“Project Runway” Designer Michael Costello Comes Clean About Those Rumors

Project Runway season eight finalist Michael Costello says he has no idea how the rumor started.

He’s not talking about the rumor that he dissed one of his fellow-designers to an audience invited to vote on their designs. (Not true, he says.) And not the one that he doesn’t know how to sew, either. (Also not true.)

No, what he can’t figure out is where anyone got the idea he’s straight.

Even though his official Lifetime website bio clearly says he’s gay, for some reason he wasn’t included in the “Team Gay” roster provided to AfterElton.com when the casting lineup for the show’s eighth season was announced. A quick Google search on “Is Michael Costello gay?” turns up a number of places where fans firmly identify him as straight – some based on this site’s exclusion of him from “Team Gay” – and others where they debate the issue based on things like his friendship with the show’s very out Mondo Guerra, or even his mannerisms.

“Maybe it’s because I’m kind of a ’Michael Kors gay,'” Michael speculated to AfterElton.com, referring to the out designer and Project Runway judge. “You know, I wear t-shirts and jeans. But I make dresses. I use hand gestures. I’ve always liked boys. Look up ’gay’ in the dictionary, and my picture’s right there. What more do they want?”

There’s also the fact that he used to be married to a woman and has two kids. “I come from a culture that believes in arranged marriages, so I was married when I was 18,” Michael, who is 27 years old, said. “We had two children, a boy and a girl, thirteen months apart.”

Michael with his son

His son lives with Michael and his partner of 7 years, Rich. His daughter lives in Texas with her mother, who, he said, has remarried into “a really difficult culture, and doesn’t even call to wish our son a happy birthday or merry Christmas. And they don’t want me to call my daughter, or let me know where they live. I send presents and get updates through her grandmother, but it’s really sad. It breaks my heart.”

Now that he’s cleared those straight rumors up, what about the “everyone hates Michael C and he can’t sew” stuff?

He sighs. “I don’t really know what happened,” he said of the way most of the cast turned on him at one point. “I was never a jerk to anyone there, and if I was, I would say I was sorry.”

What started out as mumbling from his fellow designers that he didn’t have the technical skills to compete at their level turned into an all-out and particularly nasty under-bus throwing during the group challenge.

The infamous group challenge

His team blamed him for their loss, a perspective the judges didn’t share. They pegged Gretchen Jones as the problem. Even Tim Gunn, who rarely has anything bad to say about anyone, called her behavior during that challenge “manipulative and bullying.”

And during a challenge where members of the general public were invited to vote on the designs, Ivy Higa accused him of telling the audience not to vote for her because she was “the bitch of the show.”

Michael and Ivy Higa

“I thought Gretchen was a friend,” Michael said. “And I thought Ivy was a friend, too, if you can believe that. You never know what people are saying about you behind your back, but you find out when you watch the show.”

At one point, Gretchen tells the camera that Michael is “either an idiot or an idiot savant,” implying that he doesn’t know what he’s doing but sometimes falls into something brilliant or at least, something that wins.

“I cried at her comment,” said Michael, who is not formally trained in design. “I told Rich, you just don’t know how close you get to each other as the challenges go on, and you get down in numbers. I was excruciatingly shocked when I heard that from Gretchen, and April (Johnston) saying I’d just thrown another dress together. I mean, is all this really because I didn’t go to Parsons or FIDM?”

Michael with fellow contestant Mondo Guerra

Michael, who has so far won the same number of challenges as Gretchen, who is still “in,” and won more than April, who is “out,” said he’s managed to patch things up with the two of them. But the closest friend he made on the show was its breakout star, Mondo Guerra.

“I said something on the show once, that if I didn’t click with Mondo, things would have been very different for me,” he said.

The two aren’t just friends; they’re a mutual admiration society, and Michael recently flew out to Denver to help Mondo co-host a benefit for the Colorado AIDS Project and Rainbow Alley, a center for queer youth.

At first, Mondo went along with the crowd when it came to Michael. All that changed when the two were paired in a challenge where the designers had to sew each other’s designs instead of their own. Mondo wasn’t shy about telling the camera he was pissed at being teamed with Michael, who didn’t even own a ruler or use patterns in his designs. And Mondo, who is technically proficient and detail-oriented to the point of obsession, was worried that Michael wouldn’t be able to execute his design well.

But Mondo and Michael turned out to be an exceptional team, and even though this challenge marked the only time Mondo ended up in the bottom three, he made it clear to the judges that it had nothing to do with Michael’s skills, but his own design limitations – it was a resort wear challenge, and Mondo had never been to a resort in his life.

Mondo’s support made all the difference for Michael. “Mondo totally validated my sewing skills and my abilities,” he said. “He out of the entire cast is a complete visionary, and his capabilities are by far most impressive out of all of us. For me to get paired with him and be able to make his creation and put it together the way he liked really validated me. Now no one can talk crap about Michael and that he can’t sew no more.”

What had been a pretty uncomfortable situation for Michael changed after that. “That challenge took a lot of pressure away, and opened a door for a lot of the designers to be nice to me,” he said.

Their friendship, though, goes beyond gratitude. “Mondo is one of the most inspirational people in the world to me,” he said, referring to how the designer handled the revelation of his HIV status while on the show. “Everything that transpired on the show, and everything he’s been through, are moving, and I hope people can use him as a great example of how life can go on in the face of all kinds of challenges.”

Mondo’s support was important to Michael for another reason: he’d come to rely on his partner, Rich, to keep him grounded, and being alone and cut off from that support system was painful. “Rich is my protector,” he said. “He makes sure people know my time is valuable, and helps me see what’s important and what’s not, and when people might be trying to take advantage of me. Sometimes I can’t see those things until they’re over.”
The two met at a bar in Palm Springs, where they still live. “He passed by and said, ’Yum,'” Michael said. “I was with an ex, and I commented to him, ’That guy’s way out of my league.’ And my ex said, ’Yeah, he is.'” He laughed. “So I went up to Rich and said, did you just say ’yum’ to me? And he said yes.”

They went out for the first time three days later. “Until Rich, I was always the guy who would open the door for someone, or buy the first gift in the relationship – that kind of guy,” he said. “This was the first time anyone ever really swept me off my feet. It was very, very romantic.”

Michael C survived all the eighth season challenges, and is one of the four designers to compete with his collection at Fashion Week. (The others were Gretchen and fellow Team Gay members Mondo and Andy South.)

“My collection was inspired by romance and elegance,” he said. “It was very dear to me. I worked on it night and day, and wanted to show what I can do with more than a couple of days to produce something. And I was blown away with how it all turned out. To date, showing that collection has been the pinnacle of my career.”

Part 1 of the Project Runway Season 8 finale airs Thursday at 9 pm EST on Lifetime.