We had the pleasure of chatting up S5 runner-up (and some would say, the person who SHOULD have won) Korto Momolu last week about everything from her jewelry to her butt. She is friendly, funny, self-effacing, practical, well-rounded, and just an all-around interesting gal. Enjoy. We did.
Liberia, Canada, Arkansas...girl, you've been all over the map. Has that affected you as a person and as a designer?
As a person, it's kind of well-rounded me. When my family first moved to the United States we lived in Boston, North Carolina, Atlanta and I think that helped me respect other people's beliefs, how different people live because you have to adapt to different cultures so much you just naturally become easily able to adapt to whatever situation. I went to an all girl boarding school when I was growing up; being on the show is like being back on boarding school. It wasn't like a big deal for me to adjust to that. Design-wise, I think I've seen different women from different cultures, being a mom, being around other women, and we talk about what's lacking in the stores, what we want to see as a woman shopping, who's been pregnant, having to lose the baby weight, having to go through all that stuff. I know what it's like out there and being a designer, instead of complaining about it I needed to do something about it.
Do you speak any other language besides English?
I kind of do. It's not a real language though. It's Pidgin English. If you listen really carefully you probably understand what I'm saying. I'm what they call watered-down. If I go back home now they would say 'oh, you're so American.' It's English with an accent. It's kind of like what Jamaicans speak, sort of a patois. I know a few words in my native language, but that's about it, plus a little bit of French from being in Canada. My parents once we moved here never forced that. If we had grown up in Liberia we would've learned the language. I miss that part of my life, not having my grandparents. They never got to see me. They never got to see the woman I became. They died in the war for heartache, really. That's the hardest part.
What made you move to the US from Canada?
Initially when I left Canada I went to Atlanta to go back to school. I wanted to take some courses. I got engaged while I was in school and just decided on a whim on New Year's Eve of 1999 to get married. I moved to Arkansas. It was supposed to be a pit stop and we just ended up staying. It was hard, there's no big fashion scene in Arkansas and eventually I just decided to start it. I started doing shows, having events and it grew from there. There are so many designers that popped out of the woodwork now; sometimes people just need somebody to start something. This is a great state, they love me. I'm like Madonna here. We went out to dinner and they were asking me to call their grandmother, taking pictures. It's really sweet. They're really sweet here.
We read that you wanted to move to Philadelphia.
Yes, I said that if I have to move I would move to Philadelphia because my mom lives in Delaware, so I'd be close to NY, it would be easy to commute and be close to my mom and have my daughter be close to her grandma. That's if I have to move, right now, I'm OK traveling and coming back here. After all the hustle and bustle it's nice to come back here to Arkansas and get your piece of mind for a minute.
You mentioned your family had to leave Liberia. Tell us a little bit about that. When the war happened, my brothers and sisters and I were actually in Canada in boarding school, so my dad, my mom and one of my youngest brothers were still there and because he worked for the government at the time, they usually don't allow them to travel, he was sort of the captain in the ship, he had to stay. Usually what happens when you have a coup d'état and whoever is trying to take over the government gets empowered, they execute the former government officials, the women get raped, so my dad knew we had to get out of there and being already in Canada we got refugee and asylum status there. We bought a house there with whatever money we had. It was hard. It was hard not having a home. The war and everything still went on for another ten, fifteen years; we couldn't go back home.
My dad actually went back home last year, he moved back to Liberia and he's starting to regain a lot of our property that was stolen, regain the farms that we had. He got tired of being here; he really didn't feel at home. It was a lot harder for my parents to adjust. We had been here since we were younger so it was a lot easier for us to accept America as home and life. My mom wants to go back next year.
Have you ever been back?
No, I haven't been back at all since 1989. I got an invitation from the President of Liberia. We have the first female president in Africa and she sent me an invite to come back for a women's conference in March.
That's quite an honor.
Yes, that's really special. A lot of Liberians followed me on the show and I've become a role model to them, you know, to show them that life goes on. You can't keep dwelling on the past. Just the Liberians alone probably voted me Fan Favorite. [Laughs] They're having this big women's conference in March and all the women across the world who are successful in business, arts, fashion, etc are going back to Liberia and talk about how we can rebuild the country. Just being invited; it's unbelievable and she's going to wear one of my designs, which is extra great. It's really an honor to able to go back after all this time and because of the show; that's amazing.
