I was eating breakfast in a restaurant in Waco, when I got to talking to my waiter, Jerry. Jerry had just moved to town with his husband, and on my third morning in the city, he asked me what I thought of the place. I told him it seemed nice—yes, that it’s surprisingly nice on the one hand and a little desolate on the other. Yes, Jerry said, that’s what he thinks too. He’s from Orlando, and on the first day of this year he and his husband, tired of the crowds and traffic—so many tourists he practically couldn’t leave his house—got into their car and drove to Waco for good. He had been worried it would be too Christian, as he put it, but the Christians are nice. Sometimes it gets a little much, the smallness of the place and the Christianness and the heterosexuality, and he and his husband drive to Houston for happy hour, but for the most part they love their new hometown.
I asked Jerry how he came to choose Waco, and he told me that back when he was virtually forced under house arrest because of the tourists, he’d watch the home-renovation show Fixer Upper on HGTV. “I would look at the idyllic life on Fixer Upper and I saw the cost of living and thought I’d try to see if it was really like that,” he said. “And it is.”
Later that day, I spent some time with Chip and Joanna Gaines, the hosts of Fixer Upper and the people who have repainted the map to include Waco as a legitimate tourist destination. We were on the show’s roving set—a house they had nicknamed either “the Steamboat” or “the Cargo Ship,” no one could remember, but it had a flattop like a steamboat or a cargo ship—and I told them about Jerry.
“Well, that’s just dreamy,” Joanna said. She sent someone to get a canvas bag full of Fixer Upper swag and asked if I would bring it back to my hotel, to Jerry. I told her I would.
Chip and Joanna exchanged a quick glance and sat quietly for a minute. They have become very famous very quickly in a way that still surprises them. Just two years ago, they were an unknown contractor and decorator, respectively, flipping houses with a couple of hired subcontractors for some of the bigger jobs they took on. Now, not only is Fixer Upper one of HGTV’s top shows, the Gaineses have four hundred employees—four hundred employees—and their brand is nonstop. They own and operate Magnolia Market at the Silos, an expansive retail compound in downtown Waco that includes two former cotton silos, office spaces, a grassy recreation area for families to frolic, and a bakery. They released their own line of 150 soothing paint colors, in partnership with Kilz; a line of 70 wallpaper designs with York; and a line of furniture. They opened a vacation rental in February, which booked up for the rest of the year within hours of coming online. And they recently announced the launch of an entire magazine devoted to them and their lifestyle. They also have a housing development called Magnolia Villas, the vision for which was “cute little homes with cute little people in them,” per Joanna, and you can drive by all the pastel-colored homes. Their next move is to renovate the old Elite Cafe, a historic landmark on Waco’s famous traffic circle off I-35. “We’ll rename that something cute,” Joanna said. (Or maybe she meant they’ll rename it “Something Cute.” I didn’t clarify.)
But the bonfire of their fame around which all these projects warm themselves is, of course, Fixer Upper. On the show, Chip and Joanna present three houses to a family, and ask them to pick one. Chip then demolishes it and creates an open floor plan according to Joanna’s vision, and she decorates it with just a few hints from the buyers. The show is an objective success—five million people watched the season-three finale, in March, a larger audience than the one that watched the season finale (or any other episode) of Better Call Saul, an actual scripted drama with an ongoing plot on a channel that’s easier to find than HGTV. Reruns of Fixer Upper are in near-constant syndication on HGTV, and its fourth season is set to begin airing later this year.
The Gainses did not see any of this coming. Joanna, who was born in Wichita, Kansas, and moved to Texas when she was twelve, wanted to be a broadcast journalist. Chip, who was born in Albuquerque but moved to Colleyville when he was eight years old, was good enough at baseball for a college scholarship. They both attended Baylor—Joanna was studying communications, Chip was a business major—but they didn’t meet there. They met in 2001, after they had graduated. Joanna was working at her father’s tire store, in Waco, when in came Chip, a too-talkative, too-friendly customer looking to get his brakes fixed. For their first date, they sat on the porch of a restaurant housed in a historic mansion and ate fried chicken. They married in 2003, at a different historic mansion in town.
Before Chip met Joanna, he started a lawn business. He also bought up a few fireworks stands. And started a fluff-and-fold for Baylor students. And began buying and flipping houses on the side. (He’s not a licensed contractor, but in Texas, as long as you outsource the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC, you don’t need to be.) After they married, Joanna learned to decorate on the fly. The couple would live in the homes they were flipping, and Joanna would get the whole thing designed just right, and each time, she’d say, “Come on, Chip. This one’s really nice. Can’t we just stay in this one?” But the house was so nice and inviting that Chip would already have a buyer for it.
Not long after, they borrowed $5,000 and bought a building on Bosque Boulevard to renovate. Joanna opened up a retail store there and called it Magnolia Market. For roughly a decade, they kept flipping houses and building their business and their family (they now have four children). At a certain point, they realized that if they were ever going to leave Waco—for Houston, for Austin—it should be soon. “I mean, let’s don’t fool around and wake up at fifty and regret that we stayed here if we didn’t choose to stay,” Chip said. “And I remember we both had a conversation like, ‘Why don’t we make an impact on this place?’ It’s like, we know that this town is great, and we know that there are wonderful elements about this town, but for whatever reason, locals were the only ones who knew about it.”
