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Irina takes the gold on ‘Project Runway’

Carol Hannah, Irina, and Althea show their collections at Bryant Park in the season finale, and Shabayeva’s edgy New York look was the clear winner with the judges.
/ Source: Entertainment Weekly

Like a made-for-television movie — perhaps even one of those Meredith Baxter-Birney howlers on Lifetime — the “Project Runway” finale played out just the way we anticipated it would. There were tears. There were nerves. There were hugs. The producers pulled out every trick in the book to throw us off the scent — Uh-oh, Tim's freakin' out backstage! — but by the time it all came to a close, there was only one possible winner. And that winner, ladies and gentleman, is... us! The audience! Shouldn't we all get our own Paris vacation courtesy of Evian? $100,000 for our time? Who could possibly be more deserving than we loyal viewers, who bravely trudged through this bunk-arse season without going AWOL somewhere around the time Neek-oh-lass beat Epperson in the movie genre challenge?

In all seriousness, there was little that came as a surprise Thursday night. Carol Hannah had a tummy-trouble relapse, but she got over it without subjecting us to another round of those nauseating vomit sounds from last week. (We did NOT need to hear that!) Althea came dangerously close to another ''you're a cheater'' accusation from Irina, this time on the matter of a smoky eye. (Tyra Banks' favorite!) The first 20 minutes in particular were so uneventful that, for the first time since I started covering this show three seasons ago, I watched without once rewinding the DVR. If it hadn't been for the bag of chocolate crème Newman O's at my side, I might have fallen asleep by the first commercial break.

The morning of the big show, the gals woke up at the unholy hour of 3:14. Is there some rule against sleeping until the exact quarter-hour on Bryant Park Day? Is this one of those mystical numerological puzzles for Robert Langdon? Together, the trio walked over to the tents, Irina's queenly cape-coat sashaying in the moonlight. There was the usual backstage frenzy, amped up with a sudden blast of Tim Gunn losing his characteristic cool. ''Designers, I am about to lose it!'' he said. Everyone ignored him. The cause of the (exaggerated) drama was never really explained, but it had to do with no one being ready for the curtain call. ''Get your models here! Get them into their looks. This is crazy!'' he fumed. If you say so, dear Mr. Gunn. I hope you all witnessed this exchange, readers, 'cause it was the closest we got to a jolt of adrenaline all night.

Then it was showtime. As has been widely reported (including by yours truly), at the taping of the finale in February, the three finalists all stayed backstage while their collections walked down the runway anonymously. But you'd never have guessed that thanks to the crafty editing in Thursday night's episode, which showed each designer presenting her collection in front of what appeared to be a full house. (These segments were taped before they opened up the house to the public. So who were those extras? Every single human being who draws a paycheck from Lifetime?) You'd also never know that when opening the show, Heidi acknowledged the drawn-out lawsuit that had kept season 6 in limbo for almost a year and was the reason behind the need for anonymity. (If you heard a high-pitched squeal while watching in the comfort of your own home, that was likely my mother, who couldn't contain her delight when my husband and I popped up on screen. We were sitting in the front row on the right side, towards the end of the runway. You know, in case you care.)

Althea was up first. Dressed in a rather unfortunate ensemble of a multi-colored mini-dress, ripped leggings and suede, Ugg-style moccasin booties, she likened unveiling her collection to sharing ''a piece of my soul.'' Her garments, she said, were inspired by sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s, with the goal of showing what the women of today would be wearing tomorrow. Though I sometimes get confused what day it is, I'm pretty sure I'm a woman of today. So I'd love it if Althea could tell me what I'm going to be wearing tomorrow. In fact, it'd be downright awesome if she could come to my house every night and lay out my outfits for me. Or maybe I could get an Althea chip implanted in my brain. That's sci-fi, right?

Anyway, Althea's was the most prêt-à-porter of the three collections, with loads of knits, separates, and high-waisted trousers paired with blazers. It was all fine, with lots of headbands, but there was little here that we hadn't seen from Althea before. And save for that green dress that Nina loved, it was woefully low on color. Plus, how many times can this woman send a pair of baggy-on-top, pegged-on-the-bottom trousers down the damn catwalk? Scarily, that was one of the judges' favorite looks. (Question: Who else laughed when they saw Jaslene ''I'm still spicy'' from Top Model strut her stuff in Althea's clothes? Ha!)

