In Chip Gaines and Joanna Gaines' world, if something ain't broke, it still might be worthwhile to strip it down to the studs and apply a layer of shiplap.
Such is the story of their runaway HGTV hit Fixer Upper. When the married duo made the heartbreakingly difficult decision to sign off in 2018, they swore there was no hidden motivation, their choice boiling down to nothing more than needing to take some time to focus inward after five seasons on camera.
They were "out of gas," as Chip would later put it to People magazine, desiring more time with their school-aged children and, unbeknownst to them, about to add another member to their, er, Crew, their son's June arrival sending them diving back into the world of diapers and late night feedings after a nearly decade-long hiatus.
As fans bemoaned the loss of demo day and their weekly glimpse at Joanna's signature style, a blend of farmhouse and vintage with an oversized clock thrown in for good measure, Chip provided a sliver of hope that they may one day return to TV screens. "It would have to be a show where it would be me, just all by myself," he joked in 2017 on E!'s Daily Pop, "that could be a thing that I would be interested in."
Also intriguing: the opportunity to become the Oprah of home design. During a November 2018 appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the Texas-based entrepreneurs revealed that their move was less a permanent demolition of the empire they'd built and more the first stage of a massive remodel—the big reveal coming this October when their partnership with Discovery sees them taking over the cable space currently occupied by the DIY Network with the Magnolia Network.
A full slate of programming is planned, including back episodes of Fixer Upper and a cooking show that sees them reunited on-camera once more. Sorta.
"I keep asking Chip, 'Do you want to be a part of this with me?' He's like, 'Nope!'" Joanna, celebrating her 42nd birthday today, revealed during a March episode of E!'s In the Room. "But, we've already filmed a few in here—and guess who just magically shows up?" Joked Chip, "I don't want to be famous, unless somebody walks by me and doesn't recognize me. Then I'm like, 'Hold on a second!'"
So, break's over. But, as Chip quipped, they never really took to downtime. "As soon as we decided to stop Fixer Upper, we had a fifth baby," he explained to Jimmy Fallon. "It's like time on our hands equals additional children. So we're essentially looking for a part-time job to keep us busy."
As it turns out, a lifestyle magazine (The Magnolia Journal), restaurant (Magnolia Table), an in-the-works hotel in downtown Waco, Target product line, Magnolia Homes collection, several books, the multi-faceted two-and-a-half acre Magnolia Market at the Silos, the original Magnolia Reality and the bustling 40-acre, Crawford, Tex. farm they share with Drake, 15, Ella, 14, Duke, 11, Emmie, 10, and Crew, 22 months, wasn't quite enough.
But when you look back at their incredibly humble beginnings it becomes easier to understand why they'd be hesitant to pump the breaks.
On the surface their newlywed years sound idyllic, with handy business grad Chip, 45, focused on flipping houses and communications alum Joanna running her Magnolia Market boutique on Bosque Boulevard, fielding customer inquiries on how to decorate a mantle and tips for wall coverings with off-the-cuff suggestions.
Even the name of the tiny shop had a sweet story, with Joanna inspired after watching Chip scale a magnolia tree just to pluck her a fresh bloom. "It was the first flower he ever gave me, and I fell in love with magnolias after that," she said. (To this day they plant the flower in the front yard of every job "to remember where we started.")
Being entrepreneurs came at a price, a literal one, with the couple spending years just scraping buy. "She cried," Chip later categorized that early period. "That was sort of her thing during year one. If we ever write a marriage book, chapter one will be called, 'she cried.'"
And then she fought. Because while their origin story is filled with struggle (in their 2016 tome The Magnolia Story, Joanna recounts the time she had to empty out her cash register to come up with $800 to bail Chip out of jail when he was picked up for unpaid tickets) there was no quit in the couple. "We hate to lose," Chip explained to Business Insider. "When we woke up some mornings, realizing we don't have the money to pay back some of these debts that we had accumulated over the years, we realized we were going to have to be very creative, very quickly, and really fight for this. We didn't want to quit, we didn't want to declare bankruptcy—some of those things were just literally not options for us."
Still, years in, their financial instability was so ingrained that when a producer called saying they'd spied Joanna's self-taught work on DesignMom.com and were curious if she and her husband—now officially partners in their home renovation business—would ever consider doing TV, they were hesitant.
"That's a scam," Chip insisted. "Don't call them back."
Fortunately they did and in 2012, producers at High Noon Entertainment flew out to Waco to capture the moment Chip showed Jo the ramshackle houseboat he had purchased sight unseen, and then continued rolling as she moved past her dismay to help her eternally hopeful husband transform the trash into true treasure. Sensing they'd captured lightening in a mason jar, they returned to film a pilot later that year as the pair set about overhauling their 100-year-old farmhouse.
"That evolving business model was just the thing that pushed the concept of a Chip-and-Joanna TV show over the top," Joanna recalled in The Magnolia Story. "The folks at HGTV loved the idea of following home buyers through the process from start to finish, from selection through renovation, with a big reveal at the end when they finally saw the finished product."
As the stars of Fixer Upper—premiering eight days before their 10th wedding anniversary on May 23, 2013—the twosome quickly skyrocketed from that playful couple you'd love to eat scones with to the reigning king and queen of home design shows with two Emmy nods and millions of dedicated viewers. (Their 2016 season four premiere attracted 3.4 million fans, the highest of any non-news cable show.) Their easy banter and elevated farmhouse aesthetic were often imitated, but that unique chemistry couldn't quite be duplicated no matter how many Southern-based husband-and-wife duos gave it their best effort.
