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April in New York
SCAD fashion grad April Johnston is a contestant on TV's 'Project Runway'
Left: From April Johnston's SCAD senior collection. At right, hard at work on 'Project Runway.'

On May 29, April Johnston was literally in the middle of her SCAD graduation ceremony when her cell phone rang. She’d been accepted as a contestant on TV’s Project Runway.

After four years in the school’s fashion design program, the 21–year–old native of Mooresville, N.C. was ready to take her sartorial skills to the next level. What better way than TV? Lifetime’s longrunning high–fashion reality show had actually approached Johnston, after discovering her website, and after a round of interviews and auditions she was in.

Soon she was off to New York City, one of 17 contestants trying to impress Tim Gunn, Heidi Klum and a three–person panel of fashion designers and experts over a six–week course of fashion–creation challenges.

The 90–minute season premiere of Project Runway, Season Eight, aired on July 29. We’re happy to report that Johnston survived the first cut — although it was touch–and–go there for a while — and will be back for the second episode, airing Aug. 5 at 9 p.m.

After that ... well, Johnston is contractually forbidden from telling us how things ultimately turn out (the entire series has already been taped).

Anyway, that’s part of the fun of reality TV, isn’t it?

Is it as tense as it looks on TV?

April Johnston: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. It’s the hardest experience I’ve ever been through. It’s definitely as intense as it is on TV, if not more intense being there. Our expressions are very honest. I think if you were put in the situation, and saw how we were at all times, beyond the hour and a half that they pack in there to try to show everybody, you’d really see that it’s really that intense.

You’re all trying to be friends, but at the same time are you looking over your shoulder going “I hope they flame out”?

April Johnston: I was one of the contestants that wasn’t really like “I’m gonna beat you.” Like on the first show Nicholas said “Get ready to be beat by me!’ to Peach. I wasn’t really aggressive like that, and I don’t think that I need to be. I just do what I need to do. But I definitely knew some people weren’t going to make it in the competition, you know?

When Tim Gunn comes into the room, do you stiffen up because the camera is swinging over to you? That’s the impression you get from watching it.

April Johnston: When Tim walks in, I automatically start thinking like “It’s going to be good, it’s going to be bad, or it’s going to be mediocre.” Those are your three options. So what’s it gonna be this time?

It’s definitely nerve–wracking because you don’t know what Tim’s going to think. I definitely respect his opinion, and I’ve told him that numerous times. He’s someone I look up to; he’s a really great guy and a really good mentor.

You know, Tim can only say so much because he’s around all of us, all the time. And in the end it has to be our vision; he can’t tell us what to do.

I like to voice my opinions about what I think is wrong or right with my design, and then see how he reacts to that. Because that’s kind of the way I have to interact with him.

On the first episode, you were all charged with taking an item of clothing from another contestant, and given five hours to “make something new” out of it. How awful was that?

April Johnston: The thing is, I just graduated from SCAD, and they teach you to do it the right way. And if you don’t, you’re in trouble. And that’s the way it should be.

So going into this competition, my weakness was my strength – and that’s being able to make something beautiful. And made really well, well–constructed.

I want to make sure that I do everything the right way – and that’s what kind of screwed me over. Because I got so invested in “How am I gonna do this right?”

I tried to do what I had to do in that amount of time. This whole process was new to me. I didn’t have tools that I needed. And it was crazy in there. It was just so fast, I lost myself.

You were in the bottom six in the first challenge, and the judges complained that your hems weren’t completely finished. What’s that moment like when you’re standing there, facing all those people judging your work? How do you not burst into tears when somebody criticizes you harshly?

April Johnston: I think SCAD also did a good job of preparing me for that. I was around critiques and critics for the past four years; in my senior year, I went back and forth with my mentor, discussing what would be good or bad. So I was critiqued heavily for the past four years

I didn’t realize before that a lot of the things they say are not just critiques, they’re kind of insulting. You just have to keep your composure.

That whole time, in the bottom six, were you thinking “That’s it. I’m out.”

April Johnston: There were things that I saw in the bottom that I didn’t think should be in the bottom. There were people that were in the bottom that I thought should go home, that didn’t go home. My opinions – and a lot of the world’s opinions, when people watch this – are different from the judges.’

Explain your fashion vision. Your stuff is very dark.

April Johnston: You know how you have a fantasy, or things that kinda tickle your curiosity? That’s my curiosity, why people suffer from crazy psychotic disorders. That’s all fascinating to me. And also the dark things, like morgues and asylums and why people are there. Why they think the way they do. I want to capture this kind of distorted reality and bring some beauty to it. I just want to bring this beauty to darkness, and embrace it.

  A lot of my inspiration comes from nightmares that I have, and the stories that are in my nightmares. And then I bring that nightmare to a collection, or a look.

But it still has to be fashionable, doesn’t it? Something somebody would want to wear? You can’t have everybody looking like the cast of Sweeney Todd.

April Johnston: It’s all about detail. My senior collection was a little over the top, a little more one-of-a kind and less everyday wearable. But in some instances I can get away with making a red carpet look out of this kind of inspiration. Or I could do it very ready-to-wear.

It’s all about editing. And that’s a big word that I learned from Tim Gunn, to edit myself. I do a good job of that. And then being able to make things more marketable and wearable.