What do you have in mind for her dress?
Definitely something overly pleated, something with lots and lots of pleats. [Laughs]
We're glad you have a sense of humor about it.
I do. I've been reading you guys. And yes, I pout, but when you're on the runway and these people have your life in their hands I don't have time to be smiling on the runway. I have all these feelings when it comes to my work and I've been through so much to get where I am right now. Yes, I'm really serious and intense when it comes to the runway spot. Being joking around and saying funny stuff to the judges wasn't really my thing. But you know, so many times on that show I'm being a goofball with Jerell and they never showed any of it. I'm this serious, intense, African designer on the show and that's so not me. [Laughs]
But towards the end of the season they did show you joking and making snarky comments.
Yeah, when everybody else was out they decided to show that side of me. That's the only thing I wish they had shown; an even amount of me, being human and serious.
Now, you're more than just a designer, you're a painter, a dancer, you play the drums...
Yes, I dance, I do African drumming, painting, I'm like a jack-of-all-trades. Art is my first love, I started it out painting and doing art and then it just went from there. I don't now why but in my last year of high school I started drawing clothes. I used to do boxer shorts and little sneakers and I would sell them to the students to make some little extra money. I really didn't see it, but my teacher said 'why do you go into fashion design?'
Lorenzo is a musician, he plays the violin, so he was very touched by Tim's visit to your place when you played the drums.
Oh, cool. That was definitely one of the highlights of the season. See, I didn't see it when it aired because I was at the airport running errands and everybody kept saying 'Oh, you made me cry,' and I was saying to myself, 'That was a happy visit, what's going on? Why is everybody crying in America?' Then I finally watched it and I started crying, especially when I was talking about my parents because they were really happy for me.
Well, being the queens we are, of course we noticed everything, including the beautiful table set up with food and drinks to welcome Tim.
You have to, to anybody African, when you go to their houses they will offer you food and if you don't eat that food, there will be a problem. [Laughs] That's just how we are, being gracious when you have guests, offering them food. A friend of mine has a restaurant and she made up this drink called 'Kortotini'. Tim said he would have a Kortotini but he wouldn't eat anything, but we just have to force you to eat our food, that's just how we are. We eat and I guess that how we show our love, we cook and we feed you.
Do you play the drums professionally?
I actually just started doing it two years ago. We have this place here called River Market where all the artists get together on the weekend and they sell their stuff and I just happen to meet my drum partner one day and he told me about his playing the drums and he teaches kids. So I told him that I would love to do that and I told him that I danced. He said, "Why don't we start this group with dancing and drumming?" And that's how it started. My daughter is really artsy. She loves to sing and dance and model.
It was sweet when she walked on the runway with you.
That was her defining moment. I can't stop hearing the end of that one.
Have you always wanted to be on the show?
I have, since the first episode. That's why I was so excited when we went to Gristedes. That was my chance to finally do it. I've always wanted to be on Project Runway. A show to get on and show what I had and possibly get financing; I just needed to get ready for it. There's so much on that show and if you're not ready mentally it really messes you up and I think a few of the designers are still struggling from a lot of stuff that has happened. You have to have a good foundation. I have a really strong foundation around me. I had so many people wanting to come to my house for Tim's visit. I have so many people supporting me, my family, friends that are behind me. If I fall there's always someone to catch me. I'm really truly loved and after each challenge, people were praying and rooting for me and I felt that energy.
Once I got ready and my daughter was old enough to at least be own her own with my husband I felt comfortable sewing. I'm glad I was on the final season on Bravo because I really don't know what the future of the show is going to be.
You're one the most interesting designers on the show. You have such an interesting story and a strong point of view. You impressed us from day one with that first yellow dress. It was nice to see someone not afraid of color on the show.
Thank you. I'm not afraid of color. I don't know why a lot of people are. The industry is so superficial and that's the part of it that I really can't stand. You know, black makes you skinny, and this and that and the other. I just make clothes and I feel that if you're comfortable in your skin you can wear neon pink and still look fabulous and hot. It's not really what you wear; it's how you wear it. Doing color was easy for me. Well, I had my black phase too when I wasn't sure about my body and who I was as a woman and once you get secure in that you can wear anything. That's why I design anything in whatever color palette it is and I love bright colors. They remind me of the colors we use for our batik fabrics and I really wanted to incorporate that in my collection. A fashion-forward version of the clothes we wear in Africa. Anybody would buy and it wouldn't look like a costume or too ethnic. If you didn't know the influences, you would just buy and think it was great piece.
