Sometimes the news, a headline on the internet or elsewhere, stops you in your tracks, a melancholy surprise, a nudge from the past.
Here’s one that jarred us: “‘Project Runway’ alum Wendy Pepper dead at 53.”
This was sad news for The Georgetowner, because some of us got to know her back in 2004 when she graced the cover of our publication. She also offered her writing and advice about fashion, about which she was knowledgeable as a designer and as a unique and original artist.
She was indeed a member of the first group of contestants on “Project Runway,” one of a then growing number of reality shows, this one featuring fledgling designers competing against one other in a series of rounds. The show starred supermodel Heidi Klum and charismatic fashionista Tim Gunn.
Pepper, whose real name was Anne Stewart, had her own design business and lived with her young daughter in Middleburg, Virginia. She managed the not inconsiderable feat of finishing third in the finals. Not only that, she had a return run on “Project Runway,” as well as a credible appearance on “Celebrity Poker Showdown” and “Battle of the Network Reality Stars.”
The unexpected news of her passing does not encapsulate her life or the impression she made on people who encountered her. Nor does her foray into the hyperventilated world of reality shows define her gifts and talents, although it did showcase a penchant to go to the edge in her designs, to find beautiful looks in unconventional material. She was known for her designs of children’s clothes and gowns and dresses for adults.
In her obituary, she was noted for being “a chef, a writer and a life-long entrepreneur,” in addition to being a designer, a mother and, as it turned out, a poker player.
She applied for the show without ever actually having played poker, and did well.
I met Pepper in the aftermath of the “Project Runway” project, visited her at her home and workplace in Middleburg and shared coffee with her at Tryst in Adams Morgan. She turned out to be a bit of a chameleon, gifted, sharp, with a subtle wit. Her record — a degree in anthropology, her adaptation to the world of reality television, time spent living in Nepal, her preference for the quiet life in Virginia — speaks to a willingness to accept, even seek out, challenges.
On “Project Runway,” she quickly realized that there are roles to be played, noting that, at first, because she was the oldest among the youngish contestants, she was cast as a motherly type. But “before you know it, I was the villainess,” she said in an article in Washington’s Finest in 2005.
If you talked with her long enough, saw the designs in her studio, watched her at work, you got the sense of her original spirit.
Anne Eustis Pepper Stewart passed away Nov. 12. No cause of death was given.
A funeral service will be held Friday, Dec. 1, at Christ Church in Georgetown.