“I’m the luckiest man on earth,” says Tim Gunn about his role as mentor to the designers on the Bravo hit Project Runway. With his brutally honest critiques and memorable catchphrases (“Make it work!”), the silver-haired design guru, 52, has become one of the show’s breakout stars. PEOPLE caught up with the Washington, D.C., native – who’s chair of the department of fashion design at Parsons in New York City – about his own toughest critic and who shouldn’t walk away a winner in the show’s March 8 finale.
This year Project Runway has made you a celebrity in your own right.
I will say there’s a big difference between season one and season two – I’ve had more people coming up to me on the street and talking to me. It makes me think more than twice about going out to get the paper on a Saturday morning when I haven’t shaved.
When fans approach you, do they say your catchphrases, "Make it work" and "Carry on"?
Yes, and they want me to say it! (Laughs)
How does your family feel about all of this?
My sister and brother-in-law and niece and nephew are utterly titillated by the whole thing. My mother continues to remind me that these are my 15 minutes and the clock is ticking!
Who do you think should win?
I really believe in the quality of what Chloe, Daniel and Santino have done and in the powerfulness of their point of view. Those things to me are equal, so it really does become a matter of taste to the judges.
But if you were in the judging seat, whom would you pick?
Can I be really honest with you? I would not choose Santino in spite of the fact that I think his collection is phenomenal, because if you put him next to season one’s winner, Jay McCarroll, Project Runway looks like a freak show. With Chloe, one can say she’s already achieved a good amount of success, and that Daniel and Santino would benefit more from this. I feel very conflicted about it. I can see debating for and against all three of them.
What is Santino really like?
He is a very complex character. When I went to Los Angeles to visit him in mid-December, that Santino was a dark and brooding guy. There was a sadness to him. I wanted to cradle him in my arms, and at the same time I wanted to weep for him. I feel kind of weepy now talking about it.
What do you think of his impersonation of you?
I think he’s brilliant! There have been shows when I hear my voice off-camera and I think, “Is that really me, or is that Santino?”
How do you always keep your Zen-like cool on the show?
It’s so much like the way in which I interact with the Parsons students. The closest I came to really losing it and wanting to take the scissors away from her and start working on it myself was with Marla and the Nicky Hilton dress. I said, “How can you look at me and say this isn’t the same dress?” I thought she was really losing it.
Do your students behave differently toward you now that you’re a TV star?
It used to be that when I would go into one of the studios with my furrowed brow and my glare and I would say to them, “All right everybody, I need you to gather around,” they’d look trepidatious. Now when I go in, they start to laugh. It’s sort of like, “You’re just being that funny man on Project Runway.”