They may be competitors in the Emmy race for reality host, but the ever-charming Tim Gunn and Cat Deeley couldn’t have been more complimentary of each other during their conversation with Variety. Both veterans of reality TV — 13 seasons (“Project Runway”) and 11 seasons (“So You Think You Can Dance”) respectively — have witnessed a revolution in the genre, and were ready to dish on all they’ve seen both on and off-camera.
Variety: What do you think makes a good reality host?
Deeley: For me it’s being in the moment. Because “So You Think You Can Dance” is live, it’s very tempting to panic and think, “What should I say next, what do I do next, where am I going next, am I looking at the right camera, am I doing the right thing?” So I think it’s to really listen to what the contestants are saying and trust in the fact that the right question is going to come to you, because essentially, you’re having a conversation. Yes, it’s an entertainment show, yes, it’s a reality show, but essentially what you’re doing is having a conversation with somebody. So just being in the moment is the best thing you can do.
Gunn: Being in the moment is everything. My reality television life is a lot easier than Cat’s, though, because I don’t have to worry about looking at a camera — in fact, I don’t look at the cameras. So being in the moment for me is just letting the narrative play out, listening to the designers and giving them helpful feedback about what they’re doing.
Deeley: I think that’s the thing you do so well, Tim, it’s really constructive criticism. It’s in those moments where they’re panicking and they’re against the clock, or they’re doubting themselves when you come in there as a real mentor and keep calm while still enjoying the drama of the moment.
Gunn: Well, thanks. I’m choking up, Cat!
Deeley: All this needs is a soundtrack and a heartbeat, and we’re on a reality show!
Gunn: Aren’t we lucky to be on shows that are really about talent?
Deeley: Neither show is about people fighting or getting drunk or throwing up on each other, or hating each other — it’s about celebrating people’s talent. And that, I think, is a great thing to be a part of. Your show works in exactly the same way that our show does, where it’s very much that the American dream is alive and kicking. You can be any race, religion, color, creed, sexual orientation — it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. If you have a talent and you have a passion and you’re prepared to work hard, you can be anything you want to be. That’s what I like about being in America. Both shows celebrate that American dream.
Gunn: Absolutely, And furthermore, when it comes to drama, our shows don’t like it. Because when there’s unnecessary drama, it creates stress and tension, and then people aren’t at their best. And that affects their performance. And that’s never good.
Deeley: But I do think that the audience at home would like to see that, too. It isn’t whether you’re dancing, you’re designing, you’re a mechanic, everybody sometimes faces a stressful situation or challenges that they don’t know whether they can handle. And sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they fail and it’s about what you’re like in those moments and how you pick yourself up and dust yourself off and get on and cope with a stressful situation, and I think that’s what the audience at home can relate to. They probably never designed a gown in their life or danced a step in their life, but they can identify and empathize with people who are put in those situations, and go, “God, that’s a bit like my life, I had a really stressful day.” The storyline is either dance or design, but the stories are the same no matter where you’re from.
Variety: What do you think is the secret of being a successful contestant?
Gunn: First, and totally important — having good qualities of character, having a tenacity that allows you to propel yourself forward, problem-solving in the moment. The contestants all have to be in the moment as well. They have to listen, they have to be alert, they have to have their radar up. You can’t sleepwalk.
Deeley: Normally that radar, it comes from fear. It comes from a place of fear where they try and second-guess themselves, and as human beings we always slightly fear the unknown. You have to trust your instincts and know that the right question or the right answer will come to you. You don’t always have to have the solution to the problem; sometimes it’s very interesting to watch somebody go through the process of solving the problem, but it’s got to be truthful.
Gunn: I’m constantly telling the designers to forget about what the judges are going to say because they can’t anticipate that. They have to be true to who they are, the work that’s presented to the judges has to have an integrity and an authenticity, and if they start compromising because of something they think the judges will respond to, they lose themselves. And that never works. I have to say if you’re going to go home, it should be for something you believe in — not something that was a major compromise.
Deeley: Absolutely, there actually isn’t anything better than a noble failure. It will always teach you something and you will always learn from the experience.
Variety: What are some lessons you’ve learned, through your experiences hosting your shows for so long?
