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Michelle Lesniak Franklin, a 34-year-old clothing designer from Portland, Ore., survived the inaugural “teams” edition of Project Runway to become the 11th-season winner.
While Franklin struggled throughout the first part of the season — she always seemed to be on the losing team — she was finally able to shine as the designers were able to show more of their own aesthetic toward the final weeks of the Lifetime competition.
In the finale, Franklin appeared much more organized and prepared than fellow finalists Patricia Michaelsand Stanley Hudson to take the win, with comes with a $100,000 cash prize from L’Oreal Paris to start her own line, a fashion spread in Marie Claire magazine, a 2013 Lexus GS 350, a $50,000 technology suite by HP and Intel and the opportunity to design and sell an exclusive collection at Lord & Taylor.
After the finale, Franklin talked to The Hollywood Reporter about her big win and what she’s working on now.
The Hollywood Reporter: In the finale, it seemed like the prize was yours to lose. Did you feel that way at the time?
Michelle Lesniak Franklin: It did to me. I unpacked all my garment bags after I got to New York, looked around the room and thought I might win. I loved with I did and felt strongly about it, but this time I was so prepared, and everyone else wasn’t.
THR: Were you shocked that Patricia and especially Stanley were scrambling at the last minute?
Franklin: It was shocking to me. I even had it down to that’s the look that coming first, second, the jewelry, the shoes. I had everything done. The hair and makeup, I had already thought of. All my garments were completed. It was just bizarre to me that the other three [including fourth-place finisher DanielEsquivel]didn’t.
THR: It seemed like you were always on a losing team and weren’t perceived as a front-runner early on as a result. Do you think things would have been different if this season hadn’t featured the teams twist?
Franklin: I think so, most definitely. Because I was always on the losing team, it felt like the judges pegged me as a loser, and they never truly got to see my looks and work until halfway through the season, and it was, “Oh, where has she been?” Well, I’ve been here the whole time.
THR: What went through your mind when Michael Kors was revealed as the guest judge for the final runway show?
Franklin: I was actually really happy because he was coming in without favorites and without the personality factor. I think that there were some designers that made it really far in the competition because the judges loved their personality, and I’m not gonna name names, but he, coming in, didn’t know us. It was a fresh start for him, a fresh slate of fashion.
THR: In the teaser for Thursday’s reunion special [airing at 9 p.m.], you reveal that you almost quit during the season, but viewers didn’t see that. Can you elaborate on what happened?
Franklin: After the Marie Claire challenge, when everyone [else went to Europe], and I was almost kicked off the show [she came in last but the judges gave her a second chance], I was going to quit. I actually sat down with the producers and said, “I’m done. Take me off the show.”
THR: What convinced you to stay?
Franklin: I think once the emotions cleared, I realized that you only live your life once. Why have any regrets? And I’m not a quitter; that’s not the type of person I am. I’m tenacious and a go-getter. So yeah, I just ate a cookie and had a glass of wine, and went back in the game.
THR: What’s next for you?
Franklin: I’m going to get an accountant to figure out how to do my taxes with all that money, and start hiring help and building a team. I’m a one-woman show right now, and I can’t do it anymore. It’s too tough. It’s time for an expansion and to take over the world.
THR: Are you working on a collection now?
Franklin: I have stuff currently in stores in Portland that I can’t keep up with production on. I’ll do a couple of fashion shows this summer and fall and most likely have a bigger launch in spring 2014.
THR: Any plans to relocate to New York City?
Franklin: Currently, I am planning on staying in Portland. I love this town, and I don’t think there’s any reason or need to leave. I’ll have to travel more … but I love what Portland has to offer.
THR: What was your motivation for going on Project Runway?
Franklin: To win and start my career. I didn’t go to school for fashion. I cut my job a little over two years ago to do this. I wanted to use Project Runway as a commercial and a stage to present my aesthetic. It’s huge. More people around the United States — and the world — now know what kind of clothing I make. I wouldn’t have had that.
THR: Was there anything you learned about yourself or your work while on the show?
Franklin: I definitely honed my aesthetic while being on the show. I learned that I’m really tenacious and very driven. I am organized and have strong convictions. I truly loved and believed in everything I did and fought for it, and that’s pretty powerful.
THR: What was it like having Tim Gunn as a mentor?
Franklin: He was always really supportive of me. He pulled me aside, week after week, when my teams was losing and losing, and was always supportive of my work and told me, “You’re doing really good.” He really is a fantastic mentor and gave me great advice throughout the entire competition and truly is one of the ultimate mentors in life.
THR: If you could design for one celebrity, who would it be?
Franklin: Rooney Mara. She’s just kind of moody-looking and there’s a bit of androgyny about her that I enjoy.
THR: Overall, how would you describe your Project Runway experience?
Franklin: It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I made best friends for life and I miss them dearly.
Watch a clip from the season 11 finale, in which Franklin is named the winner, below.
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