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Chip and Joanna Gaines on Walking Away From ‘Fixer Upper,’ Launching Magnolia Network and the Criticism That Stings the Most

The couple have harnessed their easy approachability to build a thriving empire encompassing TV, books, hospitality and retail. But when their new TV channel launches in July, they’ll need to become something quite different: hard-nosed media executives.

“Wish me luck,” says Joanna Gaines. Three men, outfitted with skeletal Steadicams, flank her as she places a raw chicken breast into a cast-iron skillet and … silence. It’s not hot enough. Without the sizzle, without a spattering of oil, there’s no shot.

The director says to take five, and, for a moment, it’s like the set of any other cooking show. A food stylist approaches with a camera-ready platter to swap in should the chicken prove temperamental, while the host gets her hair slightly fussed over. In a corner, two assistants look over shot lists under a wall of blacked-out windows — presumably a lighting trick for the better of the show. “No,” says Matthew, the P.A. “Yesterday, a few women came right up to the glass asking if this was Magnolia Table.”

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While this is indeed the set of Magnolia Table, the show, the women in question were referring to Gaines and husband Chip’s restaurant of the same name, about 25 miles east of this old millhouse in rural Texas. Fans of Fixer Upper have an almost uncanny knack for sniffing out its stars’ aesthetic. And it’s become ubiquitous around their small city of Waco.

Here, the Gaineses draw devotees with the 5-acre Magnolia Market shopping complex, the Magnolia Press coffee shop, the Silos Baking Co. bakery and, yes, Magnolia Table, all under the Magnolia umbrella. Thanks to the married home-renovation team who catapulted to fame in 2013, Waco now rivals The Alamo as the state’s top tourist destination. Nearly 2 million annual pre-COVID visitors are expected to return now that the pandemic is in retreat. The pair also have a magazine (Magnolia Journal) and best-selling lifestyle books as well as apparel, furniture and design lines. But for the better part of the past three years, save reruns, they’ve largely been absent from TV. Their decision to end Fixer Upper in 2017, at the height of its popularity — it pulled in an average of 16.6 million weekly viewers to HGTV — made them free agents and inspired a parade of deep-pocketed suitors. They went with Discovery Inc. CEO David Zaslav the following year — the only one to offer not just a show or a slate but an entire network that they’re also building from scratch in Central Texas.

“TV shows impact the culture, but Chip and Jo impact people’s lives,” says Zaslav, who has given the couple free rein to curate a platform starring fellow entrepreneurs from the worlds of design, food, home and garden. “They provide something very rare in America today: a sunshiny hopefulness that you can make things with your own two hands and your life will be better for it.”

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Chip and Joanna Gaines were photographed June 16 in Waco, Texas. Photographed by Harper Smith

Magnolia Network bows July 15 on Discovery+ before taking over the cable channel currently occupied by DIY in January. The digital-first strategy speaks volumes to the entertainment industry’s priorities of the day, but Chip, 46, and Joanna, 43, don’t seem concerned with the order of things. What has them a little anxious when I visit them the following afternoon is a harsh inevitability of being TV executives: They’ll have to cancel shows. “Post-success, post-fame, however you want to articulate it, we haven’t experienced much failure,” says Chip. “So to hear David say, ‘You’re going to fail 70 percent of the time,’ that’s hard. If I only got three out of 10 houses right, I wouldn’t be in business.”

With the charged rapport of Lucy and Ricky and the wholesomeness of a Norman Rockwell painting, the Gaineses built their shared career on the impression that they are, well, really nice. Firing one of the artisans they’ve coaxed into populating their family-friendly lifestyles network is not on brand. Says Joanna: “They’re stories we’re passionate about telling. If some only hit a smaller demographic, I don’t care. We’re going to do a season two.”

Scrapping series is among several uncomfortable scenarios the couple may confront in their transition to TV executives. They’ve cultivated a broad audience with a nonpartisan mystique of which there are few other examples right now. As one individual in their orbit puts it, “There’s this odd phenomenon where everyone thinks they’re theirs.”

