Ben Napier is massive, 6-foot-6, 300 lbs. His wife, Erin — 5-foot-5, slim — is not. She calls him “Big” and cranes her neck in such a constant state of adoration that she appears to be risking long-term muscle strain.
“Our show is a little bit ‘This Old House,’ and a little bit ‘Gilmore Girls,’ “ says Erin, 32, standing in the living room of the morning’s second makeover house, where the Napiers are taping “Home Town,” the latest hit show on cable giant HGTV.
The show is a paean to this town of 19,000, once rich in loblolly pine, a town of handsome early 20th-century houses and dismal 1970s downtown urban renewal, which the Napiers and their entrepreneurial friends are determined to undo.
Laurel has “seen some hard times,” says Ben, 34, in the show’s opening. “We’re committed to change that one house at a time.”
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The Napiers — and Laurel — are rising stars of HGTV. This spring, more than 16 million viewers watched the debut season of “Home Town.” Driving around, it’s easy to spot the five houses that the show is simultaneously renovating for the second season, scheduled to air early next year. The driveways are crammed with dumpsters and a dozen production and construction-crew trucks. Visitors tour the historic district in search of last season’s renovations — and the Napiers’ yellow 1925 Craftsman home.
“I keep asking, ‘Is this real?’ It’s like looking at the sun,” Erin says of becoming quasi-famous in six months. “You can’t look directly at it. We have to think of our lives now as something really regular.”
Really regular lives catapulted into the celebrity stratosphere, thanks to Americans’ addiction to televised home makeovers, the comfort food of cable.
‘Soap stars of our day’
HGTV, the network of domestic dreams, is the antidote to CNN, which it routinely pounds in prime-time ratings. It floats in a timeless ether, aiming to please, distract and calm, never disturb. The acronym stands for Home and Garden TV, but it’s pretty much all home — unless you count potted plants or shrubs for curb appeal.
The network, which reported $1.1 billion in revenue last year, traffics in residential fairy tales. All its programs present, in various iterations, a Cinderella story where any house, with the proper fairy godhosts and throw pillows, can become a princess, seemingly overnight. The owner barely lifts a sledgehammer or picks a paint color. It’s a spa treatment makeover.
HGTV consistently ranks in the top 10 of all cable and broadcast networks among viewers ages 25 to 54, and among the top five with women. Hillary Clinton has claimed that she watches it to unwind, deeming it “relaxing and entertaining.”
There are no mentions of the president, politics or current events. The nearest thing to a crisis is shag carpeting. (Yes, controversies erupt with some hosts, but generally off-camera.) The shows play to the heartland, celebrating small-town America, neighborhood and community. They may as well be set in the “Leave it to Beaver” era, except for the furnishings, which tend to be Pottery Barnish, homey and personal without being especially personal.
The hosts, hired for their folksy, relatable charm, are “the soap stars of our day,” says Allison Page, general manager of domestic programming and development for Scripps Networks, which owns HGTV. “They’re a part of viewers’ lives.” (Scripps owns a majority stake in the Food Network, another balm for an anxious age that consistently ranks in the top 20. This summer, Discovery Communications agreed to purchase Scripps in a $14.6 billion deal.)
Tool-belt celebrities have become the luminaries of the supermarket checkout aisle, plastered on magazine covers: mannequin-like Canadian twins Jonathan and Drew Scott of “Property Brothers,” country bro Chip and photogenic Joanna Gaines of “Fixer Upper,” and the sensationally combustible Tarek and Christina El Moussa of “Flip or Flop.”
Tarek and Christina are going through a car wreck of a divorce but will co-host upcoming episodes of their show because, apparently, cable is thicker than marriage.
HGTV has a lot of time to fill, creating 567 hours of programming a year. There’s a constant need to locate fresh talent. Becoming an HGTV host has become an aspiration, like being a YouTube or Instagram influencer.
The network considers hundreds of “sizzles,” teasers often shot on smartphones, to develop 60 pilots a year. Only a few pilots will be greenlighted for a series, of which only a couple will become audience favorites. In just 11 shows, “Home Town” is a hit. The debut episode attracted 2.2 million viewers, the second-highest number in HGTV’s 23-year history.
What is Page looking for in network hosts? “Vulnerability and realness,” she says.
