It's hard to believe that when Project Runway NZ star Benjamin Alexander was in high school, he wanted to be a lawyer.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the sassy, straight-talking designer has just been crowned the first-ever winner for the TVNZ 2 reality show.
"My life would be pretty different if I'd been a lawyer – I'd have a lot more money that's for sure," jokes Benjamin. But the 23-year-old Aucklander has walked away from his time on telly $50,000 richer after beating out 13 other aspiring designers.
Despite the massive accomplishment, when Woman's Day asks how the young talent felt in the moment he won the competition, he replies simply, "It felt good."
Benjamin's not a man of many words, but he became popular on the show for his no-nonsense attitude amid the catty backstabbing between some of the other contestants.
"I was just how I was in real life," he insists. "I knew I wouldn't get along with many people, so I just stuck to myself. I was still civil with everyone, but I knew people would p@!% me off, so I wasn't going to be fake and be their friend, then talk s@!% about them behind their backs."
Surprisingly, when asked about his highlight from the competition, Benjamin says it was the tight bond he formed with fellow contestant Caitlin Crisp, who was shockingly eliminated in week nine.
"We're a girl gang now," he smiles. "That's a testament to how non-bulls* I am because I made a friend on the show and now it's over, she's still my friend."
The fact that he was on a reality show – let alone won the competition – is still a surprise to the budding fashion star.
"Never in my life did I plan on being on TV," he explains. "It was something I had no desire to do, but my mum sent me the application, so I thought I might as well apply. Then one thing led to another and I was like, 'I might as well do the show then!'"
Benjamin smiles when his mother Jan comes up in conversation, crediting her as his biggest supporter over the years.
"I've had an amazing mum and family who have all believed in me and let me follow this path without question," he tells. "Mum was really excited when I told herI had made it on to the show, but we were both a bit like, 'What the hell? What am I going to look like on television?'"
Growing up, nothing came easy for the designer, who was raised by his mother after his parents split up while he was in intermediate school. Tragically, his father passed away when he was only 17.
"I'd say Dad would be pretty proud of where I am now," says Benjamin. "Losing him was definitely hard to go through, but it's another thing in life that you've got to just deal with. I guess, with my upbringing, I have a lot more appreciation and respect for everything and understand the value in hard work."
It wasn't until Benjamin attended a careers fair at high school that he discovered Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, and actually thought about studying fashion.
"The first thing I made was a mesh dress for a friend at the end of Year 12 in high school and she still has it," he grins. "It has a few holes in it now – it's been out on the town one too many times!"
Benjamin went on to study his masters at the prestigious design school and after six years, he graduated in 2017, just in time for filming Project Runway earlier this year.
Since shooting finished, the emerging fashionista has been snapped up to work with the show's judge Sally-Ann Mullin. The former Fashion Quarterly editor now heads up a hub of stylists for Bauer Media, the publisher of Woman's Day – and Benjamin is thrilled to be on her team.
"I fell in love with Sally-Ann on the show – she's just amazing and so chic," gushes Benjamin. "After we wrapped, I went to Italy for a while and when I got back, I emailed Sally-Ann saying, 'I want to work for you. I don't care what it is, but I want to work for you!'"
However, Benjamin still has his eyes set on the future of his fashion label. "My dream is to just be a designer," he declares. "The $50,000 prize money will be going straight into my business. I've had to work hard to get to where I am – really hard. I'm relentlessly dedicated to making this my future."
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