In 2010, a 23-year-old fashion designer named Andy South competed on Project Runway’s eighth season and sparred against some wild competition: the histrionic Michael Costello, the deadpan hero Mondo Guerra, the unwaveringly self-assured Gretchen Jones (who won the season, outraging many devoted fans), and the sweet but bizarre Casanova. Now, the studious and methodical South is back as more confident alum for Project Runway All-Stars 3, which premieres tonight, but with a brand new life in tow.
Since South’s last appearance on Lifetime’s reality competition staple, the designer has completed a gender transition. Now, the Waianae, HI native is a woman known by the name Ari South — a name picked out by Ari’s mother. We caught up with South to discuss pleasing a whole new panel of judges (including host Alyssa Milano), the story behind her new name, and how her personal transformation has affected her work.
The Backlot: Your season was pretty tumultuous. What are your lasting memories of it?
Ari South: My lasting memory of it? Being a wreck. Overall, it definitely was an upset, but to be at the end was amazing for me. I honestly picture New York Fashion Week when I picture the season. I don’t cry very nicely, and the pictures show that.
TB: There were many polarizing characters in your cast, but you weren’t one of them. Were you aware of how your competitors would be received?
AS: Yeah, definitely. You either absolutely loved somebody for things that other people hated about them or you didn’t. That’s a good description of the cast that season. For me, I thought, “Well, I’m not that crazy. Is this not going to work out for me?” But in the end it worked. I didn’t need to play a part. I’m really happy it happened that way.
TB: Have your perceptions of these people changed since you left the show?
AS: Definitely. Now we’re how many years later? At the time, we couldn’t really talk with each other much. We were thrown together. Since then we’ve been in touch and learning all the things we wished we’d learned before. But I guess that’s a part of the show; we’re just meeting each other for the first time. But many of the people I was drawn to at the time have become more distant. It’s gone both ways. There are people I’ve grown apart from and much closer to. The good thing is that Michael Drummond was someone I liked on the season. That’s been maintained. He’s somebody I constantly keep in touch with. We understand each other. We’re both pretty quiet and really thoughtful. We both have similar ways of thinking. Christopher Collins, who I didn’t really have a close relationship with on the show since we weren’t roommates, I’ve grown close with. Oh, and Casanova! He’s always one of those crazy friends that’s good to have around.
From Ari South’s Facebook account
TB: Do you feel more competitive coming back to the show a second time?
AS: I feel like there’s more at stake now. I feel the urgency and the need to win. The first time around, definitely there was that want and hunger to win, but at the time it felt like the start of, you know, who knows what? There wasn’t much on my mind besides that it was my introduction to the industry and to people around the world, to fans, stuff like that. It was more of a personal thing then. Now I have a business! There’s much more at stake in terms of, like, oh, this money? I know exactly what I’d use it for. I know exactly how it can help my business. That’s the difference. There’s a different type of perspective this time.
TB: Was it annoying to come back to the show and find you had a new panel of judges to please?
AS: Yeah. It is. I thought about that. There’s good and bad there — for all of us. Maybe for me, I actually preferred it. [Laughs.] My take on it was that the old judges knew me and liked my work, but there’s an opportunity with a new panel of judges. It’s a new take on my work, new opinions, and new eyes. Going into it, we don’t really know them. It could go either way — we jibe with them or we don’t, and that’s a huge question mark. It was a roller coaster. I was safe, then I did well, then I bombed, then I immediately came back and won a challenge. I almost went home a few times. I knew I had to haul ass. It was so early in [the process] of my refining my own voice, and it probably wasn’t the right time to experiment. But I felt like if I didn’t try new things or push the envelope, I’d just be stagnant. When I tried something different and pushed the envelope and for whatever reason it wasn’t perfect, didn’t match my vision, and was what it was on the runway — that’s when they hated me. When I was on, I was on. But when I was off, I’m sure it was scary to them. [Laughs.] I was very early in my career in the time.
TB: There are three former winners competing this season. Does that annoy you?
