to know, was it mostly the way the show was edited, or was Irina really that bitchy?
"She came off exactly as she was."
I was surprised because I liked her the season she was on. She came across as quiet, and she seemed like the type that didn't engage in all the politics. She just did her thing. But then she seemed so catty to you and Kooan.
"I just didn't feel like she was on my team. She expressed that from the get go."
She seemed to treat you like servants. "Well aren't you gonna fix that? Are you just gonna stand there? Aren't you gonna do something?" It seemed passive aggressive.
"Oh, I know. She was definitely on a pedestal. I don't have very nice things to say about her."
And when she was onstage, and the judges were raving about the gown you created for her, she seemed almost resentful.
"Yeah. She threw me under the bus for it. "
You would think a fellow designer, because they've been up there too, that they would bend over backwards to be respectful while they're up there on the judging stage.
"Yes, and to assist you. But that wasn't the case with Irina."
It's like this was the challenge that put Kooan over the edge, where he seemed like he was in over his head, and the quirkiness couldn't follow through on the more difficult sewing challenges.
"As much as it is about personality, it's even more about what you can sew. Kooan is a very colorful designer, and he has a market. But his market is not the one Project Runway is catering to.
Could Kooan sew?
"Yes. Kooan can definitely sew. He's fantastic. There's no question in that. But sewing and designing are two very definite things. And Kooan would try to put fifteen or twenty different textiles on one outfit. And I think this particular challenge showed him that's not the market to go after."
Why did Kooan shut down?
"I'm not sure."
Was part of it Irina? Did she blast his confidence?
"I don't think it was Irina because in any kind of design field you're going to deal with clients that are very difficult. I think it was just the wear and tear of the competition. And even the language barrier."
Well it shocked people because it came right after Andrea left.
"In the same day. "
What was the real reason Andrea left? Was it because she felt she maybe misrepresented what she said to Christopher?
"You know, I don't know anything towards Andrea because I never connected with Andrea. She wasn't someone I really rubbed shoulders with. And it was all a mystery to us. I know that the producers didn't want us to concentrate on the fact they were going home. They wanted us to concentrate on the competition at hand. I think a lot of us didn't know she was gone until we arrived at the Michael Kors store."
Let's talk about a happier challenge that you almost won. The very first one where you had the outdoor runway show in Times Square. You came across as super confident then. Cocky even.
"Kind of cocky, or really cocky? I think I came across as really cocky."
I was trying to soften the blow. But yes. From day one you positioned yourself as Season 10's smarmy asshole. Was that the editing, or did you plan it? Or, as some people wondered, did the producers ask you to be that season's villain?
"Um, I'll say this first. The producers have no input on how you act. There's nothing pre-planned or scripted. Nothing. It's all on you and what you want to do. And I would not classify myself as a villain in normal life at all."
When you finally arrived for the show, and the camera's were on you, did you just go a little crazy?
"I didn't go crazy. I played the game."
Were you conscious that you were going to come across as this real cocky guy?
"I knew I would come across as a bitch."
Did you manufacture that rivalry with Christopher? Or did something provoke that?
"I definitely pushed it. I saw his sketches. I knew what he was capable of."
Is there a dark side to Christopher? Did he push your buttons off-camera?
"I don't think there's a dark side to Christopher. Maybe irritating. I mean, there's a roomful of us trying to design, and obviously some people are not going to get along. You know, I kind of took the opportunity to prod him a little bit."
But then people started to ostracize you.
"I know there were people who were not Gunnar fans."
But then it changed. You went from villain to...not quite sweetheart. But by the end people were sad to see you go.
And it seemed like one of the turning points was the group challenge, which was basically all the guys against all the girls, plus that other guy. But basically men vs. women. And in the editing, it really seemed like the other guys were ostracizing you at that point. You were commenting that you felt like the sew-er, not the designer. But it gave the audience empathy for you because suddenly you were the underdog.
"Right. And I think that challenge was portrayed really well, to how it all actually happened. I was thrown under the bus on the runway, and even before the runway. I felt almost pushed around by the others. They kept questioning what I was doing. And always wondering what I was doing, and I kept getting thrown in five or ten different directions, you know. And it's hard to stay true to your vision. I think it was portrayed well."
Do you think they were bullying you?
