Muslim woman from Utah represents her religion on ‘Project Runway’

<b>Television • </b>Ayana Ife did not expect to become a role model for Islam — she just wants to win the reality TV fashion design competition.

(Photo: Barbara Nitke/Lifetime) Ayana Ife hard a work on her first “Project Runway” design.

One of the contestants on the new season of “Project Runway” is a Salt Lake City resident who has, to her surprise, found herself representing her religion on the reality/competition show.

To a lot of people’s surprise, the religion she’s representing is Islam.

When I first started on ‘Project Runway,’” said Ayana Ife, “my main goal was, obviously, I want to win. And I really, really, really need this exposure. I want to be an acclaimed designer for the modest market. I really want to be branded that way. Not just for Muslim women — for women who love modest fashion.

But now that I’m actually on ‘Project Runway,’ the feedback I’ve been getting came out in a way that I didn’t really expect.”

(Photo: Barbara Nitke/Lifetime) Salt Lake's Ayana Ife is competing in Season 16 of “Project Runway.”

On social media, Ife is hearing from “a lot of Muslim women saying, ’Wow, you’re representing us so well. We really feel inspired. We feel like you’re normalizing Muslims — especially in our current political climate.‘”

And, perhaps, widening expectations of who lives in Salt Lake City. Chances are that most viewers don’t expect to see a Muslim from Utah.

Ife — who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in a small New York town — moved to Salt Lake City two years ago because she “kind of needed a fresh start” after a divorce. She moved in with her sister until she found a place of her own and, somewhat to her surprise, discovered she likes Utah “a lot.”

I actually had a really warm, welcoming experience. Before I came here, I didn’t know any Mormons,” the 27-year-old said with a laugh. “But now I have Mormon friends, and they’re really cool.”

Her friends and family are excited that she was cast on “Project Runway,” Lifetime’s fashion design competition show, after applying several times. Ife’s fashion niche is that she creates modest-but-chic clothing — she doesn’t expose a lot of skin, but her designs tend to be form-fitting.

And, while “Project Runway” contestants tend toward outrageous, revealing designs, Ife said she is not at a disadvantage.

It didn’t get in the way of me advancing,” she said. “More than anything, the judges really, really encouraged us as designers to be who we are.

There are a couple of ups and downs when it comes to different types of challenges. That’s going to be something you have to watch for.”

(New episodes of “Project Runway” premiere Thursdays at 7 p.m. on Lifetime .)

(Photo: Barbara Nitke/Lifetime) Ayana Ife’s final design for the first challenge of “Project Runway.”

She readily acknowledges she was a bit overwhelmed when she arrived in New York and met hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.

It really was the craziest, most surreal experience,” Ife said. “When Heidi said, ‘Oh, hello designers’ — in that moment, I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in the show! I’m in the TV screen!’”

The first thing you notice about Ife is that she wears a hijab — a Muslim headscarf — but if you’re expecting a shy, retiring woman, you’re in for another surprise. She’s funny and quickly engaging.

Because of how I look on the outside, people do think maybe I’ll be more quiet. Or think that I won’t understand them or something like that,” Ife said.

She laughs about it, but people are often surprised to discover that, yes, she speaks English.

People sometimes think I’m from the Middle East or I’m supposed to be Arab or something like that just because I am Muslim,” Ife said. “My family is from Trinidad and Tobago. We’re from the Caribbean. We’re not from Saudi Arabia.”

But she harbors no ill will toward anyone who approaches her with preconceived notions.

Most people just don’t know a Muslim,” Ife said. “Before I came to Utah, I didn’t know any Mormons. It was just whatever you see on TV and whatever you hear in whispers. And stereotypical things are not always the nicest things.

But once you get to know people, they’re like, ‘Oh, this person is actually really cool. This is not what I thought.’”

So far, her “Project Runway” experience is not exactly what she expected — not because of what’s on the show, but because of what surrounds it.

Ife didn’t expect to become an overnight symbol. Even a role model.

Of course, I want to inspire my little sisters and tell them, ‘Yay! Live your dreams,’” she said. “But this kind of ended up being a little bigger than maybe I had initially planned. And so it’s a little scary. That’s a lot of weight on my shoulders.

But at the same time, I think it’s such a positive thing that I’m going to do my best to continue representing in the best light.”