When Chloe Dao was named the winner of Project Runway, no one seemed more surprised than her. After all, the Laos-born, Houston-based designer had done solid work throughout the second season of the Bravo reality show, but fellow finalist Santino Rice created more drama and runner-up Daniel Vosovic won more challenges. Yet the judges loved Dao’s woman-friendly designs and awarded her a prize that includes $100,000 in seed money for her own fashion line. Dao, 34, spoke to PEOPLE.com about her fashion “baby” and her “amazing” boyfriend.
You seemed shocked when the other designers said you had no passion.
I know! What I said about not wanting to make it big, I don’t think they understood that I meant, “Do I want to be the next Vera Wang or Ralph Lauren?” Because I know what it takes to be at that level. Those people were around for 15 to 20 years or longer before they reached any level of status. That was what I was referring to, not “Do I want to win Project Runway?” I felt backstabbed, but I’m over it.
What was your favorite challenge?
I guess the “clothes off your back” challenge (where the designers had to create a new garment from what they were wearing), not because I won or anything – although of course that helps! But I thought it was a really difficult challenge, and even I was impressed with what I made, based on how little clothing I had!
Did you ever try to imitate Tim Gunn? Or Heidi Klum?
The producers made me (imitate Heidi) for the promos, but I was horrible so obviously it wasn’t shown! An Asian accent and a Texan accent mixed together to try to do a German accent is just not good!
How was your health during the show?
I don’t think people realized how little sleep we got. I don’t know how I did it, because usually I need 12 hours of sleep. I think it was just adrenaline.
Do your sisters work in fashion?
My sister Sydney works in public relations and she’s my business partner. The rest of the family is my free labor that I force to join me every weekend! Like it or not they are forced to work in the fashion industry in my garage! My (Houston-area) store is called Lot 8 because there are eight girls in the family. I am No. 6 out of eight girls. We had a lot of clothes to share.
How did it feel to watch your models on the runway at Fashion Week?
Honestly, we had almost three days of no sleep, so it was more like, “Thank God!” It really felt like I had a baby! At the end of the day, I was so happy with my collection I really didn’t care how anyone else received it.
Your boyfriend was at your Fashion Week show. How did you meet him?
I actually met him online! I was like, “Girl, I’m single, I better look at my love life.” So I did a search and I found him. His name is Kenneth Pursley – he does loans and mortgages and titles. We met 11 days before I found out I’d made the show. He waited around and I waited around for him – I was surrounded by gay guys so of course I had to wait for him anyway! He’s been amazing. He’s, like, my first real boyfriend ever because I’ve been so hardcore about my business. It’s been nine months!