Meanwhile, HGTV was casting a net for programs that showed the renovation of entire homes, not just rooms. Katie Neff, an executive at the production company High Noon, found a blog in 2011 featuring Joanna and her life and kids and home and the flipping business. Neff really liked Joanna’s style—and the fact that she was in business with the guy she was married to. She gave Joanna a call.
When Neff hung up the phone, she was bemused. “I never thought of Waco as a place where amazing interior design and renovation would be happening,” she told me. “When you hear ‘Waco,’ you don’t think about that. I was just really impressed by the fact that they were so in love with the town and so dedicated to it—and so dedicated to making a more beautiful place to live in.” Neff went to meet Joanna and Chip and make a sizzle reel—a trailer to sell the network executives on the idea—and she was surprised by how many of the houses in Waco were abandoned. “It’s the perfect place to be flipping homes, because there were so many horribly decrepit homes that you couldn’t live in. And they were everywhere.”
The network loved the Gaineses. “I think it is their perfect imperfections,” said Allison Page, the general manager at both the HGTV and DIY networks. “They have the kind of marriage and family you’d want. It’s not perfect. He does silly things, and they occasionally trip over their words or sweat on each other. They are the best of what’s real in life. It’s not a kind of fantasy—perfected, glossy, everything works every second. There’s an authenticity in their relationship and that comes through in the show.” And they are real-looking (beautiful) people: Chip, who is 41, with his big-toothed smile and a dad bod that he is refreshingly boastful about; Joanna, who is 38, with her long, thick brown hair. The pilot aired on May 23, 2013. It had 1.9 million viewers, and Fixer Upper was slated for five seasons with an option for a sixth. The first three seasons ran in just under two years.
After the show launched, Chip and Joanna bought the old abandoned cotton silos downtown. They had a dream to move their retail operation there and make it the epicenter of their business. To make it the epicenter of a new and thriving Waco.
“We believe in the growth of our city, and we think the most potential is in the heart of it, which is downtown,” Joanna said.
Chip agreed. “I just feel like downtown never really got its second wind, and now I feel like it’s coming. We just knew there’s potential in this town.”
They opened Magnolia Market at the Silos in October 2015. Joanna’s father left the tire business and came on as COO. Her mother, she says, is the Korean woman at the front greeting people on Saturdays. These days, up to 35,000 people visit a week. Stop for a second and consider that number: 35,000 individuals. That’s more visitors than most of Waco’s other attractions—the Waco Mammoth National Monument, the Dr Pepper Museum, the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum—combined. More than 1.8 million people a year coming to town (population 130,000) to sift through the fairy garden materials (look it up) and the seeds and the signs that quote Scripture in a hand-drawn mercantile-style font or name a room (“Kitchen,” “Bath”) and the baskets and vases and candles and mugs. And roughly 50 percent of those million-plus visitors are from outside Texas. In March 2015 Waco properties on Realtor.com were viewed at four times the national average.
But a funny thing happened along the way to success. Chip and Joanna Gaines and their idyllic show about living an idyllic life in an idyllic place became the unwitting symbol of the redemption of a storied Texas city that had had mostly negative national attention: the Branch Davidians, Baylor’s athletics scandals, the Twin Peaks biker shoot-out—and those are just the recent ones. Out of all that somehow came Chip and Joanna Gaines going about their business, not hanging their heads in embarrassment and shame.
“The first time people hear ‘Waco,’ they may say, ‘You mean Texas?’ ” Page said. “But then they see the show or they hear other people talking about it, and then, suddenly, everyone goes to the happy land of Waco in their heads. Now when I say ‘Waco,’ I don’t even think about Branch Davidians or some of the other bad things that have happened there. I just think Chip and Jo.”
Somehow, against every odd in the world, Waco has become a tourist destination, a lifestyle aspiration, a relocation consideration, and it’s all because of Chip and Joanna Gaines.
The story of Waco isn’t the story of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Or the historic F5 tornado of 1953. Or the Twin Peaks biker gang shoot-out. Or the Baylor basketball murder scandal from 2003, or the university’s rape scandal twelve years later. I mean, yes, that’s Waco’s story, but it’s not the story of Waco. The story of Waco is the story of how a city can break your heart.
Brad Turner is a seventh-generation Wacoan and an associate professor of environmental science at McLennan Community College, where he went before getting two master’s degrees at Baylor. But his passion is history. Specifically, Waco’s history. He co-authored and edited a book called Lust, Violence, Religion: Life in Historic Waco. This makes him known around town as the guy who knows everything about the story of the city.
We met for coffee during my visit to Waco in June, and I thought he’d be more of a cheerleader for the town than he is—he’d been introduced to me by the Waco tourism folks—but what Turner really is is filled with trepidation. He knows enough history to understand that when something great happens in Waco, something else happens to reassure the world that Waco is still the punch line the world assumes it to be.