But do you think because of your experience, you naturally shift into that role? It's a weird dynamic because you would think, if you're this teenage kid in a rural town who feels like he's being bullied, and you watch Project Runway, you'd think, '"Finally, I'm in a safe environment where people understand me. No more high school jocks to push me around." That's supposed to be your safe area. But then the new bullies emerge.
"I think that's to be expected. I understand exactly where you're coming from. But you know, you don't go to New York to mix and mingle with these people to become really good friends. I mean, I went in there with actually no intent on coming out with any friends. It happened to happen, but...I went in there with the attitude that I wanted to win. And I wanted to prove a point."
And even if it's not about friendship, how about at least constructive criticism from colleagues? Because it seemed like at a certain point, everyone let their guard down, and truly wanted to look at other people's designs and help them. And not sabotage them. Is that a true statement?
"I think so. There was definitely a point in time when that happened. It happened more so with others, especially with alliances among the group. "
At a certain point you and Elena became close and were very objective in helping each other.
Was it in part because, by that point, you were the male villain, and she was the female villain, and you each had no one else to turn to?
"I'm actually still really good friends with Elena. In fact, I was on the phone with her this morning."
Did you tell her some crazy guy was going to interview you today?
"No. [laughing] We were just talking about that she was moving, and so am I. Just kind of catching up a little. We definitely realized at one point in time that the two villains walked out of there as friends."
Was she conscious of doing that, or was she naturally that volatile?
"I think it's kind of natural. She knows how she wants things as an artist, and I think the main challenges where you see Elena get angry are the ones where she's in a group."
She came so close to getting voted off last night [I interviewed Gunnar while the original episodes were still airing], and they portrayed her as coming close to an epiphany--she even apologized to Dmitri. Do you think, at a certain point, she realized how counter-productive her big episodes were, all these big meltdowns?
"I think maybe she realized she had put too much energy into this. Allowing herself to get worked up. It wasn't helping her at all."
Were people being extra mean to her? Do you think Dmitri was being unreasonable? Was he trying to push Elena's buttons?
"I don't think he was trying, but I definitely don't think he was avoiding it. There were a lot of witch comments while we were there. A lot of people referred to Elena as The Wicked Witch. People knew the role she was going to come off as."
You think she's happy living with that now?
"I think she's fine with it now. You have to understand, on this show, you really can't care what people think about you. You really can't because that's when you start to second guess yourself, and doubt yourself. And it doesn't do anything for you. It's like the internet blogs where people are volatile toward you. You can't give into that and read them because they won't do anything but upset you."
Let's talk makeup now.
As a hair and makeup pro, what was it like to get access to the L'Oréal makeup professionals? Did you get to talk to them about their techniques and what they were doing?
"I did, but I didn't. There really wasn't a lot of time for that. If you notice, they didn't show a lot of me in the L'Oréal Paris makeup room. And I think a lot of that was because I knew exactly what I wanted. And sometimes it was a little bit of a battle. But they always took the time to listen to me. And we could always work something out."
A lot of designers seem vague and general when they give direction to the makeup people. It sounds like you were very specific in how you wanted your model styled.
"I would even go in there with pictures, sketches I would draw for them. So they wouldn't get misconstrued."
I've noticed some designers on the show don't really know a lot about hair and makeup.
"They know how to make clothing, but I don't think they know how to style it. That's one of my many fortes. I work with that too. They go hand in hand, you know, when I got into this beauty industry."
What was your relationship like with your model? Who did you have?
"I had Lauren."
What was it like to work with Lauren?
"Lauren is awesome. She doesn't know to wear a bra to her fitting, but she's awesome. [laughs] I still talk to Lauren. We have the same birthday. We're very similar people. She understood when I wanted her to walk a certain way. It was a very healthy, very good relationship."
The first seasons of Project Runway focused on the models more. And the designers' relationships with the models. And then they just cut that off. Which I'm kind of glad they did. Because I think it should be more about the designers. But, behind the scenes, is there a lot more to the relationship? Was your model ever your muse? Did your model inspire you?
"She was my 100% inspiration on the show. You know, she was pretty much the only inspiration I had while I was there, so I took advantage of that. I designed my whole Fashion Week collection around her."
The models seemed very supportive, and nice to the designers.
"They became your friends. They're the only people you get to see, and you see them on a somewhat routine basis. They want to support you. And there's money at stake. They want to win too. It's like they're on your team."
