Utahns Shea and Syd McGee have a thriving design business, a growing retail enterprise and, as of Oct. 16, their own TV show — “Dream Home Makeover” — on Netflix.
But they got into the TV business sort of reluctantly. “We didn’t always want to do this,” Shea said.
Not that they don’t appreciate what exposure can do. Their dual businesses — Studio McGee and McGee & Co — owe their starts to Instagram and YouTube, where Shea started posting pictures and videos of the redecorating she was doing in their first home back in 2012. Soon she was designing for friends, and the couple took the leap and made it their full-time business in 2014.
With the burgeoning social media presence, it didn’t take long for a production company to come calling. But the couple “had a really disastrous experience creating a sizzle reel to pitch,” Shea said. “They tried to fit us into a box and made Syd the contractor and us kind of the quintessential husband-and-wife design construction duo.”
“I got, like, a 40-pound sledgehammer, which is really heavy,” Syd said. “I had no idea. That’s not what I do.”
After that early attempt to break into TV, “we just swore off doing television,” Shea said. “But we always said, ‘Well, if we ever did agree to try this again, Netflix seems like a better fit for us.’”
Eventually, they produced their own sizzle reel, met with Netflix executives and sold them the show. The six-episode first season of “Dream Home Makeover” — which quickly makes it clear that Syd is CEO of the companies, not out remodeling houses — started streaming on Friday.
Putting on a show
“Dream Home Makeover” is, in some ways, like a lot of other home design shows. Every week, the McGees take on a different project — ranging from a monstrous, multimillion-dollar home in northern Utah County to a basement movie/TV room in South Salt Lake.
None of the projects is cheap; with the exception of that giant home, they’re all in the five-figure range.
“It’s not just for entertainment,” Shea said. “We run a design firm that designs homes all over the country. And so many of the home shows that we watch, the homes are just for television. We’re so excited to bring what’s happening at a design firm to television.”
But each episode also is about Syd, Shea and their two young daughters, Ivy and Wren. It’s about unexpectedly rushing to move into the gorgeous new home they’ve had built in northern Utah County.
“We wanted it to be true to us. And our business is very intertwined with our family life,” Shea said.
All four McGees come across as real; it doesn’t feel like they’re performing for the cameras. That’s a bit of a challenge with young kids, of course.
“As parents, you just have to know going in — there’s going to be a meltdown,” Shea said.
We don’t see any meltdowns, but we do get to see the kids acting like kids. They were distracted by the cameras and the crews when filming began, but quickly became acclimated.
“Within a couple of days, they just did not even notice that we were filming a day at the park or in our backyard or cooking together,” Shea said. “We would carve out maybe 30 minutes to an hour so that we weren’t having to take the kids away from their activities.”
Talk about real — how many parents have had an experience like this? In one episode, Shea is combing Ivy’s hair when she notices some of it seems to be missing. “Sweetheart, what happened to your hair?” Shea asks.
“I didn’t cut it, Mom,” Ivy instantly replies.
Of course she did. And it’s adorable when that leads to a family discussion and Ivy agrees that lying is bad “but we’re just going to pretend on camera.”
Utah is home
Shea grew up in Texas and came to Utah to attend Brigham Young University. Syd is a Southern California native who attended Utah Valley University, which is how they met.
They started their married life in California. And they’re back in Utah because, it would appear in the show, Shea made Syd move here. “That’s about 95% accurate,” Syd said with a laugh.
One episode of “Dream Home Makeover” takes the couple back to Southern California, and Syd talks more than a bit about wanting to return there. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Shea, who graduated from BYU with a degree in public relations, decided she wanted to get into design and took some community college classes in California. Syd spent six years building a digital marketing firm, and then sold it. After debating the idea, in 2013 they decided to launch the design firm together.
“We just decided, hey, if we’re going to go in on this we’ve got to give it the best shot that we can,” Syd said. “We were living in Southern California, and everyone knows that it’s a little bit more of an expensive place to live. And by a little, I mean a ton.”
As they were weighing their options, Shea’s parents retired and moved to Utah.
“We had a great idea to sell everything that we had in California, use that money to fund our business, move here, and get some grandparents’ help to watch our kids,” Syd said. “Which is hilarious because that babysitting never really happened.”
Their businesses, headquartered in Traverse Mountain, are thriving. They’ve launched a line of home furnishings at Target. They have a book coming out later this month. And Syd insists that “it’s been great here in Utah.”
“It doesn’t have a beach, but there’s a lot of other good things about it. And it really works for us and for the business,” he said.
“Honestly, we’ve fallen in love with Utah,” Shea added. “Syd jokes about it a lot, but it’s been great. We really love the mountains.”
A major highlight of “Dream Home Makeover” is the design itself — a mix of modern and traditional that’s all Shea.
“There is some TV magic always, but, for the most part, we wanted to be able to show the design process as it happens,” she said. “And show more realistic budgets. The budgets don’t sound like other TV budgets, but it’s also because we are being more truthful.”
And there’s a variety of projects — including kitchens, family rooms, living rooms and bedrooms.
“It was important for us from the very beginning to show a range,” Shea said. “And also, I really want to bring the design tools and principles that we use and have people walk away feeling like, ‘Hey, I can incorporate some of that into my own home.’ I am a huge believer that those same design principles that we use in multimillion-dollar mansions can be applied to one room in a small home.”
When they were starting out in their first one-bedroom apartment and their first home, “we did what we could with what we had,” Syd said. “We want to show that no matter where you’re at in life, do something cool to make your house feel good.”
We also get to see what it’s like dealing with clients. And in Episode 4, the client is … well … a little bit difficult. But Shea skillfully guides her in better directions without steamrolling her.
“That would be my goal,” Shea said with a laugh. “At the end of the day, our clients live in those homes. I don’t have to live in those homes. I don’t want them to be upset that we pushed them in a direction that they’re not happy with. I want to establish a relationship where there’s some give and take.”
Transitioning to TV
Syd readily admits that he was nervous when production began on “Dream Home Makeover.” (Filming began in August 2019 and continued until July.)
“I wanted to make sure I had a lot of energy and that I was coming off really well, so I drank a Red Bull and then I drank a Monster Energy. And then I had another one just in case as a backup,” he said. “So we go to film that [and] I’m feeling so, so sick, because I never drink energy drinks.”
“Dream Home Makeover” does differ from real life in one respect. In real life, clients aren’t surprised by the results of a makeover — a TV convention that the show does adopt.
And Shea “would have a hard time sleeping the night before and be, like, ‘What if they hate it? What if they say they hate it on camera and I have to change everything?’” Syd said.
“I get kind of terrified surprising people,” Shea said, “because I want them to love it so much. But I also like the satisfaction that came from having people walk into their homes and be completely surprised. It’s an experience that I don’t get outside of the show because they’re there while we’re installing the furniture.”
Both McGees are executive producers on “Dream Home Makeover,” and said it was a “really collaborative effort” with the production company and Netflix.
“The biggest thing for us is that we wanted to make sure that the show matched our normal work product — that there wasn’t a huge difference between the show and the feeling you get from watching our webisodes or our Instagram or anything else we produce,” Shea said.
“Right now, we can all use some happiness and a bright spot in our days,” she added. “And so I hope that our show that’s filled with a lot of light and positivity provides maybe a sense of escape for 30 minutes.”