When she first appeared on "Project Runway" in season eight, Ari South went by a different name and embodied a different identity -- one that still carries the name of her brand: Andy South.
Now, three years later, this design powerhouse is living as a transgender woman and fashion designer and paving uncharted territory for transgender people both within -- and outside -- the fashion world.
Tonight, October 24th, she returns to the small screen for "Project Runway All Stars," which premieres at 9:00 p.m ET on Lifetime.
The Huffington Post caught up with South last week to talk about her journey since season eight, both personally and professionally, transgender visibility within the fashion industry and what she hopes her return to the show will contribute to a larger conversation surrounding transgender identity.
The Huffington Post: What was it was like for you to come out as transgender in the fashion world after you had become a household name following season eight of “Project Runway”?
Ari South: There were a lot of questions that I had to think about before I made the decision to make it public. But I think, fortunately, the fashion industry is so welcoming of people who fall in very different points of this grey area in the LGBT community. It hasn’t been as bad as it could have been and I’m also based in Hawaii and generally I feel a lot more comfortable to be here -– it’s part of the culture and the respect is upheld. The main question for me, though, was because I had already started the business and already started the line and people were following me as Andy South, as a male, I did consider that I could possibly lose a few fans -- or many. But I think what has really been the outcome is my fans have banded together and shown full support because I am much more than just a fashion designer at this point. I am also much more than just a business owner and it’s almost as if my role as a role model has become a part of my purpose here and my role in general. So it’s been really, really great to see people’s reactions and minds being changed and hearts being opened up to things that they never knew about before -- which I think is the most gratifying thing I could ever ask to come out of this.
In the past we’ve seen a few examples of transgender models come out but not necessarily transgender fashion designers.
I think there are other transgender role models and people who are actually making their careers happen in the form that they want to and really living their lives and pursuing their dreams as who they are, like Laverne Cox in “Orange Is The New Black” and Carmen Carrera with the showgirls. It’s such a great movement that I feel is necessary -– I think it is going to help people to welcome it and to accept it and for people to also feel confident that they can actually achieve something that maybe they didn’t believe could ever happen for them before because opportunities were always limited and acceptance wasn’t always there. You know, we still have a long way to go as a community but it’s on the right path. So I’m actually really excited to start seeing more transgender individuals come forward and really take their talents and not so much be focused on the fact they they’re transgender but the fact that they are gifted, great people and doing great things in the world because we exist. That’s really what I’m most proud of when I see my other transgender colleagues, actors and models all doing this. But I think it also was, for me, much more of a question that I asked myself -- if I was ready to come back as something physically different than what the world has seen before. Because I don’t think that has happened very often or at all in the past in the way that it has for me.
You previously stated that you started your transition prior to your initial appearance on season eight and then you decided to stop before the competition. Why did you decide to stop your transition and how did it personally affect you throughout the competition?
I stopped probably a month before I was cast, so I didn’t stop intentionally just because I knew I was going to New York to compete –- it was a series of events that happened in my life. A lot of things changed very quickly for me and in my personal place at that time. I think I felt like I had jumped into it and hadn’t really thought about everything completely the way that I thought I had. I honestly was very scared at that point because I thought I had done something that I shouldn’t have done and I was actually at the time very upset about it. I honestly regretted it at the time because I thought that was one thing I felt like I shouldn’t have done because I had gone back and tried to reverse everything that I did and I couldn’t completely reverse everything. And I kind of just let it sit and then the show came up. It was almost a way for me to really focus on the things that I really want people to know about me, which are my talent, my drive and my ability to form something as great as my company has now become. When I came home, the reason why I decided to go through with it after “Project Runway” was that there was something missing and I think it took that time for me to kind of reverse and move back into really thinking and being sure that this was right for me. After the show, having all the great success and being received very well and having really great opportunities coming up for my career, something was still missing. When I looked in the mirror I would see myself as Ari again and I would get glimpses of things my subconscious was telling me. I needed to go back to considering and really deal with this before I could move on with the rest of my life. So, whether that meant putting it to rest and not doing it or realizing that it’s something I had to do –- that’s what that was. It was a realization as to what I needed to do for me to be completely happy internally so I could maximize what I could do externally surrounding my personal choices and gender identity. That’s really the long-story explanation of what that is.
As you’ve been embarking on this transformative process, would you say that your designs or work have changed in any way?
Everything started to make sense on a personal basis and also professionally. Even with my design work, I knew going back for the finale that my work would either be received very well if people got it or it would have been seen as very different from what I did at the beginning of the season. The entire season was a huge growing period for me and that growing also included my realizing what I had to do. I kind of put it off until about a year after but it started to unfold before. Something that a friend pointed out to me recently was that you could kind of see it even throughout season eight with the changing of my image on the show. In the beginning I know that I was much more concerned about not ruining my chances to go far –- and that’s what I realized I was doing. I was limiting expression to protect my chances of getting far in the competition because I thought it could have caused me to go home early for whatever reason –- I had it in my mind that it just wasn’t going to be possible to do this in the middle of a show, it was too much. So you can kind of see it, even in my work and also my personal appearance throughout the season. Also, postseason, where I was blonde for a few months at one point and that was actually right before I started my transition. So you can kind of see the undertones and the foreshadowing of myself realizing who I really am and accepting it –- that’s what it really was for me. I had to accept that about myself before I could go forward with this change because I knew I was being watched still. So it has definitely come out in my work and I think now at this point my work is a very good blend of what people have seen in the beginning of season eight to what they saw at the end. I’ve been able to make the two sides of me work together -- finally -- which is this ultra-feminine but also with a certain bite that still is coming from the Andy South in me. It’s like everything slowly started to fall into place when I made the decision to live my life for me and just create from my gut and my soul. I realized that the Andy South woman that I was designing for was, in fact, me internally. I always refer to the Andy South woman as the warrior woman and it’s almost poetic in a sense that it’s unfolded that way.