I want to get to your post-Runway stuff. And wrap up soon. But I want a couple more particulars about the show. We gotta talk at least a little bit about Mood. Before your first episode, did they take you through Mood to introduce you to where everything was?
"No. Not at all."
So in the first challenge, was that your first time in Mood?
"That was my absolute first time in Mood. I didn't even know that Mood had four floors to it. It was a brand new experience for me."
When people watch it, I'm always amazed--and Elena did this a lot--where the designers seem paralyzed, and they can't decide on anything. And they end up choosing ugly fabric. How does that happen?
"You've got thirty minutes. Which is the blink of an eye when you're picking out fabrics. It really is. And to have to do that in such a little amount of time is just unreal. And I think that you would rather have some fabric than no fabric. And sometimes you just grab whatever is closest to you. I think at one point we all grabbed fabric that we shouldn't have."
Well, you know you're going to be on Project Runway. You have time before the show starts. Why don't all contestants go to Mood and spend the whole day there and learn it inside out, and learn exactly where everything is?
"Well, the New York designers have that advantage, the ones who have been in Mood before. They have the upper hand. And there were an abnormal amount of New York designers on the show this season."
Were you in New York a day or two before the taping started?
"Nope. They brought me there the day of."
Well, I checked the Mood reviews on Yelp. And a lot of people really love it, but it also gets a lot of negative reviews. A lot of people say the staff can be really smarmy. But it seems like they're really nice to you on the show. Is that just because they're a sponsor? Or are they genuinely helpful?
"They are helpful. Um, but you know, they're New Yorkers at the same time. Some of them can be snarky, some of them can be really sweet. It just depends on when you go, and who's there."
Do they exaggerate the time crunch, or is it really that pandemonium when Tim Gunn is saying "One minute!"
"Oh, he really does that. It's very true to what you see. There's lots of scrambling. Running up and down stairs. To try to get stuff in time. To try to figure out where stuff is."
And if you don't spend it all, do you get to keep the change?
"We don't. "
You have to give it back?
"Yeah, they took it all. Everything was on receipts. You have to turn all of it back in at the end of the show."
But you could give your change to another contestant at Mood if they needed it.
"We could do that."
What's your favorite memory of Tim Gunn on the show?
He seems so nice, but this season he seems like he's gotten a bit snarkier.
On the print challenge, I was shocked when he said Ven's design looked like used tampons.
"Well, did you see it?'
Yeah, but still...to think it, and then to actually say it...I mean, in Ven's design, that was the sacred flower of his religion. That seemed to really devastate him. That really threw him off.
"It definitely got to him."
But Tim is Mr. Propriety. But now he's loosening up a bit. I don't know. Maybe it's just me, but he seems more impatient. He's done it for so long now. He's seen it all. Maybe he needs to keep it exciting for himself now by using more colorful language.
"Maybe. But also that he's trying to prepare you for the harshness that the judges are going to throw on you."
What was the best advice Tim gave to you when he came into the workroom?
"A lot of the time he would tell me to always second guess myself, but to not always listen. And I think that's really good advice when you're designing, to always second guess what you're doing."
So when you got voted off, and Tim sent you to the workroom and gave you a hug, was it a sincere hug? Did you feel something?
"I did. And we all had different relationships with Tim. He sees what we all go through. How we have to deal with the things we have to do. And I felt like it was extremely sincere."
Did Tim feel like the den mother of the group?
"He was absolutely the den mother of the group."
And the other thing about him is he makes it look easy, but he really does have a vast amount of experience, and he does know everything, doesn't he?
"He is so knowledgeable it's ridiculous. He uses words, and I don't even know what they mean. "
The other thing I was especially interested in was, when you were on the show, it was around the time Heidi was separating from Seal. Did she do a good job of keeping her personal life separate? Did the press hound you guys? That was an intense time for her.
"It was never brought up. Never even talked about. We all knew it was going on. But it's not our job to get into her personal life. It was a good separation of her personal and business lives."
Heidi seems so nice.
"She's a doll. I adore her. I think she is so fantastic. I really respect Heidi Klum."
And she seems like she wants you all to succeed. It's not that she's just being catty.
"No, not at all."
Tell me if you agree with this. The judges...they want to be harsh with you on the show because, in the real world, it'll be ten times harsher.
