If Joanna Gaines were to pen her love story, she likely wouldn't use terms like fairytale romance. Love at first sight would be out as well.
Rather, when pragmatic, methodical Joanna Stevens sat across from goofy, eternally optimistic Chip Gaines back on that first date in late 2001, she was already mentally writing him off as a forever prospect. "For one thing, I was typically attracted to guys who were more on the quiet side," she explained in Magnolia Journal. "Based on our first date, it was clear that Chip was anything but quiet. He was all over the place, talking about the businesses he'd started, and these ideas he had, and how he was buying up little houses and flipping them, and I was wondering if he was just a bit crazy."
When she wasn't contemplating exactly where this dreamer got the wherewithal to fancy himself as the real estate czar of Waco, she was assessing if they had any measure of compatibility. Just 24 and having "only really dated one-and-a-half guys," as she put it in husband-and-wife duo Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue's book, What Makes a Marriage Last, "I'd always thought I would be attracted to someone like my father, who is quiet and stoic and a bit mysterious."
The man sitting across from her, while certainly charming, was as gregarious as she was reserved, as bold as she was cautious, certainly not the partner for the stable, comfortable, safe existence she'd imagined for herself.
"In my mind," Joanna, who turns 43 April 19, shared in their quarterly mag. "I somewhat instinctively checked his penchant for risk and chatty nature as two reasons we probably wouldn't go on a second date."
And yet here they are, not quite two decades later, heading toward the 18th anniversary this May of the day they vowed forever in front of friends and family at that picturesque antebellum estate, proving that love stories come in all shapes, sizes and inauspicious beginnings.
Naturally Joanna has transformed that initial off-base instinct into the ultimate life lesson, one that's driven her as she and her 46-year-old groom built their impressive lifestyle empire piece by shiplap piece.
Parents to kiddos Drake, 16, Ella Rose, 14, Duke, 12, Emmie Kay, 11, and Crew, 2, and the type of pair that inspires fans to scrawl #goalssssssssss all over their Instagram feed, "Chip and I had already proved in our own relationship what can happen when I let something grow on me instead of making a snap judgment or an unwavering conclusion at first glance," she wrote in her Magnolia Journal letter. "Chip calls it my 'slow yes' and I've learned to trust it above all else in matters of both work and home."
For Joanna, there was something about Chip's easy confidence, a self-assuredness that convinced him everything he saw for himself was well within grasp.
"All the ideas and dreams he held for himself were anything but ordinary, and he talked about the world around him through the lens of untapped potential," she wrote in the column, an addition to their aptly titled Risk issue. "When Chip did eventually stop talking, if only to take a breath, I found myself wanting to fill the silence with plans and dreams of my own. Ideas that I kept close and half-baked for fear that I didn't have what it would take to turn them into realities. Dreams that I knew required the heart of a risk taker, a quality I'd long considered to be one I simply didn't possess. Somehow those aspirations felt real, achievable even, in Chip's company."
The fearless marketing and business administration grad certainly had moxie to spare. "I was the type of guy who could sell ice cream to Eskimos," he shared in What Makes a Marriage Last, assured in his ability to charm everyone he encountered.
It's what made him so confident he'd spend forever with that pretty girl in the picture he'd spied at the Waco automotive shop, the one known around the Texas college town as "the Firestone girl" thanks to appearances she had done in local commercials for dad Jerry Stevens' dealership. "I knew I'd marry her one day," he would later recall to PopSugar. He just needed to meet her IRL.
"I joke, I mean, I got my brakes fixed once or twice a month whether I needed them or not just to try to have the opportunity to meet this fox," Chip said on an episode of Harry.
So when that moment came in October 2001, he didn't hesitate to shoot his shot.
"One day, I was walking out of my dad's store and Chip was walking in, so we kind of hit each other," she shared in What Makes a Marriage Last. "He said, 'Hey, you're that girl in the tire commercials.' And I thought to myself, Oh, no, this is one of those guys."
It wasn't his best opening, Chip admitted ("It's kind of sad and embarrassing to remember that now. It was so unoriginal,") but what he did next found him in much smoother terrain.
"I was super introverted and quiet at the time, like a closed book," recalled Joanna. But as she sat and chatted with the Albuquerque-born, Dallas-bred entrepreneur, like her, a graduate of nearby Baylor University, she found herself opening up. "Even though he kept asking me ask these questions—'Why are you staying in Waco?' 'Tell me your story'—it was the first time I'd ever sat with a guy without questioning his motives," she said. "We talked for about an hour, and he was a wonderful listener."
