by Seija Rankin | Tue., May. 23, 2017 6:00 AM
To end up in Laurel, Mississippi is to come completely on purpose. It's a place you have to seek out. The town of roughly 18,000 people has a location that can only be described in relative terms: It's two hours north of New Orleans, it's four-and-a-half hours south of Memphis, it's completely smack dab in the middle of nowhere—at least in comparison to most of the places that E! News has traveled for interviews.
The town has one of those adorable Welcome to historic Laurel, Mississippi signs. The streets of downtown are paved with actual bricks. There are antique stores and Cajun restaurants and farmers markets and, most importantly, historic homes dotting every foliage-lined street. Prior to May, 2017, Laurel may have been known for, well, not a whole lot, but these days it's the architecture that's the main draw. Architecture and a brand new HGTV show that is about the be the next big thing.
Home Town is, for lack of a better descriptor, Fixer Upper for the nostalgic set. Swap Waco for Laurel, and swap Chip and Joanna Gaines for Erin and Ben Napier and the result is more home renovation programming gold. The show's season one finale airs tonight (though the upcoming season two can be seen on Tuesdays on HGTV), capping what has been a whirlwind few months for the adorable town and its two biggest stars.
Like any HGTV programming, home renovation is the official raison d'etre, but the Napiers are truly the icing on the cake. First and foremost, Erin and Ben are known for their store, Laurel Mercantile: It's there that they sell all sorts of American-made goods, from candles to pottery to clothing to wood products. Ben's background is in woodworking and Erin's is in design, so they hawk all sorts of goodies that show off their respective creative backgrounds.
One of the store's—and the couple's—main goals is to focus on the special (and, dare we say, adorable) qualities that small towns (and especially Laurel) boast. To do that, they design their own products and then search out American factories to produce them. "We're focused on revitalizing a small town in America," says Ben. "And if we're going to be serious about that, we have to be serious about supporting American factories because that's what those small towns depend on. We're having a lot of fun designing these products."
It was from their work at Laurel Mercantile that the Napiers realized they could translate this can-do attitude to home repair. The town of Laurel was rife with fixer-uppers that boasted historical elements, and they were just begging for a young entrepreneurial couple to swoop in and give them their special touch. And that is the basic concept of Home Town: Following the Napiers as they work to spruce up everything they can get their hands on. As Erin puts it, "It's like a documentary of us just being at home."
The Napiers' dedication to their hometown helped them form their livelihood, but their good taste got them their current gig—and impending HGTV megafame. Their big break came in the way that thousands of bloggers have dreamed about: On Instagram. According to the couple, they had been featured in a magazine, and as a result a photo of their house appeared on the social media platform alongside the interview. The rest was modern-day Internet history.
"An executive of development at HGTV saw the photo, and we ended up connecting," explains Erin. "She reached out and asked if we'd ever thought about doing TV; she'd been stalking our Instagram for a while and was like, 'I'm in love with your town, with your relationship and I just wonder if you'd ever thought about a show.' But we never intended for this to happen."
Ben adds that their initial excitement over HGTV's interest had a far more innocent motivation. "We owned a stationery company at the time, and our minds went to, what if she bought stationery, and how awesome that would be. She'll send it to all these important people that she knows." But, "She decided to put us on TV—and thankfully HGTV loved it and here we are."
As that lucky executive learned, to love Home Town is to love its star couple. But in order to do that, you have to get to know them—and for that, it's worth going back to the beginning.
Ben and Erin met in college—in Mississippi, of course. Like any couple who has been together this long, their origin story is both endearing and incredibly well-rehearsed; one gets the feeling that they've told it countless times, yet never tire of doing so. As Erin puts it, she had a crush on Ben for at least a year before they actually met: "He was the guy on campus that everyone knew, and I just wanted to be his friend."
"The first time I met Erin was in the cafeteria at Jones County Community College," echoes Ben in a perfect presentation of the narrative. "I was talking to a group of girls and they said, wow, I love that girl's style. I turned around and Erin had this really short pixie cut and she was wearing these loose-fitting jeans and it was like, oh man, she was so cool. From that moment on I was hooked."
Their official coupling came courtesy of the Yearbook committee—Erin was a designer and the team was putting together a feature on the 10 most interesting feature on campus. Ben was voted in as one of the honorees and, enterprising as she was, she volunteered to pick up that task. And from there it was, excuse the cliché, love at first sight.
"It took six days," pronounces Ben. "I hugged her for the first time on a Tuesday, at the yearbook meeting, and we spent every minute that we could together for the next six days. Then I told her that I loved her and that I was going to marry her one day."
"And here we are," adds Erin.
