Tim Gunn talks about the big changes to his role on ‘Project Runway’

Even more than watching the clothes swish down the catwalk on “Project Runway,” I love watching mentor extraordinaire Tim Gunn do this thing. When the show returns on Thurs. (July 18, 9:00 p.m. on Lifetime), the good news is that we’ll be getting even more Gunn than before. This time around, his role is expanded — not only does he present the models to the judges, he gets to talk to them about what he saw in the workroom. Plus, Gunn gets the chance to save a designer from elimination — though this is a once-a-season opportunity. Gunn spoke to reporters in a conference call this week about his new job, whether or not he exercised his “save” — and the first episode scandal over one model walking the runway showing enough skin to require pixelation.

Gunn, who hasn’t seen the first episode, seemed shocked to hear that viewers saw the model who, thanks to an ill-fitting outfit, reveals a bit, uh, too much. “Eeew!” he shrieked. “It was vulgar. And it should [not happen]. There”s no excuse. And [that’s what’s] wonderful about the fact that I”m sitting with the judges for the runway show this season – I mean, I”ve always been there.. the audience doesn”t know where I am. Well, now, they”ll know that I”m there. So, it means that when I reference the – what happened on the runway, we can actually use it in the show because, in the past, we haven”t been able to.”

Gunn was more excited about his new role on the show. “I have a new and very different engagement with the judges. In the past seasons, it”s literally been the separation of church and state. I do not interact with them… I would say “Hello” to them. But, I usually wouldn”t say goodbye because (I”m mad). But, this season, I sit with the judges for the runway. And I don”t really talk… [After the top and bottom three are selected], I come out with the models, descend the steps of the runway to the judges… The judges look at the garments very closely and personally. And I have an opportunity to have my day in court, so to speak.

“I can tell them things that I believe are important for them to know in terms of their decision-making. It may be something that happened in the workroom. It may be a particular aspect of a – of the garment that they are looking at.” 

Though this will be a boon to the judges, Gunn was initially nervous about the change. “I would have to tell you, I was … very apprehensive about this because it”s a different role for me. And I ended up loving it. I just loved being able to share that additional dimension of information with them.”

The change  is an extension of recent events. “It actually came about from the last two seasons. In Season 10, there is an episode when I stormed the judges circle. And it was completely unplanned and – I mean, it”s very spontaneous and I simply announced, “You”re never going to use this.” Even though it”s on camera, you never want to use it because (there”s not a place for it). But, I was so irate about what the judges weren”t understanding about the challenge and about a particular designer that I zoom in – I mean, quite frankly, trying to save him and was unsuccessful.

“But, last season, Season 11, it specifically involved Michelle [Lesniak Franklin] and her elimination in Challenge 11, the second-to-the-last challenge. And I couldn”t take it. I couldn”t take that either. I thought she”s entirely too talented for this to happen. Yes, it was a misstep. It was Nina Garcia”s challenge. And I felt culpable for her going home, in a way, too, because Nina has said “Don”t give me a pair of pants (and a top).” Well, Michelle did. I don”t remember Nina even saying that. But, in any rate, I went to the judges and said, ‘You can”t do this’ and saved her. And, of course, she won the whole season. So… the producers decided to formalize this for this season and just own it that it could potentially happen and allow me the ability to do this.”

So, Gunn can save one, once — not that he expected to pull that trigger. “I honestly thought that I would probably never have – either not have any reason to use it or would use it near the very end of the season. Well, I”ll share with you that I do use it. And it”s not the end of the season.”

While Gunn’s role has changed, there’s also been another critical tweak. “The runway is anonymous,” Gunn explained. “The judges are sitting with cards for each look. And, in the past, the designer”s name has appeared on the card. In fact, even a picture of the designer has appeared on the card. So, with the first challenge, the judges don”t know anyone any way. So, the anonymity – it”s been a way – rather moot. But, once we move forward from the first challenge, I think it becomes rather critical because in past seasons, the judges develop biases very quickly on about who”s good, who isn”t.

“So, it just removes that level of bias, which has certainly existed in prior seasons. In fact, it would drive me crazy when Nina, for instance, would reference a certain designer who was brilliant with jackets and I wanted to say to her, ‘But have you seen a good jacket from this designer since the first episode?’ No. So, stop talking about it.”

Still, Gunn says he has no desire to fully cross over to the judges’ panel. “You know, I was a judge once for the finale. It was Season Five. And I will never ever, ever, do it again. It was one of the most uncomfortable feelings I”ve ever had because I was having a tussle with one of the designers and was – she was all – it was [Kenley Hollins]. She was all full of herself about how she is winning and I was dubious about what she had been – what she was presenting.

“And I have to add this… I don”t see the [clothes walk] until the runway show… And I really thought her collection was something of a misstep. And I didn”t like being in a position where I would appear that I was seeking retribution just because I”m having a bad interpersonal relationship with her. And that”s why I love the role that I have and the fact that I”m not a judge because I can”t say ‘I told you. You should [replace] that hem 3 inches’ or, in the case of this first episode of 12 with Sandro, “I told you that -– was going to be too short.”
So, there is none of that “I told you so” business. And it also means that the designers don”t have to feel threatened by me… And it means that we form a bond and a level of trust that, for me, is invaluable and priceless.

After all this time, you’d think Gunn would be able to pick a winner right from the jump. Alas, he can’t. “I used to be able to say that I could very well predict what the judges would say about a look. I don”t that anymore… When the work is well-executed… it really becomes a matter of taste with the judges. And you do not know. You just don”t.

While many were scandalized by a new “Project Runway” billboard in which a slew of models appeared naked, Gunn doesn’t get the fuss. “I mean, to be honest with you, consider who this is – consider who these comments are coming from. A dusty old scale-covered fart – me, I find nothing about this to be offensive or tasteless. I don”t get it. I really don”t. I think of Los Angeles as being much more permissive than New York. And the images is up all over New York and, then, it”s banned in L.A.? I find it crazy.”

On a lighter note, Gunn talked about his relationships with the judges. He has more of a “spiritual connection” with Klum, but not so much with Garcia. “My relationship with Nina – I have the [greatest] amount of respect of her and love and adore her. But, it”s really just in this capacity as mentor to judge.” Still, “I”m respectful of the judges” points of view. It”s not – it”s not like a math problem where, yes, two plus two equals four. It”s so subjective and it – it”s any – it”s really up to the individual. And the judges can be all over the place. I mean, that”s what”s so interesting about listening to the deliberation.”

As much as Gunn has gotten many wishes granted this season, he has one more. “If I could have a wish, it”s the following. And the producers would never agree to this because of the amount of time it would take. I would love to be in the workroom when the designers have the fittings with the models. That”s what I would love. I”ve only done it once. And I loved it because I”m – because I”m the truth teller. A designer would say to me, ‘Oh, this pant look great.’ It does? Not from my eyes. What look great about it to you? But, the model fittings are 30 minutes and it would probably take me 10 minutes with every designer. But, that would be – that”s on my wish list.

Though he calls the latest slate of designers “a more collegial group than I’m used to,” he adds that there’s plenty of drama. “I”m confident that it”s all ego-based. It comes from a sense of wanting to succeed or a tremendous drive to succeed. I think that that”s what is at the core of a lot of the acting out. It”s embarrassment and regrets and wanting to – I mean, in some ways, you want to shrink and hide. But, then, the reaction is the exact opposite and… you”re acting out and nobody can take their eyes off of you.” Well, the good news is viewers will now find it easier to change focus — to the avuncular, lovable Gunn.

Will you watch the new and improved “Project Runway”?