Santino, Mondo, Uli, Christian and, of course, WENDY PEPPER. Since its inception in 2004, “Project Runway” has been about so much more than great fashion—it’s also brought us some great characters. Though this is entertainment, designers are there for a purpose: as mentor Tim Gunn says, to “make it work.”
“Some of the drama that happened on the show was just pointless, and I don’t want to waste my brain cells,” said Justin LeBlanc, one of Season 12’s four finalists. LeBlanc, who hails from Raleigh, N.C., and got his master’s in fashion from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, had a unique way of dealing with noisy distractions—he’d remove his cochlear implant.
“They only showed it at the beginning, but I did it like every other day on the show,” he said, laughing. LeBlanc was born with severe sensorineural hearing loss, and got the implant when he was 18.
“Project Runway” has allowed him to connect with an entirely new group: the Lifetime show’s audience. “For me, that’s my identity, but at the same time, we are able to really show people that we don’t have to pick,” he said of advocating in both the Deaf and gay communities. “Just be true to yourself, and that’s what I’m doing right now.”
While on a weekend trip to Chicago ahead of Season 12’s penultimate episode, LeBlanc sat down with RedEye to talk about the inspiration behind his collection, the one thing he hates about the city and, yes, foamy vaginas.
The season finale of “Project Runway” is coming up; I didn’t even realize that tonight is the second to last episode, and you’re kind of competing for your life at this point. How did you feel when the judges announced that you were going to have to compete against the other two for the last spot?
Finding out that I will be competing with Helen [Castillo] and Alexandria [von Bromssen] for the final spot, part of me, I was very excited because now I have the opportunity to make my collection. It is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and [I was] thankful that now I can go back home, make my collection and show the judges what I really am capable of, because I think one of my biggest challenges on the show is the time, because there’s not enough time to do anything and I’m a perfectionist, so everything has to be perfect, but it just never happened every time. And I mean, It’s gonna be difficult for me to compete against Helen and Alexandria, because in a way I became very close with them, especially with Helen. So it’s hard in the competition when you’re becoming really close with these people. So I just don’t know, I want to know the outcome. It’s just something that we have to do and just really do the best that we can do.
What was the inspiration for your collection?
The inspiration for my collection is actually based on my Deafness, and my upbringing as a Deaf person. In this collection, I’m focusing on three phases in my life, which is before I got my cochlear implant; —I got my cochlear implant when I was 18. So my experience for 18 years as a Deaf person, and being able to hear sound for the first time. getting my cochlear implant when I was 18 and the period when I hated it, because there was so much noise and an unknown element, this sense that I’d never used before, and just trying to comprehend what is going on; and now, where I have come to a place where I accept what I am hearing and [am] just learning new things every day. Hopefully for the collection, it will tell that story.
Wow, that design process must have been really emotional for you.
It was, but at the same time, as a designer, I tend to put my emotion on the line. I don’t want to design to make superficial things, I want to design things because there is a reason. , so that’s how I perceive myself.
So speaking of your cochlear implant, one of the funnier moments on the show this season was when everyone was [makes chattering noises] in the room and you just popped it right out. Did you do that more that once?
Oh yes. Probably every day. They only showed it at the beginning, but I did it like every other day on the show. Because I mean, some of the drama that happened on the show was just pointless, and I don’t want to waste my brain cells over the drama. So it’s like, nah, I’m gonna unplug this.
Do you find that that helps you focus a lot more?
Oh yeah. definitely. I mean, this is really all I need to focus on my work and do what I need to do. I came on “Project Runway” for a reason, not to cause drama but to show good work.
Well then, that’s definitely a good strategy. What would fans of the show be surprised about to know that happened behind the scenes?
I think one of the biggest things after watching the show that I am most surprised about is how they portrayed Ken [Laurence, who was eliminated in Episode 10]. Because Ken is absolutely the nicest person in the world. and it’s unfortunate that they portray him as the bad person on the show. He’s not. Right now, he is one of my good friends. But it’s just really interested to see how everything is edited on the show, and when they want to portray certain people in this personality. So it is unfortunate, but I know Ken is very strong, so he’ll be able to move forward from this.
