The home renovation show Fixer Upper is great entertainment, but how real is it? Is everything faked for the cameras? Well, people who were on the show have come forward about their experiences over the years. They’ve explained exactly what goes on behind the scenes, and what the program’s protagonists Chip and Joanna Gaines are like in real life.
In June 2018 the magazine Country Living decided to speak directly to a person who had appeared on the show and ask them what it’d been like. They interviewed a photographer named Rachel Whyte. For reference, she and her husband Luke had appeared on season three of the smash-hit HGTV offering.
The first surprise was that Rachel had actually known Joanna previously. The former had been a photographer for Magnolia – Chip and Joanna’s company. And Rachel was still their employee during the season of Fixer Upper she appeared on. Furthermore, everyone involved – Rachel, Luke, Joanna, Chip – were alumni of Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
So Rachel and Luke had in fact known Joanna and Chip before they became famous. Rachel told Country Living that the pair were generally pretty ordinary people both on and off camera. She said, “Joanna can be more reserved when she’s in work mode, while Chip is pretty much always extroverted and down to chat with anyone he’s around.”
However, one thing that was always definitely real on the show was the relationship between Chip and Joanna. In their 2016 book The Magnolia Story the latter wrote, “One pretty amazing thing we learned early on was that the more time we spent together, the better our relationship was.”
The happily married Joanna went on, “I think a lot of couples feel the need to get away from each other now and then – to take little breaks. And they come back after a girls’ weekend or a guys’ fishing trip or something all refreshed and happy to reconnect because they missed each other. We were just the opposite and still are.”
Rachel and Luke had actually considered applying for the show before the first episode had even aired – seeing as how they knew about the show in advance. Rachel told Country Living, “We knew that the house we were in at the time wasn’t our long-term home, and we were trying to decide whether or not to move before or after baby number two.”
The photographer went on, “We started looking at houses online and we found a few fixer uppers that were options. I knew I did not want to buy [one] unless we could get Magnolia to do it. I wasn’t interested in renovating anything ourselves.” Then a couple of months after applying Rachel and Luke were in front of the Fixer Upper cameras.
But, of course, Luke and Rachel weren’t the only people to appear on the show. Plenty of people have starred on the program and some of them have shared their experiences as well. In February 2016 Jaime Ferguson – who had appeared on the episode “A Big Fix for a House in the Woods” – spoke to blogger Rachel Teodoro about what it had been like.
Jaime, for her part, had nothing but praise for Chip and Joanna. She said, “Chip is 100 percent a goofball. In fact, he had us laughing the entire time to the point that it was all edited out. They must really have a hard time figuring out which funny thing to use in each episode because he doesn’t quit! Joanna is a lot more reserved but very thoughtful when she talks.”
And Jaime went on, “I was in awe of [Joanna] during our real estate filming day because she was constantly thinking about different cool things about each house. For example, she was quiet for a while during a tour in one home and then turned and asked how many trees were in the front yard. She had been counting the trees! I think she’s just immensely gifted at what she does.”
Jaime was then asked about the “unrealistic” show budget, and she said, “I can only speak for our experience but the budget is definitely real. We had several meetings with the Magnolia team prior to the renovation that centered around a proposed plan and budget. As for real estate costs, it definitely depends where you look in Waco.”
But, Jaime revealed, you don’t get to keep the furniture. She said, “When it came time to pack up all their beautiful staging furniture [husband] Kyle and I had to decide what we really loved because our budget at that point was pretty spent. We decided to keep the coffee table from Wayfair.com, two striped chairs from Wayfair and the dining table.”
Jaime added, “Joanna gifted some of the music room items that she had custom made for Kyle. So special!” But not every Fixer Upper client was left so happy. In November 2016 a man called David Ridley – the first bachelor to appear on the show – took his own thoughts about it all to the media.
David told Fox News that the part of the show where Chip and Joanna choose from three potential houses was all faked for the cameras. He told the broadcaster, “You have to be under contract to be on the show. They show you other homes but you already have one. After they select you, [the show’s staff] send your house to Chip and Joanna and their design team.”
The Fox News journalist wrote, “A close look at the show’s application seems to corroborate [David’s] claim. Some questions on the application imply that in many cases, applicants for the show have either already purchased or at least selected their future homes – without the help of the Gaines pair. The application also includes a portion where homeowners are told to upload photos of the home.”
“The fact that many homeowners featured on the show have already honed in on or purchased their houses without the help of the [Gaines] seems to be an open-secret,” the writer continued. “A Waco Tribune-Herald article from back in 2014 – when the show first hit the air – described how various couples featured on the [program] already owned their homes. The show’s application is in no way trying to conceal that many applicants may already have a home.”
The Waco Tribune-Herald article from 2014 indeed mentioned that some Fixer Upper participants had already bought their homes. There was also a quote from Chip himself, who said, “[The program is] going to show people what’s possible in their own backyard. I pray to God that other people take this leap of faith, because it’s worth it.”
HGTV ended up releasing a statement in response to David’s claims. It read simply, “Fixer Upper fans enjoy the series because it focuses on the playful banter between Chip and Jo, their home renovation expertise, innovative design tips and families who get the help they need to transform a fixer upper into the home of their dreams.”
Meanwhile, the last episode of Fixer Upper aired in the first half of 2018. But it wasn’t because of any allegations of fakery; rather, Chip had apparently thought it was time to move on. One complaining tweet from a customer had apparently been the final straw for him.
