Photo: Chris Ramirez

Photo: Chris Ramirez

BY DANIELLE STROLIA

On reality TV, there’s always that villain. That one person other contestants just can’t get along with, that one person that viewers are just waiting to watch crash and burn. Unfortunately for Kenley Collins, second runner-up on the fifth season of Project Runway in 2008, that person was her.

Through a series of challenges, Project Runway seeks to find the most promising designer among a group of fashion-driven contestants. The designs are judged—sometimes harshly—by supermodel Heidi Klum, designer Michael Kors, fashion editor Nina Garcia, and the on-site fashion mentor Tim Gunn.

When Collins found out that the show was casting in New York, she thought, “Why not?” Designing and repairing vintage clothing had been a lifelong passion for her, with her grandmother’s modeling career as a calendar girl in the 1940s as her inspiration.

Originally from Pompano Beach, Florida, Collins moved to New York after graduating with a marketing degree from Florida State University. At the time of casting, Collins held a design position at a clothing company, but yearned for more. She didn’t want to design for other people; she wanted to develop her own personal style, which is very feminine, colorful, and heavily influenced by the 1940s and 1950s. Collins saw Project Runway as an opportunity for growth. She applied and was chosen to partake in the fifth season.

Over five weeks of filming, Collins survived crazy challenges creating outfits using extremely limited material. In one challenge, looks were made using only materials bought from Gristedes grocery store. In another, outfits were made using spare parts from a Saturn Hybrid car. All of this, while still maintaining her personal style.

But it was Collins’ demeanor, not her designs, that grabbed the most attention. In judging and in solo interviews interspersed throughout the show, Collins always defensively tackled criticism from the judges. In one judging, when Klum remarked that Collins’ gown wasn’t elegant, Collins quickly snapped back “I wasn’t going for elegant, Heidi” and spurred a conversation in which Garcia stated, “What I find from you, Kenley, is you get very defensive. It’s almost like you know too much.” When Klum agreed and called it annoying, Collins rolled her eyes.

This behavior was always juxtaposed with various other contestants talking about just how unlikable Collins was. Even Tim Gunn referred to Collins in an interview with Zap2It as belligerent and the problem child of the entire Project Runway franchise. Contestants that are “full of themselves and sassy” make him wonder what they are even doing on the show.

Even after the season ended, Collins, only 25 at the time, faced fierce backlash online. For instance, in her exit interview with Entertainment Weekly, the comment section is filled with statements such as “your the nastiest designer i saw…your so arrogant kenley collins!!!!!!!,” “Three words: Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” and other comments that refer to her as a “petulant, whiny, ungrateful hag” and “intestinal worm.” Yet, seemingly inexplicably, she went back for the first season of Project Runway: All Stars in 2012, where she came in fourth place and had an overall much better experience.

With one bad experience and one good one, how, exactly, did reality TV personally impact the life of Kenley Collins both during and after filming? And is she anything like the not-so-nice, defensive person Project Runway portrayed? The answer to that is a simple resounding no.

When Collins, now 31, rushes into the West Village café five minutes early, she smiles brightly, introduces herself, and tosses off her fuzzy oversize leopard-print coat on the chair. Appearance-wise, nothing much has changed since the early Project Runway days. Her signature red lipstick is still perfectly applied, the cat-like eyeliner is still there. Although now a bob cut, her dark hair is still very 1940-esque with a twist: short bangs and a miniature ponytail holding a portion of her hair perkily at the top of her head.

Today, Collins keeps busy in a number of different ways. She practices and plays gigs with her rock band Kenley Collins (formerly known as Jetblack Bullseye), she ships out dresses and various other products from her online boutique, and she bartends at a local NYU bar The Half Pint while also keeping her 100,000-plus followers on Instagram happy with frequent updates.

As busy as she is, Collins sees this time as a break. “You’ve got to spend money to make money,” she says. And developing a new fashion line, getting $80,000 worth of clothing inventory out there while also producing a second album definitely costs a lot. So bartending is, in some ways, a means to an end, but a fun way to do it.

This is not the first “break” Collins has had in the years since she first participated in Project Runway. After season five aired, Collins fell into a bad slump. The show, she felt, had used her and spit her out with the editing process. Even fellow contestant Daniel Feld has admitted in interviews that they skewed Collins a certain way. In one episode, Felds tells the judges that he has “impeccable, high end taste.” The cameras show Collins laughing at the comment, and in an interview featured in the episode, she says that she had never seen his “taste” in his designs. But, as Felds stated in an interview with The Backlot, the episode didn’t show her response as to why she was laughing (“I just love him. He cracks me up.”). And the comment she made about his taste? She made it on the very first challenge before they even really knew each other.