What is the hardest part of being on “Project Runway” that some one who is watching the show from home might not be aware of?
Time constraints. We’re doing so much in so little time that sometimes we wonder how the heck we got to the point that we got to where we’re on the runway and we just got the challenge the previous day. We accomplish a lot when we’re under time constraints like that and I think that is probably the toughest thing and it comes with a lack of rest. But it’s almost like we’ve been trained for that already by going through the seasons prior. Going back, it was almost like it was second nature –- our bodies naturally did not sleep as much as we needed to. We went into “Project Runway” mode, which is kind of interesting that now we have that switch within us to go into that work mode –- which I’m sure we all use now, having our own businesses. [laughs]
Is there a specific outfit from season eight that you’re most proud of?
I think many people would expect me to say that ribbon dress from episode three, but I think I am most proud of that pleated dress I did for the finale -– that eleventh look. I think that was right when I was starting to hit my stride with that particular collection. The unfortunate thing is that it came in the eleventh look, where I think if I had more time I would have probably changed a lot of things with the pieces I had done previously. As a creative, I think you hit a stride when you’re working on a project and it comes when it comes -– you have no control over it. I felt like that eleventh look was me hitting that stride and getting that momentum. I’m absolutely proud of that piece –- I think it speaks to who I am as a creative and how I work. It’s one of those pieces that I went into without a plan. Even now, the best pieces in my collection are the pieces that I just take fabric to the form and scissors with no plan or no ideas as to whether it’s going to be a dress, a top, pants –- I just create and it’s really the most honest and the most genuine place that a person can create from because there’s no thought.
How does it feel to be coming back to the show after all of this time? Is there anything that you plan on doing differently?
It feels good. [Laughs] It definitely feels very good because I think I’m in a place where I’m so comfortable with myself both as myself and also my design capabilities and what my true voice is now as a designer. You know, I’ve come to terms with my identity and myself but I’ve also learned and really solidified who Andy South is and what Andy South looks like in terms of clothing. I’ve always thought, watching the previous two [all-stars] seasons, about how some designers went back immediately following their first season –- I thought about that because, of course, all of us are talking and trying to figure out who got invited, who was in the pool to get selected. [Laughs] My honest opinion about it was, at first, of course, you want to be one of the people who is honored to be asked back. But my thoughts behind it were that I wanted to go back after having some time to really develop as a designer –- I didn’t want to go back right after season eight. I wanted to go back bigger, badder, stronger to win. My intention was and always has been to be the last one at the end. That’s really the most exciting thing about going back, but I’m also going back because I think the only people who know about my personal decisions are my fans and now the rest of the world can finally learn my story and take from it what they can.
Do you feel any apprehension or nervousness about doing this "All Stars" season? People say that as a trans person you are forced to come out over and over again across the course of your life and this would certainly be a large-scale, high-visibility opportunity for you to come out.
Well, let’s hope this is the one big coming out that will squash the many others that would have to take place. [Laughs] I’m excited, I definitely thought about that before I went back, to make sure that I was ready for the feedback -– because the feedback can be many things and we have yet to find out what that will be with the general public. But so far it’s been much more positive than any negative. Honestly, it’s an honor -– I saw it as an honor to be invited back. And it wasn’t about going back and being that trans role model, but it was about being someone from the community that was represented in the context of a competition like “Project Runway,” which I feel needs to happen. We have Isis from "America’s Next Top Model" -– my goal with going back was to conquer that fear of being completely open. My fans know that I choose to live publicly and live visibly because I want people to know that it’s okay to be who you are and that’s not going to determine how far you go. And that’s really the only reason why I choose to live visibly, in a sense. It’s not that I want to always be “Andy South, Ari South: the trans designer from ‘Project Runway.’” It may be that way for the first few weeks or so but it’s immediately going to go back to the reason why I’m there. And I think that’s very important for everyone to see because I don’t want to be the talk of the town just because I’m trans going back. It’s definitely a great lead-in to the rest of the story and the rest of me and the rest of what the world can learn from it. I’m hoping that it will squash all of those coming outs and it will lead to other in-depth interviews with people who have an outlet where I am able to share what I’m doing. I’m not doing just little things, I’m building a great company and changing the industry here in Hawaii. I’m focused on bigger things that are more world-wide, like jumping on that movement to bring production back to the U.S. That’s really at the core of what I’m trying to do, and then all around that you have all this other stuff with my coming out story and everything else with the “Project Runway” journey. Who knows what the future holds? But it’s a lot of great things, and I’m hoping it will at least be an attention grabber and they’ll stay for the rest of the show.
"Project Runway All Stars" will premiere on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime. Head here for more info.