"I think it's so much harsher in the real world. Especially with the internet. And how anonymous you can be. There's no limit to what you can say. I don't think they were really out of hand with anything the judges said this season. I think they were giving honest opinions."
The Atlas Apartments. They promote it as some luxurious high rise. But the rooms look sort of cheap. What's the Atlas really like?
"I liked the Atlas. We never had issues with it. For me, living in Louisville, I would never pay for a flat in the city like that. I could never imagine paying that much. And I'm sure that the Atlas is not inexpensive."
Was it an apartment, or a hotel?
"They were apartments. It was kind of set up like a hotel, but it was actually apartments. People lived there."
Did you have lots of food, and access to whatever you needed?
"Yeah. There's a whole crew that kind of waits on you hand and foot to get you the things that you need. There's breakfast in the morning, and lunch is catered in, as well as dinner. They have snacks that are provided throughout the day in the designer lounge."
So despite what was going on, did you feel a little bit like a star? Did you feel pampered?
"I don't think I felt pampered. I mean it was nice to not have to run errands, but I felt like it was more like a vacation than feeling like a star."
Even though there are so many past contestants, on so many different reality shows, you managed to make a lasting impression. And now that your episodes have aired, do you feel like you have some celebrity status?
"I feel like I do to a certain extent. Especially in Louisville. I got stopped five or six times on the way to the airport to go back for Fashion Week. And that was really cool. You know, it's all very supportive stuff to hear from people. It's really cool. I take a lot of photos, and if somebody comes up to talk to me, I don't even care if I'm eating dinner with my boyfriend, or something, I'll stop and take the time out to talk to a fan, or pose for a photo. Little girls want me to sign a napkin. It's very sweet. I'm enjoying it for the time being."
How do you parlay this current celebrity into your career?
"That should be the question of the day. But I don't know. I've definitely gotten job offers. Some of them I've taken. Some of them I've turned down."
Tell me some of the job offers.
"Actually, I just took a job as a Creative Director for doing photo shoots for a magazine that just got picked up for national distribution. It's from the mid-west. I think that's more so in the realm of what I want to do."
So you want to be a stylist for fashion shoots?
"Yeah. I really enjoy that. You know, like I said earlier, fashion is my art. And I don't think it was ever something I planned on making money on. It's a lot of work to do that. I don't know if that's really what I want to bite off of right now. I'm only 22 years old."
So maybe like editorial work for a magazine, or like a fashion magazine editor eventually?
"Absolutely. I would love that. I think that would be right up my alley. I'm a very creative-minded person."
I always hear about American celebrities getting paid big bucks to do TV commercials in Japan. Were you approached to do commercials in Japan?
"I wasn't approached to do commercials in Japan. However, I would take that offer. I was approached to be a spokesperson for StumbleUpon.com, which is one of my favorite websites."
Are you still considering that?
"Yeah. We're in talks about it right now."
My pet peeve. Every season, in nearly every exit interview, so there must be about 100 of these by this point. Everyone also says in their exit interview, "You'll be seeing more of me! Watch out! You haven't seen the last of me!" And for the most part, that was the last we saw of all those people.
And that's okay if they're finding meaning in their life. But if they're implying, "I'm gonna be a famous designer someday", well, most of them aren't. So how do you reconcile that? And how do you keep going beyond the disappointment after you leave the show? At that point, isn't that when you realize, wow, Michael Kors got to where he is because he overcame these obstacles time and time again. You know what I mean? And everyone gets their exit interview, and they can make grand proclamations, but how do you move beyond that, and follow through on the promises of that exit interview?
"Well, one thing I did not do in my exit interview was promise the world they would see more of me."
"And that's because I don't know if I want the world to see more of me. I'm a very private person. I don't know if I necessarily want me to be famous. I'd rather have my clothing be famous. And it's hard to say how to follow through with this. I think there are millions of different routes you can take to get to that point. And this was my second go around, of having an exit interview on the show. And I don't even remember what i said the first time. But I knew that the first time I left I was devastated. I was distraught over it. I didn't know what I was going to do. Coming home was really humbling."
Was that the previous season when they had that huge cattle call, and even before the first challenge they eliminated, what, four contestants?
Okay. That was a real mind game. To bring you that close, then...
"To bring me all the way from Louisville just to do that."
