SHEFFIELD - Calling the Saturday night scene at Laura Bennett's weekend retreat chaos is being kind.
A 98-year-old neighbor drops in and wanders around Bennett's kitchen before shuffling outside to play basketball. The arrival of a six-toed cat sends Bennett's horde of young boys into overdrive. Bennett's 4-year-old son, Larson, decides to use a stray bag of marshmallows as ammunition in an air-powered toy gun and he gleefully shoots his mother with the spun puffs of sugar. Eleven-month-old Finn is grinning and grabbing at his mother's wine glass before her husband, Peter, arrives and scoops him up.
"It's genetic, he can't help wanting alcohol," says Peter Shelton as he whisks Finn away.
In the middle of it all, lean, ginger-topped Bennett remains just as calm as she did throughout season three of "Project Runway," where she placed in the top three thanks to her elegant, cocktail party-inspired designs. She was second runner-up in the reality show, losing the competition to heavily inked Los Angelino Jeffrey Sebelia. Having sufficiently recovered from her brush with reality TV fame, Bennett returns to the public eye early next year with a new clothing line and a planned television project.
During the week, Bennett lives in Manhattan with her husband, five boys (her daughter is away at college), and a pair of nannies. But on the weekends, she escapes to this rural corner of Massachusetts. Her home is set on 14 acres with both a pond and a swimming pool in the backyard.
Before inviting a reporter to the house, she warns that the retreat isn't a fussy country home - and she's right. It's a former barn that was converted into a residence sometime in the 1960s. It is an ideal place for a family with five rambunctious boys and a male nanny ("Mannies are very stylish," Bennett enthuses). The front lawn is covered with signs - a trampoline, dirt bikes, and lots of no longer functioning cars - that the house is occupied by boys of all ages, and not a woman who loves feathers and sequins.
"Does it smell strange in here?" Bennett asks as she gives a tour. "We haven't been here for a month, and the house smelled like dead mice when we arrived today. We baked cookies, and I think that got rid of the smell of dead mice."
Bennett, who was working as an architect before trying out for "Project Runway," is now devoting herself to fashion full time. Her first line of clothes will be sold on QVC in February. She opted to go directly to the shopping channel after realizing the intense work involved in launching a fashion line and selling to boutiques and department stores would not allow her time with her family. She describes the QVC clothes as glamorous, but not "over the top glamour."
"The pieces have little beaded details, rhinestone buttons, and Lurex woven into the fabric to give a little bit of glamour to everyday life," Bennett says. "Women want to look great and sophisticated. These are simple, classic pieces. Women don't need $1,200 hoodies from Jeffrey [Sebelia] with skulls and bones on them."
Bennett is also plotting a return to television. She has passed on multiple reality show offers to follow her large, chaotic family, and instead is with working with the producer of "Tim Gunn's Guide to Style" to develop a game show based around fashion. Several cable channels are now considering the show, although Bennett confesses that she hopes it will be produced by Bravo.
"It's a body of knowledge that you amass your entire life reading fashion magazines, and it gets celebrated nowhere," she says of the game show. "You'll need to know the history of fashion, designers, prices of things, be able to tell real from the knock-offs and know which celebrities wear which designers to which events."
Bennett cherishes these sorts of intense fashion discussions. She says that her love of glamour and fashion is a defense mechanism - a tool that allows her to hang onto her girlie side in a house that is completely male-dominated. Even the gay male nanny - who also works as a dancer - refers to himself as a "butch ballerina." Bennett pushes back on all the boy talk by hanging on to her beloved frocks.
"I'm dressed casual today, and this is as casual as I get," she said of her black skirt, riding boots, and clingy black top. "It's still pretty acceptable. I was one of the better-looking girls at the Big Y today. I don't expect women to go over the top every day, but I think my message is always that women need to take care of themselves in the midst of taking care of their families."