Summary: Project Runway’s Zulema Griffin dishes on the process of being edited beyond self-recognition, why her lesbianism was not part of the show, and the infamous “mother f*cking” walk-off.
Upon meeting Zulema Griffin, it is not difficult to see how the articulate, assertive designer could be boxed into the caricature of a snarling diva on season two of Bravo’s reality TV show, Project Runway. Zulema’s presence is commanding; she is unabashedly straightforward and unapologetic, exuding self-assurance and characteristics that, in most contexts, are evidence of a strong sense of self. But when pared down to digestible snippets of reality television, these attributes transformed her (with the help of an editing crew) into the one-dimensional stock character of a bitchy black female, an irresponsible and unfounded stereotype that, for some reason, has become a staple of reality TV programs.
Watching herself on Project Runway proved to be a surreal experience for Zulema.
“I was so heavily edited that, actually, it was like watching myself play a part on television,” she said. Being manipulated into a typecast character is, unsurprisingly, not something Zulema would take passively.
During our photo shoot, Zulema was accommodating and easy to work with, incidentally. It was what our business director described as the smoothest, shortest photo shoot in Papierdoll history. Throughout our conversation, she tackled every question, refusing to shy away from any controversial subject. She approached the interview with a matter-of-fact attitude that did not display a trace of vitriol, but actually exhibited a profound sense of humor. While unfailingly self-assured, her tone wavered between amusement and disappointment regarding an experience that threatened her identity. It is clear, however, that reality TV did not expropriate Zulema’s sense of self, but to the contrary, reinforced it.
Watching Herself Play a Role
Married to a film editor and befriended by people in the reality TV business, Zulema expressed the shock of those around her upon seeing the show.
“Most people reacted positively to it,” she said. “[But] there have been quite a few people to react negatively, and understandably so.”
Despite her familiarity with the editing process, Zulema was confounded by how her persona was skewed on the cutting room floor.
Zulema was only featured in four of the eight episodes before her elimination.
“I personally believe they wanted me to be an Omarosa [a black female from the first season of the Apprentice who typifies the reality TV stereotype of a “black bitch”], but they didn’t have enough material,” she said. “So instead of just showing me quietly working, they decided to eliminate me altogether and bring me back in when I had something snappy to say.”
While Zulema takes most of this edited rendition of herself in stride, there was one moment of the aired show that still elicits her ire. It was only when she expressed her surprise that Daniel Franco was eliminated, given that worse designers still remained. It was when I said I immediately thought of Marla that Zulema revealed who was the true “bitch” of the show.
“They show me as the person who tells people off, but Marla was actually the person to do that,” Zulema said. “The producers kept her there in expectation of this huge Wendy Pepper moment that never happened.” She is quick to clarify that speaking with the show’s producers is the only sure way to know why Marla was kept on. But she also contends that from the first episode, the producers flipped Marla and Zulema’s actual and televised roles.
She uses an incident from the first episode to illustrate her point: the televised show displayed Marla confronting Zulema about taking the majority of the hangers in the closet and asking Zulema if she could place her shoes on top of Zulema’s shoes on a closet shelf, to which Zulema responded, “It’s not gonna happen.” Zulema says that the episode was edited to exclude a curse word ridden tirade by Marla and only include Zulema’s response.
Given her experiences in the Caucasian-dominated film industry as a costume designer, Zulema made a first-impression assessment of Marla as the kind of person who “talks to black people like they are five years old until they are seventy-five,” and “figured I needed to shut her down right then. I won’t live with a person who will bully me and belittle me and talk to me like a five year old. I am a grown woman. Don’t speak to me like I am your child and you are telling me what to do. She didn’t talk to the other roommates that way, she reserved that specifically for me.”
While she emphasizes that her impression of Marla may be misguided, she presses forward with her brutally honest assessment. She says this encounter is the misrepresentative moment of the show that angers her the most, a moment so intense that the camera crew and everyone else in the room stopped for a second because they couldn’t believe how Marla had spoken to her. The situation was then reversed on the televised production of the show, creating an alternate reality where Zulema seemed stubborn and even irrational.
