Since winning the first season of Project Runway in early 2005, the affable, outspoken Jay McCarroll has been an often-reluctant trial balloon for the show’s stated purpose to discover “the next great fashion designer.” He famously turned down the $100,000 first prize after finding the contract too draconian—the production company wanted 10 percent of his future earnings in perpetuity—and he also resisted the opportunity to intern for Banana Republic. The experience left McCarroll with plenty of good will, but not enough capital to get his career off the ground. Determined to stake his own claim on New York’s fashion world, the fur-free designer found a sponsor in the Humane Society, and worked to debut a new line of clothes during 2007’s Fashion Week in Bryant Park. His efforts to bring the show to fruition are chronicled in the new documentary Eleven Minutes, which finds him as frisky and likeable as ever. In the wake of a traumatizing promotional appearance on MTV, McCarroll talked to The A.V. Club about Project Runway, the fashion scene, the trials of celebrity, the ins and outs of putting on a good show, and why he fled New York.
The A.V. Club: How did Eleven Minutes come together?
Jay McCarroll: I did a one-hour follow-up show after Project Runway called Project Jay, which kind of chronicled me moving to New York and doing all this bullshit. [Laughs.] And two guys that I worked with on that, Michael Selditch and Rob Tate, we really hit it off. I was supposed to be doing a show at Fashion Week during the time Project Jay was filmed, but it didn’t work out, so they said “If you ever do a show at Fashion Week, we’d love to film it and make a film out of it.” So that’s pretty basic.
AVC: To what extent is the film a collaboration between yourself and the filmmakers, and to what extent do they have to get some objective distance from you?
JM: It’s definitely a collaboration, because I was living that whole experience, and they were filming it. And it was understood that we wanted to show the process of making a collection of clothes. But they’re filmmakers, and I let them do what they wanted to do, so I didn’t really have any say. I trusted them, and I think it turned out well.
AVC: Have you always been comfortable in front of a camera, or is that something you discovered about yourself with Project Runway?
JM: Well, I mean, I had been making porno movies of myself since I was a child, so… I’m kidding. [Laughs.] Before I tell you this, I had the most heinous experience over at MTV today.
AVC: What happened?
JM: It was retarded. So all day—and I’m talking all day, from 7 o’clock this morning—I have been promoting this film. I’m on the fucking news. I’m on radio. I was on some radio show yesterday where I’m being followed by Jimmy Carter, the fucking president, on National Public Radio. Anyway, I get to MTV, where apparently I’m going to be doing this MTV News thing. And I’m talking to the girl doing it, and she’s like, “What have you been up to?” And I’m, “You know, I’m promoting this film, and really wrapped up in that.” And she’s like, “You have a film?” And I’m, “Yeah. So what am I doing here?” [MTV girl voice.] “Oh, you’re here to talk about how important Oscar fashion is. And, you know, what the differences are between Oscar fashion and Golden Globes fashion, and you know, like, who your picks are for best dressed at the Oscars, and like, what do you think Angelina’s gonna wear?” And I’m just looking at her like “It is the end of the day, and I’m gonna fucking kill myself. I can’t imagine a more vapid cherry topping on my fucking self-obsessed day.”
So then I have to do this other segment that they’re pitching, and they’re so excited, because it’s gonna be this half-hour special on MTV called Detox. It’s with this guy, Jim Cantiello. He does this reality round-up show, like a cross between The Soup and fucking Playhouse. Okay, sounds fun or whatever. So we do the setup, and then they think I’m an actor. So they’re like, “You’re just gonna say this, and you’re gonna walk in, and you’re gonna make fun of Jessica Simpson, and then you’re gonna say whatever.” And I give them a dirty look and get ready to leave. And I’m like, “Oh my God, this is MTV, and all these people are on fucking Red Bull.” So I wrap that thing up, and they’re like, “Go do your MTV News thing next.” So I go to insert the fucking story about the MTV News thing. And I’m like, “You know what, I don’t want to do this.” And they’re like, “Your people said you were going to do it.” And I’m like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You know what? I’m not going to do it.” So then there’s me and literally a bunch of 16-year-old interns over there, 15 of them just staring at me, and I must have looked like the biggest, fattest fashion-asshole bitch that ever walked the planet. It was so awful.
AVC: So they just completely ambushed you? They were going to just foist all this stuff on you?
JM: Yeah. The thing is, I’m supporting this documentary. It’s an independent film. It’s about a struggling artist. It’s really genuine. And then I go to fucking awful MTV, and they’re like… [High-pitched, annoying voice.] “Talk about the Oscars. Make fun of Jessica Simpson.” And I’m like, “I’m gonna fucking die.” Where’s the awesome old MTV that actually played A-Ha videos?
AVC: Oh, that was 25 years ago. It’s been a really long time, and they don’t do music anymore.
JM: No, and it’s so fucking gay. And all those people are such fucking gays. Oh, God! I hope the MTV building burns. I hope Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port are inside of it when it does. And Heidi and Spencer and all those other faggots. [McCarroll is openly gay himself. —ed.] Oh, God. See, this is what I need to get paid for. I need to just have an awful opinion about everything. But no, I’ve got to talk about fucking Jessica Simpson. Anyway, back to the movie. Back to the real thing, the real question. Thank you for letting me talk about that.
