There’s been a glaring omission from the home culture newsletter. I haven’t written about television home makeovers. I know! How can I have spent so much time resisting a deep dive into that version of monetized domesticity? There’s so much there! The good, the bad, the ugly but now remodeled.

The truth is that I couldn’t write about it because I was too close to it. My friend, Aubry Bennion, has been in a TV home make over horror story since 2019. In 2020, the damage caused by the project moved into tens of thousands of dollars. I offered to write an essay about the ordeal. The designer and production company wouldn't make things right. Maybe publicity would get the attention of someone at the network that ordered the show. They could help restore her home.

But Aubry didn’t want to be public about it. She just wanted to get through it. Then this week, she texted me.  It was finally time. She’d consulted with a lawyer. She'd gathered receipts, sometimes literally. And she'd put together a jaw dropping instagram series about her extreme home makeover misery. I called her before she shared it. Why now?

She’d repaired the damage to her home and well-being at great personal cost. There was nothing the production company or network could give her. Both knew what had been done to her. Neither the network nor production company had helped her in private. Why let them help in public? She just wanted to protect people from being scammed by what I like to call Big Home Makeover.


In 2019, Aubry’s kitchen remodel was chosen for Home Work, a show made for Magnolia Network. The show is produced by its stars, Candis and Andy Meredith. Aubry knew the Merediths from shared social circles in Utah. She knew Chip and Joanna Gaines through work. Aubry’s full-time career is in engineering project management. She also runs a felt ball company, Hello, Maypole. (My kids think her felt balls make great slingshot ammo.) She’s sold her products in Magnolia fairs on and off since 2016. She’s also been a vendor in the Magnolia Silo stores.

Over the years, I followed Aubry’s relationship with Magnolia on social media. Her posts of her work in Waco documented its evolution from a town to a design destination. I’ve never been a fan of shiplap or the married designer TV show format. But in the beginning, I rooted for the Gaines. They just seemed kind of aggressively normal. In the mid 2010s, I was starved for normal. They offered a break from increasingly filtered influencers filling the design space.

The work of people like Ph.D. student Rebecca Lea Potts helped me see that the Magnolia brand “provided viewers with a renovated manifest destiny.” The shiplap the Gaines put into homes was meant to evoke a feeling of history. They never seemed to nail down exactly what that history was. Shiplap has been around since the Vikings, its overlapping rabbet joints made ship hulls water tight. Real shiplap also creates a very smooth surface. Before sheetrock, people lined their interior walls with shiplap because it was a great base for wallpaper. Joanna’s innovation was putting up the shiplap without the paper.

As Joanna has noted, shiplap paneling often evokes maritime history. It’s worth asking which part of that history it evokes within the context of Texas and America, generally. Ships constructed with shiplap came to America bearing many things, including enslaved people. Gaines showed us the shiplap, but didn’t help us see what Potts calls “the ship within the shiplap.”

Of course, Chip and Joanna didn’t invent valuing the aesthetics of history over well, history. That’s like…a lot of interior design. I’ve definitely spent many hours discovering horrifying histories of objects and spaces I once thought were harmless. I am sure I have many more discoveries ahead of me. The Gaines didn’t invent personal brand empires either. A consumer capitalism that rewards consolidation did. It’s no longer enough to be one talented, producing person. You’ve got to be Amazon embodied. You've got to demonstrate the ability to build a personal brand empire.

Financial capitalism requires the potential for endless expansion. My soul has that potential. My capacity to produce and direct production does not.

I think about this in my own career all the time. I don’t know how to manage multiple streams and platforms. I have no idea how to diversify into podcasts, products and profit-sharing. I only know how to write. But that’s not enough. Capital rarely wants to invest in a one trick woman. Financial capitalism requires the potential for endless expansion. My soul has that potential. My capacity to produce and direct production does not.

Some people, like Chip and Joanna Gaines, do have that capacity. Magnolia spread into Target, restaurants, realty, purchasing much of Waco and announcing  a TV network. I tried not to be skeptical. Empire-building is how business works now because we demand empires from people. Consumers are no more satisfied with the solo, specialized creator than investors. We don’t want to support people, we want to be immersed in branded experiences. An immersive branded experience is what influencers offer us with Target collaborations, we get to buy and then live with pieces of their branded life.