Turner learned this lesson at Hewitt Elementary School, in Hewitt, Waco’s largest suburb. One day, in 1993, he was in time-out for causing trouble during recess when he saw a smoke plume off in the distance. The feds had raided the Branch Davidian compound, and it might have been the first time Turner ever had the feeling that a place he loved could be plagued with the kind of happenstance that seems to plague Waco.
This has become some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy about the city, how it can’t have good things without immediately being reminded of its problems, how devoted the town seems to be to never truly rising up above its reputation. Consider this: George W. Bush’s ranch is in Crawford, part of the Waco metro area. The Branch Davidian Compound was in Elk, ten to fifteen miles away from downtown. Any good Wacoan will tell you that, Brad told me. That’s the thing. When it’s something bad, like the Branch Davidians, it’s in Waco even when it’s not in Waco. When it’s something good, like Bush’s ranch, now all of a sudden it’s in Crawford.
In 1953 the town was overcoming a period of poverty and was recovering from its bad reputation. Up through the early twentieth century, it had been one of only two legal prostitution zones in the country (the other was in Omaha), and this was before legalization of prostitution was a progressive move. Back then, in the town that was Baptist enough for Baylor to move into in 1886, sex work was allowed. And then there were the lynchings; 17 took place between the end of the Civil War and 1922. The most infamous of them was the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, who was dragged out of a courtroom after being found guilty of murder (the local paper had published an editorial begging for the mobs to stay at bay so he could get a fair trial). He was castrated, his fingers were removed, and he was burned alive in the town square.
But by the early fifties, prostitution was illegal, lynchings in the area were a thing of the past, and the city was beginning to rebuild. Then came the tornado. An F5 tore through downtown on a May afternoon in 1953, killing 114 people, leveling 196 buildings, and turning downtown and what was about to be a thriving shopping area into a giant parking lot. (“Have you noticed all the parking?” Brad asked me during my visit. I had. Downtown Waco is a strange mix of pristine parking areas and nowhere really to go once you’ve parked. There are a few old places and a few new places, and, of course, there’s the silos, but there is a disproportionate amount of parking for a town that is only recently showing signs of a comeback.)
There are even small slights. When the 22-story Alico building was completed, in 1911, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi and the pride of Central Texas. Just eleven years later, it was supplanted by the Magnolia building, in Dallas (no relation to Magnolia Market), which is 29 stories. Now the Alico’s job is to sit as a symbol of Waco’s almost-ness, one that, according to local lore, native son Steve Martin said gives the finger to all passing on Interstate 35 from Austin to the Metroplex.
The jinx never really abated. Last year, a biker gang shoot-out left nine dead and resulted in an unprecedented number of problematic arrests by the Waco Police Department at Twin Peaks, the new breastaurant in the new fancy shopping center right off I-35, south of downtown. “Right smack where all the new money is,” Brad said. “It’s, like, facepalm!”
Then there was Baylor, the world’s oldest Baptist university, a school that didn’t allow dancing until 1996, finally rising to relevance under its brand-name president Kenneth Starr, building a shiny new $266 million stadium for its football team (and the 45,000 fans who want to watch it), only to be embroiled in a scandal this year that included several well-documented sexual assault allegations against players.
Even the week I arrived in Waco there was a lawsuit filed by the parents of a black student against the Live Oak Classical School—the private school right across the way from Magnolia Market—and a Blanco County ranch. Their twelve-year-old daughter had come home from a field trip with her class with vicious rope burns around her neck from a still-unclear incident with a few white boys and a rope swing. The burns were so severe that from a distance, her mother, who hadn’t been informed about what had happened prior to picking her up, thought she was wearing a necklace. Up close, it looked as though you could remove her head from her neck, the burns were so deep. It was exactly one hundred years since Jesse Washington had been publicly burned to death just half a mile from where the school is now.
Brad drove me out to Greenwood Cemetery so that I could see how, just this year, it had been desegregated. The fence had been taken down, but the posts that held the fence up were still there. You couldn’t pull them out of such an old graveyard without worrying that you’d be messing with the remains underground, so some marker of the segregation had to stay. If there is a better metaphor for this place, I did not find it: one foot in the now, one stuck in the then.
Brad has never met Chip and Joanna, but he did see them a while back, happy and fabulous and being just a plain ol’ Waco family at the Cracker Barrel. They seemed nice enough, but Brad knows better than to put his complete faith in something that seems to be yet another symbol of yet another upswing in Waco. He has two daughters, and one of them plays “fixer upper” in her dollhouse sometimes. They watch the show together as a family, and they take pride in all that is their inheritance. While they watch, Brad silently prays that the Gaineses are what they seem to be, that they won’t let the city down. Earlier this year, Brad and his wife took the kids to Disney World, and while they were in line for a ride, someone asked them where they were from. Brad told them Waco and expected the old “Are you a cult member?” jokes. Instead, the people asked if that was where their favorite show, Fixer Upper, takes place. His older daughter confirmed with delight. “They’re going to grow up in the shadow of Fixer Upper,” Brad told me, “which is the reason why I really need [Chip and Joanna] to not do something stupid.”