AVC: To get back to the movie, one thing that Eleven Minutes conveys is the sheer enormity of putting on a show at Fashion Week. Were you surprised by how much you had to do outside of simply designing clothes?
JM: I had done shows before, small shows in the past. Probably like eight of them, so I was familiar with putting a line together, having a deadline, casting models, and all that shit. But, you know, add the fucking film cameras to it, and add the prestige and all that bullshit of being in New York Fashion Week and all the press, all the anticipation, because apparently I hadn’t been doing anything with my life for years. So it was a lot of pressure. I actually had to take an anti-anxiety pill for that fucking day, because I lost my shit. I started to lose my shit inside of my brain. Oh, God, how embarrassing.
AVC: So where did the initial spark of inspiration for this collection come from? I recall the Archigram pieces making the rounds as a traveling contemporary art-museum exhibit. [Archigram was a group of ’60s architects who incorporated whimsical conceits like hot-air balloons and flying cars into a vision of future society.]
JM: Absolutely. It was in San Francisco. I think it was at the De Young [Museum], maybe five, six, 10 years ago. And I think it was probably across Europe and stuff. I discovered [Archigram] when I was procrastinating in college. I thought it was silly that I had to write, like, a fucking paper about Sri Lanka’s economy when I was in fashion school. So I would go to the library and procrastinate and read architecture books. And that was my favorite book in college. It was just like this little picture book. And it was such an awesome idea, because it was just like how I felt. It was these six young architects living in Europe, they’re in London at the time, and they just didn’t like what was going on with the standard brick architecture in England, so they would try and doodle and come up with fantasy architectural situations. So I really responded to that.
AVC: What sort of balance are you trying to strike when you’re presenting, like in this case, two-dozen-plus different looks? What goes through your head between the commercial and editorial work, for example? Are there certain balances that need to be struck to make a good presentation?
JM: For this particular show, I was definitely trying to find that balance of what is wacky and just inspiration and inspiring ideas, vs. what’s actually wearable and can be taken out of the collection and be actually worn on the street. As for the show itself, you have ideas about what kind of shapes you want, and you wouldn’t necessarily want to put, like, three pants in a row or something. So you have to make little sketches, and you lay them all over the wall, and move things around, and adjust colors according to where you want to put certain things. And that’s a whole process of a couple months long of taking an iconography, like say from Archigram, of the air-balloon iconography and extracting that. And then applying it. Do you want to have an air-balloon helmet? Do you want to have a skirt in the shape of an air balloon? Or do you want to just take it and make it a print and put it all over the outfit? So there’s a kind of process of taking inspiration and dissecting it and recreating it.
AVC: There’s something about flow, too. There’s a moment in the film, at the actual runway show, where there’s a little panic because the models are walking out of order. That seems like a big deal to you.
JM: It’s a huge deal to me, because I designed the show to go in a particular color order, which I think a lot of other designers don’t really think about. All their stuff is interchangeable, so you wouldn’t really notice. But if you’re looking at say, a basic rainbow, and it goes red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and this went red, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, you’d notice the difference. You know, on a very rudimentary level, it’s off.
AVC: How would you evaluate how the show went for you? How did you feel after it was over?
JM: I think it was fine. The girl’s fucking [dress] coming down, that was awful. [The top of a strapless dress slipped over the model’s chest. —ed.] And the things coming out of order, and the fact that I was so stressed out and had to do so much fucking crap that day and had to take an anti-anxiety pill. I was very happy for it to be over. It couldn’t have ended quickly enough for me. I was over it. And I haven’t been able to get over it. I left New York. I left fashion. It was a big deal. It rocked my world.
AVC: The film’s denouement shows a somewhat discouraging meeting with Urban Outfitters over what they might order. Was the line not successful from a commercial point of view? Are there things you might do differently the next time around in light of what happened after the show?
JM: The Urban Outfitters thing was, you know, it’s business for them. And I was late on my production and stuff. No, I think there were commercial pieces in there. You just never know what people are going to want. You never fucking know what people are going to respond to or want in your work, and you just hope for the best when you design a collection, and try to make it as well-rounded as you can. Or on the flip side of it, just fucking do 25 dresses that all look the same. That way, no one can fucking tell the difference, and they will just order them. I dunno. Fuck fashion.
AVC: Well, where are you now? You said you left New York. How soon after that show did you end up leaving New York?
JM: Within the year, I guess. Let me think. That was September… Yeah, probably a year later.
AVC: And where did you end up?
JM: In a ditch. I was facedown, and I had a bloody bottom. [Laughs.] Actually, I went to Philadelphia, and I love it there. It’s really good, and it’s close enough to New York, where I can very easily get there. So, I don’t know. Just the pace of New York was… it’s very fast and there’s so many people. And I feel like everybody just wants to have fucking butt-sex with everybody else, figuratively and literally. I just couldn’t deal with it. The pace of it. But you know, it’s a really exciting city. I can’t hate a city. And my experience was kind of retarded there. It was just like, “Throw him to the wolves, he’s famous.” And every time I went out, someone had to fucking look at me or talk to me, and I just got sick of it. Now I have a very anonymous life, which I really love, and then I come to New York, and people bug the shit out of me.
