Arts & Sciences alumna Joanna Gaines has transformed herself from a Baylor communication student into a television star
By Lane Murphy
During the first two seasons of the Waco-based “Fixer Upper” television series, fans of the hit HGTV show may have been able to tell that it was not the first time co-host Joanna (Stevens) Gaines (BA ’01) spent time in front of the camera. In fact, Joanna was rehearsing to be on television from a very early age.
“Sitting at the breakfast table at 6, 7, 8 years old, I was one of those kids who read the cereal box like I was doing a commercial,” she recalls. “I was the kid reading the shampoo bottle… I’d always pretend I was doing a commercial.”
When her family moved from Austin to Waco before Joanna’s junior year of high school, it was for practical reasons. Her father owned and operated a Waco tire store, Jerry Stevens Firestone, where Joanna helped with the family business.
While Joanna dreamed big, her strong family bonds and naturally shy demeanor meant Stevens was much more practical and less of a risk-taker than one might expect. In fact, Jerry and Joanna, the second of the three Stevens daughters, had plans for Joanna to one day take over the Firestone franchise. After all, she was responsible, business-minded and enjoyed working with her father.
In order to prepare for taking over the tire shop one day, after high school Joanna spent two years at McLennan Community College, majoring in business, while continuing to work at the shop.“Originally, I thought I was eventually going to take over his store, do business. That’s why I went to MCC to learn more about business while continuing to work at my dad’s store, and I started doing local television commercials for him while I was a student at MCC,” she explains.
“When I saw the filming and production process, I was really intrigued. I loved the editing side of it,” Joanna says. “So when I transferred to Baylor for the fall of 1998, that’s when I decided to study broadcast journalism. I wanted to be on the news.”
Honing her skills
At Baylor, Joanna chose to be a communication specialist major and found joy in learning, especially within her major courses. She credits her experience at the University for many of the communication skills she developed and still uses professionally today.
“One thing I loved about my time as a Baylor student is that I was just intrigued by all my classes. It is really interesting information. Before classes at Baylor, I’d often sit there and daydream, but those classes really captured my attention and made me fascinated by the history of media.”
Interpersonal Communication is a Baylor course Joanna credits with helping her become completely comfortable in front of the camera.
“I loved that because I am really a shy person, so learning how to communicate well when you’re nervous, learning the communication skills of others, and figuring out how to better your own in different situations was very beneficial to me.”
Joanna says she has particular fondness for classes she took with Dr. Michael Korpi, John Cunningham, Dr. Mark Morman and Dr. Blair Browning.
“I think all of the professors, maybe in part because it’s a smaller department, it felt so much more personal and I just really enjoyed my classes.”
Her professors remember Joanna fondly as someone who stood out from the crowd.
“Joanna was a fantastic student,” says John Cunningham, senior lecturer in communication. “She was very smart, hardworking and a great presenter –– always the leader in the groups she was in.”
During the time Joanna was taking classes from Cunningham, the commercials she appeared in promoting her dad’s Firestone business were still running on Waco television –– and her on-air acumen had not gone unnoticed.
“It’s funny, but most local commercials look local,” Cunningham says. “But when you saw her on her dad’s commercials, she was a natural. She had a natural affinity for being in front of the camera.”
Cunningham says what stood out most to him with Joanna, even more than her broadcasting or academic skills, was her strong faith.
“She is a strong Christian with personality plus,” he says. “I know that’s always been an important part of her family. I remember her telling me that her dad’s shop was closed on Sundays because of their religious beliefs. The way she treated people and lived her life made the Christian aspect of her character shine through brightly.”
Dr. Blair Browning, associate professor of communication, taught Joanna in his class on small group communication. He remembers that despite the fact the class met at 8 a.m. three days a week, she had perfect attendance and was never late.
“That tells you she was conscientious,” Browning says. “She was kind of a curve setter even back then, so it’s not a surprise to see that she’s at the leading edge of a lot of trends and forging a great path.”
From Waco to New York
Joanna also landed several internship opportunities, including Baylor’s KWBU radio station, KWTX Channel 10 and 48 Hours with Dan Rather in New York.
“At KWBU radio, I loved doing the morning show’s news,” she remembers. “I would come in every 20 minutes and deliver the local and national news. I would be in charge of gathering it, delivering it, and then I’d have a friend play all the music, because I was never really cool enough to DJ. I always like saying ‘KWBU.’”
Joanna also interned for two years at Waco’s KWTX Channel 10.
“At the TV station, I did editing, a little writing, and followed the reporters around, but I never did anything on camera. I also did some work for some others, local commercials, radio commercials, and I wrote for a few news outlets. I like to write and I like the idea of voiceover work.
“I really tried to take on every opportunity possible for an internship at the local news station.”
Joanna’s biggest break came when she landed an internship in New York at the long-running CBS show, 48 Hours, with Dan Rather. Joanna’s professors informed her that she was the first student from Baylor or from any university in the area to snag a 48 Hours internship.
“I remember it was kind of a long shot because there wasn’t a Baylor connection there yet,” she says. Gaines recalls that a 48 Hours employee told her that her resume stood out because Joanna had already had considerable experience interning with a variety of local news outlets, while most applications they received showed little or no previous experience.