Deeley: I’m very lucky that I’ve done a live show for a very long period of time, so those things that you would always get frightened of and nervous of like falling over, or dropping a microphone, or having a migraine has at some stage happened to me. And through doing that I’ve learned that actually, it’s nothing to be that frightened of, because if you handle it with a little bit of self-deprecation and a sense of humor, it endears you to the audience. The audience quite likes it when things go a bit wrong. Everybody makes mistakes and if you handle it well, it makes the audience love you more.
Gunn: Having spent 29 years as a teacher and being used to being in a classroom and being with students, I had a very difficult time transitioning to the role of mentor, because in that role I can’t make decisions for the designers, I can’t physically help them with things; there has to be a moat between us. The first season, I was in the sewing room threading a bobbin on a machine for one of the designers, and a producer came in and said, “Tim, can I see you in the hallway?” The producer said, “If you thread the bobbin for that designer you have to thread the bobbin for all the designers in that room out of fairness.” So I quickly learned hands-off, because my instinct was to roll up my sleeves and help, but I can’t do that.
Deeley: Goodness, that must be so hard, Tim! Sometimes it must be so glaringly obvious to you to go, “Oh my goodness that could be sewed so easily just by doing it here and a snip there.”
Gunn: Sometimes I do say that. I’ll present the designers with stream of consciousness thoughts and see how they would respond to these comments. And sometimes they pick them up and sometimes they don’t. I have a very Socratic approach — I pummel the designers with questions, so when I get them to step back from the work and look at it with me, they’ll eventually see what I see, coming to it fresh and unencumbered. That’s always very gratifying because they feel a responsibility and an ownership of a solution.
Variety: What do you find to be the hardest part of your job?
Gunn: The hard part for me is its very emotional aspect. I get very attached to the designers. And the longer they’re with us, the more attached we all become and it’s very difficult to say goodbye to them.
Deeley: I think I would have to say a similar thing. It’s quite hard, actually. You can’t help but get attached to people. You would be a strange human being if you didn’t connect in some way, shape or form. But for me, I have to be able to keep that under control so the show moves on in the right way, because otherwise it would feel very gratuitous if it suddenly became a crying match.
Gunn: It could be a crying match or it could be just a stoic standoff where everyone is so detached that it just feels like they’re living statues, but that’s why we’re good, because we care.
Variety: When you look back, do you see mistakes that you’ve made?
Deeley: Oh, so many for me! I’ve done ridiculous dances, and sometimes I think to myself, “Oh my God, there are actually millions of people at home watching!” I forget sometimes because it feels like one giant, slightly dysfunctional family, and so when I go there I feel very comfortable. I have to remember that I’m not just hanging out with a bunch of friends and this weird family that’s been put together. I’m actually being watched by people. I pull silly faces. I do ridiculous dances. I eat Red Vines in between that I hand out to the audience and sometimes, if I turn to one side, you’ll see I’ve still got Red Vines stuck in my teeth.
Gunn: The things that I’ve done that I’ve been embarrassed by have been ancillary to the show. The blog that I used to have, I would use it as an opportunity to tell people the backstory they aren’t seeing. And invariably it got me in trouble, which is why I don’t keep it anymore. So I’ll vent to myself. I can be very transparent, but sometimes telling the truth isn’t exactly what people want.
Variety: How involved do you get in the production of the show? How outspoken are you with the producers?
Deeley: I definitely get involved in the casting process, because our show is about America’s favorite dancer. If you reach the top 20 you are at an insane standard in terms of technical ability. But we also have to find people that the audience at home will connect with, and we also have to form a cast of people who work well, or not well, together. So I get involved earlier on when we’re in the process of choosing people. My side of it is more about personality and likability. I’m more involved in the casting process than the actual production.
Gunn: For me, I’m also involved in the audition process. I’m certainly aware of their personalities but I’m only looking at their portfolio and the items of apparel they bring in, because I’m a fan of the stitching and I want to see whether I believe they’ve made it or if it came out of a factory. And then during the season I’m very involved in the development of the challenges, especially those that involve sponsor integration, because they need to be believable to the designers. The designers can sniff out something that’s not authentic very quickly. As the show progresses, I don’t hesitate to say, “I object to something that’s happening, or there’s something brewing in the workroom that I think you need to know about.” I always say there’s never a dull moment.
Variety: Tim, your role on the show has also evolved to things like introducing “Tim’s Save.” How did that come about?
