NEW YORK — Soup or salad for lunch? Heidi Klum ponders the issue as a waiter stands by.
"I'm a Gemini," she notes. "I can never make up my mind." Then she does. Salad.
This would seem to be a rare lapse _ as a judge on "Project Runway" (as well as a co-creator, executive producer and its host), she certainly has no problem rendering a verdict on each design offered by contestants on the show, which returns for its fourth season Wednesday at 10 p.m EST on Bravo.
"I judge clothes from my perspective, and I've been in the business for a long time," says the 34-year-old German-born supermodel/designer/personality/entrepreneur.
"I started in '93 and I've worn a lot of things, from really cheap things to really expensive things. Things that I didn't know which way to get into them _ I had instructions, and two people helped me. Or things so big and overwhelming I can hardly stand in them: `Take the picture, 'cause I'm gonna fall over.' And when I'm not on a runway or in front of a camera, I need conventional clothes too."
As she settles in for lunch with a reporter, she has just come from presiding at a "Project Runway" fashion preview across the street at Lincoln Center. There, the season's 15 contestants were introduced, each presenting several creations while music throbbed and cameras flashed.
Then Klum threw a black satin trenchcoat over her little blue number and made her way through raw weather to the restaurant. She stays bundled up, but in the coat with playful ruffled trim and four-leaf-clover earrings from her own design collection, Klum still radiates style.
"Fashion makes us all individuals," she says, her chattiness flavored by her faint accent and occasionally bumpy syntax. "At the end of the day, maybe it's not all that free of a country. You can't do this, you can't do that" _ her smoker friends can't light up anywhere, it seems _ "but you can wear what you want to wear."
"Well, you can't go naked," she acknowledges.
This "Project Runway" season was shot in Manhattan last May during a marathon of design challenges, runway judgings and systematic banishment of 12 contestants. Ever since, all 15 contestants have been living with the secret of who's already out.
The season will conclude with the three finalists showing their designs during New York Fashion Week in February. Klum and her fellow judges, designer Michael Kors and Elle magazine fashion director Nina Garcia, will choose the winner, who gets $100,000 to start a fashion line.
"Project Runway" turns fashion's creative process into a high-stakes competition, waged under pressure-cooker conditions and unfolding in plain sight under the guidance of fashion guru Tim Gunn, whose by-now-famous catch phrase exhorts the contestants to "make it work."
Obviously, the concept for the show is inspired. But Klum says some serious tweaking was required to make THAT work. One early idea called for the contestants to find ordinary people to model their creations for the judges.
"We thought of having them run around and ask people on the street, `Hey, do you want to participate in this fashion show we're doing?'"
And, Klum adds, initially she didn't mean to be host. Not until Bravo asked.
What did it matter, she figured _ one more thing for her to do? "I NEED to be doing different things," she declares. "I'm ALWAYS on the next thing already."
But everything isn't devoted to career. Klum makes it clear that her favorite roles reside in her private life: as wife (to the pop star Seal) and mother (to their two young sons and a daughter by former boyfriend Flavio Briatore).
A couple of days earlier, she and Seal had flown to New York from their Los Angeles home. But with TV writers on strike, her packed publicity schedule has been trimmed by one item: taping an appearance that afternoon on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien."
"I was like, `OK, "Conan" is not happening? Get me on an earlier flight!' My husband's still here, but I'm gonna go home and see the children. Usually, we don't leave them behind. When I did `Project Runway' we all moved to New York for five weeks."
Now, with the new season finally reaching the air, Klum can't help but marvel at her series' enduring success.
"We had no idea what we were gonna fall into when we started," she says. "But I go really open into things. I always try. We're here, we might as well make the most out of it. And that's what I tell the contestants: `This is your chance to show yourself. Show your talent to everybody. Do it!'"
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org