<EM>Project Runway</EM> finalist Chloe Dao Project Runway finalist Chloe Dao
Be sure to also check out the prefinale thoughts of Project Runway's Santino and Daniel!

Houston-based designer Chloe Dao, 33, didn't have to go on Bravo's Project Runway to make it in the design world. After years in the New York rat race, she had gone back home to open her own boutique, called Lot 8. But it seems like the thrill of competition (and TV exposure) was too tempting. Chloe called us up before the Fashion Week finale (airing tonight at 10 pm/ET) to let us know what it was like being back in the game.

TVGuide.com: You were already doing pretty well for yourself as a designer, so what motivated you to audition for Runway?
Chloe Dao:
Honestly, it was just to see if I could literally design something in 12 hours. I had my store, and my sister did publicity for me. She was like, "Girl, this would be good publicity for the store. Get on the damn show!" So that was it  to get publicity for my store and for myself as a designer.

TVGuide.com: Did sales go up at Lot 8 right away?
Not right away  I'm really seeing more in the last two months. People were more enamored with me once they realized I could survive Runway.

TVGuide.com: Do you think you were a stronger competitor because you'd already had this experience and success?
I think it did help a lot. I was very strategic in the sense that I wanted to make sure my garments looked right, and I was very clear-cut in my design aesthetic already. I had a very strong point of view, and I wasn't straying from it or doubting it.

TVGuide.com: Did you find yourself catering to what the judges would like?
Yes and no. I knew that the one thing about Project Runway is that you have to go, "This is me." Every challenge has to scream Chloe Dao, otherwise you lose your vision. I didn't change my mind.

TVGuide.com: Even if Tim Gunn came around....
Even if Tim said the butt looked big. I'm like, "I'm sorry it looks big, but I meant it to look big." Once I figured out something I was going to do, I stuck with it, because I knew that if I changed, I wouldn't finish. And I didn't want to have a garment I'd have to glue or pin.

TVGuide.com: Was the show anything like being in school?
Not at all it was so much harder. You really don't know when you're going to eat. There were some times when we'd have breakfast at 8 and we wouldn't have lunch until 5.

TVGuide.com: What was the hardest challenge for you?
The hardest challenge was "Clothes off Your Back" and the makeover [when I had to do menswear]. I don't think people realized how much I was freaking out that I had to do menswear. I don't ever do it, and I haven't dated for a long, long time so I don't ever buy guys' clothing.

TVGuide.com: What's it been like watching the show on TV?
It's great. I like watching myself on TV. The only time I don't is when I'm like, "Crap, I hope I didn't hurt someone's feelings." I'm really blunt and honest.

TVGuide.com: But everything was overshadowed by what Santino said about people.
Yeah, exactly.

TVGuide.com: Is Santino as difficult in real life as he seemed on TV?
He was annoying in real life, yeah. You don't see him singing throughout the whole month, but every freaking minute it was a Tim Gunn impression! Even if you're joking, you can't go in saying, "This is the Santino show." I don't know you, so I don't know if you're joking  especially if you say it every freaking day. It is a competition, and he was hogging camera time. But I feel for him, and I understand him much better now after I actually got to spend some time with him.

TVGuide.com: How did you feel during the second-to-last challenge, when your fellow designers said you should be the one to go?
I'll be honest  I felt very backstabbed. At the same time, I can see it two ways: Either they thought I was big competition or they really didn't think I deserved to [be in it]. I think they took it too much to heart when I said I didn't want it. If I wasn't passionate, I wouldn't have killed myself for the last month.

TVGuide.com: What was it like when you went back home to do your collection? Was it tough to get started again?
Yeah. I went back home and had been gone for a month, and was so behind at work [in my store]. I had so much anxiety and had a nervous breakdown over the collection, so I couldn't start on it until I knew Tim Gunn was about to come around. I don't think people realize how hard it is for all of us to be given this great, amazing opportunity, but it's an opportunity that's riddled with stress and anxiety. Here's your chance to show at Fashion Week, and you don't know if you're going to ever be able to show again. The whole world is going to watch, it's going to be in circulation in 37 countries, and it's going to be shown again and again and again. I had to do something that I was really happy with and that the judges are going to love. At the end of all that, we realized that we had to do what we'd been doing and what we love. I can't do anything else. It took months of going in mental circles until it got back to the original point.

TVGuide.com: And then they threw in the challenge of that 13th piece. I was about to cry with you!
I was like, "I'm such a girl for crying," but I just felt like it was such a freaking injustice. We worked so hard on those 12 pieces. For like two or three months, all of us seriously isolated ourselves from our families and friends and had no life. We all had tweaking and alterations to do. We taped the reunion show right after we got the challenge, so we still had no time to work on it.

TVGuide.com: Was there anything you wish we could have seen that didn't make it on TV?
I don't think it was as competitive as it seemed. Especially with the final three. When we were working on our final collections, we were like, "Whoever wins, good luck," because at that point we were so exhausted!