“Home Town” is a love letter to the love story of Ben and Erin, photogenic deep-Southern 30-somethings who met at the local junior college, went on to Ole Miss and exhibit an inexhaustible ability to spend time together.
“The best thing about the show is we get to do it together. We do everything together,” says Erin, holding her quilted makeup bag. (She does her own for the show as she races from house to house.) “We’re never apart. My mother says it’s obnoxious.”
They share two dogs, no kids, an old house. All their fans know this.
The show’s formula is simple; the renovation is not. A potential owner picks between two houses selected by the Napiers, buys the place and pays for the renovation but gives the couple complete control of the aesthetics, promising not to peek until the cameras are rolling. (Erin is convinced that one owner did.) The Napiers don’t do the construction, but the vision is all theirs. “We’re the art directors,” Erin says.
Ben is a woodworker, a former Methodist student ministry director, and the official lumberjack mascot at town events, Mr. Loblolly. He sweats a lot.
Erin is a graphic designer, a former creator of luxury fabric wedding invitations that were a hit with Martha Stewart Weddings. She claims to be “an introvert,” which seems patently absurd. She exhibits not an iota of shyness and shares a daily Web journal with loyal fans, tirelessly documenting their home renovation and other projects. As of Sept. 21, she was up to Installment No. 2425.
She is given to offering pillow-ready aperçus like, “I think of doing homes not as renovations but designing the book cover of people’s lives.” Which is why she’s on television. The camera loves her.
That “Home Town” is set in Mississippi, the nation’s poorest state, perennially occupying the cellar of almost every quality-of-life list, seems no accident.
The network is unlikely to shoot a show in San Francisco, New York or Washington, D.C., Page says, where prices are out of reach for most Americans. Laurel’s fine old houses are a steal: Most projects on “Home Town” have a $200,000 budget, including the house sale price and the renovation.
HGTV is the inverse of Architectural Digest or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” It sells affordable dreams. If the show makes a star out of Laurel, even better.
After only 11 episodes — granted, rerun into the ground — the Napiers have been featured in Southern Living (approximating a coronation in these parts), the cover of Okra (a hipster Southern Living), and on “The Today Show.” People magazine ranked the show 44th on its “100 Reasons to Love America,” a notch above American cheese singles.
Chip and Joanna, naturally, were No. 1.
A hit show can deliver a high thread-count payday for the network and hosts. Four years after their first episode aired, Chip and Joanna are an empire, more Upper than Fixer with a staff of 450, a line of rugs and textiles, paints, an online Magnolia Market and a physical store in Waco, Texas, which has become a tourist destination for fans. In an era of personality-driven publications, they have their own magazine.
The Napiers are the rare cable stars that the network found rather than the other way around, the 21st-century version of discovering Lana Turner at a soda fountain.
This being the 21st century, a former HGTV executive found Erin through her Instagram account.
“I’ve been stalking your Instagram for a while. It sounds creepy but it’s actually my job,” the executive wrote Erin. “I’m in love with your town, and I’m in love with your relationship, and your house. And I feel like there’s a show there. I’m just not sure what it is yet. Have you ever thought about doing TV?”
To which Erin says, “It was never our dream to be on television.”
The Napiers are partners in two businesses: Scotsman woodworking (wood furniture, wood furniture, work aprons, workwear and flannel button downs) and Laurel Mercantile, a website and fetching physical store that would not seem out of place in Napa or the Hudson River Valley, stocked with American-made goods including $26 scented candles, heirloom tools tagged with their provenance, and $125 ceramic platters created in Brooklyn. Customers can pick up cards, designed by Erin, of places to visit in Laurel. The visitor book logs guests from England and Australia.
Are small-town Erin and Ben ready to blow up big, to serve as magazine cover catnip, to become an empire, a brand, Laurel’s answer to Chip and Joanna? Ben is already recognized on the streets of Manhattan. They landed a credit card endorsement deal. Are the Napiers prepared to have more visitors drive past their house?
“We will do whatever it takes to change the perception of our town and of Mississippi,” says Erin. “If there’s any way we can do that, show the beauty and magic of it, then we will sacrifice our privacy and our private lives to do that.”
They are, however, painting their house a different color.