So that says a lot that you actually went back and auditioned again.
"Right. And I wouldn't have done so if they hadn't called me and asked me to. Would not have done it. They called me at the right time when I was financially able to do so, and when I was ready to do so, I think. And the thing I kept in mind this time is, I'm not gonna take this too seriously. Because I knew that, regardless of how I do on the show, it's not gonna be the last thing I'm ever gonna do. I mean, I'm twenty-two years old. Of course it's not the last thing I'm gonna do. And you know, I own a business. I'm very passionate about everything I do. In my last exit interview, I told the world I was happy with what I did, and that I was happy to be going home. And those are two things that I sincerely meant."
Now that you've gone home, and you have this certain degree of celebrity, what's it like to return to taking appointments and cutting hair in your salon?
"You know, it's kind of odd. I'm running into that people are kind of intimidated to come in. They're a little nervous that either I've raised my prices, or that they're going to be starstruck. Even people who I've done their hair for years are nervous to see me after the show. I kind of expected it, I kind of didn't. I really didn't know what to expect. But I was going to come back and do hair regardless of how I did on the show."
But Gunnar. You drew a line in the sand. You declared yourself to the world on TV that you're ambitious.
"Yes. I'm extremely ambitious. There's no doubt about that at all."
But to people in your town, New York is a huge step up. So they're thinking, "Oh. He's come back here? After having tasted New York? What the hell is he doing! Why isn't he embracing New York?"
"Well I fucking hate New York, I'll be very honest with you. And you're in Seattle, right. And if I ever move away from here, it'll be up in your vicinity. Not New York. I spent a week on Whidbey Island, in Oak Harbor."
"And it blew my mind. I loved it so much. My best friend lives out there. We went to Port Angeles, Port Townsend. I hate New York. It is not my thing. I'm a West Coast person, 100%. And do I want to be a small fish in the ocean, or do I want to be the big fish in a small pond. I like being in a small place. I know everyone. And I like knowing that I've got the connections that I need. And if I ever want to go out and start over, I can absolutely do so."
Is that because you are who you are, or is that a safety mechanism? 'Cause don't you think you could enter an arena like New York, and after a few years, make the friendships, gain the confidence, and conquer it just as well as your hometown?
"Oh, hell yeah I could. I know I could. I think it's just that I know who I am. I have a lot of values instilled in me. I think a lot of it is being Southern. Coming from a small town. And I know I'll being going back to the big city for work in the near future. But I don't want to live there. It's not comforting to me. I can't sit on my front porch in New York and have my coffee in the morning and watch the deer. I just can't do that."
Do you think that there is a Project Runway curse? That the people who go on the show, that there will be a handful who benefit, the show will jump start their careers. But for the most part, it will either extend what they are already working on, or even cause them to do a 180, and realize that the fashion industry really isn't for them, and they pursue something totally different.
"I don't think that's a curse, though. At all. I think it's actually a blessing. I think everyone pulls something different from the show. And if you're at all doubting what you're doing, and not liking what you're doing, maybe Project Runway isn't for you. I mean, I don't want to do Fashion for a career right now. I want to pursue something in the Creative Industries, and I will always do it for Art. So I don't necessarily think there's a curse on the show. I think some people go on the show riding everything they have on it. And then they fall off the wagon. And they don't know what to do from that point. And it was a bit like that for me the first time around. But this time it was just for fun. It was an experience."
I think that came across because when you were sent to the workroom, you definitely had a confidence. You did it from a position of strength. And I think that really came across.
"I'm glad that it did."
It's like you weren't devastated, like you told the world this one show doesn't make or break your whole future.
"Right. And after all, it's just a TV show. That's all that it is."
Okay, your episodes air, the public suddenly knows who you are, and you're out there in a big way. And then we go to your website, and there's nothing there. I went to your website, and you had a cool front page. But no content. And right now, you're at the peak of your popularity. People knowing who you are. How come you didn't just jump on something to promote on your website?
"'Cause I don't know how to work a computer. [laughs] I have no idea how to do anything in the technical field. And it's like, I don't know what I want to promote right now. I'm not trying to mass produce my clothing right now. I mean, I have the website. It is what it is. I have thousands of emails in my database that I send out to. But the only thing I think I would put up in the website is my portfolio. I'm not trying to gain a clientele from it as much as I'm trying to gain an appreciation from it."
