How It Feels To Watch Design Star 10 Years After Winning (And Why I Said No To Being A Judge)

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How It Feels To Watch Design Star 10 Years After Winning (And Why I Said No To Being A Judge)


My kids (and Brian and I) are obsessed with watching talent competition shows, so Brian thought it would be “fun” to rewatch my season of Design Star with them, shot 10 years ago. And y’all, the kids did think it was fun, but it was VERY HARD for me to watch. Let me be clear – winning Design Star changed my life. It blew up my career. I’m ENDLESSLY grateful for HGTV and they have always been so good for me. But I realized why it was hard…

Reality shows have changed sooooo much for the better – and this season, in 2021, of Design Star Next Gen is pretty darn GOOD and so different than my year. You can see real talent and while they are still designing under such wild constraints, they for the most part have enough time to make the rooms look really GOOD. The producers this time around (partly due to Covid) basically do the in/famous “white box challenge” for each contestant every episode, calling them their design “labs” that they redo every week and I think totally works. Kudos to HGTV for figuring this out during Covid. They have a huge inventory to pull from and it seems like they are able to send people out shopping for specialty items like wallpaper. I LOVE this season and it seems like HGTV and the producers want to showcase great designers and their work, not internal drama.

My season of Design Star was very very different than this season. And while I lived it, watching it back was pretty shocking. It was produced by Mark Burnett – yes, the creator/producer of The Apprentice and Survivor and a huge name at the time. Now while I came to care about a lot of the producers (Stockholm syndrome is real) the reality show culture back then was focused far more on creating drama, drumming up fights, and putting people in really uncomfortable positions to create problems. It was way more about personality than talent (which is fine, but maybe not on a talent competition show). In fact, only the first 30 on-air minutes were dedicated to design, the last 30 minutes were us up on stage defending it to the judges and answering really uncomfortable questions about our competitors/friends. It’s just how it was. We recently tried watching Work of Art from 2010 and it was the same thing – people clearly being pinned against each other, not set up to really show off talents, and judges being strangely mean. When we were being interviewed most of the questions were about the other contestants and their design, and I was smart enough to not say anything that I would regret. I was extremely diplomatic, which is why I wasn’t quoted on camera very often and seemed barely on the show some episodes. I was just kinda “boring”. Watching it back I can see on my face and my body language how I wanted to go home almost immediately. I’m not competitive with other people, at all. Plus as a stylist, I wasn’t a big picture designer that could design on paper, I needed vintage and thrift to create a room. That was the hardest part about watching it back – I was pretty unimpressed with myself (and after watching Blown Away I could tell my kids kinda were, too).

When the challenge was to “make a room look like how the sound of a tuba makes you feel”, and you are given $500 gift card to shop at Macy’s, you can imagine how good/bad the room will look. We were all so embarrassed at the time. I actually think Nina, who as you might remember wasn’t exactly my friend, stood out – she at least did something intentional. Rewatching myself during that feud even I thought, “I see why she called me so weak”. Not that she should have, but when she yelled at me aggressively I would just walk away. I’ve since learned that I have zero tools to know how to respond to someone else’s angry, aggressive temper when it’s pointed at me and just generally defend myself a bit. But as it persists I start crying and just remove myself from the situation. This is recent news to me as it has happened in two separate instances last year. However, it tracks and seeing it on camera made me feel bad for my 29-year-old self and so grateful that I married someone who also is not a yeller and doesn’t have a temper. But it was hard to watch. I remember the producers BEGGED me off-camera to stay that week because I asked to go home. Based on how it was going (badly) I was sure I wasn’t going to win, and my personality wasn’t good at the feuding. I was NOT having fun, at first. I felt bullied and my first few designs were so bad. I just wanted to call it.

i mean, i was NOT proud of this…does my face give it away??

On our season we had 5 hours to do the white box challenge. FIVE. We arrived that morning, were given the challenge, went shopping at one store with $500, and had to reveal that night. Every room was so bad!!! And it continued – watching it back, none of the rooms were impressive (some had cool things, but I think every contestant of 2010 would agree it wasn’t our best work). I remember around episode 8 The Apprentice producers were pushing us to make the rooms just look better. I told them the truth – We can’t make beautiful rooms with limited furniture, no money and no time. I remember specifically saying, “you’ll continue to get mediocre results until you give us more time and better places to shop”. Having never done a design show before this was news to them. They knew how to produce The Apprentice, but not a design show and their tool bag (drama, unrealistic challenges, mean judges) didn’t work at HGTV. By the way, I really cared about some of them and I’m still facebook friends with many. They started to understand and asked me where should we shop. Since I was a stylist in New York I gave them a list of cool stores that they contacted and the next episode those of us who were left got to shop there (and that’s how I won the glasshouse challenge – because I was able to go thrift store shopping).

