Huge Scandals That Rocked Project Runway

"Project Runway" has been all about the drama almost since it began back in 2004. It showcases real talent, which has always made it a standout reality show–particularly during its first few seasons when reality TV competitions were just beginning to hit their stride — that doesn't mean it's been any less scandalous throughout the course of its 19 seasons. "We had no idea what we were gonna fall into when we started," former host Heidi Klum told the Orange County Register back in 2007, reflecting on how well it all worked out.

From emotional meltdowns and contestants picking fights with each other, to cheating allegations and claims that the series isn't really what it says it is, "Project Runway" has been rocked by several dramatic scandals throughout the years.

And sheesh, the fashion design competition sure has been around for a lot of years. At this point, one could even say it's responsible for an entire niche of reality TV. Since its early oughties premiere, several shows have tried to rip off the "Project Runway" formula, but nothing beats the original. It offers up the perfect blend of awe-inspiring talent and must-watch drama, and all of these scandals prove it.

The model walk-off that brought the drama

For the most part, things went pretty smoothly on Bravo's "Project Runway," during the first season, but with Season 2, the drama level ramped up early on. Host Heidi Klum was caught completely off guard when contestant Zulema Griffin called for a model walk-off. Evidently, Griffin was not satisfied with the model she'd been working with, so she wanted to see the walks of some of the other models. Her request was within the show's rules, but Griffin was the first to make the controversial move. Jaws literally dropped, and it put a target on Griffin's back. 

"Zulema's walk-off... Man, that was a twist," season finalist Santino Rice said in the episode. "You know, up until this point, everyone who won still just was loyal to their own model." She ended up picking the model who'd been paired with Nick Verreos throughout the season. "I personally think that Zulema did know that she was going to pick Tara," Verreos said. "For the most part, the walk-off was just Zulema being dramatic." The twists kept coming that episode: Griffin's design ended up sending her packing. 

She didn't leave before former "Project Runway" judge Michael Kors could fire off one of his creative, albeit scathing critiques. "It looks like a debutante dress gone wrong," he said (via Entertainment Weekly). "Kinda like the trashy debutante in town in the red dress. And her mother's a bad home-sewer." 

A contestant was accused of cheating

During "Project Runway" Season 3, designer Keith Michael landed in hot water when word got out that he had pattern-making books — a major no-no for the show. As Entertainment Weekly recounted, the production company did some digging and determined that Michael, who had also disappeared for hours without telling the producers, had in fact broken the rules, when they found pattern books in his room and learned that he had been using the Internet.

In a blog, Tim Gunn shared that he was surprised Michael even had the books, calling him "an exceptionally talented designer" who wouldn't need to rely on these tools. "I have no reason to believe that he ever used the books," Gunn wrote. "Still, being in mere possession of them was serious enough."

Michael denied any wrongdoing though. "I am not the kind of person who can't admit when he's wrong. I feel like there was a lack of integrity on behalf of the production. I thought it was one-sided," he told Andy Cohen in an interview on the TV host's now defunct blog, according to People. "I think this whole thing is farfetched and crazy. I have gotten so much fan e-mail from this whole thing. People want me to be the bad boy, but I am not that guy. I thought I would win because of talent, but now I don't know who's to blame but I am not owning up to this."

An All Star didn't have it easy

"Project Runway" is a pressure cooker, and that became abundantly clear in Season 2. As E! News remembered, designer Andrae Gonzalo had a breakdown while the judges gave their critiques. When Heidi Klum asked Gonzalo, "What were you thinking about during this challenge?" referring to a challenge, he completely fell apart, creating an insanely awkward moment in "Project Runway" history. He was so inconsolable, that no one could even understand his response, and what's worse is that the whole moment quite clearly got on judge Nina Garcia's nerves. "I don't need to hear all this," she said during his segment. As The Washington Post wrote in their recap, "It was like watching a wailing child getting shoved onto the naughty mat." Eesh.

Gonzalo made it to the top 10 of "Project Runway" Season 2, but only lasted four episodes before getting the boot on "Project Runway: All Stars" Season 2. Before his season of "All Stars" began, predicted, "Like a bully in a playground, 'Project Runway' won't feel satisfied unless it makes Andrae ugly cry at least three times." And they weren't too far off.