It sounds like you're figuring out where you want to go. Do you, from this point, most want to do hair, makeup, clothing design, fashion directing...or do you want to be a full-service designer who designs home furnishings, clothing, fragrance...a Ralph Lauren or a Calvin Klein.
"I want to do it all. I want to do everything. Life is so short. I don't feel like I should have to stick to one thing when I'm talented in so many of them. There's nothing I don't think I wouldn't give a shot at."
But what are you going to breakthrough on? What's going to be your big breakthrough product?
"I don't know."
Are you going to make a signature pair of pants? Are you going to design shoes? Is it going to be home furnishings?
"I would love to design shoes. Maybe that would be it. I could make some killer shoes."
But I could talk to you 40 years from now and you'd still be at the hair salon. And you could be happy there. But what I'm saying is, do you have that hunger that you want to make a mark somewhere beyond your hair salon.
"Um...I don't know. Maybe. But I wonder, am I chasing the fame? Or am I chasing the experience? I'm not a fame whore. And I don't pitch it, that that's what I'm after. And I do do things that bring a certain amount of that. But I'm not sure what I want to do at this point. For a little bit, I just want to be 22. Because I've worked my ass off since I was 16. And I've not taken any time to stop. And yes, it's got me places. But I think the life experience is also what you need. And you know, maybe in a couple years I'll break through with something huge. And it'll be something ridiculous. And maybe I won't. Maybe I'll be extremely happy with where my life is at. I don't take any day for granted."
Yes. But you are a personality now. And even though you didn't win this season, you definitely are one of the more memorable people to have been on this season.
So, even outside of design, have you been approached to do commentary? I saw on your Facebook page that you were asked to be part of some event for the musical Wicked.
"Yeah. The cast of Wicked is actually putting on a cabaret night for the AIDS Walk in Louisville. So I'm going there on Sunday night and I'll be making an appearance for a Meet-n-Greet."
So you'll be there as a personality.
"Right. that's exactly what they want. They want my name there. They want people to show up for it."
Can you see doing more of that? Even apart from the design, you do have a personality and opinion, and you're not afraid to show it on camera. I'm surprised you haven't been approached to do more TV work.
"You know, it's not something I've been approached about, but I would do it if I were."
Did you think that after the show you' get a manager, an agent--an entourage--and get more media work?
"I don't really know why. I'm a very low-key person. And [doing Project Runway] I decided to do something outside my bounds. It's something that tested me and pushed me. And that's one of the reasons that I did the show. But I didn't do it for the fame. I did it for the experience."
What if they asked you to be on Celebrity Apprentice, or one of those shows?
"I would probably do it as long as they paid me."
Have you stayed in touch with the Project Runway producers? This is a pretty big deal. This is the Lifetime Network. Have you ever thought of pitching them a show? It's seems like since you're so multi-faceted that you would be out there as a personality.
"Right. I've thought of pitching a show to the Lifetime producers. I'm still not sure how to go about it. But it's possibly something that I would be interested in."
If Austin Scarlett can do it, don't you think you can?
"Absolutely I think I can. And I don't want to do it so that people will flock to me. I think a lot of the projects that I work on are really cool and interesting and for good causes. I hear all the time that I'm a very entertaining person to be around. Very quirky and witty."
You did that big shock of blond hair. You did that just for the show, right?
"I did that just for the show, yeah."
Well, then you've got some savvy. You know the hair made you stand out from the first moment people saw you.
"Well that's the only reason I did it."
You've got media savvy.
"I was nicknamed Evil Skunk for a couple weeks on one of my favorite blogs. It was hilarious."
I was shocked when I saw all these other photos where you didn't have a shock of blond.
At this point, it's a trademark look for you. Lesser gimmicks have turned into TV series for people. So I'm really surprised that you haven't been asked to commentate on stuff like on VH1, or any of these shows where people comment on popular culture. Or like Joan Rivers on the Red Carpet. You haven't been approached to do any of that kind of work?
"To be honest, I haven't been approached that much."
I think you'd be great as a red carpet commentator. That would be a good entry into all this for you.
"I think that would be really fun. I'm really good with talking. I don't get nervous. It's something that I think I can absolutely do. But it's just something that I haven't been approached about."
