Interview: ‘Project Runway’ winner Michelle talks survival, ‘tusks of snot’

04.26.13 5 years ago 11 Comments


Competition reality television can be a cruel mistress. The moments when you behave like a perfectly decent person end up on the cutting room floor while the one time you snarl at a competitor who richly deserves it, they put it on a loop. But this season of “Project Runway” had to be one of the nicest in recent memory. It was low on villains, high on little acts of kindness, and featured some pretty damn good clothing to boot. But maybe I feel that way because the competitor for whom I was rooting, Michelle Lesniak Franklin, took home top honors. Whoot!

Not only did I love a lot of what the wine merchant-turned-designer sent down the runway, Franklin was good TV; she seemed honest, opinionated and, most importantly, could be bitingly funny. Still, when you get a chance to interview someone, you prepare for the worst. The good news? Over the phone, Franklin was exactly who she’d been on the show, plus I’m guessing she’d gotten more than the standard “Project Runway” four hours of sleep. Here’s what Franklin told me about how she thinks she was saved from elimination (and who she thinks went to bat for her), her take on team challenges, and why we probably want to watch what’s likely to be an enlightening reunion show. 
You won, so obviously the team challenge aspect couldn’t have been too bad. But as a viewer, it seemed unfair. Enlighten me.
[Laughing] It was the worst! But it was really tough, and I think I had the hardest time with it of anybody. There were quite a few designers who lasted much longer than they should have and there were some who got kicked off earlier than they should have. It made me tenacious. I had to fight harder, because I knew the judges always saw me as a loser because I was on the losing team week after week.
Speaking of teams, you and Amanda worked brilliantly together. Any chance you’ll collaborate in the future? 
Amanda, she’s one of my closest friends, and hopefully we will work together. But a lot of us who were on the show are really close. Stan and I are really close, for example. A lot of the viewing public thinks I’m a mean girl with a bad attitude, but I’m not. Stanley’s my main man! I think he and I will work together, and obviously Joe and I are working together. 
At the beginning of the season, though, there was come trash talk, and not just from you. Did you ever feel the need to call someone after a show aired? 
I never felt bad about something I said on camera and felt as if I had to apologize, except for one time. I said that Tu couldn’t sew for shit. I felt really bad about that. The dress he had made in that challenge, the mature woman challenge, was terrible and couldn’t be sewn for shit. I did apologize for that and it did hurt his feelings. But as far as my funny one liners, I don’t say them to hurt anyone.
What is the toughest part about “Project Runway”? 
The schedule is brutal. People ask me, why is everyone always crying? Well, when you’re on 4 hours of sleep and you’re under so much stress, you’re gonna cry and say things you don’t mean. The mature designers in our group, they get it. But there are some designers who have yet to get over it. You’ll see that in the reunion episode, that some people are holding grudges.They just need to put on their big boy pants and grow up. And the thing is, we all, before she show even aired over the months and months we were waiting to see the show, we were contacting each other back and forth. We had agreed that everyone probably said things they didn’t mean in the moment. It’s like, whatever you do in Vegas stays in Vegas. When you’re extremely tired you snap and say things you don’t mean. We needed to treat it like nothing, like water on a duck. Even though we had a sit down conversation, some people still didn’t get that. 
Any plans to move to New York? 
I’m staying in Portland for now. Portland is my home. I love New York, but I think I can be really successful and grow organically here.
I’m sure your business started to blow up once the show started airing. How is it going?
I can’t keep up with sales right now and I can’t keep up with my emails and requests and interviews. I had a little breakdown the other day, but I finally just snapped and decided I need a personal assistant. Wow, I actually need help. [For those who want to pile on, you can find stores carrying Franklin’s work at
You’re a self-taught designer, which I find hard to believe. You clearly didn’t just go to Michael’s, get a pattern and figure it out. 
I actually, really, that was the first leather I had ever worked with, what you saw on the show. So that was why I went fuck nutty and had to throw it everywhere. I was in the wine industry for 10 years. I did other things, of course. I had a handbag business, and I sewed from high school onward, sewing a lot of my own clothes. I always had a passion for it.
I was a little worried for you when you rejected some of Tim Gunn’s recommendations, but you turned out to be right. How did you find the balance?
Constructive criticism is constructive criticism. You take what you think is going to be helpful, but you have to keep true to what is you. That’s what I did. I did go to art school, so I’ve been in critiques before. I knew how to handle it the process.   
