It's a very heavy day for reality TV fans. According to an obituary in the Washington Post, Project Runway contestant Wendy Pepper has died. Pepper was 53. The designer is survived by her daughter Finley M. Stewart, as well as her parents, brothers, and sister. Pepper was one of Project Runway's original contestants. She appeared in the first season and ultimately came in third place. The gifted designer proved popular enough to appear in the franchise again when she returned for Season 2 of Project Runway All Stars. She died on Nov. 12, and, while a cause of death wasn't mentioned, her obituary reveals that Pepper "died peacefully" surrounded by her loved ones.
Born Anne Eustis Pepper in Dayton, Ohio, the fashion designer went on to became a graduate of Potomac School, the Madeira School, and the University of Washington. It was during a trip to Nepal that she discovered her love for design. In an a 2012 interview for Project Runway All Stars, she explained that, while she was dyeing yarn, she became inspired to drape it over her hosts, forming outfits. The experience led to Pepper realizing that she had a gift for creating unique clothing. She explained,
"For me, fashion is communication. It's working with the person and dialoguing with them, and that's when I knew that this was my life work."
Despite not winning Season 1, Pepper never stopped pursuing her dreams, and she opened her own store in Middleburg, VA. She also continued to create clothing for individual clients, and she hand-sewed clothing for children and adults.
Some Project Runway fans considered Pepper to be the show's first "villain." Onscreen, she was never shy when it came to dropping a stinging comment or comeback, but that only made viewers love her all the more. In real life, Pepper appears to have had a kind heart and a positive impact on the people who were part of her life. According to her obituary, Pepper's "wit and humor were unmatched, as was her generosity of spirit."
During Season 1, Pepper won two significant challenges on Project Runway that allowed her to make great strides in her career. In one challenge, she won the right to have her design sold at Banana Republic, and in another she was given the opportunity to create Nancy O'Dell's dress for the Grammys. Pepper had her share of memorable disasters as well. As Vulture pointed out in an ode to Season 1, the fashion designer seemed to believe future teens would be taking style inspiration from Disney's Pocahontas. However, it's her personality and entrepreneurial spirit that will define Pepper.
After her stint on Project Runway, Pepper embraced her career momentum in a major way. She went on to appear in two more reality series, Celebrity Poker Showdown and Battle of the Network Reality Stars, before creating her own clothing line, Pretty World. In addition to designing, Pepper was also a chef and a writer.
The news of Pepper's death comes just one month after the passing of Season 3 Project Runway contestant Mychael Knight, who died at the age of 39. In a statement to Page Six, a spokesperson for Lifetime said,
"We are saddened to hear of the passing of another member of the 'Project Runway' family, designer Wendy Pepper, this year. Wendy was one of the original designers that sent creations down the catwalk, paving the way for other designers to come. We wish her family and friends peace during this difficult time."
It's clear that Pepper was a true force of nature both onscreen and off. Not only did she help make Season 1 of Project Runway great, she continued to live her dream long after the cameras stopped rolling. She will be missed.