How Tim Gunn Found Celebrity, Not by Design but by Chance

Gunn, right, with former Corcoran director David Levy last night at the gallery.
Gunn, right, with former Corcoran director David Levy last night at the gallery. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 6, 2006

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 yesterday afternoon to a standing-room-only crowd of several hundred at the Corcoran Gallery, 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 fifties 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. (He's got a serious D.C. pedigree: Gunn's a fifth-generation Washingtonian and the great-grandson of Henry Wardman, the name behind many a local landmark.) He's not acting, in the way that the denizens of reality TV seem to ratchet up their personalities -- Omarosa, anyone? -- 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."

Pause.

"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 .

"I haven't been in this building since I left in '83," he said. "My life was transformed by this institution." And so he spent a good chunk of his hour-plus presentation waxing nostalgic about the school that turned a "miserably unhappy child, not just antisocial, non -social" 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 non-fashion person shepherding some of the most illustrious careers in la mode.


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