Well here's something that I think is also the big secret about PR...there's the talent, and these people wanting to be the next Calvin Klein, but they never talk about how the next Calvin Klein really needs a lot of money behind them, and it's just as much about your financial backing and business savvy, and that most famous designers have an equally strong business partner.
"Oh, absolutely. It's all about money."
How come they never talk about that on the show? It's almost as if they build your hope up, then say, "Oh, by the way, you're talented, but you need $50 million dollars to start this line."
"That's a vital role in it. "
Well how about Elena, and the other contestants you were with. Do you see them parlaying this experience into a career? Were they ambitious enough? Did they talk about wanting to use Project Runway to get their own talk show. Or "I want to use this to get X." Or were they just going along for the ride?
"Some of them went along with the competition. But someone like Buffi. I could totally see her being a commentator, or a guest host on something because she's a character. She is a walking talking character."
I'm glad you brought her up because I liked her personality, and I looked forward to seeing her, although I didn't quite understand her designs. And I thought they really nailed it on the head when the judges basically told her, "We get that you want to be quirky, but you still have to make good clothes. Then you can infuse them with your quirkiness." Like Betsey Johnson. And I think she had the right personality to be on TV.
"I'm surprised she's not in a lead role for Project Runway fan favorite. I totally thought she'd be a shoo-in for that category."
Are you in the running for fan favorite?
"I am really low on the list for fan favorite, actually."
But are you pursuing that? Do you send emails out to your list and ask them to vote for you?
"I post about it here and there, but it's not something I pursue. It would take an act of God now to get Elena out of her space. Out of sixteen people she's holding 41% of it."
Where does she live? Is she in New York?
Some people mobilize family, friends, fans. They're relentless in getting people to vote for them.
Did you guys plan to have a reunion? Everyone promises, but did you guys agree, at some point, to meet up away from the show, say six months from now?
"I think the only person I would meet up with would be Elena. And I'm planning a trip out there this next summer. To spend some time with her."
Do you think she's going to be a successful designer?
"I think Elena's already a successful designer. A lot of people don't understand what she does, but from an artist's perspective I completely understand what she does. Her clothing outside form the show is beautiful. The seaming...she's got a very strong vision."
Dmitri...do you think he'll go far?
"Dmitri already has jumped through a lot of hoops to get where he is today. I feel a lot of really good things coming out of him."
I thought he was definitely one of the better designers on the show. But he was laid back. You, Elena, Buffy...do you think they would want to pull you guys in, the really colorful outspoken people, to appear again, to be a guest judge on an episode?
"They might. But if it was something where they wanted me to be on All-Stars, I do not think I would do that."
"Because I don't feel the need to prove that I'm better than anyone. I felt that the only person I needed to prove that to when I went there was myself. And it took me being there to understand that. I like what I do. I think my clothing is really good. And thousands of people won't think the same. And thousands of people won't like that. But I don't feel like I have to get people to jump through hoops to enjoy it. If you don't like what I'm doing, don't look at it."
Let's wrap up with five final questions.
The end is in sight. Okay. #1. What is your favorite outfit that you made on Project Runway?
"I really really liked the dresses that I made for the team challenge."
The one where Sonjia had the green jacket?
And you made one outfit for each jacket. One for Christopher's, and one for Sonjia's?
Why are you most proud of those? Is it because you did so much in so little time?
"I think it's a little bit of that, plus I also love the design of them. I think it's simplistic, and it's got an edge to it. But I think also because I worked with the group so well."
Do you think you didn't get the attention you deserved because your dresses were covered up by the coats?
"Probably so. But if those girls didn't have those dresses on, you would've seen way more than you bargained for."
Then question #3. Whose opinion, of judges, or Tim, or Heidi do you respect the most?
"I think that I respect Michael Kors the most because he has been through what every struggling designer goes through. And made it out the other side. So if you've got something to say about it, if you're questioning the design of it, at least he's been there, and designs lines every season. So I can respect that."
And what was the best advice he gave you on the judging stage?
"I don't think a lot of it was even advice, I think it was constructive criticism. And I just enjoyed listening to his remarks. I mean, how can you not think he is funny. I think he's hilarious sometimes."
OK. #4. What kind of document do you sign. I mean, do you sign your life away? They don't let you look at design books while you're there, which became a big issue one season. How much of your life do you sign away, and how complicated is this when you sign on to do the show?
