“Why I Didn’t Win The Spelling Bee”


Maybe it was Chloe Dao’s irritating dolphin-pitched squeal upon receiving the free Saturn, maybe it was that demonic photo in her parents’ Houston home of her and her eight million sisters—or maybe it was that Dao, winner of this year’s Project Runway, was just a tad too dull. At any rate, we skipped interviewing the victor this year and put in a request to talk to Santino Rice instead, this season’s designated bad-boy designer and the one we were convinced would win almost until the end.

We chat with him about who he dreams of dressing, possible on-set Project Runway romances, Guadalupe’s bizarre reunion behavior, and why he thinks Nina Garcia is not qualified to judge this competition.

Were you happy with who made it to the final three? That was my ultimate goal, to be on the show, and I knew I was going to make it. Upon showing up with my first garment, the garment I had to make at home, I looked at it, questioned it, was unsure of whether or not I was going to be able to qualify with it. I thought I was going to show up and everyone would have these amazing articles, and it wasn’t like that.

That part you don’t see is my humbleness. It comes across like I’m God’s gift to fashion, and that’s totally not . . . the best artists, talents, writers have [insecurities]. People I’ve worked with who have this blind confidence, it’s usually just like they’re drinking their own Kool-Aid.

Did you think there was some manipulation of your character, and did that bother you? I suspect there was a tendency to air every negative comment you said about other contestants, and leave out insults made by others. Everybody else was saying stuff as well. That’s the part of the show where you’re supposed to give your opinion on things. Whereas in real life, I don’t really give my opinions like that very freely. And you come across looking like you’re jealous or just an asshole. The thing was, I had the most cutting comments and some of the best sound bites, so it made sense to make me the villain, the man you love to hate.

What do you wish they had shown? I don’t mind being the butt of my own jokes, and you don’t see my sense of humor ’til maybe the seventh or eighth episode, when the Tim Gunn impressions start coming out. So people don’t understand that sometimes my remarks are very tongue and cheek.

What did you think of Chloe’s and Daniel’s collections? Oh god. I know I did a great job, I know a lot of people think I should have won. At this point, I don’t want to say anything bad about any of the designers. What really matters is what a designer does after this opportunity.

I thought Kara Janx’s collection [during New York’s Fashion Week] was better than anything she had on the show. Yeah, I do too. The hardest part of doing the collection was not designing, but playing by the rules and budgeting the $8,000, and keeping track of every single receipt. I would have done like chinchilla coats, some things that were definitely more than $8,000 worth of material.

I don’t think I’m showing my Achilles’ heel by saying that, because most great designers are really horrible with money.

So Kara wasn’t held to an $8,000 limit? I’ve read that she said she was, but the bottom line is, when she turned in her receipts, did anyone really care to count them? I’m not taking anything away from her, I’m just saying that being in that situation, she had a freedom to her collection that Chloe, Daniel, and myself didn’t.

Of course, the big critique at the end was Nina Garcia wondering if the judges had beaten you into submission—into showing what was regarded as safer than what you had been giving them before. I thought that was such bullshit. I felt that the judges still had some animosity toward me regardless of what they were saying to me, as far as like “Oh, I belong in fashion.” Oh, why thank you—now I’m a real fashion designer ’cause you just validated my existence.

There are still a lot of things in those pieces that you can tell are mine. My combinations of fabrics—the vintage lace with the satin-back crepe, the trims I used, the layering of the georgette over the top of the chiffon. But sometimes—what’s the expression, pearls before swine?—maybe I should have just hot-glued trim over everything.

I can look at Chloe’s and Daniel’s collections and see a lot of fit problems with garments, but I’ve watched my collection over and over and over and over again now, and I’m looking and am like, you know what? They just had to say something to me that was negative, and that’s what they went for.

