Series 13: For the Love of Giving | Episode 04
Ty Pennington Lives (and Gives!) to the Extreme
People give in all kinds of ways. Some give talent. Others give quality time. Some use their influence to shine a light on struggles we need to know about. Our next guest, Ty Pennington, has given in each of these avenues—and shared a few laughs with us along the way! We’ve loved Ty since he lit up our TV screens in the early-2000s (and newly revived!) design series Trading Spaces as the energetic, fun-loving carpenter. Later, Ty was the host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, where he and his team of designers and volunteers had the joy of giving a home makeover to deserving families in just seven days (Bonus: Ty gives us the skinny on that now-famous “Move that bus!” line). In his own “Move that bus!” moment, Ty gives his own personal “reveal” in his upcoming book, Life to the Extreme. We learn about his struggle with ADHD, his whirlwind days as a model, and the hilarious way he landed his role on Trading Spaces. Ty shows that giving can come in many forms and from unlikely ways—even from the kid who was always sent to the principal’s office.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, everybody. Jen Hatmaker here, your very happy hostess of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to the show today.
So guys, we’re in the middle of our For the Love of Giving series. We’re talking to people who inspire us with their amazing, generous spirits and show us how important it is to care for each other well.
So listen: no doubt, absolutely no doubt you love our next guest. Believe me, he is a bundle of joy and infectious energy. You’re going to see that over the next few minutes. I guarantee you, he’s made you laugh and cry a time or two. He definitely has for me.
It’s so fun to have on the show today Ty Pennington! You know him. He’s a television host, designer, a carpenter and now a voice for volunteerism. He rose to fame—probably this is where I’m at and maybe you too—on TLC’s incredibly popular design show Trading Spaces. Do you remember Trading Spaces, you guys? I mean, this was the stuff that like early 2000 dreams were made of, the very best kind of reality TV, if you ask me. Remember that it was two couples. They each got a thousand dollars in a weekend to transform one room in each other’s homes. Can you remember? And then designers and carpenters like Ty would help them make it happen. And of course hijinks ensued a million times. Anyway, I loved Trading Spaces. You did too, I’m sure.
And then you probably remember his next show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. OMG. I feel like we all watched that. And if you didn’t know the setup of that show: in just seven days, Ty and a team of contractors and an enormous team of volunteers would give a full home makeover to a deserving family while that family was shipped off to have fun at Disney World. Can remember that? Oh my gosh. So the family would come home, everybody would cry during the home reveal, including every one of us at home. It was just so much. It was so exciting to watch, and Ty was the ringleader. He was the host of the whole show. I never really knew how they would do that in seven days, but they did. We will talk about that during this interview and he gives us a little surprise tidbit about that bus. Remember the end? “Move that bus!”
Ty is also pretty vocal advocate for ADHD awareness, something that he’s actually struggled with since he was a kid. And he wrote about it pretty candidly in his new book. It comes out next spring, it’s called Life to the Extreme, and we’ll talk about that too.
So anyway, I just love Ty. I love story, and I love how he’s used his time and his energy and his talents to help other people and to make beautiful things. I think it’s an inspiration to us that giving comes through a lot of different avenues, and he is just a delight. He’s exactly like you would hope for him to be. And you are going to enjoy this conversation so very much.
So I’m pleased to share my fun, fun, fun chat with Ty Pennington.
Jen: Ty, I’m so happy to welcome you to the For The Love Podcast. I have followed your career for years and years and years. I love it, and I love you, and we’re happy you’re on today.
Ty: Well, thank you for all the love. It’s funny, when you say “years and years and years,” it makes me feel so young!
But it’s funny. When people see me, they’re like, “Oh my God, I grew up with you!”
And I’m like, “You did? So you were in detention hall as well?”
They’re like, “No, I grew up watching you.”
“Oh . . . right.”
But look, if you’d asked my mom if she’d ever thought I would end up doing anything good in my life, especially on television, that would’ve never even, no. So, yeah, it’s been awesome. I mean, my God, I’ve had some of the most amazing jobs on the planet, and I still do.
