Judge Vern Yip called Rachel Kate's den makeover a "stunning effort" in last week's premiere episode of HGTV's "Design Star."

The Minneapolis South High graduate was off to a stellar start, but still has to dazzle the judges for many more weeks to come or else be booted off the show.

We chatted with Kate about life as a reality-show contestant, her personal style and meeting Yip. But she refused to reveal if she was crowned the newest "Design Star." "You'll have to watch and find out," she said.


Q You grew up in a family of custom motorcycle builders. How did you become a designer?

A From the fifth grade I started drawing interior sketches and I was always rearranging our house. At South High School, my favorite classes were auto shop and ceramics and I like to build things like tables and benches. I was going to go to Dunwoody for auto mechanics but I visited my girlfriend in New York and she told me to apply for the Parsons School of Design. I was accepted. I graduated with a degree in fashion studies.

Q Describe your style.

A For my business, Rachel Kate Design, I do more traditional work because that's where the jobs are. But my personal style is eclectic rustic and a bit minimal. Now that I'm living part time in Florida, I'm into the coastal beach-house look.

Q How did you become a finalist on "Design Star"?

A I'd never seen the show but my clients and friends kept telling me to apply. But a reality show didn't sound like fun and I'm not competitive by nature. A few years later, my daughter was older, and I thought, I'm 35 -- I have nothing to lose. I went to a casting call and had to do mini design challenges, make a video and impress casting agents. Once I found out I was one of the 12 finalists, I watched the show and became a huge fan.

Q Do you want to be the next David Bromstad, who won the first season and is now the host?

A Of course. I want to bring my enthusiasm for design styles from across the country and I think that could translate into a show. It's my passion.

Q It sounds like being a reality-show star was a life-changer.

A They flew me out to L.A. I had to buy clothes, get my hair done and look good. I had to be prepared to be there for six weeks away from my family -- my daughter was 4 at the time. And I had to keep everything secret.

Q How did your first challenge go? You had to design a den in the Hollywood mansion where all the contestants were to live.

A It was overwhelming because I was just trying to focus on what I needed to do with a million cameras in my face. When I was on a ladder, the camera was right under me -- not a flattering shot. We had orders, deadlines and budgets that we had to learn in 10 minutes.

Q What was the inspiration for the den?

A A jungle lounge. Me and my partner had to use the two items we brought with us -- a ceramic moose head and leopard pillow. We added a zebra rug, antique chest and potted bamboo trees.

Q Did you really build the Moroccan-style cocktail table for your den, or did you have help?

A I drew the specs and designed it for a carpenter to build. But I tweaked it and painted it.

Q Why did you exclaim on the show, "It's the hardest thing I've ever done"?

A That kind of stress was new to me. I wanted the first challenge to be perfect but knew that a lot of elements were out of my control. We were all so happy when it was over and we could relax and move into the Hollywood house.


Q You're off to a fantastic start. The judges said you impressed them the most among all the designers.

A I was in shock. I thought I would come in and be the sneaky nice contestant and never expected to win the first challenge. I just didn't want to go home.

Q What was the biggest surprise about being on a reality show?

A You completely forget that there are cameras on you. You become completely unguarded.

Q Two of the people on "Design Star" are from Minnesota -- judge Genevieve Gorder and host David Bromstad. Did you hang out with them?

A There was no interacting at all. The judges are just there to judge. Then they send us back to our quarters.

Q Vern Yip is a hoot. What did you think of him?

A He's so cute and he has a good eye. I like his taste.

Q Are you the next "Design Star"?

A Silly question. You'll have to watch every episode and find out. It's all top-secret stuff.

Q What was your family's reaction to the show? A They're excited to watch it. My daughter saw a commercial for the show and said "Oh, my gosh, Mommy, you're on TV." Then she said "Awkward." Yeah -- it kind of is.

Lynn Underwood • 612-673-7619