The controversial champ applauds the second-place designer for staying true to himself

By Kate Hogan
Updated October 29, 2010 06:10 PM
Barbara Nitke/Lifetime

Although two of the four judges argued against her collection on Thursday’s heated season finale of Project Runway, winner Gretchen Jones isn’t offended.

“At that point, I was just pretty elated that I even got to present on national TV,” she tells PEOPLE. “I feel proud that Michael Kors and Nina Garcia fought for me and could see my potential. They’re both huge industry leaders, and it means a lot to me.”

Kors and Garcia went head-to-head with host Heidi Klum and guest judge Jessica Simpson, both of whom fought hard for fan favorite Mondo Guerra, who presented a youthful, colorful runway show. “His collection was really true to Mondo,” Jones says. “It really showed his potential as a designer, and I’m proud of him for staying true to himself, because that is more important than anything else. He’s going to go far.”

Jones, an early favorite, was somewhat vilified as the season went on, and at times, saw her fellow designers turn against her. “I knew there was a risk . . . you can be portrayed however the producers care to do it. It’s TV – we all need an antagonist, an underdog, in order to fulfill our desire to watch.”

And even though the results of one group challenge prompted normally mellow mentor Tim Gunn to call Jones a “bully,” she takes the bad press in stride. “It hurt my feelings, but in a way it helped me to have more exposure, because I was talked about, whether you liked me or not,” she says. “I know in my heart I’m a good person.”

With the Season 8 win under her stylish belt, Jones plans to move to New York City soon to “move forward with the opportunity that will hopefully present itself,” she says. “I’d love to get a mentorship with someone the likes of Michael Kors, someone that can guide me into being the designer I want to be.”

The move will also allow her to leave a tough recent past behind, one that included an empty bank account and broken relationship.

“I’ve really embraced this transitional time. Having a true ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ moment is not something many people get,” she says. “I don’t have anything holding me back, and in actuality, that is a luxury. It’ll make me a brighter version of myself, and that will translate into my future designs.”