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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).

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.

look at carmeon hamilton and eli hariton’s amazing transformed train car
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 🙂

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 🙂


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

  1. Another masterpiece of vulnerable, competent and personal writing! That´s what keeps EHD on its own level and don´t compete with typical design pages. Kudos and thank you for the insights! I am so glad that reality TV evolved and changed, at least with that kind of shows. But there is still so much potential to improve and becoming more human for many other formats.

    1. ah, thank you. as i said i’m so glad that reality shows for the most part have changed. Do you remember those super mean cooking shows where that one mean chef would be so mean? like NO thanks.

  2. I use Discovery+ way more than I expected. So much content!

    The Next Gen season has been fun to watch. I don’t really like the way they kick people off by leaving then locked out of their room but that seems to be as dramatic as it gets.

    1. You can watch it on Hulu. In HGTV section the previous seasons are available (but not the current).

  3. I’ve been loving this season (except I don’t like the door thing) but it would be SO MUCH better if there was a Tim Gunn Emily!! I hope they do another season and give us what the people want. 🙂

  4. Your intro about how reality shows were “different” back then (a little harsher, really) – totally. Check out the Britney Spears documentary, Framing Britney Spears. The way that girl/young woman was treated as a popstar back then – just wow; we would never treat someone that way today.

  5. This post was so interesting and got me thinking – HGTV (and design media in general) have two business goals: 1) create content that is about design but also 2) generate engagement. The laziest way to achieve #2 is to create trashy drama that attacks the dignity of each person. (I’m so sorry you had to experience that and I’m glad it sounds like they aren’t doing that anymore!)
    There are much better ways to achieve #2. One is a post like today, that is both vulnerable and edifying. Another great way is to introduce healthy controversy – not about people, but about plans, ideas, etc. which sparks thought and respectful spirited debate among followers.
    In the past 7 days you’ve had two posts (farm layout and nursery/office) that brought me back several times just because I’m so interested in the content – it’s on my mind and I want to see what others are saying. Wow!!!
    EHD – I truly believe HGTV and basically all other design media should be taking notes!

    1. I would watch a multiple episode show of designers and regular people discussing the farmhouse floor plans for sure!

      1. hahaha. I agree! maybe we should put our 2 hour long design meeting zoom calls just online somewhere. Mal tries to edit them down (because they are so long) but i also think its fun to see all the process. you’d all be very glad/surprised to see all the options we try that are just NOT good but we had to see them to know that. xx

      2. Seriously! Are producers not looking at the podcast landscape and realizing what it means? They way it has *grown* shows that it’s a medium people like engaging with, and maybe lots of shows should have an associated podcast. But that seems the extent of what companies can figure out. The actual *landscape* of the podcast world is incredibly diverse and, well, niche. There is a podcast for everything, including podcasts that are just a small handful of people shooting the s**t about pretty regular stuff – that probably sounds boring worded that way, not all of these groups are full of comedians. But it’s actually pretty interesting, especially to people whose interests overlap, even about fairly esoteric things.

        There is definitely a significant percentage of internet citizenry that would listen to such a podcast or watch a webseries about professionals discussing their field’s version of “inside baseball” – and while we are not a majority, we are big enough and spendy enough that it would be a stable revenue stream. I really shake my head at the opportunities missed by people who wield a lot of corporate power and get paid a lot of corporate bucks – they are so unimaginative and short-sighted as a group.

  6. I was extremely disappointed that it is only on Discovery+…but it might be what pushes me over the edge to sign up! Very glad for the shift in tone regarding shows like this – it should be about the authentic creative content, not the manufactured drama.

  7. Totally appreciate your candor, but I also feel like you could be the Mary Berry of design judges- if you were interested!

  8. It is so interesting to get this behind-the-scenes perspective, and that even though you won, this is such a bittersweet (or maybe just crappy) memory for you. And while I know this is not at all the main point of this post– I completely agree about the Bachelor! Why are they focusing so much on making the show MEAN?? It makes it terrible to watch!

  9. So funny that you’re writing this post now… I’ve been rewatching old seasons of design star and just finished yours yesterday! It looked impossibly difficult and you all did such a. Great job! The designs didn’t really wow me until the glass house challenge though…. your room was so beautiful and seemed much more “you”. You deserved to win! Great job!

