30 Second Answer
No, the contestants do not get paid.
It is a common misconception that the models who appear on Project Runway are paid for their work on the show. In fact, these models are not compensated for their time or their work.
This may come as a surprise to some, given the high-profile nature of the show and the fact that the models are often working with high-end designers and brands. However, it is important to remember that Project Runway is a reality television show, and as such, the focus is not on the fashion industry itself but rather on the drama and conflict between the designers.
That said, there are some exceptions to this rule. For instance, if a model is booked for a runway show or photo shoot as part of their participation on Project Runway, then they will be paid for that work. Similarly, if a model is used in an ad campaign or commercial as a result of their appearance on the show, they will also be compensated for that work.
In general, though, it is safe to say that contestants on Project Runway do not get paid for their time on the show. So if you’re thinking of auditioning for the show, don’t expect to earn any money from your participation!
Aspiring clothing designers have big dreams, and many have had their dreams come to fruition when they show the world their talents on Project Runway. This famous reality show is always a hit with fashionistas and reality fans. But did you know that non-winning contestants do not get paid for their appearances on the show? (1)
The show brings couture magic to life every week by taking a group of yet-to-be-discovered designers and providing them with fabrics and a list of instructions for that week’s project. Sometimes, the designers are asked to use “unconventional materials” like hardware, food, flowers, duct tape, newspapers, party accessories, or even trash to make their garments. Each week, the budding designers take those fabrics or materials, fit them onto a group of models. The models are usually professional models; but sometimes the show uses people as diverse as heart disease survivors, first responders, or the contestants’ mothers. Each week, the budding designers present outfits that span the gamut of “wow” to “whoops!”
Each week, when the finished outfits are presented on the show’s runway, they are judged by a group of fashion designers and media stars. Each week, the top-rated designers are praised by the judges, and the low-rated designers are critiqued by the judges. The top designer each week is singularly praised, and – for the first few weeks of the competition – given immunity for the next week’s contest. The poorest rated designer is sent “home” from the competition and removed from the running for the season’s ultimate prize.
For some new designers, the show is the chance of a lifetime. Of course, the contestants get their designs on TV and bring them to the attention of fashion buyers and significant fashion houses. They also show their talent to TV audiences. But the most recent winner of season 19, Shantall Lacayo, also won a prize of $250,000, a chance to have her designs featured in Elle magazine, and a mentorship with the Council of Fashion Designers of America. (2) (Contrast that to the prize for season one: Jay Mc Carroll won $100,000 and mentorship with Banana Republic. Mc Carroll also got his designs published in Elle.) (3)
But contestants who don’t win big prizes do not get paid for their appearance on the show. Some challenge sponsors have gifted the episode winners with cash, vacations or cars throughout the years. But, for 19 seasons (and 7 All-star seasons), contestants have continued to vie for the privilege of showcasing their designs while vying for bragging rights and the coveted prizes.
During the contestants’ trips to Mood (the fabric store used most frequently for challenges), that store closes its doors to the public. Although the show makes it look as though only the final three contestants can show their collections at New York Fashion Week’s, more than the final three contestants are allowed to show a collection. Including more than three designers limits the number of spoilers about the show’s winners released before the show’s finale.
Being on the show is hard work. It’s not just about the design process, which can be grueling enough. Contestants are awakened as early as 5 AM and often work until midnight. Because the design process is so absorbing, the producers insist on mandatory meal breaks. The contestants are also on camera for almost every waking moment.
In addition to their grueling schedule, contestants are not allowed to watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers, or freely text or call their friends and families. On the few occasions they are allowed to contact someone, they are limited as to what they are allowed to say about their participation in the show.
Why do they do it? Some contestants seek fame; some want some recognition for their talents. Some only crave the final prize. But, as the show approaches its impending 20th season, with former season winner and new show mentor Christian Siriano at the forefront, it’s still the forum of choice for aspiring designers to show us what they’re made of – and what they can make with it.
(1) Greenhuff, Adria Valdes: Untold Truth of Project Runway,” posted on the list.com on 4/10/2018
(2) Montgomery, Daniel: “Project Runway Season 19 Spoilers, Who Went Home, When and Why?” posted on goldderby.com on 2/3/2022
(2) “Project Runway – season one,” posted on Wikipedia