Off the 'Runway' and down to earth
Forget fame. Jay McCarroll just wants to design clothes
By Tanika White
February 12, 2006
NEW YORK // Jay McCarroll sits at the sewing machine in his new studio space in the Garment District last week, making a shirt for Billy Joel's wife.
In Bryant Park and elsewhere, designers, retailers and writers were swirling through Fashion Week, that flurry of runway shows and celebrity-studded parties that seems so glamorous to outsiders.
But McCarroll, winner of Bravo's Project Runway last season, is ambivalent about his newfound celebrity. He rejects the chicer-than-thou attitude of it all, and just wants to do what he does best - make clothes.
"It's been a really extremely long year," says McCarroll. "You can't prepare for it. You can't prepare for what fame is or what you're thrust into. If you're an actor, you know what's going to happen to you.
"But for me, I'm just a [expletive] designer. I'm on TV for a [expletive] reality show, and all of a sudden, I'm getting thousands of e-mails and people are sending things to my house," he says. "I'm getting recognized on the street and at the grocery store. ... Sometimes you don't want to be recognized."
But true to his characteristically unpredictable personality, McCarroll isn't as forthcoming about other subjects fans of the popular show might like to know.
Such as why he turned down the $100,000 prize for beating out a cast of novice designers last year, including show finalists Wendy Pepper and Kara Saun, the unspoken favorite.
Or how he reacted when supermodel Heidi Klum, the show's gorgeous and charismatic host, declined to wear a dress to the Emmy Awards that he made for her - at her request.
"I spent a lot of time on it; I spent a lot of time thinking about it," says McCarroll, 31. "In a snap of fingers, that dream was crushed."
But that's all he'll say about that juicy subject now. And contractually, he is prohibited from divulging anything more about why he decided to give up the $100,000 prize.
To find out more, he says, we'll have to watch his latest endeavor, Project Jay - a one-hour documentary that airs Feb. 22 on Bravo, detailing the high- and lowlights of McCarroll's life since winning the show.
"It's kinda super dramatic," he says.
It must be.
After all, here's a small town guy from rural Pennsylvania, flung headfirst into stardom and the wacky world of fashion, and handed the anvil-like pressure of becoming - as Klum said when she crowned him the winner - "the next great American fashion designer."
"I have to keep grounded, y'know?" he says. "I'm never going to think I'm any better than I am. If I, like, cured AIDS or anything, then I'd have every right to be on top of the world. I'm just making clothes here."
And that's all he really wants to do, he says. He doesn't really want to be a TV star. He doesn't even want to be a fashion insider, like many of the ones who showed their fall collections at Fashion Week.
"I don't want to be that part of the industry. There are so many people who are out there with their noses in the air. You saw them this week. It's gross. It's ugly to look at and I don't want to be a part of something like that," McCarroll says. "I still shop at Wal-Mart. I went to Old Navy today; I was going to buy a jacket and it was too expensive. I don't even have an apartment yet. I'm still staying with friends."
It's that down-to-earth quality that appealed to the viewers of Project Runway, says Andy Dehnart, a lecturer at Central Florida's Stetson University and editor of RealityBlurred.com, a Web site that analyzes and critiques reality television shows.
"He is completely unlike anybody we've seen on TV before. He's just completely out there," Dehnart says.
McCarroll's barb-like honesty contributed to his popularity, Dehnart says.
"In his clothing and in his personality he just presents himself and says, 'Here I am. Deal with it.' I think people like that kind of straightforwardness."
As far as this season's cast is concerned, McCarroll - who has been a guest judge - is equally blunt. The four remaining contestants - Daniel Vosovic, Kara Janx, Chloe Dao and Santino Rice - all seem "kind of boring," he says.
"I love the show, of course; it's close to my heart. But I'm not really drawn to any of them, except for Santino. I think he's hilarious. He's arrogant and funny. I'd love to have a drink with him."
He also thinks Rice's designs - though a little "weird" at times - are the only ones on this season's show that have a clear point of view.
If his far-out designs on Project Runway are any indication, McCarroll's own spring/summer line - scheduled to debut in September - will be anything but boring.
"It's a cleaner version of work you've seen from me. Less deconstruction, less earthy stuff," McCarroll says.
"My friends would never buy a $2,100 button-down shirt. I just want to appeal to the masses. From the show, I have millions of people who watched, so I want to make sure I can appease those people and make clothes that are affordable."