When we’d left the set the construction crew still hadn’t finished the backsplash and the upper cabinet doors weren’t installed, it would be some time before Sandy was needed back on camera. I just hoped Sandy’s meltdown, and Joe’s possible murder, wouldn’t delay the reveal. The last thing any of us needed was to work all night.
Hanging a few cabinets and doing a bit of tile should only take the crew two hours. But, given the demands of production to get reshoots and close-ups that might stretch it to most of the day. Of course, if you asked Joe when they’d be done the answer always was about an hour. But then Joe is clearly an idiot.
About an hour might really mean four hours, or ten. And when it comes to a reveal timing is always fluid. It depends on…everything. And anything. It’s always a madhouse: Contractors are putting the final bits of trim up, there’s paint going on the walls, the seamstress may have finished the roman blinds or panels but can’t hang them until the painters clear. The kitchen or bathroom counter is always delivered late which means the backsplash can’t go in until it’s installed. So then it’ll be wet when we roll tape; it always is. Everything will be wet—paint, stain, grout.
We always have to caution the homeowners to not touch anything when we’re taping, and even for a few days after we’ve packed up and gone. Believe me, after a reveal we are so gone, as fast as we can, and we don’t look back. We’ve got other locations to shoot, and time is money, but mostly we don’t want to be around when the homeowners recover from their delight or shock and start to notice details that you won’t have noticed on your television, but you’d have to be blind to overlook if you lived with them.
I drove the van while James made a series of calls to suppliers to follow up on furniture, carpets, window coverings and tile we’ve ordered for other locations we’re working on. James is a genius. He can build a room around a scrap of fabric, a page torn out of a restaurant menu, a half-remembered melody and a button. He’s worked with Sandy for years and knows her better than most, and better than she’d ever admit–or believe. I think on some subconscious level Sandy fears him, as she should. I adore him.
James’ lack of ego is one of his more valuable talents, and probably the one most responsible for his having survived so many seasons on the show. It balances Sandy, since she has enough ego for both of them. Because of his modesty Sandy’s star has been allowed to shine that much more brightly. It’s entirely thanks to James’ design talent and the skill of the television crew that people think Sandy is talented, funny and an expert on design.
Sandy is flamboyant and charismatic which gives her an authority that makes more knowledgeable people defer to her, even when she’s talking absolute crap. She is a Star.
Part of James’ and my mission was to confirm a location for a promo shoot. Sandy had agreed to shoot something for the new network that had just picked up all of the early seasons of Design My Life for syndication. They were going to run a Thanksgiving marathon to kick it off and they’d hired an advertising agency to produce a spot, which they planned on running for a few weeks before the launch. They had also planned a print campaign–which would also require a photo shoot. The idea was to shoot both the same day, at the same location, to both save money and save time—which then saves more money. In television production it’s all about saving money.
The advertising agency creative concept has Sandy doing her stand up in a fabulous kitchen as she carves the perfect holiday bird, surrounded by a bunch of live turkeys. We hadn’t seen the script yet, but it promised to be witty. It better be, because Sandy isn’t—despite what you may believe after watching her on television. Her clever banter with the crew, the funny little asides and mugging to camera? Not real. Scripted.
One of our show’s sponsors had donated the use of their showroom for the turkey shoot, in exchange for a mention on Sandy’s website, and in her blog. That’s part of my job on the show, taking care of all the social media and website mentions that we have to do. I spend a lot of my time online, impersonating Sandy, doing cute shout-outs on Twitter about products and retailers, to compensate them for their help.
In lifestyle television, we work hard getting sponsors to give us stuff for free, in exchange for the promise of exposure to their key markets. They want product promotion—the kind they’d get if there were a scene with Sandy talking about the great new faucet or tile or carpet she’s using in the makeover. If some viewer loved the product—and believed Sandy loved it, which is usually not true but is key–they could go to our website and find out what it is, and where to buy it. The whole scam saves the production money we’d need to otherwise spend actually buying things.
We don’t pay the professional tradespeople you see on Design My Life either. None of the electricians or plumbers or gas fitters ever see a nickel for their time. Sandy and Barb exploit everyone equally, luring them with the promise that their business will get exposure, and the connection to Sandy will pay off handsomely. I hope they enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame because it costs them a lot of money and I doubt it helps their businesses at all.
The showroom was perfect for the shoot. They’d have to close to the public for the day, since we couldn’t have fans and shoppers gawking and making noise. But they were willing to do whatever they could to accommodate Sandy—such is the power of television. There were a few kitchen set ups for clients to consider—from an ultra modern look with polished quartz countertops, a sleek stainless steel sink with a beveled edge and a luminous glass backsplash with a television screen within it, to an over the top luxury Italian marble kitchen scaled for a villa in Tuscany.
