A grinning Jeffrey Sebelia stands before me in a narrow hallway under a fluorescent light. He has several large words etched into his throat that weren't there when I last saw him. But that was before he surprised so many of his friends by leaving town to become a reality television star on Bravo's "Project Runway." As he leads me into his large downtown L.A. work space, packed with garment racks and green steel industrial sewing machines, the sound of gunfire erupts in the street below, followed by an explosion. Sebelia laughs as we move to a window and lean out, looking down on a phalanx of soldiers advancing through a nearby intersection. Several cars are burning, and a few pedestrians run past screaming. Then a voice bellows over a bullhorn and the action halts. Sebelia slides back inside and lights a hand-rolled cigarette. He tells me it's like this all the time down here. It turns out that the battle is being staged for a big-budget film based on a toy line. It's entertainment.
Real life can be far more interesting. Not what you see on television, reality or otherwise, but what you don't. Everybody has a story, and some are better than others. Sebelia has a pretty good one.
For the last three years, the wiry, punkish-looking Sebelia has run his own label, Cosa Nostra. The look can best be described as dystopian rock 'n' roll--"Blade Runner" meets Vivienne Westwood's Sex Pistols with a touch of Oscar Wilde dandy. His dark, zippered biker jackets and wax-printed drainpipe jeans have become popular among sullen young actors and preening rock stars of both sexes. The line sells at high-end boutiques from here to Hong Kong.
"Project Runway," which tapes in New York, features 15 fashion designers of varying experience, some professional and others just starting out, all of whom compete in a series of elimination design challenges. Each week their creations are judged, and the loser is sent packing by a panel that includes uber-model Heidi Klum, who also serves as the show's host. At the end of the season the remaining designers stage a runway show during New York's Fashion Week, the winner claiming a prize of a new car, a spread in Elle magazine and $100,000 toward the launch of a line.
Although the fashion component of the show is interesting, the main attraction is undoubtedly the ruthless competition among the contestants. And while most, if not all, indulge in at least some duplicitous behavior, each of the three seasons has featured a standout villain. The first was a scheming schoolmarm type with the appropriately chipper name of Wendy Pepper. The second season's appointed evildoer was an outspoken and intensely talented bisexual beatnik named Santino Rice. This season it is Sebelia who has been anointed the latest enfant terrible.
His role actually started before the competition was underway. During the first episode, Klum proclaimed the supremely confident Sebelia as "the next Santino." The tag stuck, and not without reason. Before leaving for New York, he asked his girlfriend to pick him up a joy buzzer, an air horn and some fake dog excrement. By the seventh episode, he'd made another contestant's mother cry. "It's a competition," Sebelia offers as explanation.
But these irreverent high jinks have polarized the show's fans and provoked a barrage of sometimes rabid hostility across the Internet. He says that in one recent posting on a Television Without Pity forum, a woman wrote that at the mere appearance of Sebelia's face on-screen, her husband would begin furiously pacing the house and describing how he wanted to kill him.
Sebelia says it was Santino himself who warned him never to look at the online message boards. As it happens, the two were friends in L.A.'s fashion scene well before either appeared on the show. Over coffee, Santino tells me, "Once you actually learn who those people are on the Internet, it doesn't matter. There's hate pages for everyone. There's hate pages for Oprah. There's even a hate page for Mother Teresa, saying she's a star-[expletive]. Whatever." Still, he seems genuinely surprised by the onslaught of hate mail he received. "I had nightmares and flashbacks for months after doing the show," he says.
Five years ago, Sebelia would have agreed with those who wished him dead. His life was falling apart, and he wanted it over. Holed up in a ramshackle house in northeast Los Angeles, he had been awake for days, crying almost constantly. His girlfriend had left and he was in a deep depression, alone on a couch eating handfuls of Ecstasy and grinding his teeth. For the past year, he says, he had been growing and selling "medical" marijuana--he had a hidden basement nursery with more than 100 plants for distribution to his "patients," all diagnosed with the same form of "hypertension." Sebelia says he had given up heroin and other hard drugs but was smoking pot constantly, cooking with it and even smearing it on his body. He was also taking lots of LSD.