In just the second episode of Project Runway ever, designer Wendy Pepper laid out her master plan like a Bond villain.
“I have been unfolding a strategy,” she told the cameras in a confessional. “I was going to get people to confide in me. I would make sure to be there if they seem to be in a weak spot, anything that I thought later in the game I could use to my advantage to get them out of my way.”
That approach worked in the first few episodes as she positioned herself as the mother figure of the group, bonding with early favorite Austin Scarlett in particular. But in Project Runway’s first ever team challenge, which involved collaborating to create a look for singer Sarah Hudson’s music video, Wendy turned on Austin. It was the first instance of someone being thrown under the bus on the runway in front of Heidi Klum, but certainly not the last. And it solidified Wendy as the series’s original villain.
Throughout her run on Project Runway, Wendy changed course a lot: she victimized herself, blaming her age (though she was only 39 at the time) for making her a target; she used her experience with motherhood to endear herself to others; and she continually called out her fellow contestants on the runway instead of answering for her own bad designs. Essentially, she pulled out every play in the reality TV villain book before there even was a book to pull from.
In 2004, when Project Runway aired, these talent search reality series were still trying to figure out the balance between showcasing pure, skill-based competition and capitalizing on the popularity of drama-filled unscripted series from the preceding era. Because of Wendy’s behind-the-scenes scheming and workroom confrontations, Season 1 of Project Runway leaned into the latter strategy, spending more time with the camera turned on the designer’s interpersonal relationships than the clothes they were making. That served Wendy well. Her approach may have been good TV, but her work was subpar — she was in the bottom for six out of nine challenges and nearly eliminated four of those times. Still, she made it all the way to the finale.
Before heading into the finale, Wendy weaponized her villainy to gain fans — “Wicked Wendy,” as the New York Post called her, was who fans of the show loved to hate. She framed herself as the underdog, showing off the T-shirts and other merch her fans made to say as much when Tim Gunn stopped by for a hometown visit ahead of the finale. In the days before fashion week, frontrunner Kara Saun tore her apart in the workroom: “Wendy, I have met people like you my whole life. People who pretend to be your friend, who stab you in the back, who will do anything. I live in freaking Hollywood, do you understand that? You're going to need your soul one day, and you don't have it.”
Wendy took it with an icy stare and a satisfied smirk. It didn’t matter what anyone else had to say at that point — the simple fact that she was at New York Fashion Week meant that her strategy had paid off.
In 2012, Wendy returned to compete on Season 2 of Project Runway All-Stars and was met with a warm welcome. Designers who appeared in later seasons of the show looked to her as an icon of the franchise and found her to be delightful, warm, and kind in person. Even though she was eliminated during the second challenge of the season, she was able to leave with some sense of redemption that she wasn’t nearly as bad as she seemed.
Looking back, Wendy Pepper’s acts pale in comparison to some of the indiscretions of contestants on competition series. She may not have been the most malicious or most offensive reality TV villain — she may not have even been the cattiest contestant on her season of Project Runway. But she will be remembered as a pioneer of backstabbing and manipulating her way to (almost) the top.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.