Jen: You still do. By the way, congrats on your third book that you are cranking out, Life to the Extreme. We’re gonna talk about that in a second and what that whole process was like.
You don’t need much of an introduction to my community, I can assure you that. But I have already told my listeners a little bit about your background, but I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more, if you could talk for a minute about how we got to the Ty Pennington that we know and love. Where did you grow up and who was in your family, and what kind of kid were you to sort of bring you into the moment where we all sort of got to meet you?
Ty: Wow, I wish you guys had already read the book, I wouldn’t have to say anything because that’s basically what it’s all about.
But yeah, it is kind of ironic to be honest with you that I would end up, well I’ll just share one story with you. First of all, as a child, I was that one child that . . . it’s that one child that at a party, they’re like, “Is there any way that that one child could just go to a different room? He’s just louder than everyone.” And it wasn’t that I was spoiled like I think a lot of kids are today. It’s just that I was, what’s the word—
Jen: A lot?
Ty: Special—I was a lot, yes.
But I guess to sort of to say how I got to this point, the only time I would really ever slow down and focus on anything and be quiet was when I was drawing. And of course, it didn’t have to be on a piece of paper. It could’ve been on a table, it could’ve been on the walls, it could be in the bathroom, all the above. I was constantly just expressing myself, to the point that several times, I was asked to just leave the house, especially after I ripped the leg off a piano and started making my own furniture.
And here’s what’s ironic: I convinced these other kids in the neighborhood to help me build a three-story tree house because my dad was a musician, which means he didn’t have any tools so I didn’t really have any. But my friends in the neighborhood had great dads with great tools and the above. By the age of nine, I was motivating a community to get together to make a build happen in one day.
Jen: So on-brand.
Ty: Exactly. And of course I would’ve never in a thousand years, it was of course the same community that I had set the woods on fire, but that’s another story.
Jen: Let’s not get bogged down in details. Yes.
Ty: Yeah, exactly. I guess the real question is, “How is it that you ended up getting cast for this particular job?” And that’s a really good question because I think several people could’ve done it. But I think what happened: so basically I ended up having abilities, I had experience in areas that a lot of other people didn’t, and here’s why.
One, I was asked to leave my house at an early age. Literally, a letter my mom wrote was like, “Look. We need a break.” And so at 17, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, being kicked out of the house because immediately you had to sort of fend for yourself.
And so one of my first jobs was landscaping and then right after that, I went into construction, and so I literally started learning the trade. But not more than a year after that, a friend of mine was going to, this girl I knew, was going to art school.
So, and long story short, I convinced myself to go to, I put myself through college, art school, but I was smart enough not to go four years because I basically became a commercial artist, which is hilarious because that was before a graphic designer was even a graphic designer.
But here’s the hilarious part, it was a one-year school. I ended up getting a degree, I only wasted one year of finances, which is great. And let’s face it: once you get out of school is when you actually start learning. It’s just getting in the door.
And so anyway, so basically I already knew I wanted to be a graphic designer, I was gonna be a star. And I actually won a bunch of awards et cetera. I was doing really well.
I was actually really stuck at the job that I was trained to do in school, which was commercial art technician, which is basically make things print-ready. Which didn’t matter anywhere because a year later, the Macintosh came out and then that job, all that talent became—
Ty: They’re like, “Okay, we don’t need you.” So I went back to school and learned that.
But anyway, long story short, I ended up going into this agency because this guy said that I could make some money in modeling. And I was like, “Are you serious, man?”
Ty: So about four months later I went into the agency. And of course, I’ve got this 80s rat tail, I look like I’ve just been fired from the Flock of Seagulls, basically. And they look at me and they’re like, “Who said what?”
And I was like, “Look, there’s a guy who said I should come in here.”
And they’re like, “We don’t know who you’re talking about. Do you have any pictures?”
And I was like, “No, I do not.”
They were like, “So what do you do expect us to do? Have you thought about cutting your hair?”
And so while I’m there, there’s this Japanese guy who’s pointing at me and laughing. And I’m like, “What is his problem?”
