Warwickshire housewife Viv Whelan got to live the designer dream when she made it to the finals of Project Catwalk. She tells Alison Jones how she survived in the cut-throat world of telly couture.
The dust has settled and the scissors have been sheathed, until next year. Another series of Sky's Project Catwalk is over and once again a Midlands designer was in it to the bitter end, pitting her collection against the best there was to offer at London Fashion Week.
Viv Whelan's achievement was all the more impressive given that the Warwickshire housewife has no formal training and relied solely on what she'd learnt making evening dresses for herself to attend black tie dinners with her banker husband.
"When I got on the programme I thought it would be with people who had design training and I'd be out the first week," recalls Viv.
But the 43-year-old turned out to be more creative than she'd given herself credit for, hanging in there until the final three and the design-an-entire-collection face off. In last year's series this saw Walsall-born designer Wayne Aveline emerge victorious.
"I didn't win," Viv says hastily. "In some ways it was quite a relief not too because I have no formal training in the industry and I think I would have been the most hated woman in Britain if I'd won."
Well perhaps not the most hated but there probably would have been catwalk claws unsheathed at the thought of Viv being given the chance to design her own range for Oli, a spread in Grazia magazine and £25,000, without paying her fashion dues first.
"I wouldn't have been prepared for what winning would have brought me so I am quite happy with how I finished."
She is a a few thousand pounds richer after coming third and says she plans to continue designing and making clothes but is also thinking about getting more involved with charity fashion events and maybe giving talks to ladies who lunch about her television experiences.
"I can talk for England," says Viv. "I am a people person and the idea of sitting in a darkened room behind a sewing machine for the rest of my life doesn't inspire me."
It was Viv's gift of the gab combined with a bit of northern grit in the face of adversity and design disasters that got her through the auditions for the series.
The tutor on a millinery course she was doing at mid-Warwickshire college suggested she enter after seeing an advert for the show in a trade magazine.
Apart from hat-making, up until then Viv's experience of clothes making had been limited to creations she made for herself.
"When I was a youngster I used to watch my grandma. She came from the generation of people who made their own clothes and I used to watch her cutting patterns out and making things and adjusting them to fit.
"I didn't pursue it because I thought 'I know how to sew'. So when everybody else was off doing domestic science I was doing art.
"In the last few years with my husband's job (husband Andrew is the regional director of the Bank of Ireland) we go to a lot of black tie functions. I can't always find what I want that fits because I am bigger at top than the bottom.
"I made a maternity evening dress a few years ago because at that time there wasn't anything around like that."
During the competition (which was filmed last year) all the participants live together, away from family and friends. They have to tackle a design challenge every week and one by one the judges, including Ben de Lisi, the show's presenter Kelly Osbourne, and celebrity guests such as Zandra Rhodes, Sophie Ellis Bextor and Nancy Dell'Olio, vote them out.
There were various audition hoops that the hopeful competitors had to go through including making garments against the clock and having to see a psychologist, before they got on the show.
"I think it was to make sure you understood the implications doing a realty television programme," says Viv. "At least you knew there weren't going to be any potential madmen in the house.
"Somebody described us as being like Fraggle Rock, I think I was probably the most normal looking person in there."
Viv was also the oldest in the house. Although her life and business experience were vastly different from the majority of the rest of those chosen she said they got on well, for the first few weeks at least.
"With 13 people living together it is all very exciting, all very new. As numbers dwindled it did get harder. You felt so completely isolated you would form friendships with the people there but whether you would choose to be friends with them in every day life is arguable."
The competitors were also encouraged to privately critique each other to camera, the back-biting only revealed when the show was aired.
"There have been comments people have made about me and my work which haven't necessarily been enjoyable to watch and they weren't up front with me about it," says Viv. "I like to think I am a nice person. If I didn't like something I would just say it wasn't my personal taste, but I never said anything where my words could be twisted. Others weren't quite as reserved in making their comments and some of it was directed at me.
"At the end of the day these people aren't there to be friends; they are there for a competition. I probably was not quite prepared for what it would bring out in people."
She came under attack because others felt that Ben de Lisi, who acted as mentor to the group, seemed to have taken her under his wing.
"I think he felt affinity with me because he learnt how to sew watching his grandmother, so we kind of had that in common. Some of the others suggested there was favouritism shown towards me. I don't know there necessarily was. He offered advice to everybody and whether you took it or not was up to you.
"I did listen to what he said and took on board any changes he suggested. Never having done anything like that before to ignore advice given by people who know what they are talking about would have been a bit foolhardy."
Viv did well in the early weeks of the project. Her designs were highly rated and Kelly Osbourne was so impressed with the dress she came up with based on a futuristic theme, that she asked Viv to make one for her.
Viv was horrified when the first challenge called for the competitors to make something using items of clothing from another contest-ant's wardobe.
"I was absolutely gutted. I had taken about four Diane Von Furstenberg designer dresses and the rest of my stuff was black and stretchy and not a right lot of use to anybody.
"I had this vision of losing about a thousand pounds' worth of kit in one fell swoop. I did actually lose one of those dresses, so that wasn't particularly enjoyable."
As part of a design team she actually won one of the challenges, which was to put together an outfit for a music festival. This is now being put into production by the label Firetrap.
"We came up with this concept which we called 'Notting Hill girl turned crack whore' but we couldn't actually call it that on TV so it was more 'boarding school girl gone bad'," Viv laughs.
She admits that towards the end of filming she was starting to feel homesick, missing her husband and three children.
"They did arrange a surprise visit of our families. We had no idea. I answered the door and it was my husband and children. It was all I could do not to get upset and the children felt the same way but it kind of gave me the spur for another week."
After several weeks of low marks, Viv said she was mentally packing her bags and was surprised to make it through to the final, which she did based on another dress designed with Kelly in mind.
To help put her collection together she was given £5,000 and went off to Whitby in her native Yorkshire to seek inspiration.
"There are lot of things there that wouldn't necessarily spring to mind - the whaling industry, Captain Cook sailed from there, there's Whitby Abbey, Whitby jet and Dracula (in the story it is where the ship carrying the Transylvanian earth docks).
"My colour palate was basically sea colours, black for the jet and the greens of the countryside. Then I threw in this rampant red vampire dress and it kind of jarred.
"But I made a collection I was proud of. I wanted it to be something real women would wear and I think it was.
"I was genuinely thrilled for Jasper (Garvida, the winner). He's worked in the business for many years. I couldn't hope to emulate what he does."
In spite of the behind the scenes bitching that is part of any reality TV show these days, Viv says she has no regrets about taking part.
"I've had my hair cut since and changed the colour so nobody has really recognised me from it apart from friends and people at my children's school.
"There's been some surprise from people who didn't know I sewed and admiration as well that I'd had the guts to go on. In some ways it was a life changing experience. I was at a point where I was wondering what to do with myself next.
"This is not necessarily the route most people would take but I think it's a challenge I passed with flying colours."