'Project Runway': How Characters, Controversy and Heidi Klum Have Kept the Series Fresh

Benjamin Lowy

THR's exclusive look at Lifetime's Emmy-nominated reality hit.

A makeup artist kneels on the floor, deftly applying spray tan to Heidi Klum's long legs. We are in her fifth-floor dressing room at Parsons The New School of Design, on West 40th Street just off New York's Times Square. Despite her genetic blessings, the host and executive producer of Project Runway has a few faint shin bruises, perhaps collateral damage from keeping up with four young children.

This sun-drenched room is usually a classroom, and one wonders what kind of show the tenants directly across the street get when Runway is in production. Further inspection reveals a canvas folding screen in the far corner, a portable capitulation to modesty.

"The first few years, I actually used to change in Tim Gunn's office," says Klum, who today is the picture of effortless glamour in a black minidress designed by season-four winner Christian Siriano. "I had no stylist; they did my hair and makeup in the morning then left me high and dry. By day's end, I was shiny, like someone slapped me with bacon."

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It's a sweltering Saturday in mid-July, and the show's ninth season, which bowed July 28 on Lifetime, already has shed more than two-thirds of its contestants. Today, the remaining designers -- we're sworn to protect their identities -- are completing three looks for a runway show to be judged by Klum, her cohorts Nina Garcia and Michael Kors and actress Zoe Saldana, who are seated on the runway in the second-floor auditorium. Klum enters, trailed by a retinue of hair and makeup artists and production assistants donning headsets and earpieces.

It's time to shoot the show, after which one contestant will have his or her heart broken, but Klum drags Garcia and Kors onto the runway to pose -- "like Charlie's Angels" -- for The Hollywood Reporter's photographer. Turning sideways, back arched, hands formed into a faux gun with her left knee bent, Klum instructs Kors to "do a gun." "Like this?" asks Kors, limply aiming his hands at the floor.

Showrunner Sara Rea surveys the scene with bemusement and familiarity: "The phrase 'herding cats' comes to mind."

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Project Runway is riding high coming off last year's Emmy-contending eighth season, its most-watched to date, which averaged a stunning 4.5 million viewers an episode and offered a shocking finale wherein fan favorite Mondo Guerra lost to Gretchen Jones. Soft-spoken and endearing, Guerra revealed during the season that he is HIV-positive, surprising his fellow contestants and the judges (though a handful of producers knew his status). Guerra's graphic, fashion-forward designs belied his wallflower demeanor, while Jones, a former model, came off as narcissistic and cold. It was the perfect Runway battle, with the finale lighting up Twitter and launching a thousand "How could they?!" posts.

"Poor Michael and Nina will never hear the end of it from all the fans out there," says Klum with mock sympathy. Adds Kors, "We definitely were not in agreement."

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It's this type of drama that the producers and Lifetime executives have zeroed in on by concentrating on casting and expanding episodes to 90 minutes last season. "We've really focused on finding a magical balance between skill and great characters," says Rob Sharenow, Lifetime's executive vp programming.

Executive producer Jon Murray says the longer episodes allow for more character exposition, specifically behind-the-scenes moments with the designers as they react to judges' critiques.

"When the show was an hour, we were so busy servicing the format," says Murray, whose Bunim/Murray Productions was brought in to work with original producer the Weinstein Co. and Full Picture when the show moved to Lifetime. "I think what really came through last season is you felt like you got to know the designers better."

Not that Project Runway is in danger of descending into the gutter of train-wreck reality TV. "The core of the show is how clothes are made and the passion of the designers," says Klum. "That is the most important thing. I think that's why people love it: It's not about people sleeping with one another or doing crazy things. They fight, but they fight because they want to get to the top."

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Still, a little conflict can have a rejuvenating effect. Executive producer Jane Cutler says Klum has become "tougher" and even seems to relish her role as resident bearer of unkind tidings in the form of her trademark German-accented dart to the heart, "You're out!"

"Every time she comes out on the runway, she sings 'Another One Bites the Dust,' " says Cutler. "I hope the designers don't get offended by that. But it is funny. She's trying to lighten the mood."