Did you feel like you were portrayed accurately on the show?
Actually, I do. I know I don’t like being in drama or anything like that because I’m a professor as well [at North Carolina State University], so I wanted to show my students that they don’t have to be this crazy person to show what they are capable of. So overall the show portrayed me pretty well, and I do not cry every day. Just that moment!
What do you think was your favorite challenge?
My favorite challenge so far is actually the superfan challenge, because I really like making garments for specific people. And with the superfan challenge I had Kristen and she had specific requests. She was a Mormon and she has lost over 100 pounds and she’s going through this transformation in her life, so it was definitely a challenge for me. But at the same time, I wanted her to be happy in her body and all of that. And i feel like I was able to succeed in that, and I’m really proud of it. She actually has the dress right now, so I’m really happy for her.
Which of the judges do you feel like you agreed and disagreed with the most?
That’s a tricky one. I think that’s a tricky one for me because I haven’t been on the runway that much, it’s always in the middle. So I never really had a chance to get to know them. But at the same time, I feel like I got the most feedback from Nina [Garcia] and Zac [Posen]. The good and bad. Nina, she is a very professional woman, and she has very interesting insight about fashion and beyond. So I find it really her feedback—besides the foaming vagina one—her feedback tends to be really helpful, and I can apply that to my design, and I have to say the same thing to Zac. I mean, I don’t really have anything negative or anything that I disagreed with them. It’s just all about learning and just moving forward.
So there was the episode when Tim Gunn used his one save on you, to keep you on the show. What was that experience like for you?
I’m still trying to remember when that happened, because it was definitely a very emotional time. I was shocked that it happened, because I knew at that time that I was not taking risks, and decided to take a risk with my garment. [The dress led to this quip from judge Nina Garcia: “It almost looked like she had a… foaming vagina.”] I mean, unfortunately it did not pay off, but at the same time, when you invest yourself in doing something that you’re not comfortable doing. But at the same time, I’m proud of it, that I tried even though it got me eliminated. I’m thankful that Tim Gunn saved me, because out of everyone I respect him the most out of the judges. He is a really good mentor, and just the fact that he sees something in me is definitely a win in my book.
He seems like a really wonderful person
He is, he’s even nicer off camera.
It’s hard to imagine that. He’s so nice!
Yes, he’s an amazing guy.
On the show, I didn’t realize you had actually lived in Chicago because they plug you as being from Raleigh. Can you talk a little bit about your experience with Chicago?
I came to Chicago to go to the School of the Art Institute to get my master’s in fashion, so I lived here for almost four years. And I mean, This was my first experience living in a city and it’s an amazing city. All the things you can do, the different areas, public transportation. The only thing I don’t like about Chicago is the winter, because I’m from the South, so putting a Southern boy in that kind of winter, like, WOO! But it was definitely an experience for me, but I loved it. I mean, I would definitely come back here if i can, it’s just a matter of finding a place to work or start a business here, so it probably will happen in the near future.
Well that’s good to hear, we’ll be happy to have you back. What were some of your favorite places to go to and things to do here?
Some of my favorite things I like to do here is, I like going antique shopping actually. There is a place in Uptown, and the name just escapes me, an antique mall. And I go there all the time, because it always has really interesting modern things from the ’50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and I like those kinds of elements because I find inspiration from them. And I love going to Wicker Park, you can always find something new when you’re there. And naturally I go to Boystown; it’s where all the men are, so why not? There’s definitely a lot of spots, I can’t think of them right now, but I’m definitely going in the next couple days.
Awesome, that’ll be so fun. So growing up, you didn’t get your implant until you were 18. What was your experience like growing up before that, not being able to hear?
My experience before getting a cochlear implant, I primarily relied on sign language, that was my mode of communication. My parents have been so supportive of me growing up, and they just wanted to make sure I had all the opportunities that I can get. I have to thank them for raising the person that I am today. , because they definitely made a bunch ... and I don’t think ... I can’t really pick out ... I think it’s kind of difficult for me to answer that question, because I can’t really compare myself to other people, that’s just who I am and I was happy with that. So I just grew up being a Deaf guy, and it worked out for me.