A lot of our readers and viewers of the show love you and kept defending you because they feel you design for real women.
I think that's why a lot of people talked about me even before the show aired. My model Katarina was a size 6 and they went on and on sometimes on the show like she was on a list for gastric bypass surgery or something and I got really annoyed with people telling me 'Make sure she doesn't look fat,' and if Tia was wearing it I'm sure the same comment wouldn't have flowed. I never traded Katarina because I don't think there's anything wrong with her body. She's a beautiful girl. She's super skinny to me, but she has curves and a little booty. I thought she looked fabulous in everything she wore. I kept her because she wasn't just pretty, she was very sweet too and when she told me she had never been to Bryant Park I asked why and she said she was too big. I told her 'girl, I'm going to get us to Bryant Park, don't you worry.' I wanted her to wear my finale piece and be her moment as well. We cried in the back. My heart goes out to her, she's such a great girl and I hope she gets a lot of opportunities from this show. The message that we sent to these models; it's horrible. If everybody stopped doing it, it wouldn't be such an issue for people to be a size 0 or 2 when it comes to casting. They could be a size 6 and get cast easily. There's nothing wrong with a size 6 girl.
When I talk about real women, I talk about women who look like me. I'm a size 10, I have hips, I have a butt. I'm really small on top and when it comes to my bottom I have to buy clothes that fit my hips and my butt and adjust it that it fits my waist. There are so many women who go through the same thing.
Speaking of your butt, could Bravo have shown it any more often on the show?
[Laughs] Oh, my god, it looked like I was struggling to carry it sometimes and when people see me in person they always say 'oh, you're so skinny.' No, it's that widescreen TV that everybody was watching me on, including myself. Every opportunity they had they showed my butt. My tribe in Liberia is actually known for women having the largest butts. When people meet me they automatically know I'm from Lorma.
The jewelry you designed for your collection is stunning. Are you designing a jewelry line as well? Is that something you have in mind?
Yes, jewelry and handbags. I only got a chance to do one handbag because I had to make those two extra outfits. I get a lot compliments on my jewelry and handbags and it's actually something that started as a hobby. I took this jewelry class here and I started making earrings for myself and so many people asked about them, so I decided to start making them to sell and that kind of took off like that. I didn't want jewelry in my collection that looked generic. I wanted to use African beads, I also used Thai silver... I felt it really represented who I was as a designer. The judges weren't all the way impressed with it but I stood by my jewelry and I put them on those models and I figured somebody out there would love it. You just have to do what you want in the final, that's your one chance to do and if you hold back you will always regret it. I spent a lot of time making that jewelry so I wasn't going to not put it in just because the judges didn't like it and I'm glad a lot of people took to it so that tells me that the people who matter will buy it.
Your music was by far the most memorable and beautiful.
The composer's name is Joshua and he's from Arkansas, but he's a little anti-celebrity. I told him that this was his opportunity to shine, everybody loved his music, and he knows that if he goes out there he will just blow up and I don't think he's ready for that yet, but I'm pushing it. He has a MySpace page. The song is called 'Binti' and it means first daughter. I loved the song even before I knew what it meant.
We also love the fans you used. The models looked so sexy and hot fanning themselves.
President Clinton has a library here, it's a library and gift store, and he goes to Africa a lot so they usually get different things from all the countries he's visited. Those fans are from Nigeria. It amazed me how they had colors that really complemented my line. I went in there probably a week before I left because I wanted to get different gifts for my models, I wanted them to have something African and I happened to see the fans and I immediately wanted to have them as accessories so that the girls who didn't have jewelry would have fans. People in Africa have fans all the time and it just gives an exotic look without being too much.
You really had a gorgeous collection. We knew it was going to be a tough decision for the judges to decide between you and Leanne. You both had very strong collections.