    1. thank you (and i’m so nervous that people are watching my season – Jess and Caitlin just finished it). xx

      1. I watched the show in 2010 with my husband and you were our favorite. You always had a glimmer of your unique style in every challenge. And you were great on TV, very kind, pretty and genuine. I’ve been a fan ever since!

  10. I suspect the shift in reality TV is thanks to the GBBO effect. It proved that it’s very emanating to watch people compete while also being kind and encouraging to to one another.

    It’s unfortunate that you didn’t get to experience that culture, but at least you can be proud that you maintained your integrity even when you were pushed to be mean!

    1. So true regarding GBBO! I’ve been rewatching old seasons of it and it’s such a nice stress reliever. In fact the only season I didn’t enjoy is the one where they did try to create some drama and made it feel more like an American style reality show. I think it was season 9? The one where it was uncertain if one of the final contestant’s parents would be able to make it to the finale.

    2. YESSSS. I love the pottery show too (HBO) because it’s British and they aren’t constantly stirring drama (the kilns do that on their own).

      1. We JUST tried to watch it last night and its not on HBO anymore! anyone else know where to find it? Our kids have burned through Making it (the best), Blown away (incredible), and are watching the cooking show where they win a magic apple right now, but they are so inspired by the art shows that we need more. Maybe we’ll try master chef Jr! And we need to try GBBO again – we were all bored the first time, but that was at the beginning of quarantine and we’ve gotten increasingly more desperate (and the kids are older) so we’ll give it another shot. xx

        1. My boys have always loved Kids Baking Championship! They’re 9 and almost 12 now and we just finished the latest season.

        2. Making it was great. I also liked Blown Away (glass blowing competition), the Big Flower Fight. I’m a competition junkie since the early Project Runway days. They’re definitively my weakness,

        3. My son is 6 and the only reality tv we have watched with him is Kids Baking Championship. We all truly enjoy watching together and it’s the perfect reality TV: the kids have fun personalities, really amazing baking creations, but they also support each other when someone struggles and try to help or build them up. Highly recommend!

        4. Have they watched Project Runway Junior? I have no idea if they did more than 1 season, but I remember thinking it was so cool

        5. I think Pottery Throwdown moved to HBOMax. I think they are going the Disney vault route – HBO will be for new, current, and very recent stuff; Max will be for everything else so you can rewatch whenever you want. There hasn’t been an official word specifying that, but what is on record sounds a lot like what Disney execs were saying when D+ was in the works. And since D+ is making money and inches (in reporting), I can see the HBO folks wanting the same.

        6. Oh, watch Waffles & Mochi on Netflix next! I know it’s supposed to be a kids’ show, but we’re enjoying it without any kid around. It’s just so interesting and funny and has such a great vibe.

    3. Yes! BGGO and Master Chef Jr., are happy, uplifting competition shows that focus on the joy of creating and the comradery of being “in” something together. From the editing to the focus on the product vs. the contestants, to the judges and the fact that the “prize” is just recognition, even the music choices – all contribute to the joyous feeling of the show that is so different than most US competition shows.

    4. Top Chef also made a shift away from ridiculous challenges and time constraints that did nothing but provoke drama. I think they heard the feedback that people really wanted to see what the contestants could actually *do* at their best, instead of “what can you make in 8 minutes from 6 ingredients in a vending machine” or “run through an obstacle course.”

      They stopped asking the contestants “who should go home?” and contestants also moved towards helping one another – jumping in to help plate someone else’s food, for example.

      I adore GBBO for all the reasons you stated. I think there’s a real need for that kind of show to be put out into the world because it seeps into people’s consciousness as: this is how it feels when we treat others this way.

      1. This was the show that killed all desire to watch more competition shows! I’m so happy to hear this. My family was obsessed with Top Chef but quit when it became so ridiculous and the chefs weren’t allowed to just COOK. Then we noticed the same pattern in other shows, so we just gave up. It’s so frustrating that these shows never give anyone enough time and money to do great things. I would love to see that.

    5. Absolutely the GBBO effect. That show is so humane, and the challenges are well-designed. I cry during every finale when they show clips of the contestants who became actual, real-life friends and when everyone is united on the lawn together.

      Creating something is a very vulnerable thing to do, even when it’s not being filmed. Getting support from those around you can be the difference between giving up or making something unbelievably great.