For Collins, designing just wasn’t rewarding anymore. “I was pinned the villain. I was young and got a bad reputation, and the experience just opened up the world of cyberhaters,” she says.

As an example, all one needs to do is search “Kenley Collins Project Runway” on Youtube. Among the most viewed is a series of seven parts entitled “Kenley’s Crap” where user MorbidLittleGames has digitally altered Collins’ face into a sort of monster each time she responds to the judges. A forum on TV.com has a whole thread dedicated to the question of why Kenley made it to the top three, with comments including “If I had the time I would rant for several hours about Kenley. Oh, how I dispise thee.” And to this day, she still occasionally gets tweeted at in the manner of “I hope you die.”  However, in regard to cyberbullying at least, Collins has come to terms with it. “That’s what comes with reality TV, or even just fame in general. I’m sick of the hatred, but I’m not alone. It happens to the best of us,” she says.

The editing process and the negative online response, however, were just the tip of the iceberg. Worse was seeing her fellow contestants talking behind her back both amongst one another and to the camera. In one episode, Leanne, the winner of the season, blatantly tells another contestant that Collins never shuts up, with Collins clearly in earshot. And Korto, the runner-up, at one point talks to the camera about Collins: “When you have an ugly attitude, it just makes you ugly and makes everything you make ugly.”  For Collins, it was tough. “It felt terrible. I hated it. Watching the show, especially the last three or four episodes, made my eyes bleed,” she says.

What hurt especially was seeing their remarks on her personality and her apparent disrespect for the judges and Tim Gunn while filming was still in progress. She still lived with these people when the first six episodes were released. And it was only then, she claims, that she started to let them have it as well: “It’s like hell no! That’s sleazy. How can you sit here smiling at me when you were just laughing behind my back? Why do you really even care if I’m ‘rude’ to Tim if I’m nice to you?”

Collins does, however, highlight the stress each contestant was under. No one was on their best behavior: “You’re running on no sleep, no food, and there’s a fridge full of alcohol. It’s like ‘I’m fucking hungry, where’s the food?’” Of course, too little sleep and too much booze is a common reality TV ploy used to heighten the drama. Hungry, sleepy, drunk contestants make for excellent TV.

To Collins, the whole experience was numbing. So why did she ever agree to partake in Project Runway: All Stars four years later?

When the producers first approached her, her response was “There’s no chance in hell!” But the producers persisted, the spot would be paid this time around, and she saw it as a chance for redemption. And ultimately it was. The first time around, she went in with her guard up. But this time, she was ready for what they had to throw at her. “I wasn’t pushed toward the edge, and I was much more laid back, relaxed and nice.” She knew what to expect this time.

And while season five didn’t open any doors career-wise, with All Stars came Collins’ big break. Frankie Grande, who would later become a contestant on Big Brother 16, watched Collins on All Stars and remembered her. Later, when they met and became friends, he suggested that she begin dressing his sister. That sister was pop star Ariana Grande.

Fresh off her Nickelodeon show, Grande needed a look that Collins provided for her: young, colorful and feminine with a distinct 50s vibe. “Designing for a big pop star changes everything,” Collins says. And it did, for a while. Sales on her online boutique kicked up, and style blogs featured her designs. But as Grande became more famous, other designers jumped in, offering free clothes. “That’s the industry though, it’s ups and downs,” she says.

Although Collins undoubtedly could find a 9-5 job in the fashion sector, just the thought of it repulses her. “I hate that industry,” she says. She would rather spend her time on cultivating her style, not styles for other people, and would see such a move as a huge step back.

Right now, her main goal is to get her second album out and have a good time doing so. She got her rock band together shortly after the fifth season of Project Runway, when she needed a break from the industry, and while the first album didn’t sell well, she hopes that the name change (from Jetblack Bullseye to Kenley Collins) will increase their exposure. But either way, she says it’s not about the money. Her fifties-inspired rock-pop band provides her with a creative outlet whenever she needs a breather from fashion.

The love for designing, though, is still there. And looking back on her Project Runway days, she doesn’t have any regrets.

“Some of the best things in life are the hardest, and it’s one of the best things I ever did,” Collins says.