It was a more innocent time, at the outset of the reality TV boom, when a campy little TV show about DIY home improvement aired on the network now known as TLC. Both quirky and perky, the show aimed to make home improvement fun, which at the time seemed a rather novel concept. The show—Trading Spaces— quickly became a breakout sensation.
At the center of the show’s ascendance stood Paige Davis, a bubbly, bright-eyed theater performer originally from Philadelphia. Davis became the show’s host after its first season, having succeeded original host Alex McLeod, and in many ways she was Trading Spaces’ face to the world.
The show’s central premise: Two sets of neighbors (or people who otherwise knew each other well) quite literally traded spaces for two days, during which each team transformed a room in the other’s home with little more than a designer’s vision, a carpenter’s saw and a budget of $1,000. The show was the prime-time jewel in TLC’s crown during much of its eight-year run, which ended in 2008.
As of this month, Davis is back in the Trading Spaces spotlight, and several other familiar faces have joined her, for a reboot of the show. TLC has brought back the team of “legacy” designers: Genevieve Gorder, Doug Wilson and Vern Yip, among others, not to mention brawny carpenters Ty Pennington and Carter Oosterhouse. TLC has updated the show to a degree—the design budget having doubled to $2,000, for example. Davis promises some other “added elements,” too.
“It’s a show a lot of people loved, and still love,” she says. “We’re all just very, very excited, proud and happy of these episodes. We can’t wait for them to air.”
Davis grew up in Northeast Philadelphia but moved away from the area when she was still a young girl. She now lives in New York City—“the best city in the world,” as she calls it—though she returns to her hometown from time to time, whether she’s visiting family members in Bucks County or meeting fans at the Philly Home + Garden Show in Oaks.
Although she’s best known for her work on Trading Spaces, Davis— a dancer by training— got her start in theater. Throughout her career she has won key roles in numerous productions, both on and off Broadway, including stints as Roxie Hart in Broadway productions of Chicago. She returned to her first love after her time on the original run of Trading Spaces ended.
“Legend has it that I heard my mom’s West Side Story album and that’s all I needed,” she says. “I was a championship gymnast as a young girl, and by the time I was 13, I started realizing that my favorite part about being a gymnast was getting to do all the in-between connector moves. I was just hooked, and I realized my truest passion was dance.”
We spoke with Davis about her transition from stage to screen, the return of the beloved DIY home-improvement show and what it’s like to “play God.” Following are highlights from the conversation.
On stepping into the role as host of Trading Spaces …
“When I joined the cast [in 2001], there was a tremendous amount of backlash, actually, because people who loved the show had a great sense of ownership of Trading Spaces. They were so loyal and dedicated, and early on it had almost a cult following among people who ‘found’ the show. All of a sudden there was this new host, so I had to wade through some of that, I guess.”
On her interest in interior design …
“I had only an amateur interest before I got the show. My mother went to school for interior design, so she was one of those early people who found the show and loved it. When I told her I booked the show, I think her first reaction was, ‘Well, what about Alex [McLeod]?’ Then she was, like, ‘Oh my God! My daughter and my favorite show, together?’ She was happy.”
What people can expect from the Trading Spaces reboot …
“Mostly everything is exactly the same. … It’s still camp and fun and how-to information, with out-of-the-box design ideas. Everyone is back, and people will see the chemistry and the camaraderie. When we all came back together, we said, ‘You know what? We actually do like each other.’ There will be more money involved, with TLC accounting for inflation. They set the $1,000 budget over 20 years ago, so the higher budget will be more plausible for 2018. Also, each designer will have their own carpenter, whereas the designers used to have to fight over just one. We’ll also have some new faces, with some guest designers—Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent [of TLC’s Nate & Jeremiah By Design] share one episode—in addition to all the legacy designers.”
On how television has changed since Trading Spaces’ first run …
“The landscape of TV has changed so much. First, we’ll have fewer episodes per season. We used to shoot 75 episodes per season. This season, it was eight. I love the fact that there’s still a tremendous amount of travel, even with just those eight episodes. We went to Southern California, Atlanta, Baltimore. I’ve always loved that about Trading Spaces: We went everywhere.
“Social media is another big change. It can be a very powerful, positive tool, but it can be problematic, too, because anyone can have this anonymous, far-reaching voice with the push of the return button. We’re going to have to deal with all those challenges, but we also didn’t have the positive power of social media when we first started, so that’s going to be a nice plus.”
On her time away from television …
“I returned to theater, which was what I did before I did Trading Spaces. I majored in dance in college, and all through college I did summer stock. I did Broadway. This past summer I did a production in Pittsburgh, Miss Abigail’s Guide to Dating, Mating & Marriage. The summer before that, I played the role of God in An Act of God. I was the third person to play the role— and the first woman to play God—and I think I’m still the only woman to have played God [in the comedy].”
On the parallels between acting on stage and acting on screen …
“It’s a whole different level of craft. I think Trading Spaces was helpful for someone like me, to go from being on the stage to being comfortable in front of a camera. There was no script to learn, other than to just be myself, so I never had to worry about acting for the camera—just be me. Eventually it made me OK with getting my picture taken, because I used to have trouble with getting head shots taken for auditions, or at least I didn’t particularly like that aspect of it. … [On Trading Spaces] I was just being myself, and I found that there were all these people who really seemed to love me. I started to believe that ‘me being me’ is enough, and I don’t have to pretend to be anyone other than me. I’m not saying anyone needs to look for outside validation, but for me it was a powerful growing experience.”
Davis portrait by Peggy Sirota
Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Life Magazine, April 2018.