A couple this in sync could easily slide from adorable territory into that dangerous world of being just a little too much—but for whatever reason, the Napiers stay firmly on the side of #RelationshipGoals. That's probably what spawns the rampant comparisons to the Gaines, and what gives Home Town's audiences a double dose of inspiration. Watching the show means taking in home decor and life advice, and getting to see two stars with two very different but complementary skill sets. Ben handles most of the craft work and Erin does the designing and conceptualizing ("She's extremely talented; There aren't many people who can create things from nothing like her," gushes Ben.) and despite the fact that they're together quite literally 24 hours a day, seven days a week, their rigorous filming and home renovation schedules never result in arguments.
"We communicate on everything," explains Ben. "If we disagree, it's on the little things. And if it's form-related [on a house], then I'll usually defer to Erin. If it's function-related, then she'll usually defer to me."
The couple has also become, through their years of experience revitalizing historic homes, incredibly aligned in their taste. They specialize in old buildings that need plenty of TLC, and gravitate towards that HGTV favorite: good bones. Their show might not be quite old enough to have a signature piece in the way that Fixer Upper brought the concept of ship lap to the masses, but they will say that they have a special place in their hearts for exposed beams: "When you find a house that has wood that is stained and was never painted, we do whatever it takes to get people to buy the house."
Once the Napiers have zeroed in a home that needs their handiwork, they have a very specific ritual they follow to plot out the perfect renovation and design scheme. It starts with imagining the homeowner and the way they would live in the house. Next, they ask each client to fill out a questionnaire about their taste—it covers everything from their favorite childhood memory to their favorite book, or what their perfect day looks like.
"If someone tells me that their favorite book is Alice in Wonderland, that can be a game changer by telling me the person is a bit whimsical," explains Erin. "I can afford to be a little fun with the color or what we do in the house. It's determined by who they are instead of what they like. If you design a home around what people love, it will look just like them."
Ben chimes in: "If you describe your perfect day as spending time with friends and family then you want to set the house up for that. But if a client says the perfect day is sitting on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee, it says something totally different. That's how we approach home design."
It's easy to wonder how a person whose entire livelihood hinges on designing the perfect home continues to draw inspiration and motivation. Part of the magic of HGTV is watching professionals make changes to a house that, realistically, the viewer is never going to do themselves. Everyone watching Fixer Upper may think they're going to install their own cabinetry or start whitewashing wall boards, but then slowly the realization sets in that those things are better left to our onscreen obsessions.
For Erin and Ben Napier, they draw on their surroundings when they need their next big idea. As to be expected, their own home is a thing that HGTV dreams are made of. It's chock-a-block full of Southern charm, with rustic furniture, subway tiles, built-in bookshelves and a front porch that just begs to be enjoyed while sitting on a rocking chair, sipping a lemonade and watching fireflies. The couple describes it as their de facto dining room.
"My favorite thing in our house is all of our books," says Erin. "Ben proposed to me in a bookstore and each of us has like 15 books on our nightstand, so they're really special to us. The books you've read explains a lot about who you are."
When they step out of the comfort of their 1920's Craftsman, they have the buzz of Laurel from which to draw inspiration. "What I love about Laurel is that it's a creative and very entrepreneurial, industrious city," explains Erin. "We have the first art museum in Mississippi here and it's incredible. It's full of beauty and art and industry, and it's just real fertile soil to grow up in. You feel like you can do anything."
"The cool thing about Laurel is that the blue collar, manual labor world and the creative, artistic, cultural world, they come together beautifully," adds Ben, simultaneously proving that old adage about married people finishing each other's sentences.
The debut season of Home Town finishes up tonight, but the show has already been greenlit for season two. It's been just a few short months, but the Napiers are already starting to see the effects of budding HGTV stardom. It started at home, where, although they were already well-known around the small town, people started coming in from out of town or stopping into their store and recognizing the couple. But now their anonymity outside of Mississippi is slowly starting to erode.
"It's crazy when you're in New York and some tough-looking guy in a Yankees hat, covered in tattoos, goes, 'I love Home Town!' It's mind-boggling and doesn't make any sense to us, because for us [the show] just feels like what we do every day."
It's a pattern that has occurred for many a home renovation star before them, and especially with some of the less positive headlines out there right now, it can be more important than ever to navigate new fame in the best way possible. For that, Erin and Ben have turned to their fellow hosts on the network and the advice they've received has been almost verbatim.
"Always keep your family and the people you've always known first, no matter how weird and crazy this all gets," Ben relays. "As long as you focus on the family and friends who've always been there, then everything will be okay. The things that were important before TV, keep them after TV—that's the best advice anyone has given us.
Now that they've got their priorities straight, the only thing left to do is take over the world. Oh, and maybe get back in touch with the HGTV executive who discovered them to solve some unfinished business. Because that stationery she was supposed to buy and send to all the important people? She never did. Sure, they made it onto television, but a promise is a promise.
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