Yes, the story of Waco is how it can break your heart.
Before I arrived, I’d called the tourism bureau, which isn’t something I usually do as a writer; to discover a place, I’d normally want to enter unannounced and feel my way through. But the first time I ever saw Fixer Upper was about an hour after I was assigned this story. I didn’t know what channel HGTV was on my dial. I don’t like home-renovation shows, or any of the shows about people buying houses. I fundamentally don’t understand why watching such mundane parts of life is interesting to so many people, but I do understand that it is, even if the show shouldn’t really work. The program is completely tension-free: there is no point at which the viewer is worried that (a) the house won’t get done, because from the first commercial break excited reveals are being teased; (b) the Gaineses will encounter a problem that can’t be fixed with maybe some extra money; or (c) Joanna and Chip, she with her long and luxurious hair (which is real, I checked) and he with his thoughtful goofballosity (which is real, I checked), will actually come close to a single note of troubled bickering after spending all day with each other and their four charming children. In the end is the reveal of the buyers totally happy with how everything has turned out.
There’s a real formula, even with the design. Joanna’s French-country-shabby-chic aesthetic is clean and pretty—her highest praise is that something is “cute” or “fun”—but if you binge-watch the show, you see that her methods are predictable. All the brick will get painted, all the kitchens will get an island, all the homes will be open concept (which will make a lot of sense when I reveal to you that Chip and Joanna don’t own a television, because my argument against open concept is that if your husband is cooking and you’re watching television, you can’t hear the television). Her love for shiplap, wood planks commonly found in old houses beneath drywall and popcorn ceilings, is superseded only by her love for “skinnylap,” which is a term she invented for shiplap with a narrower plank. Joanna resists the notion that she has a particular style. “I don’t want to associate a word with it because I feel like you get stuck. For me, I feel like it’s pretty things that are practical. I think it’s all about a blend. I think, because what we do is for clients, it’s always about, ‘How do I bring my sense of balance to their style?’ So if you like modern and the husband likes rustic, I’m coming in there as a mediator to figure out ‘How do I give you modern and rustic?’ ”
Watching Fixer Upper, all I could think of was how wholesome and quaint this all was: the perfect married couple, imagining idyllic spaces, all of them open, all of them with kitchen islands—some even with two kitchen islands!—picking out dainty items that Joanna deemed fun and cute. What were they doing in Waco?
I first heard of the city the same way many had, when the news of the Branch Davidian conflict broke. I was in high school, faking sick and watching Days of Our Lives, and, not yet the newswoman I am today, I checked to see if any channels were showing anything but the news, but they weren’t. I didn’t think about Waco again until last year’s biker shoot-out. Waco again, I sighed, along with the rest of the world.
Imagine Waco. Imagine what happens to a reputationally troubled town when a TV juggernaut enters the picture, a home-design TV juggernaut that is far more juggery than your average juggernaut, and how strange the juxtaposition between what we think we know about Waco and, say, painted brick and shiplap. Imagine a visitors’ bureau that is charged with explaining how Waco can be both these things.
I spoke on the phone with Susan Morton at the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, who would be happy to show me all that Waco had to offer when I got there. She was born and raised in Waco, and she went into tourism because she wanted everyone to know that they think they know Waco but really they don’t.
She and her colleague Carla Pendergraft showed me around the city. We went through Cameron Park, which is hauntingly lovely and filled with bamboo, and they showed me the various bridges across the Brazos River. We stopped at the Waco Mammoth National Monument park, the new pride of the city, where the country’s only nursery herd of Columbian mammoths had been found. We visited Balcones, an eight-year-old distillery that makes a whiskey that is one of the most-decorated-ever whiskeys, not just in Texas but in the U.S. Balcones got its start in a small welding shop under a bridge but has since moved to an immense, beautiful factory that used to house the Texas Fireproof Storage Company, a few blocks from Magnolia Market downtown.
“I don’t know,” said Jared Himstedt, the head distiller, who is a serious man with Jesuit hair. We were talking about the revitalization of downtown, which is code for the fact that Magnolia moved in and caused a rush of tourism. “I worry what this all does to the property values.” If you watch Fixer Upper from any other place in this country, you become gaga-eyed at the notion of a house on four acres of land with 14 bedrooms and 96 bathrooms whose full cost is what those on the coasts paid in a down payment. But Jared was a social work (and pottery) major at Baylor. He knows there’s so much poverty in this city and bringing wealthier people in to build vacation homes will only hurt the poor for a long time before an economic uptick can help them.
Susan, Carla, and I left the distillery and stopped for lunch at Homestead Heritage, a property run by Christians who adhere to many Anabaptist traditions (and who some believe are a cult). They also make their own cheese and have a store, where every craft is made by one of the 140 families in the community.