AS: My first initial reaction was like, “Why are they back? Didn’t they win already?” But then as the first few days progressed, I came around. If we’re coming back with the intention to correct our prior seasons, meaning we should’ve won our season, then why not compete with those who did win their season?
TB: You’ve experienced a huge personal transition since your last time on the show. How does that change how you feel coming back?
AS: On a personal note, I feel much more confident in who I am. I’ve kind of — through the show — learned to really be myself completely. You could see that unfold during the season. I became much more confident with sharing who I really am. Now that I’ve had time to really grow into that and set my life right so that everything else could follow suit, that’s what I’m coming back with. I have confidence, that I am who I am, and that’s that. That’s what’s driving me this season.
TB: Is this season more fun for that reason?
AS: I think so. I’m able to enjoy it a lot more. I enjoyed the first time because it was all new and my second time in New York City. Since then I’ve gone back and forth and definitely matured as a person. So it’s a lot more enjoyable. What’s the right way to say this? I’m not as young as I was, meaning I’m familiar with the city and everything I’m going back to. I have the opportunity to enjoy and go for it. It’s a different type of enjoyment, and part of that is because I’m coming back the way I want to and the way I should’ve been the first time.
From a PBS Hawaii interview
TB: I saw an interview where you said you work has become a bit softer and more feminine in recent years. Is that intentional? Seems like a natural extension of the narrative of your life.
AS: Right. That’s exactly it. My work has always been attached to where I am in my life. When I analyze what I’m producing now, there’s a connection between my work and what I’m experiencing internally. Many people might not have known that before, but there’s definitely a connection between my muse and myself. That comes out in the work. What was hard and almost protective in my work before, it’s become confident and more femininity that I’m allowing myself to play with. And I’m able to experience that myself. I’m able to live in that type of femininity now in my everyday life. It comes out in my work. But there definitely isn’t a lack of the bite! The bite from the initial things you saw from me in season eight, that’s still there, but there’s such a more refined femininity now.
TB: I also read that your mother picked out your new name. How did she come about choosing it?
AS: This was one of the things I’m so thankful for. Not everyone can say that, you know? That once you make a transition, that your parents will rename you. Or even that you have a really good relationship with your parents. My mom has always been supportive. When I was thinking of changing my name, I didn’t want to just keep Andy. It’s kind of a unisex name, but I also wanted to get my mom’s input. So I asked her opinion. I was really asking her to pick a name for me because I think that’s so important — for my mom to feel like she’s definitely a part of my life, even though I’m making these decisions for myself. I wanted her to know that she matters so much as a mother to me, more now than ever before. That’s why I asked her to pick a name for me. As in, if you could name me from the beginning, what would you name me? My mom is Buddhist, and she asked the monks at the temple for their advice on a name for me. It’s almost a very poetic story. They gave her two names rooted in Sanskrit, one of them being “Ari.” Then “Ariyaphon” actually means “the blessing of radiant light.” The way that I spelled it, it means “the power of radiating light.” I don’t think she intended that to be the case, but it’s so synonymous with my role in the community at this point, the role I’ve taken on both as a designer and a public figure and essentially an activist and champion for equal rights.
TB: Finally, who has inspired you since you left the show? Who have you gotten to meet who wowed you?
AS: One person I’m so thankful for meeting is David LaChapelle. I worked with him for a week at his estate in Maui. He was doing a shoot there, and it was just really weird. I mean, I guess not weird. No, weird. [Laughs.] There I was hanging out with David LaChapelle on his farm. He took me on as a costume designer for that shoot, and a friend of mine was the chief stylist. We stayed at the same house that Pamela Anderson and Lady Gaga stay at, and it was surreal to me to think that I was there. He’s been such a huge supporter and provider of encouragement. He’s offered so much insight as to where he is as an artist, plus his take on the fashion industry. I learned that he’s a genuine artist and has the soul of an artist. His work is what he cares about whether or not it was well-received. He helped me reassure myself that I can navigate the road however I want to. It was before my transition, and you could say it encouraged me to make my own path and make my own journey. I don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules; I just have to be happy and content, and everything else falls in order.
Project Runway All Stars premieres tonight at 8/8c on Lifetime.