NEW YORK — Tim Gunn said he was apprehensive about participating in a bite-size version of “Project Runway” featuring teen designers as young as 13.
“I thought,” he recalled in a recent interview, “will I have to soft-pedal my critiques? Is it all going to be watered down? Are they going to be emotional wrecks and very fragile?”
Gunn was pleasantly surprised by the freshman class on “Project Runway Junior,” which premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. And yes, he DOES employ his signature catchphrase: “Make it work!”
The mentor, former educator at the Parsons design school and adult wrangler on the long-running “Project Runway” called the new show’s young contestants lovable, sweet to each other and respectful of the process swirling around them.
That’s saying a lot, considering the age range – 13 to 17 – among the 12 contestants from around the country.
Gunn saw bits of his younger self in them all, as did his co-host, model Hannah Davis, and two of the three judges, Christian Siriano and Kelly Osbourne. Aya Kanai, the executive fashion editor at Cosmopolitan and Seventeen magazines, rounds out the judges’ crew.
“These young people ... are all loners. There’s no one like them who comes home from school and plays with a sewing machine,” Osbourne said. “They’ve been put in a room of their peers, with kids just like them, for the first time in their life.”
“For the boys on the show, you know they were the picked upon, bullied, odd people out in their schools, and yeah, I was that kid,” he said.
The 62-year-old Gunn recalled his own miserable childhood. Growing up in Washington, D.C., he had a debilitating stutter that went untreated until he was 19. It was a time in his life when he was “coming to terms with the importance of being a responsible citizen of the world and not fleeing it, which is what I spent almost the first 20 years of my life doing.”
He saw none of that in the kids on the show.
“Compared to the designers on a regular season of ‘Runway,’ these teens ... accept responsibility for their actions,” Gunn said. “There’s never any factor that comes into their interaction with the judges or with me about why this isn’t going as well as they had wanted it to go, versus regular ‘Runway’ when there’s nothing but excuses.”
The entire cast got a high-level treat. The Dec. 10 episode will feature a video appearance by first lady Michelle Obama to announce a challenge supporting education for girls.
Bella Thorne is a guest judge for the final challenge.
Siriano, Osbourne and Davis didn’t put in the work room time with the kids like Gunn did and were shocked to learn they, like adult ‘Runway’ contestants, had no help, did the work themselves and produced designs quickly, over a span of 10 hours for some challenges.
“It’s almost cooler working with kids than adults because they were figuring it all out along the way,” Davis said.
Siriano added: “We were told to give them real criticism like they would get if they were presenting to an editor or to anyone else in the industry.”
Food TV and other networks have spun off adult competitions into kid versions with mixed results.
“I think kids could just be a big flop,” Gunn said. “There has to be some substance.”
They saw an abundance of that in the youngest contestant, 13-year-old Maya from Maumee, Ohio.
“She’s amazing,” Siriano said. “Everything she makes on the show is unreal.”
Cast through open auditions, the contestants competed for a full scholarship to one of the country’s top design schools, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, and other prizes.
Getting to a winner was gut-wrenching for the judges, considering children are involved. When they got down to the final six, emotions ran extra high, Gunn said.
“The judges and I didn’t want to eliminate anyone at that point and said, ‘Can we just send all six of them forward to the finale? Please? Please!”’
Producers nixed that idea, as they did Gunn’s Plan B of trimming the final six to four by letting the two kids cut leave together, hand in hand.
“With the grown-ups on ‘Runway,”’ Gunn said, “it’s like, ‘Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”’