N owadays, most reality-show contestants arrive on set with a plan, a story arc, or an identity they’ve cobbled together from watching other reality shows for the fifteen years since that first season of The Real World. A little Puck here, a little Trishelle there. Jeffrey Sebelia, Project Runway’s third and most recent winner, certainly did. “I thought I’d start out really dark and annoying,” he says.
Unabomber would be his look: hooded sweatshirts and sunglasses. His neck tattoo would seem intimidating until later in the season when—plot twist!—he revealed that it spelled out the name of his totally adorable 2-year-old son, Harrison Detroit, around whom he turns to goo. He talked about his difficult past: the abusive dad, the years of drug addiction, the suicide attempt, his redemption. And the clothes would follow a similar trajectory: shredded and aggressive and dark to start with, far lighter and nearly pretty by the end.
True to his script, Sebelia arrived with irritating pranks, like hand buzzers for introductions and foghorns for early mornings. And he was annoyingly cocky. “I’m looking around, and it’s just all remedial, intermediate stuff happening,” he sneered on the first episode. He was an arrogant winner, a sore loser, and he made another contestant’s mother cry. He picked fights with a pregnant redhead named Laura, who played the uptown bitch to his punk-rock kid. In the final round, she accused him of outsourcing some pleats on leather shorts. Milking his possible disqualification for maximum effect, producers aired lingering shots of a depleted, ghost-white Sebelia on a balcony, chain-smoking in the rain, while Laura lurked in the background. When he was exonerated, at last, he crumbled in a sobbing heap on the shoulder of a cute blonde rival named Uli—his transformation to beloved underdog complete.
In the final episode, his red sundress imprinted with little white apples stole the show. For all the entertainment value he’d added, his collection was, simply put, the most accomplished. It was the most varied in range, the most successfully assembled. “He was the most connected to what’s happening right now,” says Elle fashion director and Runway judge Nina Garcia. “He’s more editorial, more edgy, he has good ideas … John Galliano-esque.”
“It certainly was not his charming personality,” adds Michael Kors, another judge. “I guess he was acting that way in order to become more famous. So now it’s like, ‘Fine. You’ve got everyone’s attention. Now what?’ ”
That’s the question on Sebelia’s mind as he drives his spanking new Saturn sedan (part of the Project Runway loot) around the factories of downtown Los Angeles on a drizzly afternoon. Sebelia is dressed, as might be anticipated, in carefully filthy punk-rock layers of sweatshirts and plaid. Like most people you know only from TV, he’s smaller than you expect in person. He also is surprisingly eager to please, for a studiously crafted prick, and laughs a lot—often at himself. Right now he’s crinkling his nose at the irony of Jeffrey Sebelia, he of the tattooed neck and razor-striped eyebrow, driving a car so much more conventional and fancier than he is. “The truth is,” he says, “I’m totally broke.”
Before appearing on Project Runway, Sebelia was operating his own small but modestly successful label called Cosa Nostra, out of a big sunny office in a quickly gentrifying section of downtown L.A. A handful of stores in the U.S., Japan, and Europe were buying his rocker-style creations, and he’d even dressed a few celebrities, including Dave Navarro and Gwen Stefani.
Though he was in debt from start-up loans, he was living affordably in a cottage he’d purchased for $137,000 in the modest neighborhood of Mt. Washington while working as a production designer. His girlfriend Melanie—a Juilliard-trained dancer who worked as a stand-up comedienne—was able to stay home to take care of their son, Harrison, even though the couple was struggling romantically.
It was Santino Rice, the badass of Season 2 and a friend of Sebelia’s from L.A., who suggested he try out for the show. Even though he’d never really watched Project Runway, Sebelia went for it, hoping it would energize his business. He was growing weary of the petty frustrations of being a smallish designer, vulnerable to the ugly business practices retail is infamous for. “They’ll take a jacket and smash a button,” he says of one of the shops he sells to, “and these are really strong buttons, and then they’ll send a return authorization for one piece and return twelve. And they’ll never pay for it.”
Sebelia wasn’t surprised he made the callbacks nor that he was picked as one of fifteen contenders on the show. His plan was to be the Santino of Season 3. Being a jerk had paid off for his friend, who’d made it to the finals, and Sebelia knew that a hated reality-show star was more valuable than a popular one. “I was fully prepared to be in front of the cameras and say outlandish things and make people snicker,” Sebelia says.