Personal brand empires may seem diluted or self-dealing but they’re not all bad. They employ talented people who are able to do their work because of all that brand empire building. I follow several people who work for Magnolia. I’ve become friends with them. I am so grateful they can be paid to be artists and designers. Their work is good. I am enriched by it. I believe their community is enriched by it. If Magnolia wasn’t paying them. Who would? The latest SaaS tech behemoth?

Magnolia

Magnolia Network’s network’s lineup is full of people I’ve never heard of before. I think this is by benevolent design. The Gaines seem to be very open to inviting people to stand on their platform with them. There’s a real generosity there. According to Andy Meredith, Joanna Gaines reached out to them through an Instagram DM. That must have been legitimately thrilling. Andy and Candis are known for redoing old homes. Joanna liked their style and asked if they’d consider making a show for the new network. They could make whatever kind of show they liked. In People Magazine, Andy wondered at their good fortune,

"It's something that I don't know we would have had the freedom to make anywhere else, but they just handed us the reins and said, 'Make your show.' That's something you don't see these days."

There might be a reason for that.


In an initial production meeting, Candis told Aubry her kitchen remodel project could be done for $20k in three weeks. The low number and quick turnaround shocked Aubry. She didn’t know how TV worked. Maybe some of the materials were free from sponsors? Production had to start quickly. Aubry didn’t have time to get a home equity loan. She borrowed money from her parents. She’d get the loan and pay them back after the remodel. You can’t get a home equity loan without a kitchen.

Aubry’s kitchen demolition was filmed in October. She’d moved the fridge into her small living room, stacked the contents of her cabinets on her couch and floor. They stayed there until February. Her house is small and she runs her business out of it. She had nowhere to cook or keep food. The disruption was not minimal. And her home was not the only one in disarray.

Home Work had overextended itself. Candis was remodeling many houses at once to get as many episodes done as quickly as they could. If you want to be renewed, you need a robust first season. Over the next two years, the home owners connected. They compared notes on damages. Some quit the show, at least one filed a lawsuit. Many reported that project budgets were mysteriously doubled after months of delays, before any real work had been done.

After Aubry shared her story on Instagram, another woman shared hers. Home Work also demolished Teisha Hawley’s kitchen in October. She’d also been given a three week timeline. Her budget was $40k. By February, she was still living in her basement with a makeshift kitchen and her three small children. In February, Candis told her she’d spent the entire budget and needed another $40k to finish the project. The Hawley’s couldn’t afford to double their budget. They quit the show, took over the project and finished it on their own.

The first wave of Covid hit in the middle of all of this. Aubry tears up when she talks about one of the families. The husband lost his job because of the pandemic. Their home had been torn up for so long, they had so little to show for all the money they’d given Candis. They couldn’t afford to finish the work. The costs kept climbing and opportunities to work kept falling.

There’s some real sad girl fall Fyre Fest energy from start to finish. But I can see Candis, The Home Work Host as a monster created by influencer capitalism. The people who invest in and consume influencer production are like Dr. Frankenstein. They’ve stitched Domestic Monsters together from pieces of white feminism, corporate brand experience, and 1950s gender roles.  And then when they see what they've made, they’re disgusted by their own creation.

Aubry’s own experience with Home Work and Magnolia is a case study of influence apathy. There was little communication after the first day of demo. Candis often told Aubry she was coming by and then she’d just never show up. Home Work employed workers who did not have licenses or insurance. Labor from people with licenses and insurance costs more than labor from people without them. This cost-cutting approach is a problem for homeowners, sure. But it is also a huge risk for the workers. The licenses and insurance protect them too.

Aubry said that Candis claimed that her crew was paid per project, not per hour. This didn’t make much sense to Aubry. By the end of the project, Aubry felt sure that Candis’s claim was another way of saying, “I am exploiting vulnerable people for their labor because their immigration status makes it so they can’t demand basic industry standards like hourly pay.”

Worker’s homes were made less secure because of Candis and Andy's home empire designs.

Aubry found out later the crew walked off the job at all the houses because they weren’t getting paid. It was Christmas time. Candis and Andy weren't paying the people performing the physical labor of their platform building. Those worker’s homes were made less secure because of Candis and Andy's home empire designs.