We drank lemonade and waited for our cheese plate. Carla and Susan both remember the Branch Davidian siege. Carla helped put all the journalists up in hotels and set them up at the convention center. They also remember the jokes that went national at the time, like the “We Ain’t Coming Out” acronym. Those jokes still come up when people visit, and when Wacoans venture into the world. When people make those jokes, Carla, who knows the man who was tasked with pronouncing people dead at the time of the Branch Davidian standoff and saw what he went through, gets quiet and serious and says, “Really, a lot of people died at that, and there were a lot of children that died too,” and people usually stop talking then. “It was awful, because to me, it was very real. I mean, we lived through that.”
And now they are living through this, a start-and-stop renaissance wherein their hometown is getting the right kind of national attention for just a minute before and after journalists crowd the town for the inside story on Baylor’s rape scandals and Starr’s ousting. They herd visitors toward places like Dichotomy, with its pour-over coffee and hipster cocktails. And Balcones, which is a really great bragging point, but honestly, if the guy is going to talk about poverty rates when they bring journalists in, it’s not ideal, is it? Susan and Carla love Waco, both of them do, so much. They’ve chosen it. And they’ve chosen to sing its songs though others can’t quite hear. Earlier this year, the Dallas Morning News published a mean-spirited and snarky story about Waco, how it’s still such a tragic city despite Fixer Upper. Susan pulled up the story on her phone to show me and shrugged, wounded by someone’s taking such a superficial glance at the place. “But it’s a lot like the story I’m doing,” I told her.
“Yes,” she said. “But you’re not going to be mean. You’ve seen so much of what makes Waco great.” She was right. If ever I’d thought this story had the potential to have some good laughs, I was now moved by how much Susan and Carla loved the city. The first time Susan and I talked on the phone, we discussed the self-esteem of a city, how some places always feel as if they have to compensate for not being the shinier version of themselves. I had just moved to New Jersey from California, having been raised in New York. California had struck me as a place that was always trying to prove its worth by talking about its weather and its superiority to New York. New Jersey was even worse; we lived near the enemy now, surviving all its jokes at close proximity. Me, I was having a hard time being a New Yorker who now lived in New Jersey. We moved for my husband’s work, and we bought a house and loved it immediately, but I also knew what was being said about us on the other side of the river; I also knew to be quiet about how much I loved it. I knew that when I went on business trips, like this one, and people asked me where I was from, I told them New York, because it’s true even though it’s not. “So you understand,” Susan said on the phone. And I did. You love a place because you love a place, and you are forever finding justifications for why you like it, why you’re right to like it, why it’s okay to like it. But we love what we love, and where we belong may be more a matter of the soul than of the brain.
Yet people in tourism departments still have a job to do, and that job is for them to remind the world that bad things happen everywhere. The 9/11 attacks were largely in New York, but that event, which was more massive than anything that ever happened in Waco, didn’t overrun New York’s reputation, or even hit it that hard. Would Waco ever catch a break?
Now, suddenly, 35,000 people a week are pouring into this place. I’m here, asking to see what’s so great about it. The tourism department is going to ride Fixer Upper into a new national image for Waco, so that people can finally learn how to give the city a chance. (Though the tourism folks are pretty apprehensive too. When the Gaineses opened up Magnolia House, the vacation rental, Susan made sure the taxes were all in order and that nothing fell through the cracks. “All we need is a scandal,” she said and laughed.)
When Carla moved here, 26 years ago, she would pass the silos, and as a tourism person, she would think about what a blight they were on the downtown area. “They looked so ugly,” she said, “and I thought, ‘What an eyesore for downtown. This is what visitors will see, these abandoned cotton mills or gins’—what are they called?—‘just silos for grain or cotton or whatever they are.’ ” But in 2014, Chip and Joanna made a bid on them. And as there were meetings about bringing the silos up to code, they were asked by the city to paint them and make them shiny and beautiful. “And Joanna said, ‘Well, but wait a minute. They’re beautiful the way they are.’ And now they look beautiful to me,” Carla said. “How can that happen?” And here her eyes got a little wet. It reminded her of a time in sixth grade, back in Minnesota, when one of her classmates was asked to describe a weed. He said, “It’s unwanted. That’s what makes it a weed and not a flower.” Carla always remembered that. “I’ve thought a lot about it. I think that’s what Joanna does. She makes things wanted that were once unwanted.”
Of the mostly white, 100-percent heteronormative couples who have been featured on Fixer Upper, David Ridley stands out for being a white heterosexual guy who is single and perhaps Texas’s most handsome specimen, all dark hair and square jaw and diamond eyes. Even if his singleness and his handsomeness didn’t jump out at you, you might remember him as the guy who made his home an homage to the sporting life (he has fished competitively) by having a volleyball court and a basketball court built in his backyard. If that doesn’t ring a bell, then maybe you’ll remember him for being the most enthusiastic person during the reveal, which is the essential orgasmic release of the show. Joanna and Chip stand in front of the house with a huge poster of what the old house looked like, displayed on two dollies and split down the middle. Joanna asks, “Are y’all ready to see your fixer-upper?” And Chip and Joanna each pull back a half and the people can see their new home. There is always laughing and smiling and hugging. David Ridley’s reveal, though, was something special. He clapped and laughed and fist-pumped and shook his head in disbelief over his fortune, his ranch house being transformed into a magnificent, clean space that reflected all his hobbies and his loves, and also two kitchen islands.
