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Meet Season 3's Laura Bennett, Plus Read an Excerpt From Her New Book!
"Project Runway" Season 3 finalist Laura Bennett will be making a book signing appearance at Borders Columbus Circle in New York City on April 7 at 7 pm for her new book "Didn't I Feed You Yesterday? A Mother's Guide To Sanity In Stilettos," available online and in stores April 6.
Read an excerpt from her forthcoming book now to find out what "Project Runway" is like ... from the designer's point of view!
Chapter 10: Laura's Got a Gunn
"Being on 'Project Runway' was a lot like childbirth; when you are in the middle of it, it's painful, but when it's all over, you're glad you did it."
About six years ago, between kids number four and five, I stumbled upon a new obsession: reality television. And not just any reality television. On "Project Runway," a mixed assortment of completely crazy fashion designers are given little time and less money to craft a runway-worthy garment good enough to get them past the even crazier judges and on to the next week's challenge. It had me at auf Wiedersehen. I loved the characters, the obstacles, and the creativity and no one had to eat live worms.
I am no stranger to the impossible. Work two jobs, go to grad school and single-handedly rear my daughter in a city where I know not one soul? Sure, no problem. Find a second husband and give him five boys in 10 years, rearing them all in a two-bedroom apartment in the middle of Manhattan while continuing my career as an architect? Don't make me shrug. Create a killer dress from a paperclip and a piece of lint? Freaking cakewalk.
I tried to share my love by telling everyone to watch the show with me, but reality television, with its lowbrow reputation, was too hard a sell in my house not to mention the part about people sewing dresses. I did manage to convince my nine-year-old, Truman, to sit by my side as I yelled at the screen disagreeing with the comments of the judges, or questioning the design decision of a contestant and that was because the show aired past his bedtime. One late night as I was watching an episode I had already seen at least 14 times, Truman looked up at me from where he lay.
"That dress should not have been cut on the bias," he muttered. "Mom, you can do better than that."
You're right, I thought. That fabric is not bias friendly. I could do better with my eyes closed. I hadn't been to fashion school, but I had learned to sew when I was tiny, and my architecture training had honed my sense of design to a razor-sharp edge. I'd been making fantastic, elegant black-tie event dresses for years; I knew how to drape and make patterns without ever really thinking about it. As I sat on the couch, Truman gently snoring during the runway segment, it occurred to me that I could audition for the next season. What was there to lose? At least if I got cast all my friends and family would have to watch the show with me, even if I didn't make it very far.
I found the New York City open call on the Bravo site it was to be held in three days. I couldn't believe my luck. The interviews would be at Macy's, only three blocks away, so I wouldn't have to travel or make any crazy arrangements for the kids. It really was a no-brainer.
I wasn't sure what they would be looking for, so I decided to bring what I do best, grabbing three sparkling cocktail dresses from the clothing rack in my bedroom. I was flying blind, trying to remember what contestants had shown up with in the past and gleaning what I could from the Internet. I figured my chances were about as slim as an African American ever becoming president, but then again, why not me? I can out-gay the gayest young male designer out there, I told myself. The night before the auditions, I ignored the March forecast of "continued cold snap" and selected a shimmery sleeveless cocktail dress rife with hand beading and a neckline that plunges to the navel. When I pulled it on the next morning, I hoped I would stand out from the crowd.
And I do mean crowd. Peter walked with me, and when we showed up at the side entrance of Macy's, there was a line of people stretching all the way down 35th Street and wrapping around the world's most famous department store.
Peter, my hero, offered to hold my place in line so I could return home and wait in our warm apartment. God, I love that man. He called me hours later saying he was getting close to the front and it was time to make the switch.
Just as I arrived at Peter's place in line, a guy with the requisite gear and a clipboard clearly a producer came outside for the next 10 contestants.
"Seven, eight, nine," he counted out, and when he said "10," I felt a hand on my shoulder guiding me through the door. My sense of the surreal started to kick into high gear.
Once inside the waiting room, I took off my coat and smoothed my hair, ignoring the nine people staring at me like I was crazy to wear a beaded dress before noon. Dress like you want it or stay home, I thought as I refreshed my red lipstick. They kept staring. I guess when you spend hours on a city street in the freezing cold, a bit of camaraderie develops. I didn't quite have that frozen-to-near-death-camped-on-the-sidewalk look about me. More like a spent-the-night-clubbing-at-the-Ritz-in-my-fancy-black-cocktail-dress look.
When it was my turn the producers switched on my mike and told me to enter the room with my dresses and portfolio and stand on the X on the floor. I was specifically told not to try and shake anyone's hand, which I found disappointing as by now I had a major crush on Tim Gunn, and very much wanted a chance to touch him. It wasn't a physical thing at all, really. I had just gained so much respect for his design aesthetic that I needed to make sure he was real. The more I thought about my infatuation, the more sense the non-handshaking rule made.