And also as a gay man too, which community do you feel like you lean more toward when you’re doing advocacy? Or do you kind of try to bring all of yourself into your advocacy?
I’m trying to bring it all together at the moment, because it is something that I am working on, because I can’t pick and choose. I mean, I am this person, I am a Deaf and gay man, and I mean, everybody has their own identity, and for me, that’s my identity. But at the same time, we are able to really show people that we don’t have to pick, just be true to yourself, and that’s what I’m doing right now.
Do you find that you’ve had more opportunities for outreach since you’ve been on the show?
I think so. In a way I guess I’m still processing everything at this point, because I’ve been receiving so much support lately. And just the fact that I am able to be myself on the show and just doing that really inspires other people. A fan came up to me the other day, he was a 13-year-old guy, and he actually thanked me for giving him the confidence for him to come out to his parents. I’m like “ooooh, I have goosebumps right now;” it was a lot for me to take in. I’m just being who I am as a person, and I’m happy that it inspires other people to really not feel ashamed about who they are, and just really enjoy their life and what they have. So I’m happy I’m able to do that.
That’s great, that’s such an awesome opportunity. What do you wish you had known when you were starting out on the show that you know now?
Hmmm, that’s a good question. I think i was prepared to be on the show. I think the only thing that I wish i had known is the lack of sleep. Because we only get about three to four hours sleep a night, which I think is intentional so we can be tired, crabby and be in that environment. But I think that’s only thing that I wish I had known. But other than that, I mean, I wouldn’t have changed anything else. Even the foamy vagina.
Sure, because you learned from that!
Were you a big fan of the show before you went on?
I actually watched from time to time. And I did have mixed feelings about “Project Runway,” because [of] watching the show and being a professor. And I am picky about execution of a garment, but now that I’m on the show, I’m like “ohhhh.” One thing that many people don’t realize is the time constraint, because in reality we only have about 11 hours to make a dress, and it’s amazing. I mean, i do have a newfound respect for the people who are on the show and they are pushing themselves to the limit to make something gorgeous. So right now i have a bigger appreciation for the show because there’s a lot of things that people don’t know that happens behind the scenes, so I’m definitely going to be watching every season now.
To get some perspective, say, that dress that you made for the butterfly challenge, if you were to have a normal amount of time for it, how much time would you spend making that?
It’s funny, just looking at the episode and looking at that dress, I was asking myself, “why did i make that dress?”
You didn’t like it?!
I loved it!
OK good, because I loved it too.
It’s just like, the amount of work that went into that dress can take maybe 2 months to do. So, there’s a lot of technique and manipulation that went into it, and I’m just looking on TV, I’m like, “did I really do that in two days?”
It was amazing!
I mean, thank you!
I absolutely loved it, i was like “WHAT, HE ISN’T IN THE FINALE, COME ON!?”
I love it. I dunno, I was just really surprised with myself that I was able to pull something off like that, because that took a lot of work. And I think it was like an out-of-body moment for me; it was just like I had three of me working on the same dress. It was weird, but I’m happy with it. But yes, it was a LOT of work.
I bet, yeah, no, well and too it’s like, “this is it, this is your one final push .”
Yeah, definitely. it’s amazing.
So, now that the show is almost over, what do you want to do next? What’s your next big step?
At the moment I will be teaching at North Carolina State University, which is something that I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m thankful for the opportunity. And I’m actually working on a runway show for my students, which is actually the [same] first runway show that I did eight years ago, so it’s coming full circle. And it’s called Art2Wear, and I’m the co-faculty adviser for it, so I’m really excited about it. And other than that, I’m looking into starting my own line and just really start developing my business, because it is something that I definitely want to do and there’s no better time than now. So it’s something I need to dive into and just keep doing what I love to do.
“Project Runway” Season 12 finale
8 p.m. Thursday, Lifetime
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