Hollywood Flashback: 'Project Runway' Ramped Up the Reality-Show Drama in 2004

Barbara Nitke/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Christian Siriano alongside one of his creations on 'Project Runway's 2007-08 season. He returns March 14.

The show — which returns to former network home Bravo on Tuesday for its 17th season with a new host and mentor as Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn develop a competitor for Amazon — launched Christian Siriano's hot designing career, was spoofed in a 'Saturday Night Live' skit and even saw its share of scandals.

When Project Runway first aired in 2004, The Hollywood Reporter called it "a predictable, time-tested blend of manufactured drama, carefully constructed anxiety and momentous music."

That blend ended up working pretty well: On March 14, the show's 17th season returns to Bravo, its home for the first five seasons, after an 11-season stint at Lifetime. (Bravo picked up the show from The Weinstein Co. buyers Lantern in the wake of Harvey Weinstein's downfall.) The show has been a consistent ratings generator.

"All the reality shows before it, like Survivor or Big Brother, tended to be about cunning and beating the other person," says creator Eli Holzman. "Runway was about talent."

Designers are forced to make clothes in restricted time and then get judged by big-name fashionistas. "What we stumbled upon was a really rich seam of characters," says Holzman. "The average fashion designer is a pretty colorful TV character; the average accountant is not."

The show was hosted by supermodel Heidi Klum (whom THR called "stiff and somber") with sharp-tongued star judges like Michael Kors and Zac Posen on hand to tear the less successful frocks to shreds. The show even had a breakout dandy: mentor Tim Gunn, who is replaced in season 17 by Christian Siriano. Model Karlie Kloss steps in for Klum. (Gunn and Klum are developing a competitor at Amazon.)

Siriano won the fourth-season competition, then went on to a hot designing career, recently creating Billy Porter's tuxedo dress that wowed at this year's Oscars. Siriano's frequent use of the word "tranny" for transgender (at a time when it wasn't as offensive to do so) inspired a famous Saturday Night Live skit. ("You're a tranny who looks like a hot mess and not in a good way," said Amy Poehler as Siriano. "A tickety-tock tranny hot mess out-of-control super-tranny from Transylvania who is not apologizing for it.")

Runway even had a couple of scandals. In the third season, a contestant used pattern books. And in the 16th, another secretly measured her own clothes for reference. Both got the boot. "Design schools saw a significant uptick in enrollment since the show aired," says Holzman. "I feel kind of proud that we showed so many people they could be part of the fashion world."

This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.