Speaking at the 92Y last night, Project Runway mentor and all-around great human being Tim Gunn said of Season 8, "I had never been part of a season of the show where I found the judges' decision-making to be more...incomprehensible."
"If anyone thinks that I take this for granted, and think, Oh this show is just simply going to continue — I'm shocked every season," said Gunn, the former head of the fashion design program at Parsons. He continued, "And actually, after the conclusion of this season — no-one knows-" and here, Gunn's voice was drowned out by cheers from the nearly full house crowd, although it sounded like he said, "if we'll even be back again." More cheering. This audience was in the tank for Mondo. "Talk about the truth being stranger than fiction!" Gunn joked. "If it were fiction, I would fire the writers."
Bear in mind that Gunn has not actually seen the last four episodes of the season in question, which ended with the viewer favorite HIV+ contestant Mondo Guerra losing to print-happy Portland resident Gretchen Jones. Gunn says he doesn't get sent DVDs, was traveling a lot this fall, "and the hotels I was staying in didn't have Lifetime." (Since its controversial move to Lifetime, the show has been streamed free online.) But he shed a little light on what went on during the filming:
"Heidi came to me during the judges' deliberation for the finale, and I have to say, I was...truly incredulous about how this judging was going. And I was miffed. So I wasn't exactly user-friendly when dear, lovely, adorable Heidi, when she came to me. And I sit behind the crew, the camera crew, in the literal and metaphorical dark, and Heidi came up and asked, 'Who do you want to have win?' And I said, 'Well, why do you care? I'm not a judge.' And she said, 'No, really, who do you want to have win?' And I said, 'Well, Mondo of course!' She said, 'So do I! I need your help with Nina [Garcia] and Michael [Kors].' And I said, 'Oh, no, they're going to get really annoyed with me if I go with you and start to talk to them — it's not, this will not be pretty. For me.' So I followed Heidi. And she held my hand. And I tried to make a case to Nina and Michael while they were looking at me like 'Die, scum, die.'"
Klum had read about Gunn's little crack about how she and the other judges might as well be, uh, smoking crack. "When she walked me back to my seat in the dark, she had my arm and she whispered in my ear, 'So am I no longer a crack-smoker?' And I said, 'No, you're not. But unfortunately you passed your pipe to Nina and Michael who now have a double dose!' Completely crazy outcome." He added, deadpan, "I'm happy for Gretchen."
Controversial moments in judging aside, Gunn is clearly very proud of Project Runway. He remains in contact with many of the past contestants, almost all of whom are still working in the industry. (This was confirmed when, later that night and completely by chance, I happened upon Chris March, a Season 4 finalist. Meryl Streep wore one of his dresses to this year's Academy Awards. Gunn still keeps in touch.) None has become a breakout star — though Christian Siriano comes close — but Gunn believes the show does a good job portraying the business faithfully.
"What designers love about the show is that it really shows the process. It shows what you go through, when you're designing in this industry. And that it's difficult, it's daunting, it's dirty, in a manner of speaking. And just incredibly demanding. And what editors didn't like, why they hated the show, was they hated it for the same reasons. We ripped the metaphorical veil of mystery that had rested over the fashion industry, and said, 'Look, it's not so glamourous. It's not so lovely.' And editors are very invested in this mystique."
Gunn also recounted his now-infamous tale of Anna Wintour And The Bodyguards On The Stair. Gunn says that from his standing room seat, he saw the Vogue editor leave a 2005 Peter Som fashion show in Chelsea by having her two bodyguards carry her down five flights of stairs. When the story — which Gunn has told far and wide, including to the New York Post and in the pages of his new book, Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons For Making It Work — reached Wintour's attention, this is what happened:
"I come back from a meeting, and my office tells me that Ms. Wintour's office has called. Well, I went right back to my first day of teaching. But I was so close to having every orifice open up. I was a wreck. I went, 'Oh, for God's sake — can't she leave well enough alone?' And then I thought, 'Maybe she's calling to congratulate me!'"
He called Vogue back — but he tried to wait until when he thought Wintour would be at lunch.
"I spoke to the vice-president of communications, a lovely, lovely guy who's unfortunately no longer there, who said, 'Hold for Ms. Wintour.' Once again — every orifice. I was sitting on the floor of my office at this point. I had scooted out of my chair because I thought, I — I can't stay in this chair. So I held. And I held. And he came back and he said, 'I'm sorry, I can't reach her.' And I thought to myself, well, don't be sorry!"
Gunn has previously intimated that there were other witnesses of the Vogue editor's human-palanquin act. Which is pretty logical, given that fashion shows tend to be mad houses — especially at points of egress. But it's also not surprising that nobody would rush to come forward and back Gunn's account. Well: Enter Peter Arnold, then the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and now the president of Cynthia Rowley. He stopped by Gunn's office when Vogue was threatening legal action if Gunn did not retract the story:
Peter looked at me and he said, 'You look terrible.' And I said, 'I am terrible!' He said, 'What's going on?' And I told him the Cliff's Notes version of this. And he said, 'I was there! I saw it!' So he got on the phone, called the VP of communications at Vogue, and said, 'This is Peter Arnold. I'm with Tim Gunn. I saw the whole thing.'
The phonecalls stopped. Supposing he was not about to be sued by Vogue, Gunn decided to send flowers. An all-white arrangement. "Then I thought, 'Oh God. I'm thinking white means peace, but if we were in Japan, it means death.' Then I thought — She can take it either way."
During his hour and a half onstage, Gunn talked about everything from the personal perils of writing such a no-holds-barred book — his mother is currently communicating with him only via his younger sister — to the suicide attempt which landed him in hospital at the age of 17. And also about how satisfying it was to tell "a dear friend from the CFDA" who thought reality television was tacky when Project Runway's first season was nominated for an Emmy. But he practically brought down the house with a story of what happened when a "very young" Tim Gunn and his sister went to visit their father, the FBI agent George William Gunn, at FBI headquarters during the J. Edgar Hoover era:
I was a big I Love Lucy fan. I still am. And we would, my sister and I would visit dad at the FBI headquarters about once a year and we would have the whole tour. On this one particular day, for the tour, Dad said to us, 'You're going to get the biggest kick out of this. Guess who's in Mr. Hoover's office?' 'Who!' 'Ethel Mertz. Vivian Vance!' 'No! Really?' He says yes — would you like to meet her? And I of course, I would love to meet her. But I was also terrified. So, my sister and I were escorted in, and we met Miss Vance, who was lovely. And I never forgot it. However in the late '80s, when these stories were coming out about Hoover and the cross-dressing, it was actually, apropos of our season, at the Thanksgiving dinner table because the family had assembled and my mother was talking about, oh, this terrible press, and these atrocious stories and how could this be. And I turned to my sister and I said, 'Do you remember the time we visited Mr. Hoover in his office and met Vivian Vance?' And she said yes. And I said, 'You know, it strikes me now as really weird that Mr. Hoover wasn't in the office!' And those of you who know what Hoover looked like — picture J. Edgar Hoover. Picture Ethel Mertz. Picture them side by side.
Gunn went on to say that his publisher, Simon & Schuster, had a legal team that "did their due diligence with this story. They researched the guest logs at the FBI — no Vivian Vance. They talked to Vivian Vance's two biographers. They'd never heard the story. Interesting." The crowd laughed. "I can't prove it — but it was odd."