“Being in New York for a semester in 2000 right after Y2K, that’s where I discovered I loved working in the newsroom. I loved the editing side, and I learned a lot about that,” she says.
Gaines says the 48 Hours internship included 10- and 11-hour days working directly with the senior story editor, reading every national newspaper and combing for stories to feature on the show.
“I was trying to find stories that fit the premise of 48 Hours –– it’s mystery and murder –– so for me, coming from Waco, that just blew me away,” she recalls. “I wasn’t looking for a car accident or a fire, which is what I was used to with the local news. I was looking for stories of national interest.
“So my job was to find these stories that were intriguing with some mystery to them. I was involved with cold cases, missing person stories, we would try to reopen those from a reporting perspective. It was fascinating work,” Joanna says. “I learned so much, almost like a detective. It was more than just media coverage. My job was to write up the story and explain why I thought we should pursue this story or take this approach, pitch it to the senior story editor, and she then would say yes or no.”
A time of transition
When Joanna returned to Waco after the internship, she experienced a heart change.
“Once I left New York, I realized I didn’t want to do news anymore. At that point, I started thinking I wanted to do something a little more creative, and I put pursuing a news career on pause.”
Over the next few years, Joanna found her creative outlet in opening her retail home décor shop, Magnolia, in 2003, and designing rooms for clients, and renovating and flipping houses with her husband, Chip Gaines, who graduated from Baylor with a BBA degree in 1998. Joanna had first met Chip when he came in her father’s business for some brake repairs.
“The first thing he said to me was, ‘Hey, you’re the girl on the commercials.’ And we ended up sitting outside and talking for like 30 minutes. Very romantic,” she laughs. “The next day he called the shop and asked me out. He called the store, because I sure did not give him my number. I thought, ‘This could be a weird customer.’”
Joanna decided to close her retail shop in 2005 to focus on raising the first two of their children while also partnering with Chip in their renovation and construction business. Joanna continued designing and writing about design on her blog and through outlets such as Wacoan magazine.
Fast forward to 2011. Joanna was invited to do a guest post about child friendly home design for DesignMom.com, a nationally recognized website named as a 2010 top website of the year by Time Magazine, among other accolades. That post drew the attention of High Noon Productions, who then contacted the Gaineses about doing a pilot episode about their family business, which eventually turned into the wildly successful HGTV series “Fixer Upper.”
The Gaineses are currently filming Season 3 and thus far, they have signed on to film through Season 6, with all episodes to be produced in the Waco area.
Additionally, the Gaines have moved their Magnolia Homes headquarters from Bosque Blvd. to downtown Waco at 6th Street and Webster Ave., about five blocks from the Baylor campus. Business is booming, with a number of successful ventures now under the Magnolia name, including home renovation and construction, a retail home décor business, a realty company, and even a new furniture line called Magnolia Home. Joanna is designing all the pieces, which will then be sold by furniture stores around the country.
Joanna did not end up taking over her father’s business (he has since sold the tire shop), but she convinced her dad to join her at her newer family business. Today, Jerry Stevens helps run the retail part of Magnolia Market, bringing father and daughter full circle, working together again.
Even though Joanna chose not to become a broadcast journalist, she says she utilizes the communication skills she honed at Baylor and at her internships in her work every day.
“The classes that you have to take within the communication degree taught me how to articulate my thoughts and how to present things so that you can appeal to the masses,” she says. “Also, with my experience with KWBU and the studio at Baylor where you’re practicing on camera, it’s constant repetition working on you’re delivery, how you say things, how you inflect. All those things that Baylor trained us on, those are the skills that have really helped me and still do today.”
“Who would have known –– I was always thinking I was going to do news, when now it’s more like a reality TV design thing, but still, I really feel like those skills that I learned at Baylor make me much more comfortably on camera,” Joanna continues. “It was something that I was taught, even though I didn’t know I was going to be using those skills in the way I am today.
Joanna says that the editing skills she learned at Baylor help her in filming her segments for “Fixer Upper.” She is ever mindful of editors at the other end of the production process.
“I know there’s an editor on the other side of this, and I know that for them, they could have hundreds of hours of footage to go through, but I have an understanding of what they are looking for,” she says.
“It’s funny –– I think talent, but I also think editor, because I’ve been on both sides of it. I think, ‘How will this help the editor?’ and if there’s a storyline, I say ‘Hey, that didn’t tie in –– we’ve got to do it differently.’”
She also learned by watching local television reporters at KWTX.
“There is a big difference in edited footage and live action, so just seeing live reporting firsthand was so fascinating. I loved how it’s just, game on,” she says.
“What Baylor did is prepare me for those times when I am nervous and when it’s live television. That helps now because we do a ton of speaking engagements, like The Today Show and others,” she explains.
“The core of my ability to gather myself, tell myself, ‘you better get it together, you better get it together,’ is an important skill I learned in the communications department at Baylor. I learned that when you’re nervous, this is how you still deliver.”
Photos by Jess Barfield.