James thought Sandy would prefer the white cabinets with glazed antique wash. The doors were recessed with framing pilasters, and the counter return had turned furniture-style legs. The way it was styled with an oiled soapstone counter and backsplash and a sleek porcelain tile floor was a nice mix of traditional and modern.
“Or maybe the cherry cabinets with quartz counter and stainless sink and appliances,” I suggested.
“That’s a bit old now,” he sighed, trailing his hand over the island. “It’s tired. But that does make it relatable.” I was happy to be corrected by James. How could I not be? Did I mention he is a genius?
“You can’t be too far ahead of the audience. Sandy or I might be over a certain aesthetic, but if you look around you’ll see the rest of the world is just catching on,” James lectured me. “Sandy needs to be slightly ahead of the design curve, but not too far that the fans can’t catch up. I mean seriously if I see another kitchen done in white subway tile I’ll lose my mind…or what’s left of it. But it’s still all over the magazines.”
When we left the showroom I asked James to drive so I’d be free to check my email and phone, something I do pretty much constantly since I started working on Design My Life. He needed to make a quick stop at the design center on the way back and pick up a couple of end tables and some accent pieces. My mission was to source the turkeys for the shoot.
Our production manager had given me the number of several agencies that provide reliable and experienced animals for television. Most specialized in bears, horses and dogs, but their websites also boasted monkeys, insects and birds. A turkey is a bird, but evidently there is little demand for reliable or experienced turkeys. Parrots, macaws and mynah birds, yes. Hawks, ravens and crows, of course. Owls and bald eagles even. But no turkeys.
After calling every agency listed, I finally found a guy who put me onto Darren, a turkey breeder. I’d tried to call him every hour on the hour since I got his information. His voice mail claimed he’d call back when he’s back from the barn. He must spend his whole life there, given the number of times I’d called.
When we entered the store the clerk’s face lit up as she recognized James. He is over six feet tall and very handsome, with his ginger hair and beard impeccably trimmed. He was, as always, beautifully dressed and unfailingly pleasant. I was invisible.
“Hi there James? You look great today?” This must be Laila, the assistant who James always dealt with. She always spoke with an upward inflection? As if every sentence she uttered is a question? James mocked her mercilessly whenever he came back from a shopping run. Knowing that almost made me forgive her rudeness as she ignored me.
“I’ve put some pieces to one side for you to choose from?” she gushed as she ushered James to the back of the store. “I think I’ve got a few things that will work with what you described?” James is also a genius on getting willing people to do his work for him. It’s part of his charm. He calls his network of shops and creative suppliers and paints an evocative word picture of the room he’s envisioning: tropical ex-pat dream, with an edge. Faded glamour. And when we arrive, beautiful objects are stacked for his approval. Saves a ton of time.
My phone rang. Finally. It was Darren the turkey guy. I hung behind a safe distance from James and Laila as they discussed table lamps and took the call.
“What kind of turkeys do you want?” Darren got right to business.
“I…have no idea. The kind I cook every holiday?”
“That’s your Broad Breasted White. Don’t have those. Only have heritage breeds.”
“What colours do they come in?” This is a design show—colour is important, even in turkeys.
“I’ve got Standard Bronze, Bourbon Red, Midget Whites…”
“Not a midget. Too small, I think”. I had no idea really. But, one thing I’ve learned is that in television you’ve got to be decisive, act like you know what you want and what you are talking about, even when you do not have a clue. Especially when you don’t have a clue.
“I’m not sure…we need ones with big…gobblers? The red, wobbly things?” I heard Darren sigh in irritation.
“Snood and wattle. Only toms have them. I could bring my favourite Bronze Tom. He’ll puff out nice for your show.” It was nice that he had a favourite turkey. Most of us just have a favourite part—white or dark, drumstick or wing.
“I need more than one. For camera.” That is what we always say when we are bullshitting. That looks better for camera. Or, that’s not good for camera.
“Might be a problem.” He thought about it for a minute, and I prayed he wasn’t backing out. Then, finally he said “Got three toms that are used to each other now. They won’t fight much.”
“Maybe with some females?” I didn’t know. Would that prevent a turkey rumble? “Hens—is that what they are called? We need plenty. For camera.”
“Hmm. Have to think about it…”
“Please don’t ask me to call you back. It took a hundred tries to get this far. I don’t have time. Please.” It’s not dignified to beg, but I’ve learned to get over it.
