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Just booted off “Project Runway,” Katelyn Pankoke is ready for her second act

Katelyn Pankoke

Katelyn Pankoke

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Updated: March 19, 2013 10:56AM

The chances of becoming a contestant on Lifetime’s “Project Runway” are one in a million — basically impossible, but I never saw it that way. From the moment I heard of the show, which gives emerging fashion designers the chance to compete for a grand prize to start their own lines, I knew that I was going to be on it.

Once, several years ago, my mom and I were fabric shopping in New York City and happened to be walking by Mood Designer Fabrics when past contestants were walking out with their selections. My mom urged me to go over and ask them for autographs. I said, “Mom, I am going to be one of them someday. That would just be weird.” Don’t ask me how I knew. Maybe everyone who auditions feels that way.

Like most little girls, I was raised on fairytales. I was taught that if you have a dream and you truly want it bad enough, you can make that dream come true. So I decided at the age of 14 that I wanted to be a fashion designer. I don’t remember the exact moment when I told my parents, but what I do remember is that they were surprisingly OK with my decision. Most parents want their children to grow up and have a practical career with a high success rate — or at least a solid degree to fall back on.

I majored in apparel design and technology at Florida State University and graduated magna cum laude. After struggling to get a “real job,” I finally decided that it was time I took matters into my own hands, and created my bridal line, Elaya Vaughn. I labored over the collection for six months and then it was finally time to sell. But I agonized over how I was going to get people to know who I was or look at my collection.

It was then, when I was 23, that the stars finally aligned: I got the phone call that I was going to be a contestant on “Project Runway” Season 11. Though I had tried out for the show twice before, I guess the third time’s the charm. I was in shock. For a moment I thought I had dreamt it, because I was napping when I received the call. But it was real.

I flew out in July of last year and we finished filming in August. I learned so much in that short time. I learned my father was right when he taught me to trust no one. I learned that humans are capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. Most importantly, I learned to truly believe in myself.

When I arrived home, I was exhausted and a little traumatized. It’s a weird feeling to have a dream actually come true, especially a dream as oddly specific as mine. It’s almost a feeling of, “What do I do now?” Find another dream, of course!

After the show debuted, I started to freak out about what would happen if I received an influx of orders because of all of the publicity. I realized that in order to keep my dream alive, I needed to become more business-minded. This is when I found out about the Chicago Fashion Incubator at Macy’s on State Street. It’s a nonprofit organization that helps six fledgling designers get their business off the ground each year. What more could a girl ask for? I submitted my application and after several callbacks, I was accepted into the CFI’s class of 2013 — another dream come true! I moved into the space in early March.

Though my dreams may have been improbable, what I know now is that nothing is impossible. I’ll leave you with this quote from Rodgers and Hammstersein’s “Cinderella:” “The world is full of zanies and fools, who don’t believe in sensible rules, and won’t believe what sensible people say. And because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes keep building up impossible hopes, impossible things are happening every day.”

Katelyn Pankoke donated her fee for this column to Bright Pink. “Project Runway” airs on Thursdays at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.

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