And they’re like, “This is a Japanese scout from an agency.”
So these people don’t know me yet, and there’s this guy who’s name was Captain, and the guy’s like, “You should come to Japan.”
And I was like, “Really? Why?”
He goes, “Because you make money.”
Jen: “Tell me more, Captain!”
Ty: And I’m like, “What would I be doing?”
He’s like, “Take pictures.”
And I go, “Really?”
So long story short, I sign a contract that basically means I’m guaranteed $2,000 in two months. My dad’s looking at the contract—
Jen: That was good at the time, right?
Ty: Yeah, well, it was really nothing, to be honest with you. He was like, “Look. You’re guaranteed nothing.”
I was like, “Yeah, and that’s why I’m going.”
And the moment I got on that plane and went to another continent across the other side of the world, it changed everything, because not only did I have culture shock, I realized what a metropolis looks like. I realized what working with photographers, you have creativity beyond . . . I mean, I was just exposed to so much creativity and so much production of visual arts.
And after that, I came back and moved to New York because I tried to stay at my job and I was like, “There’s just no way.”
Next thing you know I’m in New York, and I end up getting five commercials off the bat. I went to this agency and they said, “Oh, you’re gonna do so great here.” I looked like I was 12. And you have to understand, modeling’s hilarious because most men look like men, but I look like I was 12 years old for probably 20 years.
Jen: Sure, did you still have the rat tail or no?
Ty: No, at this point the rat tail had been trimmed, which is nice.
I kept getting commercial after commercial, and I was wondering, “What is going on?” Yes, there was a strike going on, that helped.
Jen: Okay, that was one factor.
Ty: People kept hiring me because I made other people comfortable on camera. They’re like, “We need this guy because these other people laugh, and they have a great time when he’s around.”
Anyway, what I’ve tried to explain to people is, I never knew it then. But I think the reason I keep staying employed is that, especially in television, when you’re in reality TV, I think one of the reasons I did well is because I have the ability to make people relaxed and feel like themselves on camera. And I never realized it till 20 years down the road, but yeah.
I’d basically given up on modeling, because well, several reasons. One, I got in this really bad car wreck and I flipped a Jeep with a buddy of mine. I lost all the skin on my back and my shoulders and my head. And this was literally three weeks after the cover of J. Crew came out, which means I was finally gonna start working, but the universe works in some amazing ways.
I had made $1.25 a month in modeling. I never made any money—I made lots of friends and I made some great memories. I finally got the cover of J. Crew. I’m like, Wow, this is it. My big moment.
Jen: You made it.
Ty: Then I flip a Jeep, and here I’m in literally leading my body in a hospital room on morphine because they’re having to scrub the gravel out of my skin. And yes, some of the best times I’ve ever had.
But anyway, I go down to Miami on this audition. Nobody knows that I’ve lost all this skin. I have to take off my shirt and my hat, and I had staples in my head. They called my agency and were like, “Are you kidding me? What are you running, like, a Frankenstein [agency]?”
So anyway, long story short, the work started to taper off a little bit.
This is how serious I was about modeling: I literally left my portfolio and my cards in my brother’s car overnight in this warehouse district in Atlanta. It was really not a great neighborhood, I mean, especially then. Some homeless guys broke into the car and were using my 8 x 10s for toilet paper, which I find very hilarious, because that was the official end of my career as modeling.
Jen: Oh my gosh.
Ty: So there was no book left. And no, I did not make copies, all right?
So here’s my point: the universe said, “I think that’s done for you.” And if I had never gotten out of that, I would have constantly been like, “Okay. I’ll go on this casting. Okay. Maybe I’ll do another job.” But because of that, I had to go back into working with my hands, which is something I’ve always done.
So I started making furniture. I started doing more construction, all of the above. Like six months later, after they knew that I’d given up on that, my agency called and said, “Hey, there’s seriously an audition. [A show is] looking for a carpenter who actually knows what he’s doing.”