“What day were you thinking of?
“Tuesday of next week?” That’s the only day we’re dark—a day we aren’t shooting Design My Life. The promo had to be shot then, or we’d lose time and money in production. Darren was silent. Not good.
“Tuesday’s the day we milk the toms.”
“You milk your turkeys?”
“We masturbate them a couple of times a week.”
“You masturbate them?” I was beginning to sound like Laila.
“We need the sperm for insemination. Their breasts are too big and they can’t mount the female.” I could hear him start to back out. “I don’t know… timing isn’t good.”
“No! Please. Here’s an idea–maybe we could do it on location! You could milk them between takes, when we’re down. I wouldn’t want you to change their schedule. Seriously, if the turkey’s used to masturbating on a Tuesday, who am I to mess with that, just for a TV promo?”
Darren liked the sound of that. “Mind you, we’ll need a quiet spot. They need to be manipulated sensitively.” I refused to allow myself to think about what that meant.
“Absolutely. Not a problem.” I had no idea if we could provide a quiet spot for him to wrangle his turkeys. But one thing I’ve learned at this job is to always overpromise. And don’t ever worry about delivery. I said I’d leave the directions to the location on his voicemail since he didn’t have email or a fax machine. And then I hung up, praying he’d show up on Tuesday.
James and Laila had been eavesdropping the whole time, but quickly pretended to not have heard a thing. They were deliberating a counter full of accent pieces as I ended the call and joined them.
“Which do you prefer,” asked James. “The teal cushion or the chartreuse lampshade? Before you choose, bear in mind that you’ll be the one sewing the cushion. Or making the lampshade. Perhaps both.”
“I’d rather masturbate the turkey,” I muttered.
“I see your point. Maybe we can get the interns in on this.”
“OMG—I just recognized you?” Laila shrieked at me. “I just saw you on TV? Didn’t you just win Decorating Challenge?”
You might think I felt proud to be recognized, but in fact I was speechless with embarrassment. I felt fat and sloppy and was not looking my best. I was wearing a CREW t-shirt that looked like crap on me. It was a man’s cut, and too big, and it made me look like a refrigerator—big and square. I would rather remain invisible than to have her notice me, much less remember me as the person she’d seen on her television. And frankly the fact that she recognized me at all looking like that dealt another blow to my self-esteem.
On the Decorating Challenge series they went all out to make me, and the rest of the contestants, look damn good. I’d never looked better—certainly never in real life—and am unlikely to again. Let’s be honest, I’m an almost middle aged, somewhat overweight single mother. I’m not glamorous. I’m not the girl who looks good in boyfriend jeans, and frankly I believe she is a mythical creature, like a unicorn. But somehow on the series they dressed me and styled me and made me look good. And, thanks to the miracles of editing, no full-length shots of me made it to air.
The competition show was shot last year, but had just been airing on the network for the last nine weeks. For over two months as the series aired and week-by-week contestants were eliminated I was not allowed to reveal the ending. It was a secret, and I was bound by a harsh non-disclosure agreement that scared me into silence. Now I can say who won Decorating Challenge: I did.
I’m now the uncredited design assistant on Design My Life—the #1 design show on the network and this is just part of my job: Finding locations for our makeovers, assisting with props and styling and finding product suppliers, cleaning and polishing and painting and watching paint dry and whatever it takes as we rush to reveal every episode…including stalking a man who masturbates turkeys. Welcome to television.
“I thought you were supposed to have your own show by now?” Laila was confused. James looked at me pityingly. This was a tougher one to answer. “When will it be on?”
Then, bright girl that she was, Laila came up with the answer all by herself: “You’re her helper?!,” she squealed at James. “You’re buying for her new show? That’s great?!” James spun on his heel and swept out of the store. I held my finger to my lips and winked as I followed—carrying my new helper’s purchases.
Part of the competition’s grand prize was a chance at your own television series. That’s where things could get interesting and have yet to unfold. A chance isn’t a guarantee of more than a brief meeting with some network execs. They’ve got to come up with a concept for a show, or some producer might, or maybe I can—which is doubtful. And, if the planets align I’ll have a television series. The odds are against it. Most of the past winners and finalists just get to go home to their lives and fledgling design careers with bragging rights and memories.
I got a different sort of luck through Sandy, who was a judge last season on the series. The official story, which you’ll find on the network website, is that she saw something in me that she wanted to cultivate. I think she meant exploit. So she hired me on the spot on camera at the reveal. It made great television—Sandy’s got a killer instinct for that. It also made her look good and—let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to do.