The tweet directed at Chip had read, “It’s been three weeks, and I still haven’t gotten my wreath. What’s up?!” In his 2018 book Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff Chip wrote that that one small complaint “changed everything” for him and made him decide to give up Fixer Upper.
Chip wrote in the book, “Suddenly filming the TV show looked like ‘the job’ that had seduced me into giving it my precious time that I had always promised would be reserved for my true loves, my family and my business. How had this side gig found its way to competing with the very things that mean more to me than anything else in the world?”
Chip subsequently came to the conclusion that Fixer Upper was consuming his life. He wrote in his book, “So much time was being allocated to filming that the details of the business were slipping. We had been driving so hard for so long now. And I had this sense that if I kept my foot on the gas, we might be headed for disaster.”
But people were still interested in what had gone on behind the scenes even after Fixer Upper came to an end. Many wanted to know what was real and how much was potentially fake. That is where Rachel came in, and the wife of Luke decided to tell Country Living magazine everything she knew.
Rachel informed the publication, “We were unique in that we lived in the home for five weeks before renovations began, so that was interesting. And we basically lived as nomads for the entire time the house was being renovated. We slept in 17 different beds in four months. It was an adventure!” But she added, “It was uncomfortable at times because we, like most people, aren’t used to having cameras around us.”
Then Rachel explained, “But what happens really is real. The producers might have you repeat things a few times, and they might film things multiple times from different angles, but the reactions and conversations are real. The hard thing is remembering what you said before when asked to repeat it.”
Before the episode Rachel and Luke apparently had to create a budget. Rachel said, “You have to sign off on your budget at the beginning and we actually didn’t have any surprises come up during filming. The budget goes towards your wish list, but the design team will also make decisions about what they think the home needs to be a TV-worthy renovation.”
Rachel also revealed that Joanna asks for Pinterest boards from her clients. She told Country Living, “I put a white house with grey shutters on my Pinterest board and they really [went with] that concept. We were also unique in that Luke and I both created Pinterest boards, so she had the challenge of making us both happy.”
Something else Rachel said might have come as a surprise to some fans. She and Luke had only actually met Joanna face-to-face twice throughout the whole process. But Rachel explained that Joanna frequently called and texted to keep them informed. All in all, she was very happy with the work.
Rachel concluded, “Overall, we were pretty hands off and fully trusted [Chip and Joanna]. Our only real desires were that the exterior of the house be painted white, that the kitchen was light and airy, and that there was some element of mountain ruggedness to satisfy Luke. They gave us all that and more!”
“We were pretty set on the house we now live in, but they did show us two other homes like you see on the show, and we considered the other options that were shown to us,” Rachel continued. “Even though I had seen our home before our official tour with Chip and Jo, my negative reaction to how it looked was genuine. I was seriously hesitant that they would be able to make the house look good!”
The Country Living writer then asked Rachel how real the show’s “reveal day” was, and the photographer responded that she’d closed her eyes while being driven up to the house. But, she went on, “I snuck a peek to see if the house was white and I was able to see that it was, so I could rest easy and the rest would be smooth sailing.”
The reveal day and the tearing down of the big poster was also totally real, Rachel said. She added, “How it happens on TV is how it happens in real life!” She and Luke were then escorted from room to room with cameras there to catch their reactions – something Rachel described this as a “sensory overload.”
Rachel said, “They film you walking into each room, then they have you talk about your first reaction, and they might film you walking into the room again. Having to focus on one room at a time is hard because you want to just see it all!” Rachel also admitted that beforehand she’d tried to practice acting surprised.
And Rachel revealed that the whole house didn’t get renovated. She said, “Magnolia only renovated the parts of our house that were seen on the show, as well as one additional bedroom. We did the other two bedrooms and bathrooms ourselves after moving in in an effort to save money. In hindsight, we should have had Chip and Joanna do it all.”
A question was put to Rachel about whether or not she and Luke got to keep the furniture. The photographer said that this was the most common question she was asked and explained, “I think it’s so funny because you wouldn’t want to get rid of all your furniture. They give you an itemized list of how much everything costs at the end to see if you want to purchase things at a discounted price.”
So all in all, things might not be exactly how they seem on TV, but they are pretty close to real. And Chip and Joanna’s clients seem happy. In her 2016 interview Jaime Ferguson said that the experience of being on Fixer Upper was “wonderful and worth it. We feel like we’re living in our dream house that was renovated to perfection by the Magnolia team. We will forever be grateful!”
However, in December 2018 we learned one of the real reasons that Fixer Upper came to an end. Chip told Cowboys & Indians magazine that the show didn’t feel “real” enough for him. He went on, “The more staged something becomes, or the more required something becomes, it boxes me up, and I felt like toward the end of the Fixer Upper journey, I felt caged, trapped.”
Chip continued, “Jo and I couldn’t figure it out. I mean, why? You’re getting to have all this fun, right? But it’s like if I put a camera in your face and said, ‘Hey, say something funny.’ Or if I put a camera in your face and said, ‘Hey, be smart.’ I just struggled with that environment. Especially at the end of it.”
But it’s not the end for fans of Fixer Upper and the Gaines family. Chip and Joanna announced in 2018 that they would be creating their own lifestyle network: Magnolia TV. It’s set to appear – as far as anyone knows – sometime in 2020 or 2021. So, that’s exciting news for those who love their flavor of reality television.