Inside the Making of an HGTV Star

HGTV

It's lunchtime on a Wednesday in Waco, Texas. The otherwise sleepy town of 105,000, with its sprawling green spaces and winding river, is buzzing with dozens, if not hundreds, of new visitors. They've come from far and not-as-far to embark on what has been coined The Magnolia Trail. The moniker conjures images of covered wagons and oxen and death by dysentery (apologies for the aggressive visual), but this is a pilgrimage of a wholly more modern kind. 

The people have come to Waco to tour the real-life set of a television show that has overtaken every aspect of their lives. They've come to marvel, not at the Spanish mission architecture reminiscent of The Alamo (the poor man's Alamo, but The Alamo nonetheless), but at two twin farming silos. They've come to pose their families or their boyfriends or their slightly-unwitting dogs in front of a giant sign that says, simply, Magnolia. They've come to hang out on the lawn and order from food trucks and to whisper to each other, Do you think Chip and Jo eat this? They've come to browse the adjacent market, clutching their to-go cups of artisanal lattes from the Silos Baking Company, gleefully piling vintage plates and rustic candlesticks and handmade lemonade pitchers into their reusable totes. They've come to see shiplap in the flesh, to marvel at hand-placed subway tiles. They've come because they've been dying to wear their #DemoDay T-Shirts. 

They've come because they love Fixer Upper and they've pledged allegiance to Chip and Joanna Gaines

Inside the Making of an HGTV Star

Fans of the HGTV mega-hit, which just wrapped its fourth season, are passionate and dedicated to say the very least. They live and breathe the Fixer Upper world and they find themselves mesmerized by the lead couple's style and taste—it's not unusual for the show's biggest viewers to purchase merchandise just because they saw it on an episode, from a T-shirt worn by Joanna to an entire renovated farmhouse-style home in Columbus, Ohio. (And yes, we have evidence of that.)

The couple, who were discovered after being featured on an admittedly obscure home design blog, shot straight to super stardom after a relatively small number of episodes. They now have almost seven million combined Instagram followers. They have a book deal for a tome based on their life's story. They pull in almost 4.3 million viewers. They're reportedly worth upwards of $5 million.

But everyone has to come from somewhere, and before they were the most famous home renovators on television (or the first couple of home improvement, as they are often referred to), they were just like every other HGTV star that we now know: Regular people who knew a thing or two about home design, sitting on millions of dollars of potential, just waiting to be discovered. 

The Magnolia Journal, Joanna Gaines, Chip Gaines, Fixer Upper, HGTV

The Magnolia Market

The act of doing the discovering is an art form in and of itself. While HGTV has its own development team, much of their star talent comes from a production company called High Noon Entertainment. On top of actively producing over 30 series, pilots and specials, they're responsible for unearthing and bringing to the screen shows like Cake BossAyesha's Home KitchenGood Bones and, of course, Fixer Upper. Their technical mission is to constantly look for fresh faces and talent to bring to television—in other words, if you want to be an HGTV star, you've got to go through them first.

"We are known for taking normal people who are doing extraordinary things with their everyday lives and turning that into television," explains Katie Neff, Vice President of Development for High Noon. "We're always looking or that next piece of talent." 

Neff and her team, which includes a six-person casting group, set up their talent searches in a two-pronged manner: On top of constantly keeping their eyes peeled for anyone with that special je ne sais quoi, they come up with targets for certain talent based off of shows they're interested in developing. It could be that they'd like to feature a certain part of the country or to capitalize on a design trend that's currently blowing up. Neff's first stop on any search is, not surprisingly, Instagram. Whether it's scrolling through hashtags (things like #housetour or #currentdesignsituation would be good places for a layperson to start) or tracking down a gorgeous shot on Pinterest to see who it was created by, social media constantly giveth (and hardly ever taketh away). 

"We're constantly going down these Internet rabbit holes," says Neff. "You start at one blog and you end up 27 blogs removed and you're like, I don't even know how I got here or who these people are, but I'm going to reach out to them. People are getting creative with how they reach out, too, whether it's using a certain hashtag about needing their own show or following me personally on Instagram."

But not everyone with a picture-perfect home renovating Instagram account is created equal. It's one thing to appreciate a photo of the perfect shiplap and a whole other thing to find someone with the charisma and appeal to inspire thousands of people to journey to Waco, Texas. The most important qualifier, at least for High Noon, is to not be fame-hungry.

"I'm always looking for people who aren't doing this because they want a TV show," says Neff. "I'm looking for people who are doing this because they have a love of renovation. If you look at our current lineup of programming, every renovation show that we have is following people with existing businesses who were doing this long before we ever came into contact with them."

They also want that existing business to have a special point of view: To stick out among what is likely tens of thousands of home renovators, they need a unique sense of style and a unique way of making design and renovation decisions. In other words, they need a schtick

Inside the Making of an HGTV Star

To some producers, it's less about the desire to be a star and more about what can tentatively be referred to as the Jennifer Lawrence factor. Drew and Jonathan Scott are most famous for their eponymous show The Property Brothers—and its many spin-offs—but the two are also acclaimed home renovating producers in their own right. They source most of their talent searches on their own social media: They admit to getting half a million messages sent to them each week and have a team dedicated to sorting through and implementing onscreen the many ideas and requests. And since they've had so much success onscreen they know exactly what they're looking for in a star.

"We pride ourselves in finding people who you want to spend time with," explains Jonathan. "You would love to just go and have dinner with this person or grab a beer or go boating or whatever it is. You want somebody who isn't pretending to be a host but is just legitimately themselves. If they have funny quirks I like seeing those things—I don't like it if somebody's too polished. I make more mistakes than anyone on TV and I think that's what makes us human."