  11. I actually just watched your season out of curiosity and totally agree with what you said about it. So little of it was about design, and the designs were terrible until the glass house challenge. I also found it strange that they’d have like 5 designers working on one space and then have to assess how individuals performed and contributed. Just a different time I guess. It was also surprising to me how bad/middle of the road you were doing before winning!

  12. It’s so wierd – I was just wondering yesterday if you would be involved in the reboot. I figured likely not, given everything you’ve been saying lately about getting off the hampster wheel. It’s not something that I think about a lot, but it seems you’re right – reality shows have gotten “nicer” over the last decade. It’s more about showcasing real talent than inducing backstage drama. That’s a good thing and hopefully reinforces to all viewers that you don’t need to be cutthroat to get ahead. It’s kind of funny that you won, given that you didn’t contribute to the drama (which was so prized by the showrunners).

  13. I loved this post! Thank you for being so transparent, Emily. It’s been years since I watched Design Star, though I absolutely loved it and watching Next Gen, I was actually a little disappointed in the challenges until I read what you said. That makes total sense. You CAN’T do everything in three hours, and some of those challenges – I think one was to decorate a space using only things from a grocery store – are ludicrous. I do think they could have elements of that sort of thing, but I do appreciate a much more put together look, and I think, in general, people expect that now.

    Now I really want to go back and watch the old seasons.

  14. Yikes! “…angry, aggressive…. a yeller… Stockholm syndrome is real… .”
    I never realised how vulnerable I am to being “triggered” about my own life!
    My ‘Stockholm’ syndrome is technically called “Trauma Bonding” and it is SO real.

    Anyhoo… great post! What an immensely stressful situation to be in!
    Love the code you and Brian worked out about the weather, clever!

    I wondered why they hadn’t asked you to judge. They did! And maybe it’s serendipitous that you couldn’t. I’m sure you’re a better COACH than a JUDGE anyway.

    Super-hoping that the next season, you get to mentor contestants to do even better via some Emily Henderson magic!

  15. I loved Full Bloom, the competition for floral designers. The creations were beautiful and there was real camaraderie between contestants and the judges were fair and fun. It’s on HBO Max. I binged it in a weekend and it helped me escape reality and dip into a flower wonderland!

      1. Oh yes!!! i loved that one, too. And so did the kids, it was SO impressive. hoping for another season.

  16. The meanness and unnecessary/drummed up drama of reality tv has always been a huge turn off for me. I’m glad to hear that it’s changing. And I appreciate your unabashed kindness in an era and in a venue (online) where kindness seems sorely unappreciated. Thank you.

  17. I had chosen not to tune in, but after reading this I may give it a shot! I love Carmeon and love to hear that it’s not typical drama TV and more about the talent. I would have LOVED to see you as a judge, hopefully they can incorporate you into a future season somehow!!

  18. Thank you so much for this post! I actually went back and watched your season as well, and it made me so sad. But I will say about half way through, I said to my husband “this makes me love Emily more, she’s not having it with all this drama even back then.” <3

    You made such good points about how far the show has come. It still makes me cringe that they make the contestants walk to the door and see if it will open. Seems like drama for drama's sake.

    1. ah thank you 🙂 and agreed about the door. I think that a lot of reality producers were trained in the drama making (understandably) so thats just a leftover of that era. 🙂

  19. I remember watching you and rooting for you! Having gone to design school and worked in the field, I can say, there are some extremely mean people out there, along with the great, nice people!

  20. If I’m reading this right, and you and the wee ones like/appreciate the friendliness of Blown Away, you ain’t seen nuthin yet! Watch The Great Pottery Throwdown on HBO!! It must be by the same folks who produced the Great British Bakeoff because its basically the same exact format, and everyone is so lovely and supportive and goddamn, it’s just a feel good experience all around. I wish I could watch it and the GBBO for the first time again. Makes me wonder if most of this stupid contrived “competition” is just American producers thinking the rest of us are just as assholey as they are, and think we actually want to see that BS???

    1. We tried to find it last night!! we couldn’t find it on HBO but not sure why they would have pulled it. Going to look again tonight (or if not we’ll start GBBO and see if our kids like it now).

      1. Just a head’s up that in at least the first episode of The Great Pottery Throwdown, there is a lot of talk about how sexual pottery making is, ha! I know that I’m extra squeamish about these things but I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my elementary kids sitting next to me hearing that!