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the glasshouse challenge

It was a 6-week adrenaline rush, living in the house together, on camera every second of the day unless you were in the bathroom. After Nina left I had so much fun and started to maybe want to win. However, I lost 15 lbs and by the end, Casey and I both couldn’t talk due to laryngitis. I became super close to Casey, Dan, Court, and Stacey. I think Dan should have won the whole thing personally, he got sent home way too early and I’m happy to have seen him on HGTV a lot over the years. We all talked daily afterward and got together frequently because we needed each other. It’s like no one else could understand what we went through. I remember after I won the producers told me to get a couples therapist because competing and winning a reality show and the fame that would ensue would be very hard on my marriage (they were right…at first). Oh and here’s my last juicy secret – we weren’t allowed to talk on the phone to any loved ones but we were allowed to email once a week and Brian and I had set up a code early on – that the “weather” would be the indicator of how I was doing. So even if the weather was great, if I was doing badly in the competition I would say “it’s a lot colder than I thought it would be this week”. I didn’t win one challenge until near the end, so the weather was normally bad to ok 🙂

Reliving it was fun, weird, and far more embarrassing than I thought it would be. It was a different era in reality shows – which is one of the million reasons that this year’s Bachelor was almost unwatchable – the producers should be fired for drumming up so much unnecessary and gross drama in the house. Shame on them. Ahem.

Anyway, thank goodness that our culture has changed and there is such a better focus on creativity in these talent shows.

Proof – you can see it in the new Design Star – it feels positive and friendly, and they are given at least “3 days” to produce good results (I wish there were 4 days – I personally want to see the best result possible without them running out of time). Our kids LOVE watching it and we have our favorites, but honestly now that we are down to the final four and they are all good. And the judges are pretty nice – it now feels so dated to encourage judges to be mean to these people who are putting themselves out there to the world, trying to be EXTREMELY creative with no resources or time. Ten years ago they would ask us in front of our fellow contestants, on the dark foreboding stage, who (of our friends!) we think should go home. My kids were horrified and kept saying “this show is really mean, mama”. Seeing the difference actually gave me hope that we are moving in the right direction on some things. Great job, HGTV.

XRFK103 201107 TrainCar Interior After 0029
look at carmeon hamilton and eli hariton’s amazing transformed train car
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and this bar!

So that’s why I didn’t judge it. In early fall they reached out, asking if I’d be one of the main judges and I was very, very flattered – OF COURSE. While I haven’t been on HGTV in 7 years I’m a Design Star alum who can solidly say my career was launched by this show and this network. I owe them A LOT. I was SO excited about the show, but I had too much happening at the time that I couldn’t cancel. Plus I wasn’t comfortable being gone for over a month. I just didn’t want to leave Brian and the kids for that long during such a weird time in the world. But I think the truth is that I think I’d be a terrible judge. Having been in the contestant’s position, trying to be creative under pressure with such limited resources and time constraints, and doing it so publicly – putting themselves out there to the world, being so vulnerable for so many people to watch – I can’t do it. I knew that my empathy towards them would trump my ability to be a great judge, I would only say positive things, and I certainly would not be able to be snarky or harsh. I’m not saying I’m the nicest person, I can be snarky FOR SURE, but I refuse to do that to another fellow contestant, so publicly, having been in that extremely vulnerable position myself – even if it was 10 years ago. I’m bad at giving negative feedback in every way. I know that writing this will take me out of the judging game altogether for any future seasons, but that’s ok. I talked to Brian about it before I posted this and he agreed that being a judge is not right for me, and watching this season confirmed it. I wouldn’t be able to say enough critical feedback (on the spot) to do a proper job. I want them all to win.

Now, I would LOVE to be a Tim Gunn character – a mentor to give advice and help the designers throughout the process. I would love to be on their side and give tips, maybe push them a bit, coach them on the content creation side. Uplift them, encourage them when they are feeling defeated, and just root for them. Now THAT sounds fun.

Also, I would want to give all of the designers a heads up on what the themes of the challenges are before they come on the show so they can get the creative juices flowing in order to execute something extra incredible. And maybe they did. This last week I was super impressed with all of them. OR maybe that’s cheating and I just personally need more prep time to be super creative. In the past, I know that I relied too much on curating awesome materials together within an architectural framework rather than being able to concept designs quickly from scratch. I think my white box challenge was the best example of that – I didn’t find much at the store that I loved for the room, so I literally just didn’t buy anything. I know that I have obviously grown since then, but I think that a white box and warehouse full of Wayfair furniture would be extremely hard for me even now. I don’t think I’d win this year (so maybe it’s good that I was the Mark Burnett year after all. Ha)

Anyway, I just want to say congrats to all the designers who started the season and those who are remaining. I feel you. I know what you are going through both during filming and after and I want to say that you are ALL doing an incredible job for something SO very difficult. It looks easy on TV but I’m here to make sure the world knows that it’s NOT easy, it’s VERY difficult to do what you are doing and you are killing it. And again, thanks to the producers for creating a positive competitive environment with a focus on design, not feuds and drama that I can watch with my kids.

Are you guys watching it? How are you feeling about it? Oh and it’s only on Discovery + which at first I was bummed about but the app is FULL of great shows in all the categories, including Magnolia which I’m very excited about. And no, this isn’t sponsored by them in any way 🙂

Emily Henderson Design Star Nexxt Gen 1
from left to right: chris goddard | marisa molinaro | tony allgeier | carmeon hamilton | allison holker (host) | peti lau | arianna danielson | eli hariton | justin williams

If you all want to go follow all of the contestants and give them some love and support – above are their Instagrams. I knew Carmeon, Justin, and Arianna before and am so glad they are on the show. It’s been so fun to watch, but I’m sure glad it not me 🙂

Fin Mark





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