Moment of truth on 'Runway'

Carol Hannah Whitfield is a 2007 graduate of the College of Charleston. She's the only finalist on this season of 'Project Runway' who did not attend design school.

Susan Whitfield never imagined she'd be the mother of a reality show star.

But with her daughter, Carol Hannah Whitfield, in the finals on season 6 of "Project Runway," that's precisely what's happened.

"We're very simple people," said Susan Whitfield, a church administrator in Anderson. Her husband, Brett, works with emotionally disturbed children. "We don't even have cable. But we are very thankful for the opportunity she has been given. She has been working for this for a long time."

Carol Hannah Whitfield, a 2007 graduate of the College of Charleston, and the two other finalists - design school graduates Althea Harper and Irina Shabayeva -- will have runway shows at New York City's Bryant Park on tonight's finale, airing at 10 on the Lifetime channel. The winner gets a cash prize of $100,000, a trip to Paris and an editorial feature in an issue of Marie Claire magazine.

Tonight's episode is the second of a two-parter that last week saw Whitfield, 24, come down with a stomach virus just days before the final fashion show.

The episode was filmed in February during Fashion Week, but delayed in airing because the series switched from Bravo to the Lifetime network this season.

"It was comforting knowing that it was long ago," said Susan Whitfield of watching her ailing daughter. "Even watching the preview for this week was hard. She's crying because she's so sick, and she hardly ever cries. That brought a tear to my eye."

Shabayeva, who was born in the Republic of Georgia and raised in New York, has emerged as the villainess this season, accusing Harper of copying her designs while Whitfield steered clear of the drama.

"I'm very proud that Carol hasn't said anything that she would regret," Susan Whitfield said. "She has maintained a sense of integrity and kindness. There are a lot of young girls that are following her, and she has been a great example to them."

Whitfield, 24, a native of Anderson who now lives in New York City, started sewing when she was about 7 years old.

"She went though school sewing prom dresses, bridesmaid dresses and wedding dresses," Susan Whitfield said.

But unlike her two final competitors, she did not attend design school.

"She asked us what we thought about design school," Susan Whitfield said. "We don't know anything about fashion, but we know that a college education does round you out a bit. We told her we'd love to help her go to design school, but let's get the college degree first."

While working toward a business and marketing degree, Whitfield was determined to continue designing.

"Even in her dorm room, she had three sewing machines," Susan Whitfield said. Whitfield helped pay her way through college by selling dresses.

After college, "She was really deliberating about how to continue on," College of Charleston studio art professor Sara Frankel said. "My understanding is that she did the Charleston Fashion Week and then auditioned for Project Runway. When she was successful in both of those, I think she realized that she didn't need to go to fashion school."

Whitfield participated in Charleston Fashion Week in 2008 and was a finalist that year in the Emerging Local Designer Competition.

Frankel, who taught Whitfield in six courses, said she thinks now it is a benefit that Whitfield is self-taught.

"Her designs are hers and don't look like student work," she said.

As a student, Frankel said, Whitfield "was not an art star. She took her time and learned how to draw. She didn't draw attention to herself at all. She was very quiet but as she progressed, she got more and more confident. Then when you got to know her, she was very witty and had a dry sense of humor and was sort of self- deprecating, too."

Frankel e-mailed Whitfield about the viewing party the College of Charleston is throwing at 10 tonight at the Stern Center Ballroom.

"She wrote back and said 'I wish I could be there,' " Frankel said.

Susan and Brett Whitfield will watch the finale in Atlanta.

"My coworkers usually get together and watch it, but we're going to drive down after work and watch it with my father," Susan Whitfield said. "He'll be 82 next week, and I just felt like it was fitting to go to his house and watch it with him. I never dreamed that my father would be watching 'Project Runway.'"