        1. Ha, I thought about mentioning this bc it is so over the top in a few episodes, but I think it’s so silly that little kids would just laugh while not fully understanding the jokes (I hope!) It does get a little weirdly sexual at times though – those moments are bizarre for sure but harmless!

    2. To add to the pottery and bakeoff suggestions – the BBC also do shows called the Great British Sewing Bee and the Great Interior Design Challenge – along the same lines as the pottery and baking shows but sewing and decor, obvs! Ireland has another programme called Home of the Year (Scotland has a similar programme) – it’s not so much a competition between people, more between houses, interior design and architecture but you get to nosey around some fab places. I think they’re all probably pirated onto youtube. Interior Design Masters is also on Netflix and from the sounds of things it seems like Design Stars.

      I also think that Emily ‘Tim Gunn’ Henderson would be a superb addition to any programme…I mean you already mentor your whole team, right, so it’s a natural fit.

      1. I did not know about the Sewing Bee or the ID Challenge. Myself and two friends need these in our lives! Thanks so much!

  21. I would love to watch a show that went into people’s homes and helped them “style” or decorate or upgrade a room with vintage pieces (cheap and investment pieces) or with things they already own, rearranged. Perhaps that host (like Emily!) could go shopping at flea markets and talk about what to look for and how to use this old stuff in new ways and mix it in with new finds from Target or Etsy shops online.

    Not a competitive show, though! I don’t want to watch 3 designers compete to create the best vintage room in a day.

  22. God, you just totally filled me with nostalgia. I loved “Design Star” back in the day and when I just looked back at the different seasons, it’s surprising how many of the other contestants I remember.

    Here’s a fun tidbit: A long time ago, when you were doing “Secrets from a Stylist,” I saw you coming out of Wertz Bros in Santa Monica as I was going in. It was a fun little fan girl moment for me. 🙂

    It’s been so fun following your career and benefitting from your expertise, Emily. Thank you.

    1. AHHHH. next time you say hi 🙂 and thank you. it filled me with a lot of nostalgia, too. Just glad this season is easier to watch for me (but I still get physical anxiety watching it).

    2. I LOVED Secrets From a Stylist! I actually remember your cute/great outfits on that show as much as your “secrets”!

      1. Agreed! The fist time I ever really wanted to dress like someone on tv (usually those extroverts are way to over the top for my wallflower self, lol.)

  23. Thank you, Emily, for sharing this. I never watched Design Star. My HGTV days were before that when I was nursing my now 17-year old. But you expressed exactly why I never watched reality shows — the drama. Like your kids said, they were mean. I was too empathetic, and it hurt to watch the fighting and impossible questioning. I actually have difficulty with comments on blogs and social media, and limit my exposure to that, as well. It sounds like it’s worth giving another go, because there more of a focus on creativity rather than drama. And isn’t that what we want? To see people shine and show off their incredible talent. I know that’s why I love visiting your blog. Thank you for sharing your creativity with us and highlighting the creativity of so many others.

  24. This was so fascinating to read! I really think the big pull of shows like Great British Baking Show and others like it point to the exact thing you said, Emily — reality TV can clearly be good without all the fake and unnecessary “drama” egged on and manipulated by the producers. I cry nearly every episode of GBBO!!! There’s no fake drama there, at all, everyone wants each other to succeed! Clearly some networks (ahem the first three letters of the alphabet) haven’t caught on yet, but I really hope they do. Glad that HGTV is moving in that direction!

  25. I think you’d be a really good coach. There’s one instance from your tv show that has always stood out to me for some reason (probably because I need to still learn from it!) where an assistant broke part of a (vintage, I think) light fixture. You sat there for a short time while he was looking at you SUPER apprehensively and then you said something like “this is ok, we can work with this” and generally were calm and encouraging and not blame-y, even though you had very little time and no other options, at that point, for the room reveal. So you took the shade off the other matching sconce and hung them both as bare bulb fixtures (could be getting details wrong; it’s been a while!) and it worked! Someone with that empathy and level-headedness under pressure and creativity would be such an asset on a show like Design Star! Anyway, just had to share since it clearly affected me enough to stick with me until now 🙂

  26. Seriously a great piece of writing. Thank you for being you and sharing you with us. ❤️

  27. I’m enjoying the current DS season. The only contestant I knew of prior to this season is Carmeon, and seeing that she’d be on the show is the main reason I checked it out. I think they selected a really talented group of contestants. They’re all so creative, it’s been fun to see their approach to each challenge and I’m inspired each episode to incorporate an idea into my own home. I really appreciate the focus on design and creativity. I dislike the locked door thing, it’s so cold and unnecessary, it’s already devastating to be eliminated without that. And I think that having to tell someone they’re eliminated to their face has some humanity to it, like in Great British Bake Off and Top Chef. It demonstrates emotional maturity to be able to give and receive constructive feedback, even when you don’t agree with it, and to deliver disappointing news, and I think those skills are monumentally useful in any creative field. professional environment, and in life in general.

