Trading Spaces debuted on Oct. 13, 2000. The TLC series was a groundbreaking early reality TV show that spawned imitators and captured the nation’s attention, but ultimately burned out as fast as it became a phenomenon. After just four years, perky host Paige Davis was fired and replaced by no one. She was eventually re-hired, but it was too late. Although the show’s new producers cast for conflict and even staged a fight, that didn’t help, and the series was quietly cancelled after eight seasons.
Besides its effect on television, the show meant a lot to me: It was one that I regularly talked with friends about, both in real life and online, and it was also the first reality show I observed being produced. When I spent three days with the cast and crew on location in the suburbs of Houston, I learned so much about what it takes to produce reality television. (I was told that I was the first journalist to be there for an entire shoot; a few local reporters popped in and out during my time there, but no one had witnessed the process from start to finish.) From going to Ikea with Doug Wilson to witnessing the reveal from a monitor placed inside a suburban couple’s bathroom, it was a joy to report, even as I learned about what it takes to produce a reality TV show.
I wrote about how the show is produced for Salon, and in honor of the 15th anniversary, I’m republishing that Nov. 26, 2002 story here. Enjoy re-entering the world of Trading Spaces. (Update: …which is returning to TLC in 2018, with Doug and the other original designers.)
Home Decorating and Other Lies
Press pause. You see three people on their knees in the corner of an empty bedroom. Two of the people are wearing matching shirts, and they’re watching the third. He’s wedging a screwdriver under the lid of a paint can. A few trays and a roller sit on the dropcloth that covers the carpet. The stuccoed wall behind them is white and clean. There is nothing else to see.
Pull back; everything’s still paused. You weren’t really looking directly at the three people. You were staring at a small TV monitor, peering over the shoulder of a woman dressed in all black. In front of her the same three people are still on their knees, but there’s a well-built man with a camera on his shoulder standing so close they’ll hit their heads on the camera lens if they move. Look to the right: Near the window are two men wearing shorts; one has headphones connected to a bag of small antennae. Back up, turn around, go past the guy with the notebook near the door. Follow the cables that lead from a digital video camera mounted high up in the room to a small monitor in the hallway at the top of the stairs. More people are gathered here. Behind them you see other bedrooms full of the furniture from the bedroom you just left.
Keep going, down the carpeted stairs, covered with something that feels like the lining of diapers. Move into the kitchen, where couches are stacked. Push past the makeshift curtains to the sewing tables in the family room. Go out the garage door, past the associate producer walking between the houses, past the tented table in the driveway that holds breakfast tortillas, past the caterer. Look to the left, at the driveway next door, where a larger canopy covers a work area where two people are sawing and hammering. Cross the street, past the minivan whose driver is staring at the two houses. Stop near the crowd watching the scene you just left from lawn chairs and the curb. It is 10:31 a.m. and you are in a suburban neighborhood 30 miles northeast of Houston. This is the set of the 39th episode of the second season of TLC’s Trading Spaces.
If you’ve never heard of the show, you’ve managed to escape its cultural saturation. Now in its third season and continuing to build momentum, Trading Spaces is based on the BBC’s Changing Rooms. Its premise is this: Two sets of neighbors switch houses for two days, and, led by a designer with a $1,000 budget, redecorate a single room in their neighbor’s house. Both teams share a carpenter. At the end of Day 2 the host reveals the rooms to the homeowners, who usually say, “Oh my God.” Sometimes, however, they cry.
Hillary Clinton is a fan of Trading Spaces. So far this season well over 3 million viewers have watched the show’s new episodes on Saturday nights, often beating “SpongeBob SquarePants” and even “WWE Raw.” The show has been criticized by the producer of the show’s atrophying and distant cousin, “This Old House,” and has inspired a flurry of copycats. From rock stars redecorating rooms for their fans using “the artist’s own style and signature” (VH1’s Rock the House) to shows where one resident surprises his or her housemate with a redecorated room (TLC’s While You Were Out), domestic-themed nonfiction television programs have multiplied and picked up speed in the wake of Trading Spaces. Maybe years of being unable to successfully turn their homes into Restoration Hardware showrooms by themselves prompts people to watch and then participate, or maybe what people will do to get on TV has just expanded to allowing a crew of strangers to invade and remodel their homes.
Watch the episode that involves this bedroom—“Houston: Appalachian Trail,” which frequently repeats—and you will never see the crew, the cables, the stacked furniture, the crowds of people that only increase in size. You’ll never see the sewing coordinator who has done all the sewing. You will not hear him tell a homeowner working in front of the camera that she won’t hurt anything because the machine isn’t threaded. You also will not know that some of the scenes that take place on Day 1 actually were shot near the end of Day 2. And you will never know how many retakes it took to get the scene right.
You will never see any of this and you are never told about it, yet Trading Spaces is not fake. With hand-held cameras, a bright TV news look, and next-door neighbors as its stars, it feels completely real and raw, as if a camera crew just showed up at the door, started filming and then broadcast the results. But as with most reality TV shows, people tend to act surprised and even horrified when they learn what was involved in the production. Here, those revelations come from journalists, homeowners who’ve been on the show and then written online about their experiences, or from the designers and crew members themselves, and there seems to be a sense of outrage over the lies we’ve been told, however inconsequential.
Why exactly these revelations make us feel so violated has to do both with how well the cast and crew of the show do their jobs, and how much we’ve grown to value and accept the false idea that what we see is what we get. But at the very core is a conflict that was evident, on one level or another, nearly every moment of the three days I spent on the Trading Spaces set last spring.
