He's like, wicked smaht and stuff.
23-year old fashion designer and one-man sass attack Sam Donovan is the youngest contestant on the debut season of the Lifetime series Project Runway: Under the Gunn, which sees longtime PR host Tim Gunn embroiling a bunch of Next Big Things in a series of competitions that will eventually score one victor a prize windfall: $100k, their own sewing studio, the chance to design a line for francesca's, a Marie Claire fashion spread, and a bunch of other stuff. But also, $100k. Sweet.
Naturally, because he's from Boston (okay, Newton), Donovan happens to be a prodigious talent who is doing really well in the competition, blowing away much older competitors over the last six weeks — and hopefully continuing to do so tonight at 9 PM, lest this heralding of his greatness immediately be outdated. So don't let us down, Sam.
Before you tune in to see how the hometown boy fares in his latest fashion challenge, I grabbed Donovan, a recent graduate of New York's esteemed Parsons The New School for Design, for a quick chat about how it feels to be the young gun on Under the Gunn.
How did you first find out about the show?
I’ve been a fan of Project Runway for a long time. The show is really what led me to realize that fashion can actually be a career. I had been doing fashion-related things my entire life, but I remember sitting there and seeing it on TV for the first time, thinking, “Hey, I don’t have to be a doctor. I can be a designer. As a job!” I wound up applying for the show twice, and the second time they were like, “You know, we think you’d do well on this new show, Under the Gunn.”
Was it daunting to go in to the first season of a new show, not knowing what to expect?
Yeah, but I liked not knowing exactly what I was going to be doing. That sort of thing makes me more creative. I liked just jumping in.
What's your earliest memory of knowing you wanted to work in fashion?
I remember Tara Lipinski skating in the Olympics in this blue dress. I was absolutely obsessed with it. I’d find as many pictures of that dress as possible and stare at them all the time. Then for Christmas one year I got a Sparkle Beach Barbie. I’d make my mother help me cut, sew and design outfits for them. It was not the kind of approach to fashion that one generally thinks of: runway shows and fabulous things like that. It was figure skating outfits and Barbie.
Your Lifetime bio says: "Raised by wealthy, divorced parents in a dysfunctional all-American family, he bounced around all over suburban Boston. He was bullied in middle school before he even knew he was gay, but his mother came to his defense, helping him become the self-assured person he is today." How did your mom and fashion play a part in helping you become more self-assured?
First of all, I love that my bio says I was raised by wealthy parents. I’m sitting in a part of our house where we don’t even have the heat on right now. Yeah, I’m super wealthy. [Laughs] Anyway, my mother didn’t know what was going on at school. She saw I was struggling emotionally all through middle school, but she wanted to keep her distance. She never wanted to jump down my throat, because every time she tried to talk to me I was a typical 14-year old who would scream at her that “nothing is wrong!” I think when I started getting into fashion it made me happy because it gave me something else to focus on. I think you need that when you’re in middle school and dealing with the fact that you’re gay and don’t want to tell anyone because it feels embarrassing to acknowledge you have sexual feelings for anyone ... It gives you something else to think about. The interesting thing about bullying is that after I came out in high school, no one bullied me. It was just in middle school and before I told people. It was like, you could bully someone about being gay if they weren’t gay, but as soon as they were it shut everything down and wasn’t funny anymore. At that point I just got used to being in my own skin, like century-old leather.
Is it hard to be the youngest contestant on the show?
I think it frustrated a lot of people that I was young. When you’re young, you’re expected to treat older designers like they know more, and I don’t play that game. I respect people who are really smart. I respect people who have more experience than me. I respect all designers, for that matter. But I’m not going to say, “You’re a better designer because you’re older than me” when I have twice as much industry experience. I’ve been doing this since I was 13, working in the industry at a design level since 17, and some of the other people just started. I did well in the first two challenges and one of the other contestants called me arrogant. That just never bothered me. This is still a reality show, and I’m still trying to win.
How do you feel about the way you come across on the show?
Oh, I’ve read in some of the [online] comments, “He’s arrogant!” Well, at least they don’t say, “Sam doesn’t seem like he knows what he’s doing.” And you know, I enjoy reading criticism of myself. I’ve noticed that most of the criticism seems to come from people of a certain age group. Well, this is a television show and I’m giving you something to talk about, so shut up and watch it! Feel free to bitch about it, but at least also have the self-awareness to realize I’m giving you something to complain about.
Is that to say you "play it up" a little for the cameras?
I come across as more reserved in real life. But — it's a television show! I don’t think it’s that I turn off the nice, but I do turn off the censor. And that can lead you to have a bit more of a certain type of personality than you generally do. I’ve met people who say, “Oh! You’re so different than I thought you would be!” Well, you’re seeing hours of me on film edited down to five-second snapshots. I mean, I've never put this much gel in my hair in my life! But there's an ongoing joke that they don't want me wearing hats.
What has been the hardest part of the show?
The hardest part has been developing a poker face. We’ve already shot the season, so of course whatever happens to me has already happened to me. People are like, “Did you win?” I just say, “I don’t know, did I?” I have to keep this poker face, and I get asked constantly. But I do love asking other people how they think I did. And no one ever says they think I won! [Laughs] It’s always, “I think you get to fourth or fifth place.” Gee, thanks a lot. I have one friend who is going through an identity crisis now because of how badly I tortured her about that.
Well, so far so good. I have a good feeling about things.
At the end of the day, whether I win or lose I got to live out a life dream. I won a challenge on Project Runway – or anyway, Project Runway: Under the Gunn — and that’s something I never though I’d do. I never thought I’d have the balls to put myself out there and think, “Yeah, I should be on that show.” And then do well. And then win a challenge. It still hasn’t sunk in. I never thought it would happen, but at some point you just have to choose to believe that it can.
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