    I think the only other season that I watched, or remember, is Emily’s season. I was really excited when Emily won, I didn’t think she would, not because she isn’t/wasn’t talented but because her designs were more domino magazine and the majority of HGTV shows at the time felt more traditional and more centered around building and selling vs designing. I’d watch HGTV shows to go through the renovation process but not necessarily because I liked the aesthetic. Finally, Emily had a style that was closer to my own and it felt validating. In the past ten years they’ve had some of my favorite designers’ shows. I’ve watched every episode Nate and Jeremiah have done probably twice now after a year of quarantine, same with Fixer Upper and Restored by the Fords. I think the Discovery+ UI has room for improvement but after suffering through HGTV on demand’s seven commercials in a row every 5-10 minutes, sometimes the same commercial over and over and over again, I’m willing to pay to avoid that insanity.

  28. I had such a fun time reading this article and remembering your season! I was obsessed with Design Star back then 🙂 and it was so nice to see your talent and genuine kindness rewarded by that win!
    They should definitely have a Tim Gunn type role in the future and you would be the natural pick of course.

  29. That was so fun to read Emily. Love all your successes and thanks for sharing with all of us. We certainly have benefited from your winning the show ten years ago. XO Elizabeth

  30. So good of you to write about this, Emily, and brave. I’ve never been able to stomach “reality” TV where it’s about drama and nastiness, and for that reason am drawn to British shows in that genre. The ones we get here in the US still don’t seem to truly give the audience the meat of what the shows are supposed to be about! It’s so much better to see a show that feeds both our creativity, teaches us something, AND has a positive theme where the people get along and have encouraging attitudes! Watching shows is a lot like nutrition, where what you feed your eyes and brain has a direct effect on your thinking, like the positive viewing is more like the greens of telly-watching!

    1. Agreed, I hate reality shows and drama. You may really enjoy Making It with Amy Poehler, its just a cute, nice show. And Escape to the Chateau is good too.

  31. Maybe all competitors should consider that their future children may watch their show ten years from now. Would they want their kids to judge them as being “MEAN”.

    Good job Emily. I watched your year. I don’t remember much but I do recall your sense of humor coming through on camera as you filmed fill in segments in a fabric store. You set up the shots and it worked so well. That’s when I thought you’d win it.

  32. The reason we watch is for the design. I don’t understand why they pick great designers and then give them garbage to transform into beauty. I want to see someone walk into a store and put together something beautiful from pieces and parts of real products. Really, what is the point of putting together a room from grocery store junk. I don’t want MY designer to do that. No cabbage lamps and artichoke candle holders. That seems more like the imagination of children’s story writers. Which can be fun and whimsical. But not in my living room. Or bedroom. or ANY room. It’s a waste of time for everyone: the designers, the judges and the audience. “Please, find something unexpected in the produce aisle and decorate my house.” SAID NOBODY EVER.
    I think Emily would be a great judge because isn’t it time that ONE judge sympathizes with the designers? Gives them hope when the others are beating them down? Telling them even ONE thing that was great about their design? That’s what these designers want to hear. Where they are going RIGHT, not always where they are going WRONG! I bet if you had a judge like that, it would make the watching more fun. I don’t watch reality shows. There is no reality about them. Why manufacture meanness if it is just for the heck of it. Isn’t this supposed to be “entertainment”? Torturing creativity and making designers feel inferior and unskilled is not my idea of fun. Ever. My mid-mod tropical vibe might not match your Victorian/Brutalist mash-up, but if it makes each of us happy, who’s wrong?!! I adored watching Em on Design Star. One of my all time faves from that series. You could focus on her design because she didn’t provide any drama to judge her by. Loved your style and persona then, Em, and love your style now! Thanks for always being an honest (and hilarious) voice for the design obsessed/starved/wannabe fans. And ADORE the farmhouse rebuild. This is going to be EPIC!