More than boho rugs, biscuits, birch-scented candles or TV shows, that’s what Chip and Joanna trade in — their own bucolic reboot of the American dream, which can look anachronistic to both the divisive times and an industry rife with cynics.

“We understand people’s doubts,” says Chip. “It takes time to prove you’re trustworthy, but that feels like a challenge to me. I can’t wait to be 80 years old and for people to say, ‘Gosh, we really pegged you as phony.’ ”

***

“We couldn’t have chosen a worse time to have done this,” Chip acknowledges, almost amused, comparing their decision to launch a cable network in 2021 with a housing development that nearly bankrupted them when the bubble burst more than a decade ago. The percentage of Americans who watch cable or satellite TV, according to a Pew Research Center survey, sunk from 76 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2021. Unlike the housing market, it is not expected to rebound. Streaming is the priority. And while Discovery+ has gained 15 million global subscribers since its January launch, the company needs Magnolia to drive signups and deliver buzz that it has yet to capture.

When it launched in 2013, Fixer Upper appeared to be just another home-makeover show. During each episode — the Gaineses made 79 in all — buyers debate over a few shabby houses before selecting one for the stars to make the envy of its block. But the irrepressible chemistry of the couple — Joanna, a designer with model looks who sparked a nationwide obsession with farmhouse chic, and Chip, the everyman contractor who liked to barrel through drywall on “demo day” — was the real hook. The photogenic parents of four (now five) were adamant about not taking on homes outside the greater Waco area, so Fixer Upper evolved into a reality show about the well-meaning family’s quest to beautify their hometown.

Each season, however, demanded as many as 17 homes for the Gaineses to remodel. By season five, that was more than they cared to handle. And the Magnolia brand, by then a retail hydra galvanized by Fixer Upper‘s success, had supplanted the show as the keystone of their operation. “We realized we didn’t necessarily love that side of the camera, and that part became a full-time job,” says Joanna. “We’ve got a big family. We’ve got a business. The show ended up where we had to constantly be feeding it.”

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“How it’s all landed, I feel like is the best way to do this,” Joanna says of the network’s pandemic-delayed launch and streaming-first pivot. “July 15th is going to be exciting, but in my mind, that’s when the real work starts.” Photographed by Harper Smith

When I first came to Waco to meet Chip and Joanna in 2016, their fatigue with Fixer Upper was starting to show. Having just signed what would be their final deal at HGTV, they were producing roughly one-third of the 50 episodes the network had requested. The influx of Waco tourism, a byproduct of their own success, rendered daily life in their hometown uncomfortable.

In the years since, they’ve absconded from their office atop Magnolia Market for a more discreet business park on the edge of town. The nondescript exterior conceals both its celebrity tenants and a maze of well-attired rooms that resemble a boutique hotel. The Gaineses seem different, too. Joanna, often quiet by her own admission, appears more confident and forthcoming. Chip tries to self-censor his proclivity for dad jokes and approaches questions with measured responses. But they live in the same farmhouse they bought in 2012, and Joanna still runs errands with her kids at Target. Only now, like all of the big box chain’s American locations, Waco’s Target has a double-wide aisle devoted to products licensed with her name. “I always walk by to just see,” she says. “Is it clean? Have they displayed it well?”

The September 2017 news that Fixer Upper would end was greeted with confusion from fans and horror at the network. And Zaslav was just as freaked out. Hollywood’s power broker of the moment, who recently orchestrated Discovery’s impending merger with WarnerMedia, thought the show would be his. Three months earlier, he’d announced the planned $14.6 billion acquisition of HGTV parent Scripps Networks Interactive, also home to Food Network. While waiting for the Department of Justice to approve his purchase, he’d lost Scripps’ highest-rated show on its highest-rated network without so much as a conversation. “It wasn’t a question of how to hold on to them,” says then-HGTV president Allison Page. “They were just gone.”

That’s less surprising if you look at their small-screen stardom as they do — more an accident than a goal. “Jo and I weren’t looking to be on TV,” Chip says. “TV found us.”

