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Tim Gunn of ‘Project Runway’ reflects on his life, says he’s a lucky guy

By Jennifer Conlin
New York Times

Reflecting on this season’s “Project Runway” drama, Tim Gunn said, “It goes without saying that when a designer is out and leaves the show, they are hugely disappointed and probably a little grumpy.”

“But there was a new flavor of it this season that was really quite unpleasant,” he added. “The level of anger and acting out and grumpiness was really beyond the pale. I will be blunt. I did not want to see them. They were just not pleasant.”

Then, more in keeping with his image as the show’s peacemaker – stepping in when the fractious squabbling among the contestants seemed to be veering toward physical altercation; soothing fragile egos when they had been bruised by a judge’s tough critique – Gunn softened his tone a bit: “I think it has to do largely with the fact that we have such a talented group.”

While talented they may be (though regular viewers may have a less charitable view of the contestants’ design skills than Gunn), if past results are any guide, then the moment when one of them is named a winner may well be the highlight of his or her career as a fashion designer.

Because, for all the opportunities that come with that victory (and this year the cash and prizes total more than half a million dollars, as well as the chance to design and sell a collection at Belk department stores), the track record of past winners is not encouraging.

While some former contestants have gone on to minor celebrity (an hourlong documentary was made about the Season 1 winner, Jay McCarroll; Chris March had a short-lived reality show; Santino Rice is a regular panelist on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”; and several of the designers, including Malan Breton, Daniel Vosovic and Irina Shabayeva, have shown their own collections at New York Fashion Week), only Christian Siriano, the winner of Season 4, has emerged from the show with anything remotely approaching a high profile in the fashion world.

It is fair to say that no one has benefited more from the show’s success than the three original judges and Gunn himself.

Though Michael Kors was an established designer before joining “Project Runway,” the show has made him a bona fide celebrity, and his TV fame could not have been an insignificant factor in his highly lucrative initial public offering nearly two years ago. Nina Garcia was the little-known fashion director at Elle when she joined the show, and she is now creative director of Marie Claire. And Heidi Klum, already a noted Victoria’s Secret and Sports Illustrated model, has turned into a global fashion conglomerate, with a line of active wear for New Balance and a jewelry collection on QVC, while starring as a judge on another reality show, “America’s Got Talent.”

But perhaps no one has come further (or benefited more from the show’s success) than Gunn, who for more than two decades was a largely anonymous administrator and teacher at Parsons the New School for Design in New York.

A happy guy

Prompted to talk about his many accomplishments, Gunn, 60, can’t help but admit his good fortune.

“I am just a lucky guy and a very happy guy,” he said recently, sitting in the elegant Upper West Side penthouse apartment he bought in 2009 after 25 years of renting. “There is nothing more that I would even think of wishing for, because if I did, and if there is a higher authority in power, it would strike me down with a bolt of lightning for the hubris of it.”

Raised in Washington by a mother who helped found the library for the CIA and a father who worked as an FBI agent, Gunn did not have an easy youth.

“On the topic of my own sexuality, for years and years and years I knew what I wasn’t, but I didn’t really know what I was,” he said. He grew up with “a very distant, aloof father, who I knew I was a disappointment to in so many ways,” and a mother who was “very attentive, very caring,” but not warm. “I don’t remember ever being hugged by her,” he said.

Gunn says he still remembers the “despair and anguish” he experienced as a teenager.

He has acknowledged that he tried to kill himself at 17 with an overdose of pills. After that crisis, he found the help he needed in the medical community and among his family.

“Whenever there was a crisis that I presented to them, and trust me there were many, my father was always there,” he said lovingly. “He was the stabilizer … But Dad was there.”

Comfort was not the same as acceptance, and Gunn says he never came out about his sexuality to his parents, knowing they would disapprove. His father died 18 years ago and his mother three years ago.

Making your own way

“There are many ways you can establish your own path,” he said, sounding very much like the teacher he is. “The reason I love my catchphrase, ‘Make it work,’ is because it is not just about what is happening in the workroom, it is about life. Taking the existing conditions, the things we have available to us, and rallying them to ascend to a place of success.”

As for his own future, Gunn, who is single and has been for decades, says that he can see himself growing “older and wiser and wrinklier with someone,” but that the person could be a man or a woman and the relationship wholly platonic.

“In terms of romance and that element of dating - yuck, no thank you, I don’t need it,” he said, adding that his life is already so busy he often feels “a hair shy of a psychotic breakdown.”

He says this with the air of someone who knows that all that he has now was not preordained. “Had I been successful with that suicide attempt,” he said, “none of this would have happened to me.”

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