The text messages Aubry shares in her Instagram post are curl up in a corner and die uncomfortable. Candis starts a lot of the texts with “Hey Girl!!” Beware the Hey Girl, its always the preamble to an excuse or bad news. The images of the text conversations are little art pieces. Each vibrating with the anxiety that attends niceness deployed to protect from power. Aubry wanted her kitchen done, finally, and doesn’t want to estrange the person with the power to finish it. Candis seemed to want adoration without commitment or critique. She wanted Aubry to be happy, but only because Aubry’s unhappiness might go viral. At every turn Candis seems baffled that Aubry can’t see that this was never about creating a home, it was always about creating content.


In February, Aubry sent Candis a “get this kitchen done or I’m done” text. Candis called her and said,  “I want to be on the same team” and “you don’t appreciate me for the things I do for you.” Candis then told her that the kitchen would cost $40k instead of $20k. She’d already spent more than 60% of the approved budget.

When Aubry balked, Candis said Aubry didn’t understand the cost of everything behind the scenes. She cited hours of phone calls to "pull everything together." Even if Aubry wanted to give her the cash, she couldn’t. She couldn’t take out a home equity loan until there was a kitchen in the house again. Candis told Aubry that if she didn’t cover the extra costs, Aubry was “jeopardizing her ability to feed her children.”

You know, this is all happening within a certain cultural context. Utah is a place where single women without children are routinely marginalized. Candis is a woman who has made motherhood and her children part of her brand. And fine. Fair play. We work with what we have!But to fail your client and then use your branded children to guilt her, a single woman without children, into paying for your failure? That is just really…well. It plays to a certain cultural script. And honestly, how very dare she.

Candis then offered to lend Aubry the money to cover the doubled budget. She said Aubry could pay her back. Candis insisted she’d only do this for a friend. So she’d need to know they were on friendly terms before giving Aubry the loan. I am not sure I’ve encountered a better example of the toxic blending of private and public that happens in so many influencer spaces. The interlocking layers of manipulation - deliberate, desperate or both - are a wonder and a terror to behold.

Aubry didn’t take the loan or pay another $20k towards the remodel. Home Work needed footage so they finished the project. Well. Kind of. A deck Candis insisted on building wasn’t finished in time for the filming of the big reveal. The film crew had Aubry stand on the unfinished deck and pretend to see a finished one. Candis said they’d come back and film the finished deck when it was done. The deck was never done. They never came back.

In the spring, the half-finished deck caused flooding. They'd built it over sprinklers, without proper grading and without permits. An appraiser told Aubry if she didn’t get it permitted, it would devalue her home. It cost her $18k to fix.

Aubry summed it up pretty succinctly, “Health, safety and happiness came second to the production value.”


There are so many home makeover horror stories. Why didn’t Aubry know better? She’d had good, if limited, experiences with Magnolia. And Home Work was a Magnolia experience. She knew that Magnolia Network wasn’t making the show. But she also knew the show was initially Joanna’s idea. If Home Work had Magnolia's backing, Aubry could trust her home with it.

Magnolia Network is not like those other networks. It’s not just programming. It’s a point of view and a promise.

That’s kind of the appeal of the Magnolia Network, right? It’s not like those other networks. It’s not just programming. It’s a point of view and a promise. When introducing the network in a recent email, Magnolia wrote that it is “TV that feels like home.” Any other time, that might have felt like a sappy tagline. But as we face the isolation of another surge of Covid, it feels like security. We may not be able to travel home or bring friends into our homes. But we can turn on our TV and feel at home. Gosh, that’s a promise I wish anyone - including Magnolia - could actually deliver on right now.

I’m proud of Aubry for telling a true story. It’s not comfortable to express displeasure about beloved influencers. I know from past experience that their defenders are legion. I don’t imagine her work with Magnolia will continue into the future. It’s never fun to put a piece of your livelihood on the altar of altruistic honesty. I have to admit, I thought twice before writing this newsletter. After all, if I ever get a book deal wouldn’t it have been nice to be on a Gaines’ curated book list? (But Joanna, if you still wanna put my potential book on your reading list, I am not saying no, okay! Hey girl!!!!) I could have faved Aubry's posts and then scrolled along my merry way.

But this story matters. Not because Aubry’s my friend. Or because what was done to her is so awful in the long-term. She’s okay! It matters because it illustrates the harm done by an increasingly vicious cycle of content creation driven by our consumption. Aubry is a victim in that churn but, and I mean this sincerely, so is Candis. If you can’t manage the next step in empire building, where are you even supposed to place your feet as an influencer in this system?

