A Muslim designer from Utah chosen for the fashion-competition show "Project Runway" said she tried out for the TV show to promote her modest clothing designs. But to her surprise, she also has become a role model.
Ayana Ife says since appearing on the show, she has received feedback on social media from many Muslim women saying, "Wow, you're representing us well."
She has been told she is "normalizing Muslims," Ife said.
"When I first started on 'Project Runway, my main goal was, obviously, I want to win," Ife told the Salt Lake Tribune. "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."
Ife, 27, who was born in Brooklyn, New York, and grew up in a small New York town, moved to Salt Lake City two years ago in search of a fresh start following a divorce.
Ife moved in with her sister until she found a place of her own. Somewhat to her surprise, she discovered she likes Utah a lot, Ife said.
"I actually had a really warm, welcoming experience," she said. "Before I came here, I didn't know any Mormons. But now I have Mormon friends, and they're really cool."
lfe has also widened expectations of who lives in Salt Lake City.
Chances are most viewers don't expect to see a Muslim from Utah.
While "Project Runway" contestants tend toward outrageous, revealing designs, Ife's fashion niche is she creates modest but chic clothing, not exposing a lot of skin.
"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."
Ife admitted to being a bit overwhelmed when she arrived in New York for the show 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!'"
Ife wears a hijab - a Muslim headscarf.
People often are surprised to discover she actually speaks English, she said. People assume she's from the "Middle East" or is "supposed to be Arab or something like that" just because she is Muslim. Ife said. Her family is from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
She realizes her platform on "Project Runway" is much larger than an opportunity to win a reality TV competition show.
"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."