Here comes Carol HannahNext up was Carol Hannah, who of course accompanied her opening remarks with a handful of giggles. I'm tempted to make a snarky comment here, but we all have our nervous ticks, so whatever. Go forth and giggle with your bad self, C.H. My favorite pieces in her collection were the more structured looks, like this one and this Björkian accordian wonder. There was enough Grecian draping to make Rami weep and CH definitely incorporated more color than either of her competitors. But, woah. This goofy Muppet of a frock? No thank you. I do, however, love Lisa's smirks.

Finally, it was Irina's turn. She told the mystery audience that her collection was all about New York and ''what it takes to survive in the city as a woman.'' Unfortunately, this involved neither pepper spray nor a switchblade, but rather a series of dominatrix-y looks whose intricate mixing of textures made up for a stubborn lack of color. It was severe, sexy, and edgy. I dug the unifying idea of armor and the attention to details with the hats. Also love the embroidered bodice here. As I watched each piece march down the runway, I was convinced that hell was freezing over. 'Cause suddenly, I found myself rooting for an Irina victory.

By the time we got to judging, I had little doubt that that's exactly what would happen — especially given the running-on-empty level of enthusiasm that the Holy Judging Trinity, plus guest judge Suzy ''crazy bangs'' Menkes, displayed before calling the ladies to the stage. Sir Quips A Lot was back (how nice of him to join us!), but sadly, sans bons mots. There were no funnies, no impassioned exchanges. They looked as bored and tired as we all are. ''I was very impressed,'' said Nina, with less conviction than a defense attorney with a perfect track record. ''I thought they put a lot of time and effort into their collections.'' Wow. Time and effort. If that's all it takes to get to Bryant Park, I'm starting my debut collection tomorrow!

But they muddled through. They gave Carol Hannah props for playing with volume and using color. They particularly loved the first dress, which they called ''exciting, photographable'' and said it had ''desire,'' whatever the hell that means. What was missing, though, was a connective thread. This deficit was obvious to anyone really paying attention, but I admit I didn't think it was significant enough to deprive the giggly Southern Belle of second place. But then the judges started goo-goo-ga-gaing over Althea's ''street vision'' (huh? is that code for "sloppy"?) and I realized once and for all that I have no idea what these people smoke before resting their butt cheeks in those chairs. Nina raved about Althea's ''sense of coolness'' that translates into ready-to-wear. Michael argued that ''a million women'' would love to own those beige Aladdin pants, which in his world (or tanning bed) are apparently universally flattering. Thank god for Lady Crazy Bangs, who pointed out that while all Althea's garments were perfectly wearable, together, they made for one lackluster runway show.

It was Queen-a Mean-a Irina who got the strongest critique — by far. Sure, there was a funny moment when Nina shot her a knowing look while reminding her that she'd warned her against going all black. And yes, Michael noted that the warrior woman character wasn't exactly novel. But pish to both those comments, which were nothing but red herrings. The judges lavished praise on Irina's cohesive, modern vision, the personal touch of her handmade T-shirts, and her ability to tell a story, to put on a show.

And so, C.H. came in third, Althea second, and Irina took the crown. When Heidi delivered the verdict, the newly anointed champ broke down in tears, proving once and for all that she is in fact human and not a femme-bot shipped in from the faraway planet known as Beyotch. (Its national slogan? ''I'm not here to make friends.'') For the first time all season, she respectfully acknowledged her colleagues: ''I had stiff competition.'' Who knows if she actually meant it or if it was just a carefully calculated first step in overhauling her Icy Czarina persona. Either way, I was touched by the sight of her ''old school'' pops wiping away tears as he and the rest of the Shabayeva clan joined their girl on stage. Here was this tough old guy who just last week seemed more likely to gargle gasoline than be caught on national television crying for his daughter. Even Heidi seemed tickled. ''Ahh, papa!'' Frau Klum said. Behold, friends, the magical healing powers of Project Runway!

With that, I bid you all adieu until January 14, 2010, when season 7 premieres. Not much of a break for weary old me, but at least the show will be back in New York. Hurray! I'd like to thank you all for joining me here every Friday. I read each and every one of your comments (even the unkind ones) and appreciate the input from all the fellow Runway addicts out there.