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It's not easy to keep a reality competition franchise fresh after eight cycles -- just ask American Idol. This is especially true for one that endured a protracted legal battle: In 2008, Runway languished for months when Bravo sued to prevent the Weinstein Co. from taking the show to Lifetime. Then Bunim-Murray replaced original production company Magical Elves and ushered in a disjointed sixth season in Los Angeles, the first on Lifetime. "It was the first time I took over someone else's show," says Murray. "The network said, 'Don't make any crazy changes.' So it was basically, 'Don't f-- it up.' "

For Lifetime, Project Runway was worth the wait -- and the fight. The show has helped update the network's image, which despite scripted gems like Drop Dead Diva had a slate that oscillated between staid but inoffensive to anachronistic and hopelessly outdated. Now in its fourth season on the network, Runway is Lifetime's highest-rated unscripted series. It accounts for two of Lifetime's three Emmy nominations this year and received its seventh nom for outstanding reality competition program. Still, Klum was snubbed for host. "I am totally fine about that," she says. "But I would have been very upset if the show didn't get nominated."

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It's clear on the set today that there is a polarizing designer, one viewers will love to hate and who will tap-dance all over Gunn's last nerve. "She's already had her agent call me. She's negotiating for more money," a producer is overheard grousing.

The designers are in the workroom putting finishing touches on three looks while director Craig Spirko, field producer Trish Norton, various PAs, Gunn, Rea, Murray and Lifetime vp reality programming David Hillman jam into the nearby control room to watch the action on a bank of monitors.

"It's like watching paint dry," says Rea.

"Not for me!" retorts Gunn.

It's now 10:45 a.m. In five minutes, Gunn will leave the control room to give the designers a 10-minute warning. "And it's in real time," he says. "Everything we do is real."

"Painfully," adds Rea.

At 10:50 a.m., Gunn enters the workroom: "In 10 minutes, we're going down to the runway. It's going to be a knockout!" The designers barely look up from their work."Is anybody listening to me?" asks Gunn.

One designer is sewing a topless model into a pair of pants. The camera zooms in on the model's backside -- she's wearing a flesh-colored G-string -- where the designer is at work with a needle and thread. After the pants are secured, the designer turns her attention to the hem of a dress that is not yet on another model. "I'm flabbergasted! What does she think is going to happen in the next 60 seconds?!" exclaims Gunn.

At exactly 11 a.m., he heads back into the workroom. The dress is on the model; Gunn and the designers head into the hallway outside the control room. But the dress -- the one that got the last-minute hem -- is on the model backward. "This dress, if made commercially, is going to need a set of instructions," says Gunn. "It's like a Mobius strip."

The designer throws her large silk shawl over the model's head (a precaution lest her makeup rub off on the fabric), pulls the dress off and pulls it back on the right way.

"It looks very desperate," says Spirko.

"I love it," adds Murray.

Later, Gunn leads a tour through the now-empty workroom. Water bottles, scraps of fabric and parchment paper litter the floor. A black Steve Madden platform pump sits solo on a table. A heap of poly chiffon in an autumnal print is on another, wisely rejected by the designer who chose it. Previous designs on dress forms line the front wall like a ragtag phalanx of Fashion Week rejects. More than a few are so ill-conceived and clumsily assembled, it seems impossible that the designer who gave birth to them could still be on the show.

I ask Gunn which of these designs he absolutely hates. He saunters past several forms, his heels clicking slowly on the linoleum floor. He stops and, with a flourish of his arm, motions toward a truly awful outfit. I am forbidden to describe it in detail, but let's just say it looks like something from Madonna's "Like a Virgin" days. Gunn folds his arms and frowns. Then he reaches for the garment's collar: "What is this? It looks like a cupcake sleeve. Dreadful."         

MOST PROLIFIC WINNERS

Jeffrey Sebelia (season three)

  • Head designer at L.A.'s Fluxus
  • Children's line La Miniatura with Melissa Bochco

Christian Siriano (season four)

  • Luxury ready-to-wear collection at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue
  • Footwear for Payless Shoesource
  • Best-selling book Fierce Style: How to Be Your Most Fabulous Self (Grand Central Publishing)
  • Has dressed celebrities such as Emily Blunt, Rosario Dawson, Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Christina Hendricks and Heidi Klum

Irina Shabayeva (season six)

  • Debuted fall 2011 collection at N.Y. Fashion Week
  • Concept collection for INC International Concepts at Macy's
  • Has dressed celebrities Selena Gomez, Rutina Wesley, Lady Gaga and Alison Brie
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