Once in the room everything went by in a blur. I was operating on the adrenaline high of my life. Tim thumbed through my book and asked if I had made the dresses myself. I nodded meekly, or maybe I spoke a few words in the affirmative. I was so stunned to be standing there with the cameras rolling that I lost all sense of this being a competition I really felt as though I had somehow already won just by getting in the door. I half expected to be thanked and sent on my way, and was already concocting the dinner party small talk this episode of my life would soon be reduced to. It was then that I noticed people off to one side of the room likely network executives or the big producers of the show waving their arms at the judges and mouthing, "Take the crazy lady in the cocktail dress." Yes, I thought, you should take the crazy lady in the cocktail dress. Tim seemed less interested in my dramatic potential and more concerned with my garments were they up to snuff? The next thing I knew they told me that I had made it to round two. I'd like to think it was my cleavage that got me the gig, but there's not really enough of it. It's much more likely that bedazzling oneself for an eight a.m. audition was exactly the kind of nutty behavior that reality television thrives on. At least for a couple of episodes.
I arrived home a mere hour after I had left, frozen and gleeful. I announced to the gathered sleepy faces that I had made it through to the next round. My next task was to make a three-minute bio video to send to Los Angeles. I had exactly one day to figure out how the hell I was going to make it on the show. Peter was thrilled by the whole prospect, and immediately took charge.
"If we shoot footage today," he said, "we can edit it tomorrow and get it to FedEx by nine p.m. That should get it to L.A. in time."
Since the odds were good that the producers wanted me because I stood out, we decided that the video should be about my personality and not about fashion. We began constructing our theme: older urban glamorous woman with a scary amount of children. We did our best to set me apart from all the young gay designers fresh out of fashion school. Peter shot me in the center of a dizzying, death-defying, high-speed video of our loft complete with four boys running around, a swinging skeleton chandelier above, my pet tortoise, a massive cage full of birds, and of course the dress forms and sewing machines behind me, a subtle homage to the requisite "interview shot" from the show itself. I meanwhile stood placidly in the center of this storm and confidently claimed that the breakneck speed of PR would be like a vacation for me.
It was a mad dash to FedEx, but the video was sent off in time, and at that point I waited eagerly to hear back from the producers whether of not I had been chosen. No word came. Weeks passed. Hamsters were born and died. The seasons changed. There was nothing to do, and no one to call. The wait was excruciating. Then one May evening my cell phone rang. The screen read: unlisted number.
"Laura, this is Tim Gunn," the unmistakable voice said.
"Tim Gunn?" I practically screamed. He gave me the good news and asked me to keep it a secret, apart from my neighbors who must have heard my shout. Filming would start in two weeks. I began to prepare for what would be the most unreal reality of my life.
After I hung up the phone and the initial shock wore off I realized I had two problems: my daughter, Cleo, was due to graduate high school during sequestered shooting, and I was about eight weeks pregnant. I might have already been knocked up when I auditioned, but it seemed so unlikely that I would get to the second round, much less cast, that I conveniently ignored my delicate condition. I instantly made up my mind that I would put Cleo first if she wanted me to, and that nothing I did for the show could imperil the baby. I'd had five uncomplicated pregnancies at this point, and could certainly tell if anything was amiss. I decided not to mention the bun in the oven until absolutely necessary, assuming that productions of this scale have certain liability concerns, I worried that if they knew they would replace me at this point in the game. On the other hand, if I made it through enough rounds to start showing they would have to work it in, like when a soap opera star has to spend three months of shooting behind a potted plant, or is "suddenly impregnated by her own evil twin."
I called Cleo, who had been just as nervously waiting to hear from Tim as I had been. She was thrilled.
"I'll miss your graduation," I said, heartsick at the words. "It's your choice. If you want me there, I will turn down the show."
"Are you nuts?!" She yelled at me. "This is so exciting! You have to do it."
With Cleo's blessing I moved ahead and followed the show's orders to the letter, and prepared my family for my departure. The older boys were happy to see me go: Piek because he was always happy to see me go anywhere, and Truman because he was my partner in crime. The younger two didn't really get it being three and four they hadn't yet grasped the concept of time and I knew that their collective amnesia would pave over any hurt feelings in the long run. I packed a couple of suitcases and my own sewing kit and moved into an apartment six blocks away from my home. I could literally see the boys' bedroom window from mine. We could have used a flashlight to communicate if they'd only known where I was.
Moving into the apartment with its tiny bedrooms and even tinier bathroom was a snap for me after my six-people-to-two-bedroom lifestyle. Many of the other contestants were used to living in houses, and had trouble getting to sleep in the middle of noisy Manhattan. I had that edge from the beginning as I am immune to regular sleep patterns and can fall asleep practically anywhere and wake on a dime. Years of babies do that to you: I haven't slept though the night in 10 years. I wear sleep deprivation like a navel-bearing cocktail dress anywhere, anytime.
