Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum, Project Runway

In the new season of Project Runway (premiering tonight at 10 pm/ET on Bravo), we meet designers who've dressed Jessica Alba, Lenny Kravitz and Madonna and shown their work in the glossy pages of Elle and Vogue. And no, they're not the guest judges — these are the contestants.

"We've got a very sophisticated, very savvy group this year," says judge Michael Kors. "These are defi­nitely not people fresh out of Home Ec." Adds Runway's genial guru Tim Gunn, "It's the greatest compliment the show can have, that designers working in the industry see it as a vehicle to help their careers."

Among the potential breakout contenders are Elisa Jimenez, 42, an "accidental fashion designer" whose avant-garde pieces have been worn by Pink and Courtney Love, and Rami Kashou, 31, a designer of red-carpet attire for Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. But not everybody has been rubbing el­bows with starlets: Marion Lee, 39, is a soft-spoken flower-shop owner from Dallas. The youngest of the bunch, Christian Siriano, 21, is a recent London design-school grad who modestly describes himself as a "celebrity in my own head." (That head, by the way, is topped with a distinctively asymmetrical 'do.)

Still, Kors cautions, "Don't judge a book by its cover. Someone could look really funky and end up being kind of conservative, or someone could actually look pretty conservative and you're like, 'Where'd that come from?'"

This element of surprise is part of what keeps the show fresh — and such a phenomenon that Gunn's introductory "Make it work!" elicits a burst of applause from the contestants. But after three seasons and a glut of Bravo wannabes (Top Design, Shear Genius, Top Chef, the upcoming Make Me a Supermodel), Runway has changed little about its formula: 15 designers compete in zany chal­lenges, live in cramped apartments, and sew, snip and drape their way toward $100,000 and the chance to show their collection at New York Fashion Week.

"It's the truth! Nothing has changed," chirps host Heidi Klum, adding that it's the designers, guest judges and chal­lenges that make each season unique. Though in previous seasons, kickoff challenges involved tearing up curtains and cornhusks, this year's assignment is more refined: Create an outfit from $50,000 of premium fabric. Klum won't drop any hints about upcoming episodes (rumors involve Sarah Jessica Parker and Jon Bon Jovi) but swears the season will be full of unexpected mo­ments: "Things hap­pen along the way that we don't anticipate." One of those things, certainly, was an alle­gation that surfaced a month before the sea­son premiere. (Spoiler alert) An anony­mous source told the New York Daily News that cast member Jack Macken­roth, a 38-year-old activewear designer who identifies him­self as HIV-positive in his Bravo bio, claimed his eventual elimination was the result of his contract­ing a staph infection during filming. (In a statement issued by Bravo PR, Macken­roth called the rumor "fictitious.") Klum has no comment. "I don't want to take things away from the audience," she says. "I think people should just watch the show, episode by episode."

When Gunn discusses the cast, the usually eloquent mentor gets a bit farklempt. "I just felt closer to them. We bonded more quickly. Maybe it's because they were less apprehensive about me, because they know how I operate."

Yet even after three seasons of home study, some designers found it unex­pectedly hard to, as Gunn often puts it, "carry on." He confides that one woman, whom he gently describes as "difficult," had to be taken aside for an off-camera intervention. When asked why she was so miserable, she admitted she'd assumed the rigors of the challenges were exag­gerated for TV. "For her," Gunn says, "the rude awakening was that being on the show was really like watching the show — what you see is really what it is!"

Though there are some early stand­outs on the runway, judge Nina Garcia promises there are "sleepers" who emerge as the weeks go on. And Klum insists that professional experience is not necessarily a predic­tor of success: "Some leave the show much quicker than antici­pated. Others blos­som. They're shyer but actually come up with some of the wilder, very inspira­tional, very fashion-forward pieces."

No one was more taken aback by what took place on Runway this season than Gunn. "I was really surprised, with a huge amount of frequency, by A) who won and B) who was out. And I suspect the viewers at home are going to feel the same way. Just be prepared — this may be the season you love to hate."

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