We did, but honestly, after the evaluation I really thought it was going to be me. You know, from what they said to her and to me. I think that's why I was most disappointed. If they had told me that I had a one-note collection, would I have won? I had to really just get past that part of it. It was tough, it was almost like a death. I felt like a zombie for a week or two. I really thought it was a dream and it didn't really happen. I believe in God and I really don't feel he brought me that far just to say 'that's it.' I won Fan Favorite, which is great. It shows that people really love me and that meant so much to me.
We're thrilled that you won, but we were actually surprised. We thought it was going to go to Blayne or somebody like that. Someone with catch-phrases and more of a "character" on the show.
Yes, he was a character and so many people hated his character but Blayne is the sweetest person I know. It really hurt me that everybody was so negative to him and that probably was really hard on him as well. If you really get to know him, that's just him, the whole "I love your face," that's really him and there are so many parts of him that they didn't show. He would just have everybody cracking up. He's the sweetest guy; just very sweet.
That's what most of the designers told us. Leanne recently told us the same thing.
I love Blayne, I love Jerell. Jerell is probably the one I'm the closest to. We talk almost every other day.
Best and worst memory on the show.
Best memory was definitely walking down the runway with my daughter at the end. That's the one thing that I pictured in my mind when I used to fantasize about being on the show and it came true, I had a great collection that I was proud of.
Worst memory? Probably the second episode when I thought I might be going home over that shark dress. I just didn't have time to finish the dress. The fins were not intentional, people. That was definitely my worst moment on the show. I think it was the moment when I started getting homesick and missing my daughter, I hadn't talked to her in about a week. It was all kinds of emotions; it wasn't just the dress at that point. If you had told me that my hair looked like crap I would've burst out crying that day. It just happened to be Nina and it came out that way.
It was probably tough for you to be away from your daughter for so long.
That was the hardest part. One day I talked to her and she said 'Mommy, do you even love me anymore?' 'Are you ever coming home?' She thought I'd left her. She didn't understand Project Runway. Now, she knows Project Runway, Tim, Fashion Week, collection…these are all new words in her vocabulary.
What did you think of Tim as a mentor?
Tim was great but I think he had his favorites, though.
Really? Tell us, we won't tell anybody.
I think so. I think we all knew who his favorites were and that's totally normal. Everybody has their favorites. I had my favorites on the show. It's like being a teacher and having your favorite students. I know he really liked Keith, he was very sad to see Keith go. Terri, Leanne...yeah, he really liked Keith and Terri. Those were his favorites.
Some of our readers thought that he didn't like Stella.
I think he liked Stella, but a lot of it had to do with, you know, Stella complains a lot sometimes. I think he would get frustrated in that, and it's the same with Kenley. There are certain things he loved about them, but just like a father, there are certain things you're going to get frustrated with.
What was your reaction when you found out that Tim Gunn was going to be the guest judge? Were you shocked?
Well, I know Kenley was. [Laughs] With all the stuff that happened on the show my shock factor was so low I just said 'OK.' I just figured at that moment I knew he really liked my collection, I knew I had impressed him when he came to Little Rock because I don't think on the show he really got me as a designer. When he came to visit me you could tell that he was impressed. That was good because I really needed to win him over in that sense, and after that I really didn't care. I wanted to win but I felt I needed to show who I was, show my point of view and stand by who I was as a designer and I don't regret anything I said or did on the show. If I did it all over again I would probably do the same thing.
Even the wedding dress?
I don't regret the color of my wedding dress. I got married in that color. I just look at it like this: there are four designers left, should the four of us come back with a cream color wedding dress? At this day and age when people wear black to get married? I felt that we should all have four different points of view. When we left Michael Kors said 'go home, be creative, but remember, it's a show and in a show things are a little bit exaggerated.'
So, yes, I probably had a few extra ruffles that I wouldn't have on the rack in my store, otherwise, I don't think the color was sad and ugly, I don't think it made the model look fat. I just looked at that as whatever. They already knew who was going to Fashion Week and in that sense to me they already knew who was going to win. Look at Jerell's wedding dress, it was the same similar silhouette he had just won for the evening gown dress, all of sudden, the design is ugly but a month ago was the greatest dress on the stage, c'mon...
How did you feel about Jerell having to compete after he won that challenge?
I think that sucked. I would've been pissed but Jerell has a much better attitude than I do. He took it really well, I was surprised. He didn't flinch and that's why I love him. He was the one who would get me in check sometimes when I started freaking out. He would say 'Get yourself together, girl.' I'm glad he saw the bigger picture and he didn't take it too hardly. I don't think it was fair.
