'Project Runway': Tim Gunn Previews Season 12 Changes and His Expanded Role

The mentor also weighs in on the recent controversy surrounding the show's risqué key art featuring nude models: "It just seems ridiculous."
Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn in the season 12 premiere.

Tim Gunn fans rejoiced when it was revealed that the Project Runway mentor would have a bigger role in season 12 of the Lifetime fashion-design competition.

For the first time, Gunn will join the judges to watch the runway show, answer their questions about what happened in the workroom and give them the chance to physically examine the workmanship of each design. In addition, he will be able to "rescue" one designer from elimination during the course of the season.

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Ahead of the show's premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday, Gunn talked to reporters about the changes ahead, which also include a new interactive onscreen feature for fans and the opportunity for seven viewers to receive a fashion makeover in an upcoming episode.

"I have a new and very different engagement with the judges," Gunn said. "In the past seasons, it’s literally been the separation of church and state. I do not interact with them" with the exception of saying "hello."

Gunn explained that, after the traditional Q&A session with the top and bottom designers, he will now present the models wearing those designs to the judges, who will get the chance to look at the garments up close.

"I have an opportunity to have my day in court, so to speak," he said. "I can tell them things that I believe are important for them to know in terms of their decision making. It may be something that happened in the workroom. It may be a particular aspect of the garment that they are looking at."

Gunn admitted that he was initially "very nervous, very apprehensive" about his new role but he ended up "loving" the fact that he could offer additional insight to the judges. He also said it gave him the chance to tell the designers specific reasons as to why the judges did or didn't like a particular outfit. And, he added, it also forced the designers to pay more attention to the finishing and details on their garments.

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As for his ability to "rescue" one designer, Gunn said that idea was sparked in season 10, during an episode which he "stormed the judges' table" during one episode trying to save a particular designer. He also went to bat for Michelle Lesniak Franklin toward the end of season 11, and she went on to win the whole thing. So the producers decided to officially give him the power to save someone this time around.

"I honestly thought that I would probably never have – either not have any reason to use it or would use it near the very end of the season," he said. "Well, I’ll share with you that I do use it. And it’s not the end of the season. … Reflecting upon it, I’m delighted about when I did use it."

Gunn, who has been very vocal in the past when he disagreed with the judges' decisions, added that, with that one exception, he has so far been on the same page with their determination of who should be sent home this season.

"And I won’t say how I feel about who wins … each challenge because, frequently, I didn’t agree," he added.

Meanwhile, there is yet another change this season when it comes to the runway: For the first time, the judges won't know whose models are walking down the runway as they score each design. In the past, they were given cards with the designers' names and pictures of the competitors while making their assessments. Only after their assessments are tallied will they find out who designed which garment.

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"Once we move forward from the first challenge, I think it becomes rather critical because in past seasons, the judges develop biases very quickly on about who’s good, who isn’t," Gun said. "And sometimes, they just don’t look at the work with the same degree of scrutiny that I would like them to."

Meanwhile, the show stirred up controversy earlier this month with its risqué key art featuring Gunn and host/judge Heidi Klum surrounded by a slew of nude models. The billboard was banned in Los Angeles. For his part, Gunn said he didn't find the image "offensive or tasteless."

"I don’t get it. I really don’t," he said. "And I think of Los Angeles as being much more permissive than New York. And the images is up all over New York and then it’s banned in L.A.? I find it crazy. … It just seems ridiculous."

Zac Posen and Nina Garcia return as judges on this season, which features the biggest prize package — worth half a million dollars — in series history. Project Runway season 12 premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on Lifetime.