Melissa Rivera Torres on not being the “token gay girl” on “Ellen’s Design Challenge”

Season 2 of Ellen’s Design Challenge premiered on HGTV last Monday night, and not only am I super excited because I love the show (and basically all things HGTV—and all things Ellen DeGeneres, of course), but because this season has three out lesbian contestants.

edcphotos via HGTV

I was able to chat with each of them and we will be putting the interviews up week by week, so you will have a chance to get to know them over the course of the show. This week, meet Melissa Rivera Torres.

Melissa is 36 and from Pleasant Hill, Calif. She “loves to use bold colors and fun materials that allow her pieces stand out and make people smile.” She uses stainless steel, wood, PVC, acrylic and aluminum in her modern industrial work and “once transformed a 28,000-square-foot warehouse into the stage for Hawaii’s first ever Fashion Month.”

We spoke with Melissa about how she originally applied for the show and the call from Ellen that sealed the deal. How did you get into design?

Melissa Rivera Torres: It may sound sort of cliché, but ever since I was little I was making things and creating things but I never knew that industrial design was an area you could get into. I was born and raised in Mexico and I didn’t have crazy art classes or anything like that and although I had a great art teacher, it was mainly just painting and drawing. So I would make up my own inventions or make toys for my brother! Once I got to high school I was able to hear more about industrial design and I loved it. There are so many areas of design you can get into and I just love being able to create.


AE: How did you end up getting involved in the show?

MRT: Well my brother actually read about the show and sent it to me! I have been on another HGTV show called The White Room Challenge but it was a smaller show and I was only on for one episode, so I didn’t think they would actually take me for this show but I thought I had to try it even though I wasn’t sure if I had a chance. After I applied I started hearing from them more and more, but I didn’t really think wow this might actually be happening until they started asking for pictures and videos of my life. It was really weird timing for me though because my girlfriend and I were literally in the process of moving to California from Arkansas so when they would request things like Skype interviews, I had no idea where I would be or if I would even have wi-fi! So it was an exciting but hectic time for me. [laughs]


AE: So how did you find out you made it on the show?

MRT: Ellen called me. [laughs]


AE: What!? Ellen called you to tell you herself?

MRT: Yep. [laughs] It was so nuts because we were seriously driving across the country and towing our stuff and a car, so we had to go super slow on the highway and the producer called and said that we were going to get a phone call shortly and that we needed to have someone take a video of the phone call, like a friend or family member or something. So we tried and the call would not go through because we were in the middle of nowhere! So the producer text and said we need to go somewhere with better reception so we drove a little further and found a truck stop but I had to tell one of the truck drivers to turn off their trucks because it was so loud!


AE: So you took the call from Ellen at the truck stop on the side of the road after you told the truck drivers to turn off their trucks? [laughs]

MRT: Yep! So then Ellen calls and says I made it to the show and that I have to be there in five days.


AE: How long was this conversation?

MRT: It was short. She was really friendly, but to the point of course. She said make sure I take care of myself and that she will see me soon. Overall it was maybe a two-minute conversation.


AE: Wow, how cool, though! Once you knew you were on the show, what was going through your mind?

MRT: Well right away we were given a homework assignment, which was to come up with a design of anything we wanted. We could draw it however we wanted, whether it was digital, pencils, crayons, whatever. I had my computer but I didn’t have any of the programs on there that I normally used so I literally went to Walgreens and bought Sharpies and created my design with Sharpies.


AE: So the design homework that you sent them, did you build that or was it just a picture?

MRT: No, we didn’t build it, but it was used in the first challenge in the casting episode! We found out when we got there that although they chose 10 of us, only eight were actually on the show, so the design homework we did was how the judges determined who would be in the bottom three, which I was. Once they determined who was in the bottom three based on our homework, then we had 30 minutes to design a chair, which is what they used to determine which two were going home.


AE: I noticed on your website that your designs are more focused on kids, did you find that designing furniture was more of a challenge for you on the show than for others since you focus more on designing toys?

MRT: Well, not really. My stuff is more playful, for sure, but although everyone had more experience in furniture, I knew that not only would I be given a carpenter, but that I was also used to making things functional and I liked that aspect of it. I just went in confident!


AE: Let’s get serious. Tell me what was it like to be one of three lesbians on the show this season?

MRT: It was so cool! I was glad I wasn’t the “token gay girl” and known just for that. [laughs]

mrtphoto via Melissa Rivera Torres

AE: I’m pretty sure Ellen has that covered. 

MRT: [laughs]


AE: But in all seriousness, how would describe this experience for you?

MRT: It was so amazing to be able to be a part of this. I was able to make new friends and push myself to do something I hadn’t really done before, not to mention getting to meet Ellen. I am so grateful I was one of the ones picked!

Ellen’s Design Challenge airs Monday nights at 9/8c on HGTV. Follow Melissa on Twitter: @Unleashstudio