Joanna, the middle of three daughters born to an American father and a Korean mother, grew up in Kansas and arrived in Waco during high school. Briefly courting a career in broadcast journalism, interning at CBS News during college, her attention later shifted to design. Chip, a native of New Mexico, stuck around Waco after attending Baylor University, doing construction work. A meet-cute at Joanna’s father’s Firestone tire shop in 2001 was followed by what they both describe as a mediocre first date. Still, they were married and business partners within two years. Four children — Drake, Ella, Duke and Emmie — followed in quick succession. (No. 5, Crew, arrived roughly nine months after they quit Fixer Upper.) It was more than a decade into their growing business partnership, by that point focused on house-flipping, when a producer from High Noon Entertainment saw one of their homes on a blog. After a cold call and some convincing, a clunky sizzle reel turned into a pilot and a pilot turned into a series.

When Fixer Upper wrapped, Chip and Joanna largely ignored Hollywood’s calls as they took a year off to grow their family and the Magnolia brand. They began serious discussions in summer 2018. Emissaries from both coasts flew to Waco’s modest airport and pled their case. The Gaineses won’t name names, but Apple TV+, A+E Networks and High Noon parent company ITV America all made serious overtures, according to multiple sources, with the ultimate decision coming down to a choice between Netflix and Discovery. A sticking point with Netflix was that Chip and Joanna weren’t ready to be back on camera.

“The other suitors would call back — like it was a negotiation tactic,” says Chip. “They were like, ‘Oh, it has to be more money.’ David pivoted.”

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Chip and Joanna Gaines were photographed June 16 in Waco, Texas. Photographed by Harper Smith

Zaslav, his Scripps deal not even done, had boarded a 3:30 a.m. private flight to Waco a few days after the Gaineses finally agreed to meet him that January. He ultimately appealed to their love of renovation, only this time of a tired TV network. With 17 channels at his disposal, he offered one for them to reimagine in their image — and, per industry sources, a 30 percent to 40 percent ownership stake. Zaslav’s portfolio is known for stingy programming budgets, but he ponies up for talent — so the Gaineses also secured a proviso that they not be required to front another series. “There was a lot of head-scratching, because they were not going to commit to being on camera,” says Page, a longtime confidant of the couple who since has left her post overseeing HGTV and Food to run Magnolia’s TV outfit. “Autonomy is important to them, and David gets that.”

Autonomy also means staying in Waco. With smaller satellites in Knoxville, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, their chosen hometown is where nearly all Magnolia Network’s work is done. In April, the Gaineses formalized plans for a $13.6 million overhaul of a building in the heart of downtown Waco as their company’s new base of operations. And while there have been complaints of gentrification that can accompany development, their efforts to cultivate the local economy has bestowed upon them icon status in Texas. Over email, Oscar-winning Fixer Upper fan Matthew McConaughey waxes poetic about their work. “What I admire about Chip and Joanna is their commitment to their family and community,” writes the resident of neighboring Austin, who’s said he’s mulling a gubernatorial bid in the state. “As wide as the roots of their brand have expanded, those same roots have humbly grown deeper at the same time.”

Unsurprisingly, the Gaineses will be heavily featured on their network. They’ve already banked three seasons of Magnolia Table (it shares a name with their 3-year-old Waco eatery and Joanna’s first cookbook, which trailed only former first lady Michelle Obama’s Becoming on the 2018 book charts), a documentary about Chip training to run a marathon and a nine-episode reboot of Fixer Upper, which they now produce, titled Welcome Home.

“People tell me, ‘You don’t have The Mandalorian or The Morning Show,’ ” Zaslav says, alluding to his almost exclusively unscripted portfolio. “But The Morning Show hasn’t been on the cover of People 20 times in the last four years. The Morning Show doesn’t sell a million cookbooks. There’s a big underestimation of this kind of connection to the audience.”

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The Gaineses revealed their plans for a network on a 2019 episode of ‘The Tonight Show.’ Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

***

There is something to the Gaineses that seems to appeal to more Americans than it offends. Southern, Christian and almost stubbornly un-Hollywood, there should be a natural limit to their base. But scrolling through the topline of Joanna’s 13.2 million Instagram followers, I recognize a Muslim congresswoman, a friend’s Republican parents, Black Lives Matter activists and several gay socialists.