As tough on him as the show was, he didn't seem too mad after his elimination. "One thing I learned from this experience: Maybe my ambitions are more expansive than just on that runway," he told reporters, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Maybe I was trying to do more than was actually possible given the time allotted." Very rational.

Maya Luz quit Project Runway out of the blue

There have been a lot of tears and emotional breakdowns on "Project Runway" throughout the years, and even several contestants who just simply could not handle the pressure and drama involved in the competition. Some have gone so far as to quit the show, which was the case in Season 7, when Maya Luz voluntarily left the series. Only thing is, no one was actually anticipating her exit.

The then 21-year-old Luz had been doing well on "Project Runway" Season 7, and was obviously quite talented, but she completely lost her confidence during a challenge in which the designers were tasked with creating a red carpet dress for Heidi Klum herself. As Goldderby recounted, Luz decided right then and there that she wasn't up for that challenge or any future show challenges. And so, she approached Tim Gunn and said she was ready to be auf'd. No tears, no upset. She told Entertainment Weekly that Gunn said it was "very brave" of her to acknowledge that she didn't feel ready.

"I wouldn't do it again just because I don't really see myself in the whole TV situation anymore," she explained to the Boston Globe in 2010. "I don't want to be remembered as a TV personality, I want to be remembered as a designer. I did this for fashion. And I left because of fashion. There's no secret reason why I left."

Meg Ferguson left Project Runway after race drama

In the second episode of Season 19 of "Project Runway," designer Meg Ferguson quit the show after racial tensions surfaced while she was discussing models with another designer. Ferguson first made a major misstep when she was trying to voice support for Haitian contestant Prajje Oscar Jean-Baptiste's design and his desire to use a Black model, because the look was to be inspired by the oppression and struggle of the Haitian people. Ferguson totally overdid it, and ended up centering herself in the conversation and detracting from Jean-Baptiste's concerns. 

Jean-Baptiste moved on and swapped models with another contestant, which prompted Asian contestant Kenneth Barlis to ask Ferguson if she would swap models with him, so that he could have an Asian model showcase his Asian-inspired design. This turned into major drama. "I think it's f***ing b******* that you're doing this now," she told Barlis (via Goldderby). She agreed to the switch, but continued to be hostile, telling her new model, "Apparently, I can only design for white people." It ended in a massive fight in the workroom that left Barlis in tears, and basically everyone else telling Ferguson how wrong she was. She walked off set, and her fellow designers found out later that she had dropped out of the competition.

"Meg tried too hard to be an ally and it blew up in her face because it wasn't authentic," wrote one Twitter user about her behavior. "A lot of white people do this and it's aggravating,"

Tim Gunn didn't agree with one winner

Fashion expert and "Project Runway" mentor Tim Gunn was not happy with the winner of the show's eighth season. That year, designer Gretchen Jones took the prize, but Gunn believed the winner should have been fan favorite Mondo Guerra, and he wasn't at all shy about making his opinion known. After the finale show, Gunn blasted the people in charge with picking the season's victor with some disparaging remarks. As he said in The Los Angeles Times, he called his colleagues "crack-smoking judges" — and apparently, Heidi Klum wasn't too happy about it. 

"She was very upset," Gunn recalled in The Salt Lake Tribune. "She said, 'I'm a mother. I'm a citizen of my community. And I want to go on record as saying I'm not a crack smoker.'" The former Parsons department chair noted that he "didn't mean it literally," but landed on that particular turn of phrase because he "was muddled by their decision making." Gunn and Klum did make up eventually, and went on to do many more seasons of "Project Runway" together. 

While Guerra did not win that particular season, he did find post-show success. As noted in the Denver Post, he ended up establishing his own line which at one point, was sold in Neiman Marcus, and in 2019, he was brought back to host a spin-off series called "Runway Remake." He continues to make and and sell clothes.