  33. I have been waiting for this post! So funny, Emily. I am watching the new Design Star which prompted my husband and I go rewatch your season too. When it first aired more than 10 years ago we were searching for our new home together and figuring out our collective style. Secrets from a Stylist helped us SO MUCH and inspired our mid-Century Victorian look in our Harlem brownstone. And we have grown up with you ever since. So it brings back so many fond memories. But we were shocked by how MEAN your season was. WOW. I don’t know how the judges did it. Felt cruel and not at all about design. For some reason I wasn’t shocked or unimpressed when watching it then but had the same reaction you did now. I was actually really impressed with how you handled Nina. You didn’t get drawn in to her drama or say something you regret which must have been so so hard. I am also loving the format of the new season too and am really blown away by their creativity. I think you in the Tim Gunn role is a brilliant idea!! HGTV, hope you are listening!

  34. Love this post. So glad you stayed, and for all your successes since then.

    As far as this season of design star, my gratuitous two cents after episode one:

    Adler was being super crazy mean, and the female host please needs to stop yelling into the megaphone. Thankfully both have improved!

  35. I watched your Design Star season while on maternity leave with my oldest 🙂 You were my favorite because I liked you, as you said because you had the wisdom to stay above the back biting and then I was wowed by the glass house. But you are right, it shouldn’t be produced to put people in those situations in the first place!

  36. This was a great post! It inspired me to actually start watching Design Star Next Gen, which I’m enjoying 🙂

    I really appreciated hearing the “reality” behind your season of Design Star.

  37. I watched every season of the OG Design Star and your season was just so different from the others. Mark Burnett was just not the right fit. I guess HGTV was trying to be edgy and cool. It didn’t work.

  38. I remember watching your season when it originally aired Emily and I have loved and followed you ever since. I was exited to see the seasons all available and sent straight to yours to watch again. I was APPALLED at how mean Nina was to you and was annoyed with all that you mentioned – the mean judges and the short time you had to work. I agree that it is so much better now! And I think you would win again. XOX

  39. I stopped watching this season of the bachelor, so disappointed with the way the producers have handled this season. Sorry that your season of design star was so challenging, hoping that the world of reality television moves in the kinder, gentler direction (Go GBBO!)

  40. I have enjoyed the new season of Design Star very much. I remember watching the season that you were on! You are right ~ we did not know, as the audience, how you were all pitted against each other! We were such newbies!
    I also agree that a Tim Gunn mentor would be a great addition to this show!

  41. Such an interesting perspective, Emily! I remember your show well
    and thank you for the candid insider viewpoint. I wish I could watch this new show on HGTV and wonder why they didn’t pick it up? I guess Rock The Block is their new decor competition show. Speaking of which, Leanne Ford is the star that rocks the block, despite finishing last! But she doesn’t need that lousy show to be at the top of the design heap!

  42. I have been loving and following your blog. It’s the first thing I read every morning. Today is the last day that I log on. I’ve admired your raw honestly, nurturing spirit, and beautiful designs. I’ve enjoyed watching you grow as a designer, mother, and boss. While this blog is focused on design, I applauded you for giving voice to underrepresented minorities and space to important topics. But I’ve been waiting. I’m disappointed that you’ve stayed silence on the hate and violence against the AAPI community. Once again, we are ignored. You may not read this comment or think it’s unfair to hold you to be an anti racist. But I can’t help wondered why BLM got your attention but not stop the Asian hate? I understand this is not a political blog but I’m still left disappointment and hurt.

  43. I think I watched from the second half of your season because I was immediately impressed with your fresh style. I watched the secrets from a stylist as well, and was disappointed when the show ended. I don’t like drama, especially fake or mean spirited so I’m not drawn to it, but I like looking at design. I like GBBO, liked Blown away too. I so enjoyed following your blog, still do. Thanks for being so kind, positive and hopeful. I admire those traits in others, and learning to be more like that myself.

  44. This was a great read!!!

    Also just putting it out there that if you’re looking for a design reality show to watch, I HIGHLY recommend Monty Don’s Big Dreams, Small Spaces. It’s a gardening design show where amateur gardeners DIY their dream gardens in their own backyards.

    It’s not new, but I’m guessing at least a handful of people here haven’t seen it. It’s so inspiring. And Monty Don is the best!

