Home decorating and other lies

On the wildly addictive "Trading Spaces," two neighbors remodel bedrooms while producers and designers reinvent something else -- reality.

Published November 26, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

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.

"You want me to get this done?" Doug asked Aimee, with the camera hovering over him as he wired a lamp. "Move the camera, move the lights." For the first time, Doug was visibly pissed off. "You're yelling at me; you're getting edgy already." Up until this moment, Doug and his producer had interacted like teasing brothers and sisters. Now they seemed like a couple who'd been together for so long they forgot why they liked each other.

"I'm not edgy," Aimee replied. The room was silent. Then Aimee asked Doug a question.

"Hold on, I don't want to think right now," Doug snapped.

"O-K. Let me know, then," Aimee said, and left the room.

Although it sometimes seems as if the designers on "Trading Spaces" treat their rooms like throwaway canvases, what I saw from Doug was a lot of attention to the details of his project. During on-set downtime, if Doug wasn't outside signing autographs, he was usually in the room working. Aimee's crew worked extremely hard, too.

An episode of "Trading Spaces" is created exactly like a movie: The episode is broken down into individual scenes, planned, set up and then shot and often reshot until they're right. The lighting has to be right, the sound has to be right, and most of all the cast members need to know what they're doing. Sometimes it takes a half-hour or more to set up a scene. Then after the shot is done everything has to be taken down and moved to the next location.

The seemingly obvious problem with this is that "Trading Spaces" isn't a movie, it's a reality-based TV show, one that comes off feeling like a documentary, featuring real people, real houses and really hideous paint jobs (and sometimes even moss or hay) on the walls. That the show looks so real may explain why people feel cheated when, for example, they find out that the show is not always shot chronologically.

In Houston, for example, in front of the camera, Doug asks carpenter Amy Wynn Pastor to make him a bench. The bench in question, however, is sitting a few feet away, almost finished. They are, technically, lying -- but not being untruthful. Doug did indeed show his plans to Amy Wynn earlier, and she did build the bench. They just held off doing it for the camera.

Amy Wynn, Paige and the designers -- and even the homeowners -- all handle these on-camera lies really well. After lunch, Mendi heads outside to help Amy Wynn work on a shelving unit for the bedroom. They'll act as if Mendi has helped Amy Wynn with this entire project. As the crew heads to the backyard for another scene, I hang back and ask Amy Wynn how she feels about the fact that, on camera, she just let a homeowner take credit for her work.

"I've gotten a lot more comfortable with it," she says, continuing to work. She's wearing jeans and a tight sleeveless shirt with a deep neckline that exposes a lot of her amber skin. "It's fine with me; it's all part of the game." She compares it to the way she ostensibly takes credit for the work of Eddie Barnard, the other carpenter who's never mentioned on camera but appears in the credits as Prop Master. He handles some of the more intensive work, helping to ease a workload that would be near impossible for one person. When Amy Wynn first started with the show, she says, taking credit for Barnard's work was a source of guilt. "Every single day at the end of the shoot, I'd say, 'I'm sorry.'"

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"The magic always happens after lunch on Day 2," Laurie Hickson-Smith, the shoot's other designer, says when she comes in from next door to look at Doug's work. For most of the two days of filming, the room was just blue. In a few hours, though, it has what looks like a brand-new bed and furniture, funky lamps hanging upside down from the ceiling, a designer entertainment center with crown molding and new artwork. Now it's time for the final two scenes: the Designer Chat and the Reveal, where the completed rooms will finally be shown to their owners. On the living room couch, where we're all waiting while Paige gets ready to interview Doug about the room, Mendi asks if anyone has a Pepcid.

"I'm nervous again," she says.

I ask why. "I guess I'm just nervous because they can't do a redo." A few minutes later she'll continue to worry out loud: "If I say something stupid, it sticks."

A room in her home has been completely redesigned -- it may have hay glued to its walls or broken glass used as a design element -- yet she's worried about her on-camera performance. Her focus seems to be a bit off, but she's actually being really smart: Mendi knows what is permanent (the tape of her reaction, which will play again and again in reruns) and what can be undone (her room). She also knows what the producers know: This is the one shot that cannot be redone; reactions can't be faked.

For this reason, the crew is very protective about what is happening on the opposite set; they must prevent the homeowners from getting even a hint of what is going on next door. They'll be kept inside while someone checks to see if the other crew is shooting outside, or if Amy Wynn is working on something for their room. Crew members and visitors must check their shoes for revealing paint stains. The entire show rests on those final moments when the homeowners open their eyes and see their brand-new rooms for the very first time, and no one wants to spoil that.

Upstairs, two lights are set up near the foot of the bed, where the two camera operators are standing; Mike the sound guy is behind them. When they open their eyes, Erik and Kim will see more people and equipment than furniture. Doug says what I'm thinking: "Are they going to be able to see that there's a bed in here?"