“They appeal to America because they’re almost like a piece of Americana,” says Jenna Bush Hager. The Today host, Texan and former first daughter initially became aware of Fixer Upper when her mother, Laura Bush, insisted she do a story on Joanna. She’s since interviewed the couple multiple times and hosted several book events at Magnolia Market. “I can walk around the market with Reese Witherspoon and nobody pays attention. But you go with Joanna Gaines, it’s as if you are in Graceland with Elvis.”

Chip and Joanna have helped maintain that broad appeal — skeptics might say strategically — by staying removed from the friction during a tumultuous run in American history. Still, their ascent has not been without controversy. Same-sex couples never being featured on the original Fixer Upper came into sharper focus in 2016 when the Gaineses filmed a conversation with a local pastor who has openly denounced LGBTQ rights. In May, The Dallas Morning News drew attention to Chip’s sister, whose campaign for the school board in suburban Fort Worth received a $1,000 donation from the couple months before she came out against teaching critical race theory, a lighting rod issue in the state. The Gaineses didn’t comment on either matter.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Can I just make a statement?’ ” Joanna says, tearing up a little. “The accusations that get thrown at you, like you’re a racist or you don’t like people in the LGBTQ community, that’s the stuff that really eats my lunch — because it’s so far from who we really are. That’s the stuff that keeps me up.”

Both stress that they’d rather be judged by their actions, by the choices they’re now making on their network. Its core audience, like HGTV’s, is almost certain to be predominantly female and white. That will be reflected on Magnolia’s talent roster. But many series star people of color and, on launch day, there’ll be at least one show with openly queer talent at its center. “As an American white male, it’s hard to be perfectly diverse,” says Chip. “In our own company, we’ve got nearly 700 employees, and one of our biggest passions is making this group represent all people.”

Often lost in conversations about the Gaines is the fact that they’re a mixed-race family. After a year of forced introspection for many, it’s a part of their identity they now give more attention. In June 2020, with the country still on edge from the police killing of George Floyd, Chip sought out an appearance on activist and former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho’s digital series Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man. Joined by Joanna and their children, they discussed the disadvantages to raising their family to be color-blind in a society still dogged by racism.

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Joanna Gaines (right) with mom, Nan Stevens, photographed for the Magnolia Table cookbook Courtesy of Magnolia Network

More recently, Joanna has been vocal about her own lineage as violence against Asian Americans lingers in the news cycle but admits she’s almost never asked about it. Her mother, Nan, emigrated from Seoul, South Korea, in 1972. Growing up in Kansas and Texas, Joanna recalls the harassment they endured.

“My mom is so tough, but with one look or comment, I would just see her shut down,” she says. “That’s why she didn’t know how to help me when I would come home and say, ‘So-and-so called me this.’ It was also happening to her. Growing up as half-Asian, half-Caucasian, I get what that feels like to not be accepted and to not be loved. That’s the last thing I want anyone to ever feel.”

Outside of regular appearances on Today, they are press-shy. Even their own platforms give them pause as the most banal social media post from Joanna is reason for clickbait at multiple outlets. (A seven-second Instagram of son Crew moving a small crate on the Magnolia Table set in June prompted a full Access Hollywood story.) She talks about pulling back on social media, though she’s acutely aware of how much of their business it drives: “It’s like you’re always going to make a lot of people mad, and you’re always going to make a lot of people happy. I don’t think as humans we’re meant to carry that kind of weight.”

For Magnolia Network, the pressure isn’t as high as it would have been 10 or even five years ago. The digital-first launch gives the Gaineses a six-month learning curve to see what registers and what doesn’t — maybe even quietly cancel a few shows — before the more easily measured expectations of cable.

“We can’t stop cable from dying, that’s not our mission,” says Joanna. “But while it’s still available, we hope you spend an hour or five with us and leave feeling like it was time well spent.”

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Courtesy of Lede Company
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Photographed by Harper Smith

This story first appeared in the June 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.