How 'Project Runway' Helped Me 'Make It Work' When I Was Depressed
Although I hate to admit it because it makes me feel sappy and basic, the show is inspiring—and Tim Gunn is a literal angel.
Illustration by Eleanor Doughty
"Take Care" is a column celebrating the unexpected things that comfort us when it feels like we're losing our damn minds.
It started unremarkably enough, one day in the middle of last summer. My husband was away for the weekend so I figured I’d put on something mindless, just to keep me company. I’d loved Project Runway since it was on Bravo and people still paid for cable. I hadn’t seen it in years. I turned on Season 14, the most recent on Hulu—and then I couldn’t stop.
My old drug addict tendencies kicked in. I began watching as many episodes as I could each day, trying to “get rid” of the seasons as quickly as possible, the way I used to with cocaine. I watched until it felt like I was punishing myself, the way I now sometimes eat until I feel sick. The formulaic nature of the show and its tics became glaringly obvious. Every episode, Heidi Klum repeats the phrase “I have to say” during judging. Every season finale, Tim Gunn stands next to each designer backstage and says some version of, “It’s stunning. How proud are you?”
Watching Project Runway, I experienced a sense of duty that was similar to the way I used to feel about needing to be a really good addict and drunk. I treated watching the show as though it were an important project that I had to see through. I had to watch every season, every spin-off, and every episode. I didn’t know why. I just had to.
Part of it was bad timing. I was trying to publish a book that I’d spent what felt like my entire life working on, and the path to publication wasn’t exactly going smoothly. Normally, this would be the kind of thing I could shrug off and look at logically—rejection is a part of the process. But a few months earlier, I’d started on a course of Accutane, which comes with myriad, scary side effects. The combination of the two led to something I hadn’t experienced for years: depression. I had forgotten how shitty depression is, how it makes you hate everything and become near catatonic. I found myself incapable of replying to emails, and buying groceries turned into a monumental chore.
"Watching Project Runway, I experienced a sense of duty that was similar to the way I used to feel about needing to be a really good addict and drunk."
As the hours spent watching amateur designers say "Thank you, Mood," in unison, added up, I tried to justify the way I was spending my time. In general, I’m fairly snobby about TV, yet here I was, watching a dumb reality show. It was a sociological study, I told myself. This was almost true. You could match up the ugliness of the clothes to societal discomfort. In Season 1, smack in the middle of the Bush years, Heidi and even the season’s golden child, Kara Saun, wore atrocities like low-rise, bootlegged jeans with sparkly belts that resembled necklaces. Season 5 was both the low point for the franchise and the economy. And, while I admit that Brandon, the sweetheart of the most recent season, is nothing but lovable, I’m willing to bet that in a few years his dystopian, baggy-canvas-with-dangly-things designs will look nearly as ridiculous as Trump’s fake hair. (Jay and Kentaro, the well-deserved winners of the first and most recent seasons, respectively, seem to be aberrations in this theory. Jay’s collection, now 14 years old, still looks cool, and I imagine Kentaro’s will fare the same.)
You could also trace cultural norms. In Season 1, with the Weinstein name stamped all over the opening credits, Page Six columnist and judge Richard Johnson unapologetically ogled a young model’s ass. In Season 3, “Edgy Bad Boy” Jeffery off-handedly referred to another designer as a “feminazi,” and even the generally body-positive Tim Gunn criticized an outfit by saying it made the model look “plus sized.” By contrast, the most current season enthusiastically showcases models “size 0-22.” Harvey Weinstein's executive producer credit was also scrubbed from the show as soon as the sexual harassment allegations were made public.