But David didn’t want to talk about Fixer Upper when we spoke. Everything you needed to know about it was onscreen. He’d met Chip and Joanna through the church they all attend and applied to have his house renovated on the show—the people on the show are a mix of those who come into Magnolia and ask and others who submit a request to the show—and the whole thing was great and his house is beautiful and did I mention he now has two kitchen islands (two!)? But what David wanted to talk about, from the front seat of his recently purchased Mercedes van, was Waco Tours, the new venture he’d started with his friends Luke and Rachel Whyte, who also go to the same church and also had their home done on Fixer Upper. All these people are flooding into Waco to shop at Magnolia, but once they’re done, what is there to do? Enter David and Luke and Rachel, who, when I arrived, allowed me to take one of their first official tours.
David attended high school in Paris, Texas, unreasonably handsome for those parts too, and so he went to Houston with a girl he was dating, and they participated in a model search contest. He got a ton of callbacks and ended up at Next Agency, where he landed gigs in L’Uomo Vogue and Italian Vogue with Kate Moss, though he didn’t know who she was—he just thought she was this nice girl with a funny accent. He eventually moved to New York with his girlfriend, but after they broke up, David began going to bars and clubs with famous people, and he began doing drugs with them too.
He was still modeling part-time when he got his New York real estate license, and so he began mingling with very wealthy people, and that led to more drugs and more drinking. “I was depressed,” he told me. “I was empty.” He would return to Texas for holidays, and his parents and his sister would love on him—that’s how he says it, they would love on him—and he’d feel better, but then he would return to New York, where he’d repeat the same patterns. One day, he cried out to God. “I just reached out to the Lord. I cried out, ‘God, something’s got to change. I don’t even want to live anymore, but I can’t take my own life because I have family.’ ” He began to pray.
He moved back to Texas, to Dallas, but he was still drinking and he was still sad. He ran out of money, and his sister visited him spontaneously with his nieces and nephews—she’d never done that before—and bought him groceries. His sister introduced him to the Celebrate Recovery program at a nearby church, and he was sold. That’s when he found out that his sister had been praying for him for ten years, which is why, he believes, he is still here to tell this story. From then on, he began an authentic relationship with the Lord, and he tells his story so people will learn from it. He has renounced drugs and alcohol. He’s renounced inappropriate relationships with women. “I haven’t been perfect, but I know that he loves me, and I know that I have radically been transformed by his love and by my relationship with him.”
Once his head was on straight, he realized he wanted to live in a smaller and more manageable town, so he moved to Waco in 2008 (his parents had moved from Paris in 1998). He got a job in hospice, and it was there that he learned his calling was to comfort people. He began to dream about buying a bus and going around the country and evangelizing. Then he applied to be on Fixer Upper. Chip and Joanna transformed his house, and that opened up a new world for him, since now he could bring people together and host them in the way he’d always wanted to. He realized that the bus in his dreams was one that would take him not around the world but around Waco, little old Waco, and about five months ago, he told Luke and Rachel that he wanted to start a tour business because he wanted people to see what there was to love about Waco. The strange part is, Luke and Rachel had been considering the same thing, so they pooled their shekels and bought the van, which we rode around in, a giant “Waco Tours” magnet affixed to its side.
But it was only their second tour when they took me around, and they were still ironing out kinks, like how to talk about something as you pass it at a normal traffic speed. We were joined by two of David’s friends and a few people whom Luke was hosting for a religious retreat.
Luke told us about the Baylor program that simulates Waco’s poverty and the impact that the program has had on students. We also looked at several of the very many churches in Waco (205 in a city of more than 130,000 people—that’s one for every 600 people), passing some of their projects, like a halfway house. We saw a path where women jogging on campus are sometimes surprised from behind by male runners who roar in their ears. This, I learned, is called the Bear Scare. (Baylor’s mascot is a bear.) We got to an old suspension bridge, and David told me that there is a tradition wherein one throws a tortilla like a Frisbee to the pillars of the broken-down bridge thirty or forty yards away. A couple was doing just that, and David asked if I could throw the last one, and I did, and I missed, but not before understanding how adorable a tradition it is and how small a town Waco is too. David and I turned around to leave the bridge, and we saw flowers and a Bible on the ground, and a young woman standing near them told us her brother was about to propose to his girlfriend and that she was guarding the spot.
I spoke to David a month later, while I was writing this story. He told me the van is now fully wrapped with the tour’s decal and that he’s going part-time on the hospice job and maybe that’ll mean leaving it completely to do Waco Tours very soon. They’ve done over forty packed tours since I saw them, and David has gotten to share his testimony and pray for people he would never have had a chance to meet before.
David couldn’t survive in New York—he wasn’t cut out for it and he couldn’t find Jesus there. It took a place like Waco, small and quiet and filled with the kinds of Christians he was looking for, for David to find some peace, to find a compass pointing him right. That’s the thing that people don’t know about Waco. They don’t know that if you let it, Waco can save your life.
