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'Design Star' Winner Emily Henderson Talks Style, New Show and Her 'Glee' Connection

by Mike Moody, posted Aug 26th 2010 2:30PM
emily henderson hgtv design starEmily Henderson had one of the most compelling arcs on this season of HGTV's 'Design Star.' The Portland, Ore. native went from uncertain underdog in the season's first challenge to determined finalist in the last few episodes.

In last Sunday's finale, she pulled it all together with a stunning New York apartment space and a spunky hosting reel to win the competition and a shot at hosting her own show.

So what will Emily's new show look like? We'll get a taste when she makes over the home of 'Glee' co-creator Ian Brennan this Sunday (10PM ET) on her first HGTV special, 'Secrets from a Stylist.'

I chatted with the new Design Star earlier this week about her new show, her stressful stint as a reality TV competitor, and what it feels like to hear Vern Yip call you a winner.

First off, congratulations on winning 'Design Star.'

Thanks you so much. I'm still super excited and exhausted. I still feel like I just finished running a marathon.

How did you feel at that moment when you heard Vern Yip call your name and you realized you had won?

It felt pretty ridiculous, like in a sense that I thought, "There's no way that this just happened." I woke up that morning and I just remember thinking, "OK, today is when somebody tells me whether I get my own TV show or not." It just didn't seem real ... When I was on stage, the whole thing felt so dreamlike, and I know that people use that cliché pretty often, but I'm totally serious. When they called my name I remember my hearing kind of shut down for a second and everything was kind of blurry and in slow motion, and I heard Vern talking .... I kind of don't remember it that much, because I think I went in to shock in a way. The next morning I woke up and I was like, "Did this really happen?" And sure enough it did.

Those six weeks on the show must have been pretty draining and stressful with all of those challenges.

It was constant surprise and constant excitement to the point where you got used to only running on adrenaline. I'm sure that I was exhausted, but I didn't really notice it, because your priority is the challenge that you're working on that second. It was weird to wake up [after the show was over] and not have a challenge and to not be mic'd and to not have cameras around. I got used to having all these challenges. So it was just six weeks of pure excitement and adrenaline and it was the best time of my life.

Let's talk about the beginning, the premiere episode's white box challenge. You seemed so aloof and disappointed with yourself at the outset of the show with that challenge.

Yeah, it was a nightmare. I couldn't believe that I had come that far, given up work and risked humiliation to come and almost go home. I was so defeated, to be honest. I was so disappointed in myself, and I knew I could do so much better, but I froze, and I got really nervous, and I over thought it. I didn't want to do anything cliché or cheesy so I just didn't do enough. It actually took me a while to recover because I was doubting myself after that. Of course, you always doubt yourself in real life, but I don't doubt myself very often at work. So it took me a couple of days to get motivated again and to feel good about myself. It was a bummer, but I have to say it sure made my whole storyline really good, you know.

So when exactly did you think, "I need to step up my game here and show these judges who I am and what I can do." What inspired that push?

Well, I was on the winning team for three or four weeks, and I was really trying to do good work. But when you're on a team you have to make some concessions and some compromises. And I'm not particularly good at building furniture, and I'm not an artist necessarily, so it was hard for me to have "stand out" moments. So I think that it was probably when Michael and I were on the same team for the dining room challenge that I finally felt like I was in my element. I was able to re-purpose all of those thrift store and flea market signs, and that's the kind of stuff that comes really easy to me. Obviously, I wanted to step up way before then, but finally I was like, "I know this world. I can do this," and that's when I felt like I could actually win.

There were a few personality clashes on the show, particularly between you and Nina Ferrer, who had a somewhat bossy personality. How did you manage to keep it together work while clashing with someone like her?

It was super hard. I think that when I started doing well and then other people started, you know, getting a little shakier, then I just wanted to focus on my own work and do something that I was proud of and something that the judges were gonna like, and I just kind of ignored all the drama. Neither of us wanted it, nobody wants it, and I did my best to kind of ignore it [laughs]. It's probably not healthy, but, you know, I'm not a fighter.

OK, let's talk style. You actually seem very confident and comfortable in your own shoes and with your own style. How would you describe it?

I love almost every kind of style, but only certain pieces. I think I'm probably like one-third bohemian, one-third mid-century modern, and one-third Victorian. Those are the three styles I constantly go back to, which is kind of weird, but I think that most of us have a few different style inclinations. We're not just one way, and that's something that I explore in the show: combining your different style inclinations to create one style grand that looks specifically like you.

What are you going to bring to HGTV viewers with the special and your show that they don't already get?

It's a design show, but I'm focusing a lot on extracting information from the client and analyzing their lifestyle and creating kind of a style cologne -- something that's specifically just for them and that looks like them. So when you walk into the space it doesn't look like I was ever there, it looks like they did it. I want it to feel very natural and organic and not designed ... So I focus a lot on the details like the flowers and the tablescapes and on finishing the room 100 percent.

In your special, you're designing for a very creative person, 'Glee' co-creator Ian Brennan. What challenges did creating that space bring?

He didn't know what style he was. He thought that he was something very different than what he actually is. What makes the show fun is that I put him through a style diagnostic, if you will. It's kind of lifestyle quiz. And from his answers, he thinks that he's a certain way and I counter it and say, "Well, maybe you're more like this." So it was an interesting challenge, because I was trying to convince him, and he was completely going with it, because he knew I was right.

People often think they're a certain way because of what they like in magazines or catalogs, but really, if you look at your lifestyle you might find that you have completely different style inclinations. But Ian was a blast because, first of all, he's one of my best friends. And he is very creative, and he likes a lot of weird vintage pieces, so I knew that I could go really eclectic with it and add more statement pieces. It was really fun, and I think it's gonna be fun to watch too because he's a riot, he's hilarious.

So with your show, you're challenging the client to really think about who they are?

Yeah, and it's about just mixing styles. I'm a firm believer that you can really mix any two styles together if you have some consistency and some coherence. Even more than two styles can be mixed. I think that concept is difficult for people, because they don't know where to start or how to do it right, and on the show I lay out a good plan to go about that.

Aside from the needs of the client, where else do you get design inspiration?

I'm pretty inspired by history. I was a history major, which I didn't think had a lot to do with my current life, but I really respond to antiques more than anything else, from every period and every style, so I'm inspired by anything that is aged or has a story.

If you had a message for people out there who, for one reason or another, are struggling to express themselves through their own personal style, what would it be?

Don't be too precious. Don't stress about being perfect, because perfection isn't that interesting. I mean, think about people that you like; do you want to hang out with the perfect person or the person who's a little bit off or a little more interesting? I think it's the same way with our spaces. If you struggle to make it perfect, in general it's gonna be less interesting, so don't be precious.

Here's a look at Emily's Sunday night special, 'Secrets from a Stylist':

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You've got to be kidding. She did everything except chew on her hair!

August 28 2010 at 5:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

i'm so glad she won. towards the end, when i didn't really like anyone, she sort of rose up and defined her vision and it resonated with me. i think the "Style to Lifestyle" concept is very original to HGTV, oddly enough because it makes sense. furthermore, i just didn't want the other designer to win.

August 26 2010 at 4:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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