My $1,000 Free TV Makeover

Jill Barshay and her Dupont Circle apartment's living room are the subjects of an episode of
Jill Barshay and her Dupont Circle apartment's living room are the subjects of an episode of "Freestyle" on HGTV. Barshay bought the daybed with guidance from the show's designer. (Dayna Smith - The Washington Post)
By Jill Barshay
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 22, 2006

When the Home and Garden Television producer called me at work to tell me that I had a shot at being chosen for an upcoming design makeover show, I nearly fell out of my cubicle.

For starters, I didn't even own a TV. As a wonky reporter for Congressional Quarterly, I can tell you more about a House Ways and Means Committee markup than about "American Idol." But these days, having your very own reality TV show seems like a rite of passage we all should demand.

Last November, I had just moved into a rental apartment in Dupont Circle and thought it'd be a hoot to have a television show settle me into my new home sweet home. A friend whose U Street corridor brick house had been featured on "Curb Appeal" -- another HGTV show, about the power of new porch lights and cute picket fences -- encouraged me to contact the network's production agency about taking on my case. My pitch was that Washington is a city run on cocktail parties and I needed a home that would boost my HQ (hostessing quotient) to D.C. standards.

My shameless grab for attention worked. Two months later, the call came from a production scout saying she'd like to meet me and check out my apartment for a new show called "FreeStyle." After several phone interviews, two visits from producers and dozens of photographs of my apartment (and me), I was told I'd made the cut. A shoot was scheduled for early January.

The show's premise is that you can redecorate a room and solve all of your design problems absolutely free . By simply rearranging existing furniture, bringing in overlooked treasures from other rooms and getting rid of whatever is deemed unnecessary (and unattractive), anyone can create a photo-worthy habitat. The idea was even cheaper than yet another HGTV hit, "Design on a Dime." In my case, according to the HGTV Web site, designers would pull off "a dramatic new look without spending a dime!"

Well, okay, so maybe a dime. During the audition phase, the producer allowed as how the reality show really does budget $200 or so to spend on each apartment. I promised not to mention this during my fleeting appearances on camera.

One other thing: Prior to giving me the green light, the same producer confirmed with me several times that I would be willing to spend my own money on an additional piece of furniture of the designer's choosing. It seemed that absolutely free would be an abstract notion from the get-go.

"Occasionally a homeowner offers to make an additional purchase, but is in no way required nor encouraged to do so," Melissa Sykes, a senior vice president of programming, told me when I called for a comment for this story. She said "the main idea behind 'FreeStyle' is to help people work with what they have and . . . we at HGTV feel the show is very successful at doing that."

In any case, the designer and I spent an entire Saturday afternoon furtively shopping in Tysons Corner. It was marvelous to watch her rush up to salespeople, saying, "Hello, I'm Kelley from Home and Garden Television." Instantly, slacker clerks were at her beck and call. We found a daybed upholstered in neutral camel at Crate & Barrel, which the accommodating clerk allowed me to buy straight off the floor, usually a company no-no. My credit card debt shot up by $750. (Thanks, Mom.)

Two days before the shoot, two fabulous charcoal sketches arrived by FedEx, a gift from my best high school friend, who went on to become a fine New York artist. I envisioned one of Chris's pieces over my fireplace mantel as the camera panned around the room in the "after" shot. I raced them over to a framing shop and paid extra for one-day service. Cost: $272.84.

A couple of days later, a crew of eight arrived at 7 a.m. for my living room makeover. The kitchen was turned into a sound booth; the bathroom became the interior designer's trailer. As the crew set up gigantic lights and poles in the 12-by-15-foot room, I showed the producer my new, expensively framed original works of art. "Sorry," she said, "we can't show them." Apparently a Rodin-like nude is considered pornography. Who owns HGTV, I wondered, John Ashcroft?

As the morning progressed, I watched in horror as my confident, assertive journalist self melted into a helpless puppet, obeying every word of the personable but demanding producer: Pick up the lamp. Put it down. Walk across the room. Do it again. I found myself saying stupid, perky things on camera like, "I just love this design tip!" Meanwhile, I was developing a crush on the sound guy, who kept adjusting a sound box on my derriere, the microphone on my breast and the foam padding on the bottom of my high-heeled black leather boots to silence the click-clacking on the wood floor.

The producer directed me to ad-lib an opening monologue welcoming America into my living room. Then she had me redo the 30-second intro 20 times until I said exactly what she wanted me to. Then she complained that I sounded too scripted.

The crew, meantime, was peeling off price tags and planting $1,000 worth of newly purchased furniture and accessories in other rooms. Then later, we could conveniently "find" them, exclaiming how great this lamp, those pillows and that bamboo mat would work in the living room.

The show's on-air game starts by totally emptying the living room, creating a blank slate that gets filled up again. My designer was an enthusiastic filler, removing furniture and doodads from the rest of the apartment for the glory of the living room. Five new pumpkin spice pillar candles were discovered in my bedroom. Gold-and-brown sateen pillows I'd never seen before were rescued from the study. The burly moving guys couldn't get the new daybed up into my study, so they quickly converted my dining room into a cozy den for us to "find" it there.

I learned a few design tricks as the day progressed. For instance, books are primarily visual props, not meant for reference or reading. They should be placed in random horizontal, vertical and diagonal patterns in a bookcase for maximum visual stimulation. Forget genre; books should be arranged strictly by size. Every table should have two or three books of bright colors "carelessly" lying on it, along with an empty knickknack box and a mini bouquet of fresh roses.

In the end, I hated it. The room was double-stuffed with furniture, leaving almost no floor space left to walk on. Every other room of the apartment was nearly empty. Apparently, the designer had something against fireplaces and bay windows, the very features that led me to rent the place, because she hid one behind the daybed and the other behind a sofa. But she was pleased with the result: more seating for Washington-style entertaining.

After the cameras stopped rolling at 10:30 p.m., my sense of self and voice returned. I asked the burly guys to move half the furniture out of the living room and back to where I actually needed it. While the decorator pouted, adorable cameraman Andy helped me move everything around and came up with a final design that I liked. Alas, the real interior design will never be on the air.

The HGTV "FreeStyle" episode is tentatively scheduled to run Aug. 4 at 9:30 p.m.

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