A Joanna Gaines Youtube video from 2013, the year of the first season of Fixer Upper

This is a problem it seems Joanna ran into too. She’s never built a personal brand empire before! When she sent a DM to the Merediths, did she understand that not all people can project manage like her? Why didn’t she have anyone in her circle to tell her to step in to help the homeowners being hurt in her (brand) name? The sums of money were large to them but would have been small to her. Especially when compared with the cost of bad press. It all seems kind of unfiltered. Did everyone miss the influencer memo about maintaining the illusion at all costs?

The influencer illusion doesn’t have to be believable, it just has to be complete.

The influencer illusion doesn’t have to be believable, it just has to be complete. Even the most devoted Magnolia reader understands that Magnolia is selling something that isn’t real. The Magnolia home is a perfect-able environment instead of a real workspace. That’s fine! Sometimes it’s nice to spend money on fantasy. We may know what Magnolia is selling, but do we really know what we are consuming? Not really! Magnolia released a new app over the summer. I am just going to let it describe itself,

The Magnolia app is a first-of-its-kind, immersive digital home for all things Magnolia. Watch all original Magnolia Network shows, exclusive and iconic series, and expert-led workshops—all curated by Chip & Joanna Gaines—with a discovery+ subscription. Plus, shop curated product lines, plan a trip to Waco, and receive exclusive members-only Magnolia Perks. It’s all of Magnolia, all in one place.

Sounds neat! And it is, if you are really into surveillance capitalism. Surveillance capitalists, like Google and Facebook, use app trackers to scrape personal data from your phone. They take that data, create behavior predictions from it and trade it in marketplaces. Personal data used to be collected and analyzed to understand online behavior. Now it is also used to predict and nudge that behavior.

The implications for the future are horrifying. But we’re already living in a present created by the anti-government, anti-human norms surveillance capitalism. Its invasion of the present and future makes surveillance capitalism the most anti-democratic manifestation of capitalism we’ve ever seen. (I recommend this book on it!) Is it mindnumbingly stupid that the greatest threat to democracy in history is basically in service of evil advertising? Yeah. Yeah, it is.

The Magnolia app sells pretty tea towels. It gives you access to the Magnolia Network. And it retains the right to collect lots of the information on your phone. It can analyze that information and “disclose it for business purposes." The personal information they can mine from you includes web browsing history, ip address, phone hardware information, protected class, geolocation and physical address.

Weirdly, “audio, electronic, visual, thermal, olfactory, or similar information” are also listed as information they can collect from you.What does Magnolia want with my sense of smell OR SIMILAR INFORMATION? (And um how are they planning on getting it?) Well, they want to sell me stuff with it. And they want to “disclose my information” to other people who want to figure out how to sell me other stuff.

They can disclose this personal information to third parties: advertising networks, affiliates or subsidiaries, business partners, data analytics providers, social networks, other service providers, professional services organizations,  internet service providers, joint marketing partners, among others. If some of those categories seem intentionally vague? Yes.

Once my browsing history, ip address and ummm smell information is collected from my phone by an app, it’s called data. That data is analyzed by machine intelligence.This happens with all the other data collected by every other app on my phone and every cookie on my computer. Machine intelligence spits out behavior predictions so that ads can be targeted to me with a personalized algorithm.

In their privacy policy, Magnolia says their “websites currently do not respond to Do Not Track signals in browsers.” This means that even if you’ve opted to have trackers disabled on a browser, Magnolia will override your choice and track your internet browsing. We aren’t the customers or the product here. We are source being exploited for the product, behavior analysis. Magnolia mines us as we scroll through New Spring Decor.

Do the Gaines have any idea the newest outpost of their empire is lined with trackers of surveillance capitalism. I’d like to think they don’t. Or if they do, they think it’s just what everyone does. And they’d be right. Nearly every app on your phone is tracking you like this. Maybe they haven’t thought too much about what it all means. But. Well. Joanna’s no dummy, right? How can she not know? Just a little?

Here’s the thing about empire building. Empires never feel like they've reached the limit of their rightful reach. There’s always more. Magnolia designed homes. Then Magnolia made TV that feels like home. And now, Magnolia tracks your every physical and digital movement so in the future they can serve you partner ads about refinancing your home whenever they catch you scrolling through Zillow. Oh! Fancy meeting you here! Did you know you're just one re-fi away from that Dream American Home Makeover.