Zulema’s Unmentioned Lesbian Identity
If some parts of her character were exaggerated to the point of hyperbole on Project Runway, one major aspect of Zulema never made it into the show: her lesbian identity. While it would be impossible to edit out the overtly gay characteristics of her male castmates (“Where the hell is my chiffon?”), it would be equally difficult to portray Zulema as a lesbian without some sort of explicit personal declaration.
The paradox of male/female gay identity, pervasive in culture at large and represented in microcosm during the show, is that while an attractive, well-groomed appearance often leads to the assumption of homosexuality for men, as Zulema says, “There is nothing about me personally that you would look at and automatically think I am gay. It’s horrible, because it’s believed that if you are well-dressed and well-groomed, that you are not gay as a woman.” Zulema thus understands why her lesbianism did not become a subject (or even passing remark) during the show, but why she was not promoted as a gay designer, especially when she made that request, is still a mystery. When one of the gay magazines profiled “all” the gay designers from Project Runway, she was left out of the feature.
“It’s a Mother F*cking Walk-Off”
Zulema is best known for what is arguably the most controversial part of the show, when she requested a walk-off between three models in order to swap her model with the model of another designer (ultimately, Nick’s model, Tara). Until this point in the show, every designer had opted to keep his/her model, and so despite being a formal option for winning the ice skating challenge, it was effectively considered a breach of the loyal designer-model relationship to the other contestants.
Zulema makes no apologies for her decision to change models, reiterating that it was within her rights (as the design challenge winner), that the decision made sense (given Tim Gunn’s description of her model as an “elongated marshmallow” with “Gumby legs”), and that she behaved respectfully and professionally in executing her choice.
“This is an everyday occurrence, from my understanding of the business. I just switched my model. Tim Gunn and Nick went on and on about how horrible she was and they said really nasty and disparaging things about her. I never said anything nasty about my model, I just simply said [that] I need to change her,” Zulema said. “She’s not good; the judges don’t like her; Tim Gunn doesn’t like her; none of the oth
er contestants like her; so I was actually shocked when people were like, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to change models?’ Of course I am going to change models, you all agree that she is horrible, so why should I keep her?”
Despite her adamant self-defense, Zulema concedes that Tara (Nick’s model) was intended to be a diplomatic choice. She describes Nick and Rachel (the model she traded out) as “bosom buddies” and thought that switching with Nick would be a good compromise (her first choice was Daniel V’s model, Shannon, but given Daniel’s track record, figured he would win and trade back for Shannon within a few episodes, leaving Rachel out of the show). She did not envision either Rachel or Nick being so distraught. The show actually downplayed Nick’s distress, he cried for two days. Zulema says that if she’d known Nick would have had the reaction he did, she would have taken Shannon instead. Even in her concession, her unrelenting position on the suitability of her decision will not allow her to say that she would have kept Rachel.
If Zulema is anything, she’s unrelenting, and so she is pressing forward with her career in the fashion industry.
“I am moving forward full-time with Zulema,” Zulema pronounces her name with weighty emphasis, to connote an entire brand rather than a finite self. Busily preparing to show at Brooklyn Fashion Week in DUMBO as a precursor to a big show for her spring line, the former model and costume designer has dabbled in fashion week before, she had her own parlor show as part of New York Fashion Week in 2003.
Her designs will continue to adhere to the design philosophy she expressed in Project Runway, a philosophy of “dualities, in the sense that whenever I see one thing, I have the need to balance it with something else so that, aesthetically, it’s cohesive for me. Like using leather with a softer fabric, or using tailored construction and softening it up with classical draping, using those sorts of elements to bring a contemporary modern look.”
She feels that Project Runway’s judges were too restrictive in their aesthetic preferences, discouraging this creative philosophy. She notes that Banana Republic (a major sponsor of the show) and Michael Kors (one of the judges) have a clean, classic look that doesn’t leave much room for experimentation.
While these limitations impeded her development as a designer during the show, she would have liked the opportunity to “see myself played back, because that’s how people learn about themselves, when they watch themselves. I never got to watch myself because I was so heavily edited. So I feel like they cheated me of at least being able to look at myself and say I could change this or do that differently.”
While such an experience would indeed be valuable, or at the very least, interesting, Zulema surely doesn’t need it for self-discovery. She already knows herself, and the Project Runway experience has only proven her contentment in this self-knowledge.