The next day, he called up the tire shop and set up that date.
With Joanna already wary of the mismatch, Chip showing up an hour-and-a-half late should have sealed his fate ("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 2016 book, The Magnolia Story). Yet the Kansas native was left inexplicably charmed.
"I never told him this until later, but on that first date, as he was talking, everything kind of went away and I just saw his mouth moving," she shared with Thomas and Donahue. "And I remember having this internal dialogue: 'This is the guy I'm going to marry?' 'Nope, it's not. He's a talker and you always wanted a quiet guy.' 'No, this is the guy!' And I kind of held on to that last one. I'd never had that instinct before."
The reaction was enough for her to overlook his decision not to call her for months (he'd made a $50 bet with a pal to see who could go the longest without reaching out to their dates) and say yes when he finally phoned in January to treat her to that long-awaited second date at a basketball game.
Four months later he went full-court press, telling Joanna he loved her after they wrapped up a game of their own. "And I said, 'Thank you.'" she recalled. "Chip said, 'Thank you? That's nice!' And I was like, I am not going to say, 'I love you' back. I'm not just going to give that away."
She held out for all of two weeks and just like that their status as teammates was sealed.
Suddenly the guy who had neither marriage nor kids anywhere on his radar was contemplating both. "I'm an arrogant, self-centered freak," he explained on E!'s In the Room. So as his pals were pairing off mere months after college graduation ("I mean, we're in the Bible belt,") he watched them with bewilderment. "I was just like, 'Y'all are crazy! Who would want to do that?'"
At 28 and entirely consumed with love, the reasoning became clearer. A year into their romance, having asked Jo out to a concert, he instead brought her to a jewelry store, dropped to one knee and then led her inside where she selected her own round stone and antique setting. (She's since dismissed his overtures to upgrade the relatively modest diamond, insisting, "My ring is part of our story.")
On 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."
On the surface their newlywed years sound idyllic, with handy business grad Chip focused on flipping houses and broadcast journalism alum Joanna running her Magnolia Market boutique on Bosque Boulevard (the one Chip pushed her to open after reading the detailed business plan in her journal), fielding customer inquiries on how to decorate a mantle or what would work best as wall coverings.
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.")
The reality wasn't quite as pretty. Following their dreams meant they were just scraping by financially, a situation not made entirely easier each time Chip returned home declaring he'd found a new ramshackle property to buy. "He was so spontaneous, and I was used to having everything scheduled," Joanna explained in What Makes a Marriage Last. As their disparate worlds collided, "She cried," Chip shared. "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.
With Jo helming the aesthetics side of things ("I was used to getting the sale paint from the paint store, knowing that no matter what color it was, it would look better than the dog turd khaki white that was there before. But Jo would say, 'Hey, did you ever think about this color or that color?'" noted Chip,) their successful flips began piling up.
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 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 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 to the reigning king and queen of home design shows with two Emmy nods and millions of dedicated viewers.
"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."
Perhaps it's because beneath the Target lines, the television network and their sprawling 20,000-square-foot Waco metropolis that attracts some 35,000 fans each week to the town they love so much, they swear they're just like any other couple that knows they have a good thing going.
"I think anybody can have it," he insisted on In the Room when asked what he'd tell others hoping for a romance akin to theirs. "You know, at the end of the day I love Jo more than anything in the world."
Jo likes to harken back on the lesson from that first tough year of marriage. "I loved comfort and predictability, and he was stretching me," she said of his spontaneous, leap before he looks habits. "I loved safe, and everything Chip did was the opposite of that."
And yet looking back now, with nearly 18 years of hindsight, it's clear that she "needed someone to pull me out of the box I was planning to stay in for my entire life," as she put it in What Makes a Marriage Last. "That first year, I started seeing the beauty of the unpredictability, and realizing what he was teaching me. It was all about learning to trust Chip. I thought, Holy cow, we now have one life. I began to see the rewards of saying yes, and it tasted good. It was fun. And the next time, I would say yes quicker. I realized that Chip had great instincts and I could either hold him back or say, 'Hey, I trust you here.'"
Leaning into the latter has spelled their success for the last two decades.
"For my part, I've always told myself, 'I don't ever want to change Chip Gaines,'" she explained. "Because if my job as a wife was to change him, I would fail miserably. The whole point of marriage is not to change each other—it's to grow together. I always wanted to let Chip be Chip and trust that, as I was growing, he was growing, too, so that we're growing together."
This story was originally published on Sunday, May 31, 2020 at 3 a.m. PT.