Our first challenge started the minute we walked into our apartment: make an outfit out of something in the suite. For as much as I had been looking forward to the challenges, tearing apart my hotel room was not exactly a thrill, especially when we returned exhausted to the demolished room that night, one designer already auf Weidersehened off the show. Though tired, I was pretty proud of my sexy little mattress-ticking coat with its clever bathmat collar: It was the first garment I had ever sewn for someone other than myself. In a way I think that my lack of formal training was another advantage. I wasn't restricted by the "right" way to do things, so I just figured out the fastest or easiest way. Other contestants wouldn't dream of leaving raw edges on the inside of a garment because they had been taught it was unprofessional. I had no such hang-ups and could better spend my time executing more intricate ideas. As long as my design passed the runway test does it look good to the judges at 30 paces? then finishes be damned.
If you think what the designers go through on "Project Runway" looks hard on TV, in real life it's even harder. Trust me. First of all, this "week's" challenge was really this "day's" challenge. We were not given a week to recover each time, but were given the new assignment on a daily basis, back to back to back. Remaining creative was nearly impossible at that pace, and it's no wonder that contestants started to crack by day three. We had much less time to create than it appeared because some of that "you have six hours" time was taken up for production needs, not to mention eating, napping, or even peeing. I'm not very good at faking how I feel, and since I was newly pregnant and prone to fatigue, my goal in the first few challenges was to keep my head low, design quick, execute quicker, and take a nap while the other designers were fussing over how to properly drape their fabrics. Of all my six pregnancies, this was turning out to be the easiest, and I was determined not to whine or complain about any of my symptoms. I don't get morning sickness but I do get bone-tired, so any bit of sleep I could grab I went for it. This unfortunately led to endless footage of me sacked out, like a princess. It's not exactly a great way to make friends with a dozen or so people who already want you to go home so they can move up. Luckily, I didn't care a bit what other people thought, and if my ability to get the work done fast made them nervous, so much the better.
On top of all these demands on our time to design were daily interviews that took on average an hour and a half; time that came straight off the top of the block we had to complete our garments. Work invariably finished at midnight, and by the time we all did one final interview and they filmed us walking to the apartment it was two in the morning. We were woken up at 6:30 by a camera in the face and the entire day would start all over again. I exacted a modicum of revenge by sleeping naked and throwing off my covers in the morning just to torture the cameramen.
Elimination days between the challenges were a bit easier physically, but much more draining emotionally. The 15-minute runway and judging segment would take the full day to shoot, during which time no one had a clue whether they would be getting das boot or not. There was generally a mad dash to finish the garments before the time to dress the models, then the waiting began. Naturally, there was a camera catching every expression as we all internally freaked out about what might happen on the runway. The minute the elimination segment ended, the next challenge was announced and the gerbil wheel started squeaking all over again. This cycle repeated about a dozen times in a six-week span. Six endless weeks of bloat-inducing craft services food loaded with salt and god knows what else, severe (even for me) sleep deprivation and a smattering of sociopaths. And of course the minor detail that I was increasingly pregnant.
Every time Heidi stood on the runway and introduced a "special guest," I would say to myself, "Please let it be Peter. Please let it be Peter." Was I thinking that there was going to be a "Fashion Inspired by Architecture" challenge and Peter was going to be the guest judge? I was too tired to be rational. For the Every Woman challenge Heidi announced there would be special guests, and just as I was saying to myself, "Please let it be Peter," my mom appeared. I burst into tears. I'm not sure if I was happy to see my mom or sad not to see Peter, or just a hormonal sewing freak of nature, but there she was, along with a mother or sister for every designer on the show.
I would have to say that conceptually this was the worst challenge of the entire season. None of these everyday women knew that they had come to New York to walk on the runway in "designer fashions." They were told they would be doing interviews about us, sharing stories of how wacky we were as children, and showing pictures of us butt naked on a bearskin rug. Many of the women were uncomfortable with the idea of strutting their stuff on national TV, especially the larger women, and they simply weren't prepared to be that emotionally naked. Plus, the designers were all so exhausted by the time our moms arrived we were all skating on thin brains. It was a combustible situation in the finest of hours, but the combination of body-conscious women and hotheaded designers was lethal. The episode was a bit of a disaster, with the least-svelte women crying on the runway because they were so uncomfortable in what they were wearing fashion can be cruel that way, but even crueler when it is someone you love.
Reality television is real. The producers never tell you what to say or what to do. They end up with hours of footage from many different cameras, and they will edit and distill personalities for the sake of telling a story, but generally the camera doesn't lie. If Omarosa claims she's really not a bitch and she was merely edited to look that way, you can rest assured that she really is a bitch. Cameras are on 24/7 and you're miked all day long it's really not possible to be someone that you're not. You become so accustomed to having a camera in your face that you actually forget it's there.
From the book "DIDN'T I FEED YOU YESTERDAY? A Mother's Guide to Sanity in Stilettos" by Laura Bennett. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright 2010 by Laura Bennett.