    1. What channel is Monty Don’s Big Dreams, Small Spaces on! I would love to watch that!

      1. it used to be on Netflix and I just saw that they recently took it off 🙁

        Season 1 is free on Amazon prime and the other two seasons are available as well but not free.

        Also if you’re not familiar with Monty Don, he has a dozen other shows (on prime) on gardening- some of which consist of him touring and giving in depth insight on historical gardens throughout the world.

        I’m not even a “gardening person” per se, but he has a super calming demeanor and very engaging!

        1. I absolutely loved that show! I might have to rewatch it! Anything with Monty is great!

  45. I never watched the original show and don’t watch much reality TV now, I think mostly because when I first dipped into that category of show it was at the beginning, I think I saw the first season of Survivor and the second season of the Bachelor and I was just kinda like, I get it, and I don’t need more of this. Likely the drummed up drama and tension made me uncomfortable even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was actually briefly in talks with creating a show of my own (totally different industry; used to be an online dating coach and they wanted to sort of do an episode per client thing where I helped them find love using the internet) but I am honestly glad I said no because I couldn’t imagine the discomfort of manufactured drama in that industry. The REAL drama that happens is so painful, like, all the horrible systemic bias magnified massively with algorithms and user interfaces that

  46. Agree Tim Gunn has the best role in a competition show. The new show format does allow for more coherent design. My favorite thing about Discovery + is paying an extra $2 for no ads 😊

  47. I think you would be an INCREDIBLE Tim Gunn-like design mentor. The only question – what would be your go-to phrase?

  48. Emily,
    I can’t even watch seasons 5+, after Burnett took over. It’s like he didn’t even know what he was doing, and they are painful to watch. I watched them when they were original, and didn’t really like them then, but didn’t realize until this year, watching them all back-to-back on D+, how much seasons 1-4 differ from 5 on. Though, maybe now with your comment about you advising them on where to let you guys shop, I’ll give it another shot. I’m so glad you wrote all this and explained everything – now I can put a finger on why I hated the Burnett seasons.

    Enough of that. What I really want to say is that you have an EXCELLENT idea about the Tim Gunn role, and I think you would be EXCELLENT! I hope they take you up on that.

  49. You’d also be a great judge on that crafting show with Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman, MAKING IT – speaking of friendly competition shows with nice people and nice challenges celebrating creativity

  50. I JUST watched your season again and it was soooo much drama and you handled it so well. It was obvious you didn’t want to be part of the whole N*na mess. She nearly ruined the whole season singlehandedly. The Next Gen show feels like a breath of fresh air with all the kindness and humor shared between the designers. I’d be happy to see you join in on some level.

  51. Emily, I was so grateful for this post. I have often thought of that early, perhaps first, episode of Design Star, when that first young woman was eliminated and shamed by that male designer. It really upset me. I could never appreciate him after that….and then, to learn in your post that, that behavior was encouraged….and almost scripted….well, that was a real revelation to me. It explains a lot that I never understood about the show. Thank you so much for this. I thought you were special the moment we, the audience, were introduced to you. You’ve not let us down yet! Keep following that light that you have. You can change the world.

  52. Tremendous insight. Your blog is so good. Like so, so good. I read so much of your content. I look forward to it. I don’t think I can say that about any other blogs (not empty flattery, just the truth). Thanks for hiring great people, being a great writer and giving us great content. I truly look forward to it.

  53. I have recently been watching DesignStar from season 1– because I didn’t have access (or time!) when the shows actually first aired. And even though I laugh a little at some now outdated then-popular “looks”, I’ve been enjoying it and seeing contestants creativity—-until season 5. I found your post after googling “why was season 5 of design star so bad?” And I think you hit the nail right on the head. Nobody wanted to see the manufactured drama (bleh!)—we wanted to see design! We wanted to see unique takes on things! We wanted the judges to educate us on what something was GOOD. And while I love Vern, Candace and Genevieve I hate them on this season. Ick! So much of American television has been based on this negativity and controversy (the reason I stopped watching American idol at one point). There is nothing wrong with competition but it can be done well, with mutual admiration and support (cue The Great British Baking Show—and even without a huge prize!). American producers need to take a step back and really pay attention to what normal people actually like. We like to be uplifted—not thrust into such negativity. I’m glad to hear you say the new iteration is the franchise is better. I had wanted to progress through the shows from old to new—but maybe I’ll skip ahead. Maybe I’ll have to watch you win first though. 😉

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