What did you think of Michael and Nina as judges?
I loved Nina even when she gave me a bad critique. The only time I was a little annoyed was when she said something about my jewelry. She said it wasn't an accessory show, but a design show. I know that, but Kenley made accessories for her wedding dress and that's OK, so why can't I make jewelry for mine? What's the problem?
I had mentioned that I had jewelry in my pieces and I guess they thought I was going to make all these jewelry pieces and I explained that I only had three or four necklaces. My thing is, if you judge me for something, judge somebody else for it. I love the top hat Kenley made but nobody said anything about her making it.
I have no problem with Kenley and I'll say it on record. I called her a week ago and tried to clear the air with her. I think she's a great designer, she's a very talented girl, she sews very well and there's a side of Kenley that a lot of people didn't get to see, a really sweet side that I saw several times because I lived with her as a roommate for five weeks. Maybe if they had seen a lot of that, it would've been kind of even. When you do get on these shows you really have to think about the big picture and how things are going to look. I don't think at the time when all those incidents were happening to her she thought things were going to turn out like this, like America against her and she is really going through a hard time right now. She's a person, she has feelings, and if I said anything to contribute to hurt her feelings with comments I've made, whether they were justified or not, I truly apologize from the bottom of my heart and I wish her all the best on her career and hopefully people will give her a second chance because she really is a sweet girl and she's talented, otherwise she wouldn't have been on the show.
When you said on the show, "Somebody's dream is going to be crushed," we were touched; it felt sincere.
You know, they always ask you stuff, they want you to pin somebody, they want the dirt, and I said, 'I can't do that today. I'm not going to go there this week.' When Kenley came back, she came back with a great attitude, she apologized, I gave her a hug. We were good and we left there in good terms and then you watch the back shows and you start getting angry again because you hear stuff she said but that's fine. At the end of day, she has a dream just like I do, so who am to say that I don't want her to win, I want her to go home? Even if that's what she's thinking about me, which was what she did say in the Part 1 episode when we were asked who we wanted to go to Fashion Week. I didn't say anything negative about her. I just said Jerell and Leanne. And I never said anything negative about her designs, I only said negative things about her character and I made a point about never saying anything negative about her designs because that's her money, that's where she makes money, she's not making money off her character.
But this is not the end for you at all. Some of the most successful designers on the show are the ones who didn't win the final prize.
No, it's not, by far. Surprisingly, I'm getting a lot of requests for wedding dresses, thank you very much, Heidi. [Laughs] That's really funny. I have 30 wedding dresses people want me to make right now.
There you go, so, what's next for Korto?
Next for me is I really want to get my line going, whether it's my accessory line first and eventually by the end of the next year working on a clothing line. That might be the best way to go for me, because I can easily try to finance that and then use whatever I make from that to get my clothes out there. I'm still searching for somebody who would love to invest in me and would help me get my line out. I'm doing the boutique thing. I have a lot of boutiques that want to carry my line, I think I can handle that right now. I'm also going to Liberi;, I'll send you guys pictures.
We think you have a great future ahead of you, Korto. We love you.
Even my poutiness? [Laughs]
Yes, of course.
I read you guys all the time. I thought I was going to kill you when I had that fight with Joe. I was going to strangle you guys.
You turned on me. I'm so glad the editors loved me. They kept showing Joe saying 'I love it, I love it, I love it.' Until finally Tim showed up and asked if he had issues and I'm like, 'Are you kidding me?'
Most of our readers were happy with Leanne winning, but we had a lot of them defending you and your collection.
I get a lot of emails from the viewers of the show saying that they cried when I didn't win and I'm glad people can just go beyond themselves and feel your emotions. So many people live their dreams through other people whether they're immigrants, moms, African-Americans or women; those five groups could feel what I went through and I'm so glad I could be some kind of inspiration for them, show them that you can still do it. I'm 33, I'm still breathing, I'm still going to keep going. Definitely everybody else needs to do the same thing.
Where can people find you?
I have a website. it's outdated at the moment, but I'm going to get it updated so the fans and people interested in my designs can go there. They can also go to my MySpace page.
[Photos: Getty Images/WireImage/Bravotv.com/Korto's MySpace Page]
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