Excitement at the Avalon hotel in Los Angeles. Santino is in the building! Someone at reception instantly recognizes him, telling him how much he loves his work. Santino walks outside to settle by the pool, and two women by the bar frankly stare at him—one with her shades off, just to make sure.
“Yeah, people feel like they know me,” he says, when I point out all the starers. “There’s no barrier there. I’ve been at parties where there’ve been a lot of actors, but people don’t feel like they know them.” So reality-show stardom is more cumbersome, in some ways, because we’ve all been trained to leave Gwyneth Paltrow alone. “And in one respect, it’s great—I’m with friends at a club, and it’s ‘Come right in’ and bartenders buying me drinks, telling me I was robbed or whatever.” Robbed, because Santino didn’t win his season. “And then there are other days,” he says, “when it’s Please, can we not do this right now?” He orders a Cape Cod. “I don’t blush easily,” he says. “But I’ll go some places, especially concerts, and I’ll have 15-year-old girls jump on my back or grab my crotch. And I get into grown-up mode, like, Where the fuck are your parents?”
For some people, Project Runway was all about last season. For me, it was all about Season Two, which had four totally outrageous multiethnic designers—Santino Rice, Nick Verreos, Andrae Gonzalo, and Daniel Vosovic—who shared suite 35D in the Atlas apartments. Santino was by far the biggest provocateur, and it hardly mattered that Chloe Dao, a designer of pretty but unremarkable clothes, actually won. “No one wanted to interview Chloe,” Santino says. “I’m sure I did like 500 percent more interviews. That’s what I won.”
Though Santino is by no means Runway’s biggest success story, he is, arguably, its biggest star. He’s prodigiously talented, smart, opinionated, arrogant—sublime, in short, falling into the classic reality-show category of characters one either loves or loves to hate. He also falls into the classic category of outspoken, gossip-prone reality-show characters that Bravo cannot control. “Between Heidi and Michael Kors and Nina Garcia, the judges were like a three-headed monster,” he says. “They all basically have the same point of view. I mean, have one avant-garde person who has an art-as-fashion approach, rather than fashion-as-commerce approach.” Then, of course, he made an almost perversely beautiful collection for Fashion Week, and the judges said there wasn’t enough of him in it. “And it’s like, Really?” he asks. “Gee, that’s funny, because I made this shit!”
I ask what he thinks of Michael Kors’s clothing. “I think Michael Kors has made an excellent business for himself appropriating everything Halston already did.” Then he reconsiders, but the effect makes the insult more stinging. “I mean, his clothes aren’t so bad that they make me upset or mad,” he says. “They’re just conservative and, in a lot of ways, boring clothes.”
Shortly after appearing on Runway, Santino had achieved such an extraordinary level of notoriety that he was able to announce a run-of-the-mill yard sale on his Website and unload almost all of his old T-shirts and jeans—not things he sewed, but things he wore. (Sometimes he sees them reappear on eBay.) The Discovery Channel, which owns the rights to Project Runway in most of Asia, flew him to Taiwan, Malaysia, and Singapore for a big promotional tour, during which he judged some fashion competition where an entrant made a hand-embroidered T-shirt of his face. He hangs out with the Hilton sisters, charges at least $5,000 to make appearances at events, and makes couture dresses for $3,000 to $10,000 a pop. His income, he says, has at least quintupled since appearing on the show. “Not only do I not have to do grunt shitwork anymore,” he says, “but I’ll never be put in the situation again where someone thinks they can be shady to me in a business deal.”
But Santino still doesn’t have his own work space (he shares it), still doesn’t have a modest label he’s selling to stores. When Bergdorf Goodman phoned him after the show, asking if he’d be interested in doing a small collection for them, he told them he didn’t yet have the means. Ultimately, his goal is to be another Armani—someone who does both a stylish diffusion line and haute couture—but for now, he’d be content simply to have his own apartment, to stop paying rent. “I fall into this weird area where everyone thinks I don’t need help anymore,” he says. “I was in Canter’s Deli the other day, and this woman was like, ‘I was rootin’ for ya,’ and I was like, ‘Well, don’t stop rootin’ for me—I need all the help I can get.’ I feel like I’ve done nothing yet.”