In Waco these days, getting your house done by Chip and Joanna is sort of like getting your hair done by Edward Scissorhands: whatever you think of the style, it becomes its own postmodern piece of art, a sculpture taken from television. Over the course of watching the show—I watched 42 episodes—I grew to understand what people love about a home-renovation show. The world is sunk in chaos, but if you want, you can spend an hour watching something go from bad to good, from messy to clean, from chaotic to peaceful. The possibility of it fills your batteries and allows you to continue. I watched the show long after I no longer had to.
And I grew to understand what people love about Chip and Joanna in particular. Their humility comes through, along with their realness. There are a couple of episodes where they do something contrived: say, spontaneously decide to turn one of the houses into a vacation rental, or have Joanna tell Chip for the first time that she would like to buy the silos and have Chip in the next hour tell her that the deal is done. Their inability to truly pull off the lie is reassuring, because it makes all the other interactions, which are mundane and workaday and somehow also romantic because of that, feel very true.
Or maybe I’m wrong. On the day I visited the set, Chip was surprising Joanna with two new puppies after they renovated the Cargo Ship/Steamboat. I got there before Joanna did, and it was made clear to me she didn’t know about the animals. But when she arrived, she said to me, “I think they’re going to surprise me with dogs.” Later, after it happened, Chip was sad that she’d known. “You were talking about dogs last week,” she told him, and that’s the real authenticity: not her faking it onscreen but her knowing her husband well enough to see him coming.
They’re like that in person, funny and unguarded and with no fast answers. Like I said, fame has taken them by surprise, and the thing that makes them good at what they do also makes them particularly ill-equipped for it. They do up to ten houses at once now, and they have around twenty construction people on each project, plus a lead coordinator, plus a lead construction person, plus HVAC, electrical, and plumbing subcontractors. Joanna designs everything and Chip directs the construction traffic, but it’s now a logistical impossibility to be a true part of the daily process. Joanna gets a text from a design person when there’s a question, and she rushes over to the site, bringing the TV crew. If there’s a construction problem, Chip gets the call.
But for a guy like Chip, who takes tremendous pride in having built a business with his own hands, the transition to what he does today hasn’t been easy. He goes in to fix the construction problem, then stays for a little while so the cameras can catch him doing a part of the work. “But he’ll linger around and do something more,” Joanna said, “because it’s important to him: ‘I did this, I’m not an actor.’ It’s very important to him that it’s authentic, because I remember all the days when he did everything by himself, so this is really who he is. He would stick it out and finish.” He’s worried that the construction folks now see him as a poser or a phony, and that’s the last thing he ever wanted to be, but what can you do? The network wants to preserve the idea that he does it. It’s the same when they film Joanna decorating. After the cameras stop rolling, her design leads come in and help her, and they are not shy about telling me this, maybe because the mantle of perfection, like the mantle of cleaning up an entire city’s reputation single-handedly, is a lot to bear.
And then there’s been the sudden realization that there are eyes everywhere. Despite the insane number of parking spots downtown, people visiting the silos want to park close, and so the perimeter of the market is crowded in what Wacoans call “traffic” and what anyone who lives basically anywhere else would call “several cars.” A church next door to the market started charging $10 for parking in its lot, and people who didn’t know that it was the church charging the money for its causes criticized the Gaineses for charging to shop at their store. (Guys, there’s so much parking two blocks away!) The Gaineses, to ward off that kind of press, made a sign for the church indicating that it was the church doing the charging.
When they launched Magnolia House, which is overseen by two full-time caretakers and various other maintenance workers, people criticized them for charging up to $1,295 a night. “They don’t realize it’s not for a room, it’s for a whole house!” Chip said. “Our entire mission with this thing was to give our guests the chance to stay in a Fixer Upper. And this one is special because it’s modeled after our house.”
Two years ago someone in New York recognized them. Chip kept trying to place the guy, but then realized that an actual New Yorker knew him not from Waco but from television. A New Yorker! That was cool. It started to happen more and more. And then, last year, they were in a parking lot in Fargo, North Dakota, of all places, and Chip did something, or Joanna did something, and they got annoyed at each other—just regular husband-and-wife stuff. And in this parking lot, they’re talking to each other with clenched jaws and voices that were not raised, because of the children, but might as well have been when a car drove by. “I was just upset,” Joanna said. “Chip was upset, and all of a sudden, we were just going back and forth, and you just see people driving by and going, ‘There’s Chip and Jo.’ They only know us on the show, so the fact that so many people were getting this as their first impression of the ‘real’ Chip and Jo was not good.” That’s when the couple realized things were different for them now.
They are at the growing-pains point where Chip is still reading comments sections and Instagram replies. When I ask him about those, he can pull up several. One, in response to the pre-order link for the memoir they have coming out, said, “ ‘Talk about greedy,’ ” he read aloud. “ ‘How much money do you guys need?’ ” and it’s followed by two money bag emojis. I tell him there’s a part of the population that will always do that, that urinating on someone’s success is the only way certain people feel better, but Chip isn’t quite sure. It hurts when people don’t understand their sincerity. It hurts when people don’t understand that they’re just living their lives.