Home Town, Erin and Ben Napier

Courtesy HGTV

Those qualities are exactly what is driving HGTV's newest soon-to-be stars: Home Town's Erin and Ben Napier and Flip or Flop Vegas' Bristol and Aubrey Marunde. Audiences were first introduced to the Napiers in March with the first season of their show and the network is already looking forward to the fervor that season two will bring. The program follows the couple—whose origin story as college sweethearts is just about as adorable as it gets—and their life in Laurel, Mississippi, which is eerily similar to that of the Gaines'. They own a store full of rustic-chic American-made goods and spend most of their time sprucing up old homes in the area. 

In an even less shocking twist, they were discovered on Instagram. And, as Erin puts it, they never meant to be on TV.

"Out of the blue we got featured in a magazine," she explains. "We absolutely never intended for this to happen. A picture of our house appeared on Instagram because of the feature and an executive at HGTV saw it—she reached out and asked if we'd ever thought about doing TV because she'd been stalking us for awhile. She was like, I'm in love with your town, with your relationship, and I just wonder what you think about a show?"

Now the Napier's life is full of lights, cameras and the beginnings of pilgrimage tourism that seems to mirror what's happening in Waco. 

The Marundes are just a few short months behind them. As the stars of the very first Flip or Flop spinoff, they're in the throes of newfound fame they never thought would come. The couple had been flipping homes in Las Vegas since 2009 when Neff and her team discovered them in a shockingly analog way: While they were working hard to secure the talent that would have to succeed the ultra-famous Tarek and Christina El Moussa, they found themselves turning old-school.

"We were trying to find people we hadn't talked to before so we would up just scanning the white pages," explains Neff. "We found this awesome couple doing these amazing things. They didn't even have a website but what they were building was so impressive." 

The Marundes then shot a sizzle reel, followed by a pilot, and will air their first season's finale this very evening. And per usual, it's beyond their wildest dreams. 

"I was always an athlete, so that's where I thought my life would go," says Bristol, who was formerly a professional MMA fighter. "I never thought that I would be on HGTV doing home renovations. We laugh about it now."

Yet despite all the potential from HGTV's next generation no one has yet to truly dethrone the Gaines' from their reign. There is an art form to converting a simply popular HGTV show to an all-consuming mega-hit, and it's one that is still a bit of a mystery even despite the breadth of knowledge available to High Noon. Fixer Upper came to be with the same expectations as anything on the slate: Because they think it's going to be a hit. They wouldn't put their blood, sweat and tears behind anything that didn't have the potential to be the next big thing, but once a program hits airways it's anybody's guess what happens. 

"The team was particularly excited about Chip and Jo but we never could have predicted it would be as big as it was," says Neff. "I remember all of us thinking, Oh my God these people are stars. They are just so special."

The VP has been able to hone in on a few good predictors, however. First up is passion: If the stars have a genuine passion for home renovation (no matter the reason for that passion) and when they dedicate their lives to the craft, the audience can sense it. "That's how Chip and Jo were when we found them," she explains. "They had four kids, they lived in Waco, Texas, they were running this incredible business on their own. We were just so impressed about what this small town couple had built."

Inside the Making of an HGTV Star

And next is that old real estate adage: location, location, location. Neff believes that a show's setting can make all the difference: The town becomes a character in its own right and the audience is just as passionate about the surroundings as they are the stars. Which, of course, would explain all those fans buying up Magnolia Market's trinkets in droves. 

"What was great about Waco in particular was that the home prices are affordable and it feels like a town that anyone could relate to," she says. "We find that a lot of times people in these smaller towns are just so insanely in love with their city and so passionate about improving it. That translates on camera." 

This is evident with the Napiers and their fellow citizens on Home Town: Part of what attracts audiences to the entire package of their live is the coziness and the ambiance they've created in Laurel, Mississippi. Viewers are starting to flock to the town's picturesque cobbled streets and the stars attested to several occasions of tourists seeking out their store to see what happens behind the cameras. And the same goes for the Marundes in Las Vegas. Even though it isn't exactly what you'd think of when you hear small town Middle America, part of their mission with the Flip or Flop spinoff is to change that perception. 

"The city is really behind us and we feel like everyone loves the show," says Aubrey. "We're excited to let the rest of the country see what we're doing here. Las Vegas is so great and we want to represent the housing market here and show people there's a lot more than just the strip."

As much as a future HGTV star's career hinges on their charisma, dedication and taste, it's what happens after the lights flash and the crowds roll in that matters just as much. The network itself is based on the idea that audiences want to feel inspired by people that are relatable and reachable. So how do you balance that grounded appeal with superstardom? The answer is that you don't have to. If Neff and her team of casting executives have done their job correctly, they've chosen talent whose feet will always stay firmly planted on the ground. 

Like Chip and Joanna: Their bank accounts have surged and their followers have blown out of any reasonable proportion, but by all accounts they haven't changed a bit. Those Fixer Upper fans who were whispering about potentially spotting a Gaines? They really might get to see them. Because Magnolia Trail hasn't gone the way of a typical TV set: It's still very much the epicenter of all things Fixer Upper and those who flock there will find that Chip and Jo are sipping the same artisanal lattes they always were. 

They still do all their work in Waco, they still spend the majority of their time with their children and their friends. And if all else fails, the beyond-full-time commitment of filming a home renovation show (on top of keeping up the store) ensures by its very nature that they stay grounded. 

The only difference? They can charge a lot more for those reusable totes now. 

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