AVC: Is that kind of recognition all downside for you? Do you feel like people are also concerned for you and wish you well?
JM: Oh, it’s all very nice. Everybody’s very supportive, and it’s nice when a stranger is like, “I love your work.” So I’m glad I’ve had that kind of effect on people. It’s very sweet. But sometimes when you’re like, “Oh my God, my back hurts. I have diarrhea. I’m just picking up groceries. I’m on my way to something.” You don’t want to be stopped. But it happens to everybody, like if you bump into an old friend or something. Luckily with an old friend, you can be like, “I’m having a diarrhea attack. Can I call you later?” And you can’t really do that with a stranger.
God, it always comes back to shit or sex with me. It’s like so fucking elementary. I’m like a fucking baby. What is wrong with me? [Exasperated sigh.] I hate MTV. I’m reeling right now. I hate those people. Those fucking people staring at me. [Sighs.] Fuck you, MTV! [Laughs.] Sorry.
AVC: When you’re in a situation like you were in this movie, trying to put on a show at Fashion Week, how much did the Project Runway tag help you, and how much did it hinder you?
JM: I think it’s very helpful. I wouldn’t have been doing that without it. You know, I’m easily identifiable, easily recognizable. That’s the connection. People have seen my work. It’s like I had a 10-week résumé on television. But also, within the fashion community, which I don’t particularly care about, I’m sure they think we’re a bunch of freaks, and we’re reality-television weirdos and jokes. Which is really unfair, because we all—most of the people on Project Runway went to fashion school, and have a passion for it, and spent a lot of time on design education, and have been working artists for years and years and years. We might have had an accelerated career due to being on a television show, but that doesn’t mean we’re any less talented or passionate about what we do. It’s unfortunate.
AVC: One of the interesting things about the show is that its own popularity has altered the dynamic. Somebody like Austin Scarlett from your season seems authentically strange and idiosyncratic, but now being strange and idiosyncratic on the show seems almost like a made-up affectation. Like people have learned how they’re supposed to be the quirky person on Project Runway. They’re inauthentically strange. Does that make sense to you?
JM: Yeah. From experience, the world hadn’t seen a person like me. Or they thought that all gay guys were Carson Kressley. They didn’t see a fat, weird me. Or a fucking crazy, weird 1900s Austin Scarlett, you know? They didn’t get to see those kinds of people. It almost would have been interesting to see a Christian Siriano from season four. How would he have fared in season one? Because I think by the time the show reached season four, it was very much like, “Here’s a formula, and here are these characters. And she’s fierce, and he’s fierce, or ferosh.” [Like the first two syllables of “ferocious.”—ed.] And all that bullshit. I think it’s definitely changed. And the climate of television has… I mean, when you classify reality TV as both [A&E’s] Intervention and Bret Michaels’ Rock Of Love Bus, it runs a pretty fucking wide gamut. So, I don’t know. Reality TV is wack.
AVC: Within the fashion community, do you feel the show is looked upon as a launching pad for serious designers, or do they think it’s relevant as more than just entertaining television?
JM: I think people understand that we’re designers. I think it’s entertainment. I think it’s education. I think it’s been really eye-opening to a lot of middle-America to be like, “Wow, I can’t believe that people actually can do this.” Before Project Runway, reality shows were all like Survivor, just people on an island eating bugs. Anyway, like I’ve always said, Michael Kors had a fucking line of clothes for 20 years before he was a household name, and that’s due in part to Project Runway. So we’re only four years into it, and we’ll see where people end up. It takes time to grow a business. And Project Runway will have its heyday, if it hasn’t already, and it will stick around and become a joke or go away with pride. And then we’ll see where all those people end up. At least we’re on the pop-culture map. That’s important.
AVC: So are you planning another runway show of this magnitude?
JM: No. Never. No. No, no, no, no, no.
AVC: Why never?
JM: Because… didn’t you watch the movie? It’s awful! Why am I going to torture myself? If I can put out clothes and put them on a website and have little photo shoots and have people buy them that way, why would I fucking spend $100,000 to fucking go through bullshit? Fuck that. I’m over that.
AVC: But isn’t there the allure of the big stage? Of recognition on a scale that would be harder to get from an outsider standpoint?
JM: I don’t know. I am who I am, so I think if I wanted to do a fucking show in the middle of the street in Toledo, Ohio, and called some fucking press people, they’d cover it, and I could do it that way, too. [Laughs.] I’m just not that interested in the whole format of spending fucking $25,000 for four hours in a tent. That’s so silly to me. I think it’s a waste of money, and I could use that money somewhere else. To grow my business. To pay a graphic designer to work on my website. Sure, you get a lot of exposure at Fashion Week, but I went through it, and I really didn’t get that much out of it. I had to make this film to get fucking exposure on it.