And that’s when I went on this [Trading Spaces] audition. And I honestly didn’t care if I got the job or not, because I had a kitchen I had to finish. And that’s how you get a job. You show up and you really don’t care whether or not you get it. And it’s so weird, because the minute you don’t want the job is the minute they offer it to you. It’s so funny.
Ty: Isn’t it weird that way? But it’s so true. They’re like, “Yeah, he’s the one, because he’s clearly seasoned.”
I was like, “I don’t know if I’m the one or not, but yes, I can build you a box.”
So I went on an audition with [designer] Frank [Bielec from Trading Spaces], and Frank asked me to build him a box. And clearly from the other debris that was lying around from the other people who had auditioned, he wanted a flower box. But I started measuring his size, and I said, “Something around six feet?” And so the cameraman started laughing, because he realized I was going to build Frank a coffin. That was the moment that they realized I had chemistry with people on camera.
Jen: That’s so great.
Ty: I got a phone call, and they said, “Hey, do you want to be on our show?”
And I was like, “Sure, let’s do it.”
And the next thing I know I was on Trading Spaces, and I got to be the sort of sarcastic little turd that I’ve always been, except I got to be . . .
Jen: Oh, my gosh. That’s when we all met you. That was it.
Ty: That’s right. And so it was awesome.
Jen: That’s when we fell in love.
Ty: But I don’t think the network even knew that I really had a background in not only design and building, but also just in creativity. So I think they were just like, “Oh, yeah, this guy’s blah, blah, blah.” But they had no idea. And to give kudos to a woman named Leigh Seaman, who cast all the talent back then.
Jen: Oh, yeah?
Ty: Because it’s such a variety of human beings with different styles and tastes. So that little show that came on at four o’clock in the afternoon not only changed like television, but it changed my life, for sure.
Jen: It surely did.
Jen: You’re right. You’re not overstating it to say that Trading Spaces, it was monumental and it was revolutionary. There was nothing like it, and it really sort of ushered in kind of a whole new season of television that looked like that and that felt like that. I mean, we all were absolutely mad for it.
How did you handle the limelight? Because pretty quickly you were really recognizable to a lot of people. That show was so wildly popular. How did that feel for you to come out of really pretty obscurity, for lack of a better term?
Ty: Absolute obscurity, yes.
Ty: Okay. So let me just tell you the state I was in when this happened to me. Like I said, I had given up on modeling, which means I no longer had to look like a model. So I was building furniture, but I was also in a band.
Jen: Sure you were.
Ty: And the kind of hours that you keep in a band really doesn’t work well for modeling. And so here I am in like . . . Let’s say it’s a performance art band, too.
Jen: Okay. That’s great.
Ty: Not only did we play music that you probably don’t want to hear, but just to cover that up, I would show like 8- to 16-millimeter films like projecting on us.
Jen: Oh, my.
Ty: It’s funny. I remember the sound guys would be like, “Oh, so you’re an art band.”
I was like, “Well, yes.” So you get the idea.
Jen: I love it. Go ahead.
Ty: And then all of a sudden, boom, I’ve gotten this job where I’m the carpenter building things.
Ty: And to be honest with you, too, it was a learning experience for me, too, because I’ve always been a guy that never turns down a challenge. And so when one designer says, “Hey, look. I need you to build four, almost five pieces of things to do, including put down hardwood flooring in one house.” And then in the other house, a designer would say, “I need four things done as well.” And these were four pieces of furniture or something bigger. Now, you add that up. And this was back before they ever had another carpenter helping me.
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Ty: So it was literally me. And I was on the floor, I think it was like 4:30 in the morning, still laying the flooring down. And this was the day before reveal. The producer said, “Hey, Ty, I think you need to go home and get some sleep, because you’re starting to miss.”
And I was like, “Dude, but if I don’t do this, it’s not going to get done.”
Jen: Oh, man.
Ty: And the producer said, “Well, yeah. But that’s okay, isn’t it? That’s what the show is.” And I was like, “Oh, my God. You’re right. I can say no.”
Jen: That’s right. Show drama, you know?