"I mean, it's a pretty intense contract. I think it's similar to any contract you'd sign to get on a reality TV show. One thing they don't want you to do is go behind their backs to moonlight or reproduce things from the show and sell them. It's a very cut and dried contract telling you what you can and cannot do."
The big thing, obviously, is not revealing the winner ahead of time.
"Right. That's the huge thing. Or who goes home. Neither one of those."
And since you went home when you did, you didn't know, but the people who make it through to the finals, they know. Are there certain checkpoints that, oh, once this ends, you can share more about the show?
"I don't know if there are checkpoints, but you're kind of briefed on what you can and cannot say. It's a security thing. And the producers want to protect you from getting into trouble as well."
OK. Now the final question. If you were voted off before the finale, how did you get to show at Fashion Week? Because I always assumed it was only for the finalists.
"Well, Fashion Week is the week before the episode where I went home. So, if I would have not shown up at Fashion Week, and then the general public is there, they would have known that I was sent home before the finals. And it wouldn't have been as much fun for the general public. And it would have cost them a lot of money because future episodes are almost pointless and no one would want to tune in if they already knew who had been eliminated."
How many contestants got to be in Fashion Week?
"The top eight."
When did you design your collection?
"I did that in the months after I got home, right after I was voted off, which was right around when that season first started airing."
So you had a couple months to make that collection?
And Project Runway gave you money to make the collection?
"Yeah. We all had the same amount of money."
So you basically got what the finalists got. The same amount of money and time as they did?
I went online, and saw your final collection. And I liked it. But it was so unexpected. And I guess my thought was, I didn't see any hint of that in the competition. It was bold. What inspired it?
"I started a relationship before I left for the show. And didn't really know if he was going to be waiting for me when I got home. And he was. He waited around.
"And he studies aboriginal culture, and their religions. And it was hard not to be inspired by the colors, the culture, and the music, and their art. It was just easy for me to envelope myself in that, and you know, Spring & Summer lines are always different. You can really be innovative with something you wear in summer and spring because you can mix in so many fabrics. You don't have to wear a jacket with something. You can just actually show skin with things. And if I were to do things similar to what I did on the show, I don't think it would show range. And you're supposed to shock the public. You're to do different and crazy things. And this collection had so many different elements of me. It was showy. It was very costume-y, yet it was so very wearable."
How was your collection received at Fashion Week?
Did you get any negative comments? That it turned your black models into caricatures?
"No. I didn't get anything like that.
"I think it was my play on what I think that tribe would look like. It was a vision right out of my head. You know, I think if anyone were to bring up any racial objection, I would brush that off entirely because they can't look past the fact that this is my vision. And that this is something that was not meant to be a slur. I think I had the most beautiful women in the room, and they just happened to be portraying my vision."
How about the makeup? That was really eye catching. What kind of feedback did you get on that?
"A lot of people did not like the makeup. I thought it was cool, though. "
I thought it was one of the more creative elements of any of the finalists.
"If you look down the strip in the middle of the nose, that was completely my idea to paint down the middle of their faces. To use tape and peel it off to reveal the natural skin around the makeup. I'd never seen it done before. And I thought it was something that hinted at tribal, without screaming tribal."
It looked more like a cohesive collection than anything else up there.
"Thank you. I really appreciate that."
What are your parting words? Anything extra for the people who have read this far? Anything else you'd like then to know about Gunnar Deatherage?
"I'm always appreciative of all the support I get. But I still think it's really cool, the people who take time out of their day to message me, the really kind words. Inspirational stuff. I think that's awesome that people are intrigued by me. I don't know. I think it's awesome.
© 2013 Kelly Hughes
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Although this interview was all about Gunnar, it also touched upon others involved with Project Runway, including Terri Herlihy. In response to her feedback to the article, I offered to interview her so she can share more of her thoughts, feelings, and insights into the show and her experiences during and after. She at first accepted, then declined the offer. (You have an open invitation, Terri. Let me know if you ever change your mind.) I would also like to extend the invitation to anyone else mentioned here...Ven, Elena, Irina, Kooan, Andrea, Heidi, etc. Would love to interview you all and talk about your unique perspectives on Project Runway. Remember, this is old-school journalism. Everyone deserves a rebuttal. Rebuttals rule. Rebuttals kick butt.]
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