But the real reason I watched all these episodes is because it made me feel better. Part of this had to do with its predictability: Project Runway created its own genre of TV, the passion project elimination contest (replicated in Top Chef, RuPaul’s Drag Race, etc.). There will be tears, a smidgen of drama, and at some point the relationship between the contestants will shift from supportive to catty. As my mood plummeted from the Accutane, and as my uncertainty about my book grew, it was nice to know—at least on TV—what would happen and when. I didn’t have to think about all the things I needed to do yet didn’t have the energy for. The show was a welcome distraction from the repeated rejection that comes with publishing a book. I could turn my brain off, stare vacantly into space, and allow myself to be lulled by the barely-there stimulation of formula-based TV.
Even the ugliness in the contestants was a comfort. Jeffrey, winner of Season 3 and the shittiest person ever on the show (he made another contestant’s mother cry, for godsake), was casually accused of having illegal outside help with his sewing, right before the finale. Rather than blow up, he took it in stride, upset not at the accusation but at the possibility of not showing at fashion week.
I saw myself in him at that moment. I understood what he was suffering from—what they call, in twelve-step language, “Imposter syndrome.” For years, I felt paranoid that someone would call me out for an inarticulable reason whenever I did anything I cared about—writing or teaching or even showing up somewhere on time. I had attributed this feeling to something suffered by the former version of myself, the one who was always high and acutely mentally ill. But now I was back in it. Whenever I went to work, I felt paranoid that people could tell just by looking that I was merely pretending to be a responsible, sane adult. Keeping up the self-imposed ruse was exhausting, a constant need to moderate even my facial expression and vocal tone. I understood that Jeffrey—a former junky—wasn’t an asshole for no reason. He simply believed he was a degenerate drug addict who had to constantly prove his worth.
I saw my own emotional state reflected most completely in Season 12 (the best season ever, in my opinion). One contestant left the show, storming out of the studio and punching a camera. Two contestants got into an argument in which one of them threw an iron. There was also Helen, who cried her way through most of the season, breaking down on runways and in the work room. All of these behaviors are things I could see myself doing if I were ever on this type of TV show. And, like messy emotional states, this drama eventually rose into something nearly transcendent. The underdog Justin—who was born deaf and was given a second chance to compete after being eliminated—makes it to the finale and causes the audience to gasp at the beautiful dress he made out of plastic pipettes for the notoriously difficult “unconventional challenge.”
Of course, a lot of the show’s appeal comes from the saintly Tim Gunn, who needs to be mass reproduced so everyone can regularly be told what and what not to do in his perfect, soothing voice. But the show itself is inspiring, although I hate to admit it because it makes me feel sappy and basic. I know reality TV is fake—no Project Runway contestant has actually become “the next great American designer”—and fashion is inherently commercial, but people’s real creative dreams are at the heart of Project Runway. Contestants are on this dumb show because they genuinely care about making clothes.
One day, several months into my Project Runway journey, I’m having a particularly bad day. I can’t get it out of my head that I’ve wasted my life; I should give up writing and go back to school for something practical, like welding. On TV, designer Michael Costello is criticized by the other contestants because he “can’t sew” (translation: he didn’t go to fashion school), but I learn by Googling that he makes it to the finals and later dresses Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. It almost makes me consider getting up and doing something productive, but I don’t.
Instead, I watch the season’s tenth episode, the one where the designers’ mothers visit, and Mondo reveals he’s HIV positive on the runway. In an interview, he says that he feels like his whole life had led him to where he is now. I think about all the shit I’ve put myself through, the drugs and the problems that led me to “wasting” basically all of my 20s, and realize no, I’m not a failure. I should not become a welder. I’m just temporarily depressed due to a medication and the uncertainty that comes from putting in so much time into a single project. I’d done my best, and that is the only part I have control of.
A few minutes later, another contestant is nearly eliminated; the visit by his mother made him particularly emotional. “You can’t fall apart so close to the end,” Heidi says. “I always say ‘Fashion is not for sissies,’” Michael Kors replies. “You’ve got to be tough. You have to produce no matter what.” I think to myself Oh, you’re right Michael. You’re so right. I turn off the TV. I get up. I go make something new.