Ty: And so that’s when a bulb finally lit off. I was never one to say no. I always felt we have to get it all done, but then I realized it went [on TV]. And the moment I realized that, then I also realized that I could actually be sort of creative in an area I hadn’t done before, which was sort of produce these little moments and these little funny bits.
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Ty: And it was hilarious, because in the beginning, producers were trying to be very producer-ish. They were like, “Hey, hold this teddy bear.”
And I was like, “What are you talking about? Get the teddy bear away from me.”
And they were like, “Okay, well, how do you see this scene?”
And I was like, “What do you want?”
And they were like, “Well, we want to describe that we’re in Florida.”
I was like, “Okay. What do we have?”
And they were like, “Well, there’s a pond over there with a gator in it.”
I go, “Okay. Well, then go get me a whole chicken and about 25 feet of rope.”
And then the producer just looked at me like, “Ooh, I like where this is going.”
Ty: So the next thing I know, I literally speared this chicken, and I’m lassoing it around my head. And so the cut shot is like Vern and Hildi like standing next to me like, “Whatever.” Then they shoot to the carpenter, and I’m like literally spinning a whole chicken around my head. And then I let it go, and it goes hurling toward them. And Hildi has this drill gun in her hand, and she sticks it up in the air. And I swear to God, it punctures the flying chicken. And I fall over laughing so hard in the mud. Then I was like, “This is a keeper.”
So here’s my point. Like from that moment, I realized, Wait a minute. They don’t know what they’re doing all the time. So that opened up a whole new window to me, and I was like, Oh, this is going to be fun.
So long story short to your original question, I was checking out this vintage furniture store on the load-in day, which means we only had a half-day we had to work and then we had the day off. And these dudes with tattoos and these low-rider bicycles cruised by, and they were like, “Yo, man. You’re Ty, aren’t you?”
And I was like, “What?”
And they were like, “Yeah, man.”
I was like, “How do you know my name?”
And they were like, “Oh, we dig your show.”
And I was like, “What are cool people like you doing watching a show like that?”
And I realized, Okay, wait a minute. It’s like these are college kids that are like coming home. And God knows what they’re doing before they watch, but they’re enjoying the show. Oh, my God. This is really happening.”
And so that’s when it blew my mind, the popularity of the show. But to be honest with you, like, to give kudos to Trading Spaces, it was the first time ever that a TV show finally showed instead of just before and after, they showed the process.
Jen: Right, exactly.
Ty: They put the tools in the hands of homeowners, and no one had ever done that. Now, these were ideas that no one should have ever done, but we were giving them ideas.
Ty: But, yeah, so it was mind-blowing how popular that got. And I knew that my life had changed dramatically sort of at the end, near the summer of the Season 2, because the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger in all the cul-de-sacs.
Jen: Oh, right.
Ty: And at one point, we were doing a reveal and it was on a Friday night. I remember more beer started showing up and more people started partying at the cul-de-sac. And I was like, Oh, my God. There’s like 2- to 3- to 400 people in this cul-de-sac. And then it got out of hand. And there were flash bulbs going off, because you couldn’t see outside.
Anyway, next thing I know, somebody put the trash can over my head to get me out of there.
Ty: And I was like, This is interesting. So fame is being not like a college coach winning a football game and getting covered in Gatorade. No, it’s dumpster juice that they cover you with when you’ve become famous.
Jen: That’s very glamorous.
Ty: And I was like, “Wow, this is great.”
Ty: But anyway, it was one of those moments that I was like, “Wow.” It was shocking, and I also didn’t believe it, because I was like, Why would anybody think that I would be that amazing that you would need to . . . You know what I mean?
Ty: But then again, I’ve often wondered like what is it about someone who’s famous that you want. Like, do you really want their signature? No. What do you do with your signature? Do you put it on a wall? No, not really.
Now, photos I do get. You want to be able to say, “Look who I’m with!”
And so, yeah. After that, I got really busy.
Jen: How many seasons did Trading Spaces run?