Gunn: It was the producers’ idea. In season 11, during one of the deliberations it became clear that an incredibly talented, capable designer was going home. Without even asking permission I rushed the stage to talk to the judges and said, “You cannot do this. This is absolutely a huge mistake and I am throwing down the gauntlet.” And she ended up winning the whole season.
Deeley: What I love about you is that you’re so passionate about it, Tim. That’s not just a host for hire, that’s a mentor, that’s someone who truly believes. There are very few people who are that invested who would go, “I just can’t have this.”
Gunn: Thank you so much. There was a corresponding thing that became formalized, too, which had to do with Zac Posen joining us in season 10. He would grab a model when they would leave the runway and examine the designers’ work up close. Well, I was always telling the designers, the judges are never closer than 20 feet. I was beside myself because I felt it was a betrayal to the designers — they weren’t in the room and never saw it happen. So we had a discussion going into season 12. And the producers wisely said, “Well, Zac is still going to do this so if we have it on camera and it’s you, presenting the models to the judges, you can also have your own say about the work.” I was very negative about the whole thing but I ended up loving it. It’s my favorite part of the show outside of being in the workroom with the designers because I really can correct, I can give a context, I can explain. So I have my own moment before the judges, and it’s very gratifying.
Variety: Cat, is that a role you could see yourself taking — getting a more active say in who stays and who goes?
Deeley: I can’t do that, because I don’t have the knowledge of dance. I think my mother shoved me into a ballet class when I was 4 and then I promptly left at age 8 with absolutely no rhythm. I mean, I’m not in control of my own limbs.
Gunn: I don’t believe you!
Deeley: Listen, Tim, on a good night out with a couple of glasses of champagne in me I think I have control, but I don’t think I could ever do that. The one thing I do is if I don’t think the judges are being fair, I’ll stand up to them. So I can’t tell you whether that ponche was performed well, or that pirouette was off, but if the week before a contemporary guy has attempted Bollywood and the judges are like, “You were putting your style on it but it wasn’t hitting right” and then the next week they turn around to a hip-hop guy and say, “We love the fact that you put your own style onto it,” I will call them out on it. I have to make sure they are being fair. And if I don’t think they’re being fair, I’ll 100% stand up for it. But you know I’ve got my job in the way that it’s different from Tim’s is, I don’t know the technical terms you should look for, but I’m very much the everyman at home sitting on their couch. I’m that person. I’m that voice.
Gunn: And you know the audience is thinking exactly what you’re saying.
Variety: What do you think of the state of reality TV today?
Deeley: There will always be a need for it. People will always want it, if it’s produced well and if it’s telling people’s stories — that’s all anybody wants: to connect with another human being on a very basic level. If the stories are told well, I think it can continue and continue. I know the market is flooded with reality shows, but the good reality shows that are done really well with exceptional, talented contestants and a great production team — there will always a place for it.
Gunn: When I think about the advent of “Runway,” when I go back 10 years, we were alone in the field at that time. And since then there have certainly been more shows, but there are also just as many flavors of reality shows as there are comedies or dramas, or soaps. And, that diversity is a good thing.
Deeley: While “Dancing With the Stars” is being made and Paula Abdul had a crew show, it means the audience wants it. It’s only good news for us. Just as all the design shows are only good for “Project Runway,” it means that people are trying to re-create the success, and it means from the audience — that there’s a need from the audience.
Variety: So let’s talk about Emmy night. Are you looking forward to it?
Deeley: Normally I book a massive table at the Peninsula and go for Sunday brunch first of all. Because then it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, you’re having a lovely time, right? But this time it’ll be on a Monday, So I’m going to have to rethink slightly. But I definitely know I’m going to be having a glass of champagne with Tim at the Marriott.
Gunn: Our first Emmy nomination was for season 1, I’m happy to say. And I went to the Emmys, it was my first time there, and I was beside myself, ecstatic, enthralled. Leading up to the Emmys, and I mean it sincerely, it was an honor just to be nominated. But I have to say, once you’re there, you just want to win!
Deeley: I love it! It’s totally true! You probably dieted and exercised, and you’re in Spanx, and you’re boiling hot, and you’re wearing a ball gown when really you should be wearing a bikini and drinking a margarita. The only thing that could make it better is taking your shoes off, eating chicken soup, and bringing the trophy home.