Chip Gaines and the Rise of the HGTV Husband

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Chip Gaines and the Rise of the HGTV Husband

It was a busted houseboat that made Chip and Joanna Gaines famous. As they tell it, one of the camera crew who’d come to Waco to film the couple for a sizzle reel to test out their camera presence had already informed Chip that it probably wasn’t going to work—the couple was simply too flat. And then the boat arrived, in terrible condition, and Chip informed his wife they were going to live on the boat for the next six months, before realizing that it wasn’t actually seaworthy. It turns out this is something that Chip does a lot, at least judging from their memoir. He buys things without consulting Joanna, who promptly flips out, and eventually gets on board. “This is Chip Gaines—he rolls big,” Joanna told the camera crew with deep exasperation, gesturing to the wrecked houseboat.

The dynamic appealed to HGTV: “There was something about Chip’s impulsiveness, his riskiness, combined with my reaction to his riskiness and the way we worked it out as a couple, that landed us the show,” Joanna writes in their joint memoir The Magnolia Story, published by the Christian imprint Thomas Nelson. The houseboat, having served its narrative purpose, disappeared from their story; just a few short years later, the Gaineses are virtually a household name across America.

Though Joanna is often the face of Magnolia, the pair has built the brand together. She’s on the two cookbooks, the interior design book, and frequently their magazine. She’s the one with the star power, the “modern farmhouse” Martha Stewart who can convince America that shiplap is chic. Chip, meanwhile, is the supportive muscle, presiding over the renovation itself, beginning with the dusty, dirty slate-clearing of “Demo Day,” where they gut the existing space. He plays this role as the classic American sitcom dad, keeping up a steady stream of jokey hollering and antics and once, memorably, eating a cockroach. He revels in the destruction of Demo Day; he thinks avocado toast is gross and told Joanna he didn’t want a menu full of “frou-frou” food at their breakfast joint. This is their schtick: Joanna shakes her head, laughs it off, and puts the avocado toast on the menu.

But despite their comical dynamic, Chip is an inextricable part of the show’s formula, and together they’ve provided a model for HGTV to replicate endlessly, even as they’ve spun off into their own multimedia and lifestyle juggernaut: down-home general contractor husband, aspirational designer wife. They smile in the promotional imagery, leaning together like a matched set of bookends. She pulls him toward the stylish stuff they can make audiences want on a mass scale; he helps maintain their aura of accessibility.

This dynamic is wildly successful. The Gaineses have parlayed their show into bestselling books, a tourism business that draws well more than a million people a year to Waco—a town formerly associated primarily with the disastrous ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound—and collections sold at Target, Wayfair, and through their own site. HGTV’s parent company has even given them an entire channel to play with, handing over DIY for its own renovation into the Magnolia channel. In an Architectural Digest piece about the rise of HGTV, founder Kenneth Lowe claimed that the channel “educated” the public, making it less about simply putting a roof over your head and more about, “What’s my lifestyle, what’s my family’s lifestyle, and how’s my home going to best fit and serve it, and how can I design it?” HGTV, at its most basic level, sells fantasies about domestic life, suggesting they’re attainable through material means.

And nobody does that more effectively than the Gaineses. Together they repackage a dynamic as old as consumer society: the proper arrangement for any family is a husband and a wife in their own, freestanding home, full of stylish stuff; the man builds it, and the woman fills it. An old idea, given a new paint job and resurfaced floors.

As HGTV was steadily growing, Chip and Joanna were a young couple getting their start in Waco. Both went to Baylor University, a private Christian school in the small town, but they didn’t meet until later, when Chip, already a house flipper, came into her father’s Firestone tire business. They married in 2003 and began working together on the house-flipping business that would eventually grow into Magnolia. But it wasn’t a straight path, either: Joanna opened her first shop, then closed it two years later to spend more time with her kids, essentially because God told her to, as she explains in The Magnolia Story. Ultimately, they turned the building into the office for Magnolia Homes, even keeping the sign, and got more and more sophisticated. They went from rehabbing rental properties for Baylor students to bigger and bigger flips, driven by Joanna’s increasing design savvy.

“We think it’s unique that you’re a husband and wife team,” Joanna recounts her 2012 call with producer Katie Neff. This has always been an essential element of their story and their offering. Joanna is the one with the vision for how this new home will meet the needs of their client’s family—and it is almost always a family—while Chip takes the lead on the actual construction. He is the one who oversees Demo Day, turning the practical business of the gut-job into a set piece of destruction, knocking out walls and ripping out cabinets, and even crashing through sheetrock.

“Oh, that’s my thing, man,” he told one interviewer, a former Baylor fraternity brother on stage for a “Men’s Summit,” hosted by the evangelical Gateway Church. Their store in downtown Waco now has a section aimed at men called “Chip’s Corner,” filled with utility knives, dart boards, hats, and—apparently, at one point—hammers emblazoned with the words “Demo Day.”