"I think it is their perfect imperfections," Allison Page, general manager of HGTV and DIY, told Texas Monthly about the couple's draw. "They have the kind of marriage and family you'd want. It's not perfect. He does silly things, and they occasionally trip over their words or sweat on each other. They are the best of what's real in life. It's not a kind of fantasy—perfected, glossy, everything works every second. There's an authenticity in their relationship and that comes through in the show."
Joanna deftly played straight man to Chip's over-the-top antics and self-deprecating humor simply because that's who they were as a couple. Chip was the guy who spied her photo behind the counter of her dad's auto shop in October 2001 and was immediately all in, declaring he'd marry her and ringing up his fellow Baylor University grad the next day to ask her out. He showed up an hour and a half late ("He didn't apologize for being late, either. He had so much confidence. I don't know. I can't explain it," Joanna noted in their book) and still the Kansas native was left charmed.
"Only Chip could be an hour and a half late and have no one mad about it."
He'd garnered enough good will to go months without calling her (he'd made a $50 bet with a pal to see who could go the longest without reaching out to their dates) and when he finally reached out the next January, he treated her to a basketball game and from there they were instant teammates.
A year in, he proposed, letting her design the round diamond in an antique setting, and by May 31, 2003 they were wed at Earle Harrison House, the bride arriving to the rose-filled gardens of the historic mansion in a horse-drawn carriage wearing a dress she snagged for $500. Two years after their New York City honeymoon, they became parents.
"Match made in heaven is not the term you would use to describe us," Joanna told People in 2016. "But when we mixed our personalities together, it created a spark."
It's the type of oh-so-sweet story that could prompt eye-rolls, but the Gaines are just that type of couple that manages to be thoroughly adorable without annoying everyone around them. Viewers wanted to demolish drywall with Chip and then eat a ham sandwich lovingly prepared by his bride while listening to her talk about how she could transform that too-tight kitchen into an airy open floor plan with a farmhouse sink and a reclaimed wood accent wall.
So when they decided to walk away at the top of their game, well, suffice to say it's not a move that most reality stars would make. And it set off rampant speculation that the pair were either crumbling, on the brink of a shocking divorce , or shoring up for an even bigger move in the future.
The real explanation—that time spent with their family was more important to them than ratings and residuals—was dismissed by cynics as too pure-hearted to be true. "There is always 'What's next?'" Chip acknowledged during an appearance on Today. "And for us, the most important thing in the world is Jo and I's relationship, followed very quickly by these four beautiful kids. And we didn't want to push it, red line it, for so long that we woke up and realized, we are at a point of no return. So we wanted to take a step back and focus on the thing that was absolutely the most important thing to us in the world."
Because while they're still in awe of how far they've come—in their book they detail the emotional moment they managed to pay back a $100,000 loan they were forced to get from a friend—salary was never their bottom line. They turn down more press opportunities than they agree to in an effort to minimize disruptions to their children and for all the projects they take on, there are dozens more that receive a polite no thank you. "It would be hard for most people to fathom the things they've said no to," their manager Bill Stankey (affectionately known as Uncle Bill) told The Hollywood Reporter of their habit of refusing endorsement deals. "If it doesn't feel authentic, they don't want to do it."
Transforming Waco into the mecca of homespun country charm and inspiring others to create spaces that work for their families was always more of an end goal than acquiring lasting fame. "We're local businesspeople, so we're thinking very local," Jo explained to THR. "'Seize it while it's here,' that's what we hear, but we want this brand to last. TV is just part of the equation."
And so when they made up their mind to hang up their mic packs, it wasn't a negotiating tactic or a subtle callout out to other networks to come running with their best offers. "Unfortunately, I don't think if they came back and offered a billion dollars that we would step back at this point," Joanna said on Daily Pop. "We are pretty headstrong and when we feel like it is the right decision for our relationship, for our family, for our business, it would take an act of congress to knock us off that position."
Or, as it turns out, just a little bit of time off. Because now that Crew is here, everything is running far more smoothly than they could have anticipated. The Homebody author totes her little "work buddy" along with her to the office where he's often entertained by one of their 250 employees and at home there's heavy competition for diaper changes and bottle feedings. "They call it out: 'I get Crew first!' Then second, third and fourth," Joanna told People of the baby's enamored siblings. "I thought it was going to wear off, but they're still completely infatuated with him."
It leaves her enough time to get ready in the morning ("It's like we have four nannies,") and ruminate on what challenge to take on next. "That's what I love about life," she told People. "It's these surprises, at first you sit there and go, 'How does that fit?' And now that it's all happened, I can't imagine life any other way."
While their breather was 100 percent necessary—"TV's a tough business, man. And I mean we came into this whole thing sort of shock and awe. I mean, we had never had any inspiration to be on television. We didn't know anything about the business. So when you step into this universe, I mean it takes you a little bit to get your feet under you," Chip told Fallon—the year off left them feeling refreshed, recharged and eager to dive back in, this time with a more finely honed acumen and an understanding of how to make it work for them.
The most crucial bit is to remember their role as teammates.
"I would encourage couples that that's the secret to our success, is just to pull for one another," Chip said on Steve Forbes' What's Ahead podcast last April. "At the end of the day, Jo and I care about each other. We care about each other's hearts, we care about each other's souls. We care that each other are taken care of, and are healthy and successful.
"And when you kind of put those fundamentals in place, it makes a lot of this other stuff feel a little less relevant. It's not the end of the world. If we've got money, it's she and I. If we don't have any money, it's she and I. It makes things a little less life or death."
Ultimately, Joanna picked up, "it makes us want to tackle big things, whether it be a network or a magazine. It makes us go, 'Hey, it's us against that, let's try it.'"
(Originally published Nov. 14, 2018 at 3 a.m. PT)