The producer from the other house, Laura Swalm, directs me to the bathroom, where the monitors for the two cameras are set up, cables snaking from them over the bed to the cameras. Amy Wynn comes in and jumps up on the high ledge of the large soaking bathtub, and Doug soon joins us. Three days of work has come down to this, two people looking at their new room. This is their bedroom, and they've let strangers invade it and maybe destroy it.

In the bathroom, we have our eyes glued on the monitor. I doubt anyone is breathing as Paige brings Eric and Kim -- eyes closed -- into the room. My heart is beating furiously; there's a lot of tension as we wait for the one moment over the three days that will be a complete surprise. Paige tells them to open their eyes.

Eric's first words are, "Blue -- I like it. I like the blue, I really do."

It takes a minute for Kim to say anything, because she's choking up. Is she going to cry? Scream? Alas, no: "Oh, it's beautiful!" she says, her eyes wet. Doug smiles at the monitor. Amy Wynn looks thrilled, too, and so does Laura and the rest of the crew.

"Cut," says Laura as their comments start to trail off. But the cameras continue to roll. Laura has requested the "fake cut," a trick producers use only for the Reveal. Pretending the cameras are off is designed to get the homeowners to speak up and talk more openly.

Three days ago I would have been appalled by this technique, but now it makes sense. Over the past two days Aimee never told Mendi or Boyd what to say or how to react, but she really had to work hard to get them to express themselves when the cameras were on. More than once, after Joe pulled the camera off his shoulder, Boyd or Mendi would say what he or she really felt about, say, the shade of blue Doug selected. They're acutely aware of the camera's presence and the film's permanence. Even when they had to repeat a scene, they'd stick with their original reaction, maybe phrasing it in a slightly different way, being honest in a reserved and supercareful way.

Laura asks questions, trying to get Eric and Kim to elaborate on their feelings. They do, and finally Laura says, "Cut. Real cut." The crew stops filming and starts to move the equipment next door. Immediately Doug walks into the room and Kim hugs him. "Thank you so much. It is so beautiful."

After the Reveal next door -- Boyd and Mendi both love the room Laurie designed for them ("That is awesome!" "Oh my God!") -- Paige closes the show and the cameras finally stop rolling tape. There are hugs and pictures and thank you's. It feels like the last day of summer camp as the crew packs up; everyone's anxious to leave, but it's depressing that everyone is going home.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Janet Malcolm's famous book "The Journalist and the Murderer" begins with a proclamation: Journalists prey "on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." It ends on a less definitive note, though, after having waded through the murky relationship between a journalist and a subject, finding that both those who seek to document people's lives and those who are documented are complicit in the outcome.

Malcolm's flaw, however, is that she leaves out the audience -- the reader, the viewer -- and the audience might really be the most important part of this now ubiquitous and rather dysfunctional triangle. In a way, both the subject and the documenter seek the audience's attention and approval -- the murderer wants to be proved innocent; the journalist wants to write a good story -- or else they wouldn't exist as subjects or documenters.

The audience? Well, we're fickle, curious creatures, demanding, in the case of "Trading Spaces," captivating reality. Yet we often act indignant the moment we discover exactly how the show has been produced. During the first season of "Survivor" a photograph of a camera operator and other crew members hovering over the cast illustrated this perfectly; we knew that people were there filming, but the camera's intoxicatingly singular point of view makes it easy to forget just where that footage came from, never mind how it was edited. The show looks so good to us, so real, that we're taken aback when we discover that it's not quite a transcript of real life.

Maybe we've grown so disgustingly arrogant that we actually assume our lives are flawless and fascinating enough to just be recorded raw and then broadcast to millions of viewers. But that's never been the case. From the most innocuous documentaries (the most insipidly dry nature show) to the most argumentative nonfiction shows (anything by Michael Moore) to trusted sources of information (your local news), documentaries and other forms of nonfiction TV are all about shooting and editing footage that pushes viewers in a certain direction. Raw footage is not television -- it's a home movie. On "Trading Spaces," the crew will spend maybe 30 hours working on the rooms. From that, only eight or nine 30-minute Beta tapes will be recorded in each house, providing roughly eight to 10 hours of footage that will be edited down to 44 minutes. What happens to make that compression successful doesn't make the results fake, it just makes it TV.

Walking through the aisles of Lowe's with Doug, I asked him about the one thing that has become the show's trademark: the designer's removal of ceiling fans, sometimes to accommodate new fixtures, other times for aesthetic reasons. During this episode a total of three ceiling fans lost their lives between the two houses, despite the homeowners' pleas that this is Texas, for crying out loud.

"What is it with you guys and ceiling fans?" I asked.

"I know they're practical, but they don't look good," Doug said.

What's practical doesn't look good. There probably isn't a better explanation for why the show is constructed the way it is. Watch an episode of "Trading Spaces" and you will be deceived, but you will not have been betrayed.

By Andy Dehnart

Andy Dehnart is a writer living in Chicago.

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