“Do you like that color?” Doug Wilson asks me as we stand near a kaleidoscopic wall of paint swatches at a Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse northeast of Houston. The designer presents a colored card and holds it up next to the fabric samples he has in his other hand. As far as I can tell, it matches well, but what do I know? I nod. “That’ll do; an icy blue,” Doug says, handing the sample to the guy at the paint desk. Tomorrow he’ll reveal this color to Mendi and Boyd Lunsford as the three of them kneel in the corner of Erik and Kim Estrada’s bedroom.
As Doug—and everybody on Trading Spaces uses first names exclusively—searches for mirrors he asks me, “Have you seen the show?” I almost choke. “Oh yeah. I’m pretty much a die-hard fan,” I say, instantly blowing my cover as an objective journalist-type. Ever since I was introduced to Trading Spaces, I’ve watched it compulsively.
“Every show has to have a villain,” Doug has said, and it’s a role he plays well. Once he transformed a bedroom into a replica of a Pullman car, complete with a curved ceiling and a fake window; another time, he converted a rec room adorned with racks of antlers into a sleek home theater with stadium seating. At the height of his villainy a homeowner burst into tears when she saw that he’d covered her ugly fireplace with a wood facade.
Considering his earlier escapades, Doug’s plans for this room are surprising, and he knows it. “I’m going to shock people,” he says. The rather ordinary room will have a padded headboard, a rug and pillows, mostly blue with white accents. He says it will be called “A pretty room, by Doug,” and then adds: “In italics.” As he repeats this title throughout the shoot, sometimes in front of the camera, he’ll act it out, tilting himself to the right, italics-like, as he says it.
For some of the room’s furnishings, we wander around Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings superstore that supplies inexpensive yet trendy pieces for Trading Spaces rooms. “I’m sorry this wasn’t more exciting for you,” he says to me as we head toward the checkout.
Suddenly a stout woman with a thick Texas accent screeches, “Time out!” I back away as she stops and yells, “Slow down!” Her arms are a blur. Then she freezes, looking at Doug inquisitively for a second. Quieter, she says “Trading Spaces?”
Doug smiles and reaches out his right hand. “Hi, I’m Doug.” The woman’s voice seemingly climbs three octaves. “Oh, I watch you all the time.” Gesturing to her seemingly mortified friend, she says, “I’m trying to get her to go on it with me. My husband will be shocked when I tell him!”
“Well, too bad he isn’t here,” Doug says, a perfect smile on his face.
This is not the Doug we see on the show. It’s not that he undergoes a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation when the camera starts to record. But there’s an obvious disconnect between the bitchy drama queen Doug whom a fan of the show called “an asshole … [and a] cocky son of a bitch,” and the Doug who will say, “Hi, it’s nice to meet you, too,” to a small redheaded girl who walks up to him while he’s signing autographs.
Watch any episode and you can see that Doug, who started acting in theater productions when he was 15, relishes playing up his evil side, generally doing so with a sort of sly grin. During an infamous episode last season, he sat in a lounge chair, sipping a drink while he directed the homeowners to work. As much as I suspected that to be somewhat of a for-the-camera act, some part of me still expects to see that Doug in Texas. Instead, he’s been nothing but friendly and even fun. And on Day 1—the first day of official taping but the second of three days that the crew spends at a location—I find Doug painting in the bedroom alongside a production assistant. The cameras and the homeowners are nowhere to be found.
“I’m impressed by how much you’re doing,” I say.
“We don’t lounge around.” Doug watches his paintbrush as he talks; it slides up and down the trim, turning it a brighter white. “But it made for fun TV.”
Since I’m being as confrontational as I get, I ask Doug whether he tries to create “fun TV” by designing rooms that are the exact opposite of what the homeowner wants. It often appears this way on the show. The homeowners will say during their pre-interview, for example, “Anything but country,” and Frank Bielec, the designer assigned to their room, fills it with arts and crafts and paints curlicues on every damn surface.
Doug doesn’t flinch. “If you give them exactly what they want, then what’s the risk? And no, I don’t try to do things exactly opposite by any means. Most often, my homeowners have liked my rooms.” Of the lack of monumental changes in this particular room, he says, “I wasn’t going to just change it for the sake of change.”
He steps back. “The crisp white does look very good. It’s very Martha.”
Producer Aimee Kramer calls to him from downstairs. “I’m finishing this door trim side, and then I’ll be down. Let me know when you’re set up, Aimee.” He leans toward me and says, in a much lower voice, “It’ll be 20 minutes. You just gotta keep working until they pull you away.”
Aimee is the person responsible for pulling Doug away. As one of two producers on the shoot, she works closely with Doug to plan the room, and then directs him and his team during each scene, from outlining what will happen to shooting retakes if something seems off to her. Her crew consists of a camera operator, a sound tech, a grip, a production assistant and the two homeowners. There’s an identical team in the opposite house. For each shoot one of the two producers assumes the responsibility of overseeing the entire shoot and joint scenes like the opening Key Swap.
Most of the time, it’s not obvious that Aimee and Doug are locked in a quiet battle of priorities. Between shots, Aimee is relaxed, casually chatting with me on the living room couches about what happened on MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge last week. She jokes with Doug and with Paige Davis, the host of the show, who effervescently moves between the two houses, often getting involved in the scenes. But when the camera rolls tape, Aimee is all business, focused on getting all of the footage the editors will need to construct the episode. She always watches a monitor, seeing what we, the audience, will eventually see. That’s her priority.
Doug’s priority, however, is to create a room. There’s constant pressure on the entire crew to finish, and the second-day deadline looms over the shoot. Although there’s not an actual hour by which the rooms must be finished on Day 2 (some of the shoots have gone late into the night), the rooms must eventually be finished. That pressure appeared to me to affect Doug the most. It would be a challenge to work that fast on your own, never mind having a couple of untrained homeowners helping out and a camera crew getting in your way. On Day 2 this tension finally broke.