Ty: Here’s the crazy part. It ran for quite a while. But I left after Season 3, because one, let’s just say that in the beginning, I wasn’t very legal-savvy.
Ty: I was like, “So you guys aren’t even going to give me a raise?” I was like, “Really? Okay. You guys are really special.” So, yeah. I had to quit the greatest job I’d ever been given, not knowing whether I would have another job if I did. And look, I’ve made a lot of big decisions in my life, but walking away from a gift like the show Trading Spaces is hard to do.
And then I went to California and met a bunch of people and came up with a couple of show ideas. But I was lucky enough to end up on a show where . . . It’s funny. When they asked me what I wanted to do, they were like, “Okay, Ty. So before we get into any of these thoughts, what kind of show would you like to do?”
And I was like, “I would love to do a show that we made people cry for the right reasons instead of the wrong reasons.”
Jen: Right. Yeah, novel.
Ty: Right. Like, “What have you done to my kitchen?!”
Jen: You did have some of those.
Ty: I was like, “Instead of that, maybe build tree houses for Make-a-Wish kids, that kind of thing.”
And what’s interesting is, they literally said, “That’s great, Ty. But nobody wants to see that sappy kind of stuff.”
And I was like, “I totally get it. You asked me what I wanted to do, and I just throw it out there.”
So about a month later, I’m on another episode of Trading Spaces, and they call me and they go, “Hey, we’ve got this show idea. Here it is.”
I’m like, “Okay.”
And they’re like, “You and six designers design and build a house in seven days. What do you think?”
And I go, “I think it’s impossible. I think it will be a great TV show, but it is impossible.”
And then when they asked me how much I thought it might cost, I knew we were in trouble, because they’re going down an avenue they’d never gone down.
Jen: They don’t even know what they’re talking about.
Ty: And here’s why I think it’s probably the greatest show that was ever on television. One, as the lead singer of Coldplay, Chris Martin, once said: “It’s the best and the worst in the entertainment industry.” The worst is that it’s on television. The best is it actually changes people’s lives.
Ty: And the truth of it is is like there’s no show ever like that. And the other great thing about the show is that everybody won. What I mean is, the family won because their life was changed. The community was won. The neighbors even won. But then the network, the companies that donated the products, all these folks, everybody won. Everybody got the exposure.
It was just perfect harmony in so many ways, and you walked away going, “My God, I want to do that again.”
Jen: I think viewers won, too, by the way. We wouldn’t miss an episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Ty: Oh, my God.
Jen: Never, never, never.
Ty: And here’s why I think the show was so special. Because you have to understand. At the time that show was created, the most popular show on television was Survivor, right?
Jen: Right. That was great.
Ty: And you remember about Survivor, they cast everybody not to get along. And so they did the same thing on Extreme. They cast a bunch of unique, dynamic personalities that really did not get along well together. And my job was basically to be the lead bear who would just sort of poke . . . I would just poke all the bears, to be honest with you, just to make sure they made drama.
In the beginning, they weren’t even aware of what was really happening. We found a really bad-looking house in a neighborhood and the story of why that house was such in bad shape. And then we found out that it was a family that had a daughter who was fighting cancer, and the reason why that house looked so bad is because Dad was putting all the money he was making at a grocery store into her cancer treatments.
Jen: Of course.
Ty: All of a sudden, you realized the story’s not about us—it’s about them.
Jen: That’s right.
Ty: And next thing you know, we bring the first family home. And of course, the bus is there in front of the house, but it’s not there for any reason.
Jen: Oh, really?
Ty: That’s where we sleeping. Like, literally, Paulie’s socks were in my face.
Jen: Oh, come on.
Ty: It was like, “This is wonderful.”
Jen: You hadn’t planned that? That wasn’t some big plan with it?
Ty: No, that’s my whole point.
Jen: Oh, wow.
Ty: You know what the industry is like. It’s about saving money. And this was a place that you could put all the talent that was air-conditioned. And imagine what that’s like, too, talent that doesn’t really care for each other that’s all in one space.
Ty: And I’m like, “This is great!”