Tim Gunn 'hated' Project Runway Season 14

Tim Gunn was also very honest about being unhappy with Season 14 of "Project Runway," namely because he felt let down by the contestants. "I'm telling you — and I haven't said this very much — I hated season 14," Gunn said in EW in 2015. "I hated it. I felt that other than a couple of designers, they weren't working up to their potential. The whole thing was lackluster." As far as Gunn was concerned, that season's cast members "just weren't hungry" during the competition — or before, for that matter. As he told the outlet, he wasn't impressed by their audition videos either. 

In the end, he wasn't thrilled with the final collection made by the winner of Season 14, Ashley Nell Tipton. "I've never seen such hideous clothes in my life: bare midriffs; skirts over crinoline, which give the clothes, and the wearer, more volume; see-through skirts that reveal panties; pastels, which tend to make the wearer look juvenile; and large-scale floral embellishments that shout 'prom," he wrote in a column for The Washington Post at the time.

Just imagine! The star of a very popular series speaking publicly about how bad said show was, and then going on to continue working on the series. So scandalous. But, that's exactly what happened. It just goes to show exactly how much clout Gunn had earned while on the series.

Project Runway Season 16 was marked by cheating

That's right, the cheating didn't end with Season 3. The one thing everyone will remember from "Project Runway" Season 16, is the contestant who got kicked off the show for breaking the rules. As recapped by Entertainment Weekly, after contestant Claire Buitendorp won a challenge, her co-stars were so upset by the victory that one of them actually walked off the runway. In the following week's episode, that contestant, Michael Brambila, told Tim Gunn that there were rumblings in the workroom that Buitendorp was ripping off other designs. These grievances were brought before Heidi Klum and the other judges, but ultimately, they decided she had not done anything untoward.

Later, the rest of the contestants ended up confronting Buitendorp about their suspicions that she had been keeping and using a measuring tape in her room. She admitted to having the tool, and that's when things turned really sour for Buitendorp. Gunn got involved to confirm that she had used a tape to measure clothing from her own wardrobe to use as a guide for the clothes she was making for the competition, which is not a by the book move.

After the episode aired, Buitendorp claimed to the Lansing State Journal that she did not mean to have tape in the apartment and didn't actually measure anything. "Once I got rid of it, I didn't think it would be a big deal," she said.

Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum left Project Runway

"Project Runway" mentor Tim Gunn and host slash judge Heidi Klum left the show after 16 seasons, which came as a surprise to many fans. But, as we mentioned previously, Gunn had expressed displeasure with the quality of the contestants a couple of seasons prior, which was the first clue that his time on the show was coming to an end. Gunn and Klum weren't stepping away from the genre altogether though. In fact, they were just jumping to another ship. 

The two inked a deal with Amazon Prime to create their own show called "Making the Cut," which premiered in 2020. It too is a reality fashion competition, except it features designers and entrepreneurs who've already launched their lines, competing for the chance to win $1 million to use to grow their business, in addition to several other smaller prizes. So yeah, Amazon went all in with these two, and it seems to be paying off. As Entertainment Weekly put it, the show is "'Project Runway' with Amazon money," which is to say it put a "big-budget twist" on the stalwart series.

What prompted Klum and Gunn to branch out? It turns out, they felt they were being restricted, creatively. "Our imagination was bigger than what we were allowed to do," Klum explained in a press conference, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "Everything kind of fell apart," she said. "We're the ones who were thinking creatively and innovatively about what we wanted to do," Gunn said in the same event.

A contestant called the show fake

In 2015, "Project Runway" Season 4 contestant Jack Mackenroth called the show's validity into question.

As was recapped by TVGuide, Mackenroth actually withdrew from the competition after developing a staph infection while filming, so he didn't see the competition through, but nevertheless, had a lot to say. Speaking to Paper magazine about his time on the show years later, he said that while the program changed his life "for the better," he believes it's about as real as series guest star Betty Boop

"The show is a sham, the judging is totally fake and they basically decide who they want to eliminate and edit the footage to make the viewer agree," he told the publication. "From a professional perspective I don't think reality shows in general have much of a positive effect." He went on to share that he doesn't even work in fashion anymore. "Most people just go back to their old careers and continue to struggle," he said. "Fashion design is a cutthroat business. Well established designers go bankrupt right and left. And quite honestly the fashion industry frowns on 'Project Runway' and doesn't take the designers very seriously." That one cuts like a pair of sewing scissors.