'Project Runway' Designer Kate Pankoke on Getting a Second Chance and the Show's Big Changes

Kate Pankoke

"There will be some high fashion coming down the runway, and some huge dramatic moments coming," the returning competitor tells THR of what's ahead in season 12.

Kate Pankoke is getting something most Project Runway designers don't -- a second chance.

As part of a new twist introduced this season -- dubbed "Runway Redemption" -- viewers got to vote which of thee former competitors would return. Pankoke, a 24-year-old from Chicago who originally was on season 11, beat out season eight's Valerie Mayen and season six's Lawrence Coleman for the honor, as revealed in last week's season 12 premiere.

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During her original season -- the show's first "teams" edition -- Pankoke was sent home during a unconventional challenge that called for the designers to create a prom dress out of duct tape. In a surprising double elimination, both Pankoke and her teammate Tu Suthiwat Nakchat were sent home.

Pankoke recently talked to The Hollywood Reporter about getting  a second chance on the show, how the judges and other designers reacted to her and how her mindset changed from her first season.

The Hollywood Reporter: When did you find out you were going to be on season 12?

Kate Pankoke: Literally, one day before we started filming. Basically, I got the phone call that I had won, and they were literally like, "Pack your bags. You're flying to New York." And then I was back there filming. It was crazy. I was like, "Oh my god. This is really happening to me again."

THR: Why did you want to go back?

Pankoke: I really felt like I was eliminated way too soon, and there was really no justification as to why I was eliminated. Basically they were like, "Tu, you're eliminated, and Kate, you're gone too." What just happened here? On top of that, the fact that I was on Project Runway Teams, I was able to get my design aesthetic across most of the time, but everything had to be a compromise. Working with another designer, you're fighting to get your point of view across. Knowing this season was teams, I was going, "Thank the lord."

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THR: As you alluded to in the season premiere, there are advantages and disadvantages to having competed before.

Pankoke: There were pros and cons of going back in. I felt like the advantage I had was I knew the lay of the land. But I knew that nobody was going to be happy to see me. And I was OK with that going in. The judges sent me home, and they were not the ones that felt like they did a bad job -- the fans were the ones who were upset. I didn't know how the judges would react to seeing me back.

THR: Did you feel like you had to step it up this season?

Pankoke: I knew I definitely had to bring my A game. Last season, I would be happy to make it to the next episode. But seeing all my friends show at Fashion Week, this time I was not happy being safe. I was in it to win it.

THR: Do you think the judges were harder on you because you were given a second chance?

Pankoke: In my opinion, yes. But I welcomed that because I went into it knowing I had an advantage knowing the judges. They never said they were going to judge me harder, but I went into every challenged expecting to be judged harder.

THR: What do you think about the changes this season that let fans be a bigger part of the show?

Pankoke: I am so grateful to the fans and the press for really getting behind me and making this possible. This "Runway Redemption" idea has never happened before, and I think because of how I was eliminated, and the fact that Tim Gunn saved [eventual winner] Michelle Lesniak Franklin last season, the producers were really looking to the fans. And that makes a difference. They implemented all these new things -- the anonymous runway, fans can vote during the episode on whether the judges got it right. With how vocal they were about my elimination and during other seasons, I thank them for that because without them, I wouldn't be back.

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THR: And what about the other changes, including Tim Gunn's expanded role, including sitting with the judges during the runway show, and his ability to "rescue" one designer?

Pankoke: I really like it. I feel like last season, I didn't get to know Tim, and I didn't even know if he was sad to see me go. This season, because I got the one-on-one critique with him, I got to know him and hear what he had to say about my designs. He was so much more helpful and able to use his mentorship to the fullest. And knowing he was down there with the judges, he could tell them we only had so many hours or so much material to work with. I really enjoyed it because sometimes the judges just don't know. Last season with the prom challenge, Nina [Garcia] and Heidi [Klum] had never been to prom. If Tim had been there, maybe he could have explained what prom is.

THR: What did you think of the anonymous judging?

Pankoke: It really pushed you as a designer to get your aesthetic across. The judges should know who designed what regardless of if your name is on it. It should speak to your aesthetic. It was an added challenge and pushed you to be yourself.

THR: What else can viewers expect coming up on Project Runway?

Pankoke: I can totally say that this season of Project Runway, even though I tried to stay out of the drama, this is the most dramatic season. I just kept asking, "Did this ever happen before? Do you know how to handle this situation?" There are definitely some volatile personalities. There are just way more characters than have ever been on a season. That being said, for every bit of drama, there is equally as much fashion. I know that was a big thing with fans last season: "We hate this team shit; stop with the drama; we just want fashion." On this season, it's the best of both worlds. There will be some high fashion coming down the runway, and some huge dramatic moments coming.

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THR: What else are you working on?

Pankoke: I have my bridal line [Elaya Vaughn] and will be showing for the first time at the National Bridal Market in New York. I normally show in Chicago, but we're moving out to the Big Apple to show our stuff. I'm really excited about that. I'm getting married in November, and I feel like I have almost nothing planned. I have to make my gown.

THR: Did you already design your dress?

Pankoke: I did, but I'm probably going to have several gown. But I still have to make them.

Project Runway airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on Lifetime. Watch a clip from this week's episode below.