It wasn’t until Laura accused him of cheating, shortly before his expected Bryant Park runway debut, that he feared his scheme might backfire. Had he screwed this thing up for real? Even when he won, the five and a half weeks spent in “prisonlike” isolation taping the show, followed by three months of cramming for the final competition, had taken its toll. There was no elated victory lap—only an aimless stumble around the set in a daze of disbelief. Even afterward, he says, it took him a while to realize how much he was genuinely hurt by Laura’s accusation.
He went home to L.A. to recuperate and wait for the phone to ring. Crowds mobbed him in the street, but business calls only trickled in. Melanie wanted to go to Hawaii to celebrate, but Sebelia realized that once he paid off his Cosa Nostra loan, there wouldn’t be much left of the $100,000 prize.
He has more or less fallen out of touch with the judges and producers (though he did make a suit for Heidi Klum’s husband, Seal). A mentorship with Macy’s that was meant to be a part of the Project Runway prize was slow to begin.
Fred Segal asked him to do the Christmas windows, but the store bought only eight pieces. (“They did reorder three,” he says, throwing up his hands in mock celebration. “So, eleven pieces! Woo hoo!”) A shiny-suited investor—“a mob-type guy”—talked big and delivered small, but Sebelia’s still holding out for more. “At this point, if he had the money, I’d take it,” he says, laughing.
His first post-Runway deal? Not exactly Marc Jacobs for LVMH. “I’m almost afraid to admit what I’m doing,” he says, “but it’s costumes for a movie. It’s a live-action movie for the Bratz.” Those slutty dolls? “Yeah, those slutty dolls.”
C elebrity sells lots of things: CDs and tabloid magazines. It has yet to be proved that it will sell Sebelia’s $1,300 beaded sweatshirt, however haunting its pattern of profiles in shiny black jet.
The winner of American Idol has already done what is required for mass success: sung for millions of fans who enjoyed it. Clothing, however, is far more specific, personal, and expensive than a song. “Music is just a lot easier to peddle. With clothes, people, as much as they appreciate them, really cheap out when it comes to buying them, you know?” Sebelia says. “I think that if I was really going to turn that show into the type of success I should, I would go sell something at Wal-Mart, because then 6 million viewers a week makes sense.”
There is no Kelly Clarkson of Project Runway—yet. Jay McCarroll, the first season’s winner, was another outsize personality, showed one post–Project Runway collection in the tents sponsored by the Humane Society (he’s strongly anti-fur), and sold some pieces to Urban Outfitters, but he is really best known for turning down the $100,000 and for the incendiary comments he makes about Tim Gunn (the Parsons chair of fashion design who mentors contestants). Chloe Dao won next—a far quieter personality, she returned to Houston, where she runs a boutique that carries her own label as well as a few others. She used her prize money to expand her business to more space and a second shop, but she hasn’t changed much.
Neither has Sebelia. He lives pretty much the same life as he did before Project Runway, save for a breakup with Melanie and the crowds of people waving and yelling his name when he drives up to the vegan restaurant in Silver Lake where he likes to eat lunch. He’s moved into a loft near the Cosa Nostra offices, where he spends his days drawing, draping, hatching plans. He has a handful of employees: two pattern-makers, a receptionist–fit model–girl Friday, and four to eight sewers, depending on the week. His Cosa Nostra line has finally just about caught up to where it was when he left to do the show. But when Sebelia runs into an old friend on the street outside the office, the friend doesn’t say hello. He gives Sebelia the finger and says, “Where the hell have you been? Just getting richer?” And when Sebelia realizes he doesn’t have $3 in cash for the parking attendant, his face goes dark. He’s got the three bucks somewhere; he can just barely bring himself to bargain anymore. “I’m just so tired of haggling,” he says, rifling through his dirty white-leather wallet. “I mean, this is not a big deal, I’m just so tired of it.”