You’ve said that Tim Gunn used to call you the Flying Dutchman. Was there a little cloud of doom hanging over you?
He didn’t think I was down and depressed; I was just in that scenario all the time. They don’t show everything that happens, but every time my team would be in the bottom, he’d give me a hug and say yours is really really good and just keep going. We had a very close relationship. When [he and I] were watching the runway show on a video screen behind the runway, when the bleeding heart sweater came on, he said, “Oh, Michelle, I take it back. It’s beautiful.” That really meant a lot to me.
You almost quit the show when all the other designers went to Europe and you were stuck in New York. Did you realize how lucky you were to have been saved? 
Heidi Klum handed out these wonderful tickets to all of these different cities in Europe, and we go back to the apartments. Layana and Patricia are packing and they’re so excited, as they should be. This is exciting; it’s such a marvelous experience, to be able to be in Europe and be inspired by everything, and I was not going. I had my sunglasses on and I was sobbing, these walrus tusks of snot coming down. I didn’t understand how the most beautiful pair of pants and shirt that has never been done before on the show wasn’t good enough compared to some of the other things that made it. I just felt, if this is not good enough, then get me the hell off of this show. I was really tired and probably really hungry and missing home. [The show producers] got me a cookie and a glass of wine and just kept telling me, don’t give up; so many people are rooting for you. And I was like, you dumb girl, you can do this!
When did it sink in that you’d really been given an opportunity other people hadn’t?
It didn’t hit until I was back home; that’s when it finally hit me. Samantha and Amanda, they go to Europe as assistants and when they come back into the workroom, they didn’t understand my anger and sadness. Their feel in was, you got a second chance, why be sad about it? We didn’t get that. And even then it didn’t register. It took a long time.
Do you think anyone in particular saved you that week?
I think it was Tim Gunn. I have a feeling he kept me on the show. It’s just a feeling, but there are rumors. He even alluded to it during my home visit, when we were having lunch with in my home with my family. But still, it’s just a rumor. I’ve never seen any footage backing it up, but that’s what I think.    
Still, Nina did say, “Don’t give me pants and a T-shirt,” and yet you designed (admittedly amazing) pants and a T-shirt. Did you ignore her?
I didn’t even hear it. It’s funny, I know that face I’m making. It’s how I look when my brain turns off and I’m designing in my head, making my style lines, all of that. I swear I didn’t even hear it. And by the way, I’m sure culottes [which challenge winner Stanley made] are a pair of pants, technically. Have you seen the layout in “Marie Claire”? With Jordana Brewster? 
Oh, no. 
I’ve seen it online, but Jordana Brewster is in a pair of jeans, and a white tank top. And Stanley’s jacket. 
So, when Nina said she didn’t want a pair of pants and a T-shirt, Jordana still ended up in, basically, a pair of pants and a T-shirt. 
She’s all-American, so the whole layout is like that. And they have her in this country scene. I mean, come on. And in another photo, she’s in a little green sweater and a denim skirt.
This was the nice season of “Project Runway.” We know you’ve stayed friendly with Amanda and Stanley, but is there anyone else you became friends with?
Well, there’s a gang of us, and we’ve been texting all day and have probably have 250 texts back and forth. It’s me, Stanley, Matt, Joe, Amanda, Tu and Samantha; all of us are really close. I talk with these people all of the time.
But not everyone. As you said, there are some people who are still holding grudges.
There are some people who are bitter about it, definitely, and there are some people weren’t ready to be introspective about the process. When the show aired they found out some things about themselves they don’t like, so it was tougher for them to watch it unfold. For the most part, out of the 16 of us, 12 of us get along really well.
Have you read about yourself online?
I read articles. I’ll read articles and blogs, sure, but never comments. These people are mean! And by the way, get a life! They do it because they can hide behind a computer, and it’s so hateful. Amanda, because her brother is in a really successful band [James Valentine is a member of Maroon 5], he taught her a long time ago, don’t read the comments, and she passed that along to me and it’s the best advice. I
You design for a woman who’s really kind of underrepresented in ready-to-wear; this tough, no-nonsense survivor. 
I hope so. That’s what I’m trying for. You come across as the bitch for being that way, but no, I’m just a strong, convicted, tenacious woman. But that’s the world. When a man’s like that, it’s fine. but she’s bitch. I think my girl is the urban bitch.
Is it a question of fierce women needing to reclaim the word? 
I don’t know if that’s how we reclaim this word and make it a positive thing for the strong independent woman, but it’s hugely frustrating. There are some actresses and singers out there, Pink comes to mind, but not enough of them. 

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