He’s also perpetually pulling some kind of comedy stunt, falling backward into cacti, pulling jump-scare pranks on Joanna and the crew, or eating that cockroach. He loves dad jokes. For all that the Gaineses are about authenticity, Chip is self-aware about the fact that this is his brand and leans cheekily into it: His business book, Capital Gaines, was subtitled, “Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff.” He goofs on his own body, reveling in his “dad bod.” He’s essentially doing a running comedy bit about the grossness of men, one that plays off Joanna’s stylish domesticity. Sometimes, he and Joanna send each other into the giggles; other times, Joanna rolls her eyes at his ridiculousness, both of them mugging for the camera. He’s drawing on a familiar trope, imported from the sitcom to the home renovation show: the comic relief dad.

Chip isn’t a buffoonish Kevin James character, exactly; he’s not a boorish Tim Allen character, either—not for a brand whose core audience is women. He doesn’t mock the idea of the stylish home itself. Instead, he’s supporting the enterprise of the domestic while also making it clear which parts are his work, and which parts are Joanna’s.

By the time they made it onto HGTV with a full season of TV, Chip and Joanna were a year behind another husband-and-wife team: the El Moussas of Flip or Flop, a Southern California couple who’d gotten their start as down-on-their-luck real estate agents in the aftermath of the housing crisis. They briefly helped make chevron patterns and teal well-nigh ubiquitous. But they never managed to leverage their HGTV presence into a broader business, and the El Moussas split in a messy divorce that dominated the tabloids for a time. Meanwhile, a bigger narrative arc quickly emerged on Fixer Upper, as the couple first built their farmhouse, renovated a bed and breakfast, and opened The Silos and their own breakfast joint.

The Gaineses were quickly—in full view of their soon-to-be customers—building a lifestyle brand in the tradition of Martha Stewart. But Magnolia drew on a different stylistic vein than Martha’s arch, slightly starchy WASP performance. Rather, the Gaineses had more in common with the aesthetics, so popular online, of Mormon and evangelical mommybloggers, a dreamscape of hazy golden light and fields of tall grasses waving in the breeze. Magnolia revels in the old-fashioned, the rural, the agrarian, the traditional, exporting a marketable version of Texas traditionalism to Targets across America.

Particularly when you see them outside the confines of Fixer Upper and all its home renovation, the two have strong megachurch preacher-and-wife energy. While Chip and Joanna attend a large Waco church that is doctrinally opposed to same-sex marriage, they have never taken a public position on the issue, refusing to wade directly, explicitly into politics. In the wake of the 2016 election, Chip published a long note on the Magnolia website, talking about their desire to be “bridge builders.”

That note is a sign that Chip takes himself much more seriously than he lets on during Demo Day. He sees himself, in fact, as something of a cowboy, as he explained in a testimonial video for the Christian organization “I Am Second.” In another time, “I would have been the guy on horseback riding off into the wilderness,” he explained. “That’s sort of who I am by nature.” In their joint memoir, The Magnolia Story, he mused, “I’ve always felt like I was born a hundred years too late.”

The Gaineses aren’t explicitly preaching complementarianism, the common evangelical doctrine that men and women are created equal before God but with fundamentally different strengths and weaknesses, and that the husband is therefore supposed to have “headship” over the family. Or, as the website for their church, Antioch Community Church, explains: “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband, even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.” But when they tell their story for an evangelical audience, it’s a little different than how they speak to The Today Show.

In that same “I Am Second” testimonial video, Joanna describes herself as something of a fearful, introverted daydreamer. “If I didn’t have Chip Gaines in my life, I’d still be dreaming in my head, but not acting out on any of that,” she says. Later, when the video puts them together, she turns to him: “You push me. You push me out of my comfort zone.” There’s a caption on the screen toward the end of the video: “At Chip’s request, Joanna agreed to have their home renovation business become a reality show for HGTV.” Chip always gives full credit to Joanna as the star—but in this version of the story, he’s the reason she’s a star, one who shines in the very gendered space of “Home and Garden Television.”

Much of their fandom is based on this dynamic. “They are a couple who respect tradition and one another, and aren’t afraid to show their Christian faith,” a Missouri fan told the New York Times. At the end of that Men’s Summit interview, his former frat brother told Chip: “Thank you for what you represent—in family, in dedication to your wife and to your kids,” he said. “You are a great representation for the Kingdom.” Joanna has the vision, but Chip builds the foundation, frames the house, wires it.

Even as they’ve moved on, airing their last Fixer Upper episode in 2018, HGTV has essentially set out to replicate their same very profitable formula. The highest-profile replacements are Ben and Erin Napier of Home Town, who also wax poetic about the underappreciated beauty of their small Southern hometown full of homes with good bones that just need a little love. They’ve already got Laurel Mercantile, their store in their own down-on-its-luck downtown. Ben does the physical stuff, managing the building crew, crawling under the foundation when necessary, and (in the final touch of the episode) making a hand-crafted piece to go somewhere in the owner’s new home, while Erin paints the owner a picture of their beautiful new space. She’s tucked into his large physical presence in seemingly every promotional shot.

The Gaineses, meanwhile, are taking over an entire spot on the dial with a deal to turn the D.I.Y. network into the Magnolia Network—essentially, they were so successful that HGTV’s parent company gave them their own channel to experiment with. It will be another lifestyle channel; “We want honest, authentic programming that brings families together,” the couple said in an announcement. Those families will have a specific shape, and their Chips will have a specific role.

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