Celebrity, especially the American variety, is a random thing. One minute you're toiling in academic obscurity, the next you're the unlikely...

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — Celebrity, especially the American variety, is a random thing.

One minute you’re toiling in academic obscurity, the next you’re the unlikely star of a reality show that you originally thought was a “horrible” idea, and suddenly there are bobbleheads made in your likeness, online petitions demanding that People mag crown you “The Sexiest Man Alive,” even a techno song sampling your trademark phrases — “Make it work!” and “Where’s Andrae?”

So yes, the unfailingly elegant Tim Gunn found “far-fetched” the whole notion of playing the mentoring mensch to a cast of dueling design divas on Bravo’s “Project Runway.”

His mother, he recounted recently to a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., had an even more incredulous reaction to the news:

“But you’re so old!”

Thanks, Mom.

At first blush, Gunn, who is in his early 50s and chairs the fashion-design department at Parsons The New School for Design, isn’t reality TV material: He’s soft-spoken, self-effacing, an academic and a sculptor, a wonky soul with a rarefied vocabulary and the gracious demeanor of someone who’s been raised to both know better and be better.


“Project Runway,” 10 p.m. Wednesdays on Bravo.

He’s not acting, in the way that the denizens of reality TV seem to ratchet up their personalities constantly playing to the ever-present cameras that they’re supposed to be pretending aren’t there.

With Gunn, what you see on TV is what you get in real life: Suit. Silver hair. Suave.

Someone from the audience wanted to know how he was handling all the celebrity stuff.

“Me as a celebrity?” Gunn said. “Oh, please. If I’m a celebrity, we’re all in trouble. I’m having a blast … and I’m cognizant at all times this will go away as quickly as it arrives.”


“When it goes away, I will miss it.”

He was ostensibly there to dish on the vagaries of Washington fashion — or the lack thereof — but Gunn wasn’t in a dishing mood. Stepping into the marbled halls of the Corcoran, where he had been both art student and employee, had rendered him momentarily verklempt.

“My life was transformed by this institution,” he said. He waxed nostalgic about the school that turned a “miserably unhappy child, not just antisocial, nonsocial” into a self-assured artist entranced with the thrills of risk-taking.

After graduation in ’76, he set up shop in a studio here, crafting sculptures to feed his creative jones and creating architectural models to feed his bank account. He worked in the admissions office at the Corcoran until Parsons asked him to join its admissions department.

Eventually, he ended up running the fashion-design department at Parsons, a nonfashion person shepherding some of the field’s most illustrious careers.

At Parsons, he made the transition from fine artist to designer, in that he learned to appreciate the more prosaic demands of functional art, viewing “design through the constraints of commerce.”

As a sculptor, he says, his only client was himself. A designer always has to keep the client in mind.

Exactly like what his TV designers face each week.

When the producers of “Project Runway” came calling, Gunn didn’t flinch when they tossed out scenarios for design challenges on the show, like creating a wedding dress in two days.

The producers had interviewed others who’d declared it an impossible task. Gunn shrugged. Designers have to curb their ambitions for the project at hand. That got him hired — as what he thought would be an off-air consultant.

Sure, the cameras were rolling as he advised the young designers in Season 1, but surely he’d end up on the cutting-room floor. He was so convinced the show would be a flop that instead of attending the premiere party, he stayed at home, “in my own little twin bed in Greenwich Village, hiding under the sheets.” The Emmy-nominated series now is Bravo’s most popular.

An audience member wondered what Gunn thought about Washington fashion.

Gunn put index finger and thumb to chin, in a classic Tim Gunn gesture. He looked out into the audience of suited metrosexuals, women adorned with Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses, and art students decked out in funky duds.

“I will say this,” he said. “You’re one of the best-looking groups I’ve ever seen in Washington.”