‘Project Runway’ Season 1 Designer Wendy Pepper Dies At 53: How Reality Star Made Show A Success

Wendy Pepper, who starred on the inaugural season of Project Runway, is dead at the age of 53. Pepper was the designer that you loved to hate, making the show an instant success for all fashionistas.

According to her Washington Post obituary, Pepper died “peacefully” on November 12, with “her loving family surrounding her.” A creative individual, she was a “chef, writer, and life-long entrepreneur.” No cause of death was reported.

Born Anne Eustis Pepper, she serendipitously got into fashion design when she was living in Nepal. In an interview with Lifetime, Pepper explained that she was learning how to dye yarn. Mesmerized, she soon found herself draping fabric and creating designs.

“I realized I was a designer when I was living in Nepal. Dyeing some yarn, I suddenly turned to these people that I was living with and I started to drape the yarn. ‘Oh my gosh, this is so much fun, I am creating this whole sort of experience with these women.'”

It was when she was in Nepal that Wendy Pepper had an epiphany that changed the direction of her life.

“That’s when I knew this was my life’s work.”

What may have started as a spiritual awakening to her life’s purpose became quite a catfight when Pepper signed onto the a new fashion reality show.

When Project Runway emerged in 2004, no one knew what to expect, but Wendy Pepper was always in the midst of the drama that entire season.

The oldest designer of the 12 competing on the new Bravo reality show, Pepper was cast as the mom designer. Unlike some of the other perhaps more hip designers who stood out with their personal fashion style, Pepper was chided by other designers for looking too plain and not even putting on some lipstick. She wore dark-rimmed glasses, and let the hair around her temples grow grey. She looked more like a PTA mom than the next great fashion designer.

On one episode, Kara Saun gave her a makeover and she looked great, but Wendy made it clear to the confessional, and to the other designers, that this was a competition and she was playing this game to further her fashion career.

Yet, she found a lot of success on the show, to the chagrin of other designers that believed themselves more fashion forward, thus more deserving to win Project Runway.

Model Melissa Haro models a gown from Wendy Pepper's Project Runway Season 1 finale collections. [Image by Mark Mainz/Getty Images]
Model Melissa Haro models a gown from Wendy Pepper's Project Runway Season 1 finale collections. [Image by Mark Mainz/Getty Images]

Perhaps the saddest drama was the destruction of a photo of Wendy’s daughter Finley. Someone had blacked out the face on the photo of Wendy’s only child, sending the bullied designer into fits of tears, and despite Tim Gunn attempting to get to the bottom of the situation, no one came forth confessing their guilt.

Yet, Wendy prevailed.

The designer won a Banana Republic challenge and later, won a challenge to dress Nancy O’Dell for Grammy red carpet reporting. The later, a short, orange number was fun and flirty and sent her to Bryant Park, while the former was a classic navy cocktail dress, with a caplet that sold out in a few hours.

When Jay McCarroll, Kara Saun and Wendy Pepper prepared to go to the finale, Jay was surprised at how much he liked Wendy’s daughter Finley. It was also discovered then that Wendy Pepper designed clothes for a lot of Washington D.C’s elite.

What shocked many Project Runway viewers that were against Wendy Pepper was that Kara Saun had a designer friend make shoes for her finale collection, while Uproxx reported that Wendy and Jay had to buy $5 shoes for their collections. When confronted by Tim Gunn, Kara Saun gave the value of the bespoke shoes as $5 each, casting a shadow on her reputation.

Seven years later, the D.C. based designer surprised naysayers when she appeared on Project Runway All Stars Season 2. The shocker was that the other All Stars realized she was actually really nice, not the villain that was portrayed on the first season.

Although Wendy was knocked out of the competition in the second week, her reputation improved tremendously.

On their Facebook show page, Project Runway made a statement about the Season 1 villain of the show.

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of another member of the Project Runway family, designer Wendy Pepper, this year. Wendy was one of the original designers that sent creations down the catwalk, paving the way for other designers to come. We wish her family and friends peace during this difficult time.”

This is the second loss in two months. Last month, Mychael Knight, Project Runway Season 3 designer, passed away, at age 39.

[Featured Image by Mark Mainz/Getty Images]