And now in their very quiet hometown, they are realizing that the thing that makes you move to a farmhouse on forty acres on the edge of town, collect hundreds of animals, and make sure your kids don’t watch TV—they’re not judgmental of those who do, they just want their kids to use their time creatively and to learn to work hard—is at odds with the thing that makes it so they’re not able to go anywhere without being recognized. Someone on set told me that the night before, they’d gone out to dinner, and people came over for pictures, which is fine with them, but maybe, the person observed, they could wait till Chip and Joanna had finished eating?
“We really appreciate it, we love it, you know, and we do feel to some extent the pressure to always be perfect. We have bad days. We get tired of people asking us for things like you would if people asked you for things incessantly,” Chip said. And this is something charming about them too, because they are not thinking how this will look in writing. They are having a real conversation with me, which people in their position try their hardest not to do, and I’ve included it because I’m disarmed by it, but also because it’s true. Imagine being a celebrity in a town like Waco, and imagine being fundamentally small-town people who live there because they like the quiet. Their head of PR told me that there have been vandals on their home property. Chip and Joanna don’t seem like the type of people who would anticipate that kind of thing.
The thing is, the reason Joanna wanted the silos in the first place was because there weren’t many community gathering places in Waco. She wanted one for her family, and now the family can’t go—they’d never get through the crowd.
“It’s, like, my favorite place in the world,” Joanna said. “But I can’t go there every day.” The only day of the week Magnolia Market is closed is on Sundays, and Chip and Joanna usually bring the kids there that day.
A few Sundays ago, they’d had a small birthday party for a kid they know, maybe twenty or thirty people, “a quaint little deal,” per Chip. But there were dozens of people wandering by the gates around the place, watching them. “We were joking, ‘We’re like zoo animals here,’ ” he said. “ ‘We’re inside this fence, and I think we’re the animals.’ ”
But they’re learning that this is part of the job. “On the flip side, it’s just such an honor to be in this position, and the opportunities, the things that come with this that we would’ve never dreamt of in a million years, I think certainly overshadow the fact that there are some downsides to this, and those are somewhat obvious,” Chip said. Above all, they are so happy for the influence they’ve been able to have not just on the Waco economy but also on the view of Waco for the rest of the country.
Because, again, we love what we love, but the self-esteem of a city is a large and storied thing, and the notion that Waco gets knocked down every time it begins to rise is one that’ll probably require a few more seasons of Fixer Upper, and a few fewer idiot moves at Baylor, to undo. The Gaineses are too busy to second-guess their choices at this point anyway. And second-guessing risk is not the Gaines way.
“When you’ve been beaten down as long as this beautiful town has been . . . ,” Chip trailed off. “I mean, the fifties and then the basketball thing. You addressed the Branch Davidians. Maybe it was the Branch Davidians, then the basketball players, then the bikers, then Baylor—you know, it gets almost to where you become a defeated kind of culture.”
“I don’t know, I think this city has the potential to be a really great city, and I think every now and then what we come up against is just trials,” Joanna said. “For anybody to be great one day they’re going to have to go through these trials, and it’s how you deal with it and how you overcome those trials. I feel like Waco in twenty or thirty years—we’re going to look back and this isn’t going to be the same town. This is going to be the town that could.”
We love what we love. But who knows what that love does, and how it can transform a place and its people.
“I think if you start thinking, ‘If we screw up, we’re going to screw up Waco,’ ” Chip finished. “I don’t want that pressure. I want to be known for what we love to do, what we’re passionate about, and if that brings our town up in the midst of that, good. But again, it’s one of those things. It’s, like, I don’t want to be responsible for it. We’re going to do the best we can, but we’re all humans.”
We sure are. After I left Waco, there were protests about the little girl at Live Oak, there were op-eds, and there were some unruly and shameful comments sections, as there always are. The officials chose not to file charges. I read the investigation. Police officers went back to the scene of the field trip and whipped the rope around until it made a mark on another investigator’s neck, and some people hoped that would put the thing to rest, but others remembered how fallible police officers can be.
And the week after I left, it was reported that vandals had sneaked onto the Gaineses’ ranch and shot two of their goats, just shot them dead. I called their PR guy, and he corrected me: the goats that were shot were ones kept at Magnolia Market, not ones at their home. It was a small difference, sure. But, still, dead goats. Still, Waco. And somewhere Susan Morton and Carla Pendergraft put their heads in their hands and wondered how come this city just won’t give them a break—they’re trying, please, just give them a break—and Brad Turner can sense in the wind that maybe we are coming out on the other side of Waco’s brief renaissance, and David Ridley prays on it, and Chip and Joanna put their heads down too but theirs in strong resolve. Underneath all this drywall, there’s valuable shiplap; there’s something beautiful that was once discarded, something people once thought should be hidden but is actually a gem just waiting to be discovered. Joanna asks Waco, Are y’all ready to see your fixer-upper? So they knock down the drywall and they paint the brick above the fireplaces and they hang a sign with a quote from First Corinthians on it, or maybe one that just says, “Fresh Cut Flowers,” and they declare it all fun and they declare it all cute, all throughout Waco, one house at a time.