Joanna Gaines knew about the problems with Home Work while they were happening. Others at Magnolia knew too. They insisted it wasn’t a network problem, it was a production problem. There’s no evidence that more experienced hands stepped in to help Candis as she floundered. That’s kind of the neat thing about third parties, right? They’re not really your responsibility. With the privilege of distance, I feel badly for Candis along with everyone she hurt. This isn’t how anyone wants their own dream makeover to end.

Long before Home Work, Aubry was a Magnolia vendor shouting the good word of Magnolia. She stumped for Chip and Joanna  before they’d become a brand experience. She loved their work, not their profit-potential.  If they were willing to let this happen to Aubry, what won’t they and Magnolia let happen to any of us, in our homes? I don't know.

What are we all doing here? As a little girl, Candis probably didn't say she wanted to grow up to become a "Scrambling GirlBoss." I doubt Joanna Gaines had "Build a Personal Brand Empire Increasingly Reliant on Data Scraping" on any of her five year plans. I know for sure that Aubry never said, "Universe, I've love to lose my mind over an influencer driven kitchen remodel." How did everything become so...consuming? I am feeling kind of done with influencer capitalism infused with financial and surveillance capitalism, aren't you?

2016 vendor at the Silos, courtesy Aubry Bennion Instagram

Aubry had a panic attack in the middle of the Magnolia Network's Home Work house invasion. She broke out into hives. She called her best friend hyperventilating. She’s got video of the hives and the aftermath on her Instagram. We talked about the breakdown last spring, the one time we’ve seen each other in person since the pandemic began.

What made her body and mind react that way? The whole situation was bad. But it was a kitchen! Why did her mind and body shut down over it? I think she broke down because her home was being mined for content by people who just didn’t give a damn. All of our homes are. The extraction is happening through our devices instead of filmed demo days. On the Magnolia App, sure. But also on Instagram and whatever browser you’re reading this newsletter on.


After everything was over, Aubry found out Candis never paid the company that laid the kitchen floor. They had been trying to get a hold of Candis for months. Desperate to be paid for their work, they were getting ready to put a lien on Aubry’s house. Mortified, Aubry paid them. They understood it wasn't her fault.

The flooring rep said he hoped Aubry liked her floors. She really did. He checked to make sure she’d sealed them. Well, no. Candis told her they didn’t need to be sealed. He was aghast. VCT floors are nearly indestructible with sealer. But they scratch, fade and stain without it. With molding and cabinets in, it was too late to seal them now.  

Sealing the floors is a simple, inexpensive process. But there is a three day drying period after the sealer is applied. Thinking back on the last week of the remodel, Aubry realized that Candis just didn't want to wait for the sealer to dry. She wanted to install the cabinets, shoot the big reveal and wrap up the episode. They had content to deliver to Magnolia.

When the film crew came for that last shoot, Andy and Candis smiled for the camera. Aubry tried to smile too. She wanted it to feel like home.

Update: This has become a national story since this newsletter was written. Magnolia Network issued a statement after this piece came out,  "Within the last day, we have learned additional information about the scope of these issues..." Magnolia Network pulled Home Work from its line up. The Merediths have disappeared from the Magnolia website. They did pop up in this Today.com interview. It's the only one they've granted so far.

I'd be interested to know what bit of information Magnolia considers "additional" as the homeowners reported keeping the network in the loop for at least an entire year before this. And another story came out. The Goates family paid the Merediths $50k. They hoped to expand their cottage a bit and build a second bathroom for their family of seven. Work never started on their home. But the money disappeared. The Goates family was in contact with the network in the summer of 2021. According to them, they explained everything - their worsening financial situation during the pandemic, the avenues they'd tried to get the money back, all of it. The network responded but did not help. It did keep promoting the show.


Thank you so much for reading homeculture. I always tell you what was going on in the background while I wrote the newsletter. I am sorry to report that Covid is what is going on in the background. All the girls in the house  Zuzu, Viola, Brontë and me are pretty miserable. Riley is doing well. He's taking care of us in between remote meetings at work.

I mostly wrote this piece while watching Gene Kelly movies with the girls from bed. I am so pleased to offer it for free. But...

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