April 01, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT

SPOILER ALERT! If you have yet to watch tonight’s episode of Project Runway, do not read any further. You will find nothing but spoilers ahead. And that will likely make you mad. 

Project Runway’s Maya Luz had an excellent shot at making the Bryant Park top three. This season’s most consistent designer, she earned high scores six times and never landed in the bottom. But as we all witnessed on tonight’s episode, the 22-year-old New Yorker opted to leave Runway altogether. EW was the first to speak to Maya about her controversial choice. In fact, we spoke to her before she’d even watched the episode herself.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, how are you feeling about your decision all these months later?

Maya Luz: I feel good. From the very beginning, I had reservations about doing [the show], just because I didn’t know if it was really me, the whole TV thing. But it was amazing to be offered this opportunity, so I decided to take it. In the very beginning, I really did want to win and I wanted to go to Bryant Park. But as time went on, I decided it just wasn’t my time yet to go all the way. I’d just graduated from school this past May. I did an internship with another designer, but I haven’t had a full-time design job yet. Those kinds of thoughts were wearing down on me during the show, so I decided one morning, out of the blue. That’s what felt right to me.

How long did it take you to make the decision?

I really only started thinking about it the day before, after the print challenge. When I thought of having my life back, it seemed appealing to me. I didn’t talk to anybody about it because I wanted to stay strong and not get emotional. I talked to Tim first and he understood what I was saying. When I said, “I think I’m still searching for who am I as a designer, I’ve just graduated, and I have a lot to learn about this industry,” he agreed with me. He said, “I can see that. And I think it’s very brave of you.”

But you had such a strong chance of making it to the top three.

We’ll never know, but I have a pretty good feeling that I might have made it to the final three. But that’s why I decided not to go through with it. There’s so much at stake. When I come out with a line, I want it to be something dignified, something that I’ve had time to work on in a way that I didn’t through these circumstances [on Project Runway]. I didn’t want to bottom out. If I won, I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder and fade away slowly. I felt like I would be getting into [the industry] in a naïve way, not really knowing what I was doing, not being able to handle the business aspect of it.

Tim asked you if you if you could stick it for out one last challenge. Have you had any pangs of regret — like, maybe I should have hung on?

I don’t regret anything because it felt right at the time. It still feels right. Certainly I wonder what could have happened had I gone all the way. But I still feel like, I’m a baby. I have a lot to learn. Later down the line, I would love to see myself on the show again, competing at an older age at a higher level, with more experience under my belt. I think I have what it takes — the talent and the drive.

At the end of last week’s episode, you seemed disappointed that you didn’t win. A lot of people were wondering, what does she have to do to win? Did that influence your decision to leave?

I think subconsciously it did on some level because I had been in the top so many times at that point. It was going pretty well. It was making me wonder, what is it that I’m missing? I’m almost there, but there’s always something that’s not quite right for the judges. And on the same note, they’re just three eyes—or four, whatever, counting the guest judge. [Laughs] There’s a lot of other people in the world.

And it is just a TV show, after all.

Exactly. That’s the other part of it, too. It is about fashion, but it’s also about making a show and having a story. That turned me off initially. There have to be people who are really attractive, or really quirky or really funny, or all those things. But in the fashion industry, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how cool your personality is. If you make good work and if you can sell it, then you’re gonna do well.

In tonight’s episode, there was a flashback to Nina telling you that your work was too referential. Did that critique influence your decision? The editing made it seem like it did.

Mmm… Well, that’s unfortunate to hear. That is not the reason. It’s an extremely ridiculous thing to say. Not that I don’t respect Nina’s opinion, ’cause certainly I respect it. She gave me a lot of good feedback. But you could say that about every single person on the show — most specifically, the print challenge with Emilio. His print was Louis Vuitton, who’s done [a similar monogram pattern] for several seasons. The only reason why Nina said that [to me] was because Jay had said it in the workroom, which I don’t think they showed on the episode. He said [about my open-weave jacket], “Oh that looks like Yves Saint Laurent.” Because Yves Saint Laurent did these shoes — they were shoes, not a jacket — which had the same cage effect. So he said that and then all of a sudden it turns up on the runway. It was magic!

A case of a producer slipping something to the judges?

Yeah, a little man behind the curtain. I didn’t say any of that on the runway because I felt like, What’s the point? Sometimes I wish I had. But it’s just not worth battling it. I always like to be respectful on camera, especially to the judges.

How do you feel about your departure allowing Anthony to come back?

Well, honestly, it just refuels that kindling flame I had about [the show] being about personality. Obviously I love Anthony — who doesn’t? He’s hilarious. I couldn’t even write the things that he comes up with. I think he will be successful because he’s got this really charming charisma, but his dresses — he did make a lot of the same type of thing over and over. That’s what he’s good at. He’s a dressmaker. He can do that and be successful at it.

Seth Aaron and Emilo had very different reactions to your departure. Seth Aaron defended you, while Emilio called you a quitter.

People are going to say a lot of things and I can’t let that get to me. I never thought Emilio was ever very warm and fuzzy. I think he was there from the very beginning to just bang it out and win and not worry about anybody else. But when you’re not around anybody else, you need some human compassion, so we all kind of became friends with each other. I didn’t see a lot of that from Emilio, really. He had his moments, but for the most part, he really stuck to himself, in no-b.s. mode. So it doesn’t surprise me that he would say something like that. You can call it what you want. I wouldn’t call it quitting.

Who are you rooting for now?

I’m rooting for Mila. I really liked Jonathan too. They were my good buddies. And Amy. But I’m definitely rooting for Mila. Go girls!

What was your favorite design of the season?

My favorite design was [my outfit from] the hardware challenge, definitely. The necklace was probably my favorite piece because it is totally me: it’s beautiful and classic but also a little punk rock.

What’s next for you?

Right now, I am working on my handbag line — the spiky stuff, the ball-and-chains, all that stuff. I’m working on orders for boutiques and personal orders. Then I’m working on a collection for StyleWeek Providence in June. Jonathan and I are both showing. My collection is called Creature and it’s inspired by monsters. I’m also looking for a job in the design field and applying for my masters in London. I just want to gain more experience. You’ll be seeing more of me. [Laughs] Project Runway is just one little notch in the resumé, one little thing. I’ll be back.

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