What I presented was more of a logical progression from trying to get my point across on the show and maybe sometimes shooting past the mark a little bit. I always felt like doing too much was better than doing not enough. So I think it is the logical progression for a designer who was doing things like that, and then finally getting time to edit himself and do some things that are more subtle. Sunburst pleating in the wire hem is not easy, working with mousseline is not easy. Combining leather with silk in the same garment is not easy.

So you felt like the judges were out for you? Definitely. I have an awesome bullshit detector. There were times when I didn’t know why I was overlooked, why I didn’t get an A, why I didn’t win the spelling bee. Whatever.

I called them on the fact that I know my clothes fit. This is another thing that came into play, because they asked me had I seen my clothes on a model before coming to New York. No. One, you had to keep it completely secret. It was part of the contract.

So you couldn’t even put them on a model? No, I felt like that would be cheating. And this is the part that gets left out. We see 87 models in Michael Kors’s studio during the casting, and all the models I pick consequently are the girls working most in New York during Fashion Week. So none of them show up for me.

You think it was because in the beginning, you argued with the judges a lot? Totally. And Michael Kors later said, “Oh, you just think you’re smarter than everybody else, and you think that if you just adding shit onto your garments . . . ” There’s no doubt that I know fabric, that I know color. I have a vision, I think from a lot of different angles, and I look at what I’m doing from a lot of different perspectives. I don’t think any other designer on the show did that, ever.

Bottom line is, I respect judges. But at the same time, who are you to tell me anything? This show is about designers who can think up an idea, make the pattern, cut and sew the fabric, style the look. If you can’t do that, than I don’t think you should be judging that competition.

So you felt that what Michael Kors said had a lot more credence than what Nina Garcia said? Yes, and still, at that—he doesn’t make patterns. I wouldn’t even want to guess the last time he sat behind a sewing machine. That’s not to say he’s any less of a designer in the real world, because he’s got an amazing brand and I admire what he’s doing.

Do you keep in contact with any of the other contestants? Andraé. And I actually like Zulema. I think she’s burnt out from the experience, and I hope she finds a way to come to terms with it. She knows what she wants, she’s super talented, but she got caught up in some of the ridiculousness.

Was there any type of secret romance or relationship on set? We never see any of that on Project Runway. In the contract you’re not supposed to have any sexual relations with anyone on the show, so there was no sex. That is why it’s a pretty amazing tension in the room.

Sexual tension?. I never went that long in my life. You just radiate this crazy power.

You and Andraé seemed so close . . . He’s got a boyfriend, and that’s the last thing on my mind, as much as I joke about it.

What was up with Guadalupe during the reunion? What was she on? She had about 10 martinis within 15 minutes.

What’s up between you and Jay from last season? Do you consider yourself a much better designer? And much funnier. On every level, just more. And that’ll come across really nice, I’m sure. Hahaha.

Are there any particular designers you admire for the path they’ve taken or for their particular aesthetic? I’d say the usual suspects: Adrian, Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, Alexander McQueen. I look at Valentino and de la Renta, and it’s so amazingly beautiful; it’s always on point.

Who would you love to dress? I keep putting it out there that I want to dress Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Like, simultaneously.

In WWD, Anna Wintour was quoted as saying, “We were offered Project Runway first, and we turned it down. Vogue is not in the business of making entertainment out of the struggles of new designers.” What do you think of that statement? Wow. Wow. That’s great. I love Anna Wintour.

I don’t know what other designers are going to take from this experience, but I know that with the talent I have, I made the right decision taking this route. Not only do I want people to subscribe to my particular design aesthetic, I also want people to subscribe to my personality, my point of view on everything from politics to religion to how spicy your Thai food should be.

But isn’t there the fear of being another throwaway reality star? Even before I did this show, people in L.A. knew me. If you want to look amazing, wear Santino. If you want to have a successful, effective show, then work with Santino.

I could decide to participate in every reality show from now ’til the end of time, and you could never, ever take away anything from my brain and talent. It’s there forever.