The HGTV star reflects on the car accident that changed the trajectory of his career and looks back at how home renovation shows have changed since his Trading Spaces years.
Ty Pennington has been TV’s go-to carpenter and home renovation host since 2000 — but he nearly made it big in another profession in front of the camera: male model.
Earlier this year, the 58-year-old HGTV star revealed that when he was just 27 he finally got his big break as a male model — landing the cover of J. Crew catalog — before a “horrible car accident” changed the trajectory of his career.
“I love that we say trajectory too because that’s what it was. I flew out of that Jeep and fell on my back,” Pennington cracked while speaking with TooFab about the new season of “Rock the Block,” which returns for its fourth season today on HGTV.
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Pennington shared a recreation of the cover shot in January, as well as the original image. In his caption, he explained that one week after learning he landed the cover, he was “Catapulted out of a barreling jeep, sliding across a razor sharp road on my backside.” He added, “Somehow I survived … my buttocks sadly did not.”
The crash — and the “staples and stitches” that followed — ended his modeling career in its tracks. Things got so bad, he said, the photos in his portfolio were even used as toilet paper by someone who broke into his brother’s car. But looking back, Ty has a pretty great outlook on the whole ordeal and how it led him to where he is today.
“Everyone knows a career in male modeling, you’re going to make millions and I was maybe making $100 a day … but I just find it interesting that like I’d finally made it with the J. Crew cover, the phone was about to go off the hook, but the universe literally wiped me away from that future,” he shared. “I had no idea at the time but it made me go back to just doing construction and I would have never gone on the audition for ‘Trading Spaces’ if I had not been going back to construction. Because my agency wouldn’t even call me anymore.”
“But look, I’ve always gone through whatever door of opportunity opens, because you never know what that experience is going to lead to,” he said, adding that modeling helped him become comfortable on camera, something from which he’d benefit greatly when TV came calling. “To this day, I still think people hire me because I make other people comfortable on camera. Like, that’s my gift,” he added, “but yeah, it’s funny how there’s a path that we don’t even know is being laid out for us.”
For Pennington, that path included starring on TLC’s “Trading Spaces” back in 2000, before going on to headline “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and countless shows on HGTV, including “Rock the Block” and “Battle on the Beach.” In those 20+ years in the home renovation space, the landscape has changed immensely — especially for someone whose first show only gave contestants $1,000 to remodel a single room.
“In many ways, ‘Trading Spaces’ is the first show that put tools in the hands of homeowners and so it turned us all into DIY-ers. But for me I love to see how it’s evolved,” said Pennington. “We’re at the point now where we see so many images coming across our screens that I think people are more able to look at taking risks in design now because they’ve seen so many.”
“It’s like the way we are with food. We used to only eat iceberg lettuce and now we’re like, ‘Oh, I’ll have arugula.’ It’s just like with design,” he continued, adding that the variety and willingness to take risks has made it all the more interesting and really upped the ante for viewers.
“That’s also why I want to be dazzled visually. I know what’s out there, I know what we’re capable of, so don’t just give me a white room. I want to see some real good designs,” he continued.
On “Rock the Block,” four teams of HGTV superstars each renovate identical, 5,000-square-foot homes on the same Colorado cul-de-sac with a $250,000 budget. The winner is the pair who adds the most value to the property. Ty hosts the show, while competing teams include New Kids on the Block alum Jonathan Knight and Kristina Crestin of “Farmhouse Fixer,” Bryan and Sarah Baeumler of “Renovation Island,” Michael Smith Boyd and Anthony Elle of “Luxe or Less” and Page Turner and Mitch Glew from “Fix My Flip.”
“Look, ‘Trading Spaces,’ we were doing rooms for $1,000. I look at it as The Beatles playing Germany, in these really dive clubs. You learn your trade when you take the extras out from under somebody, pull the rug out,” said Ty, before drawing comparisons between his early days and latest project. “But I think that’s also what happens when you take these designers and artists and throw them into a space that they’ve never walked. They’ve only got literally 6 weeks to knock this whole thing out, that’s what I love about it.”
“I’m not easily wowed, I’ve been doing this a while. But these kitchens are stunners, every single one of them. You immediately realize, ‘Oh damn, this is going to be an interesting season,'” he added of tonight’s season premiere. “The flavors, there’s just a lot of variety. A lot of work went into it and these guys were dead tired, I’m super proud of the teams. I didn’t know Jonathan could not only rock it on the stage, but he can rock it on the block. No joke. He really worked his ass off, I’m impressed.”
While Knight and his costars had to put in some serious elbow grease, Pennington was more than happy to sit back and watch everyone else work this time around.
“I’m like, ‘Hallelujah, I have made it!’ I’m finally the guy who doesn’t have to be sweating and can barely stand on the ladder anymore,” he exclaimed. “Being the host is awesome, but I’m also super competitive, so I’m thinking what would I do?”
“I know sometimes people need to sort of ask themselves, ‘Am I making the right choice? Am I going in the right direction?’ And who would have guessed I’d be the voice of reason, that I’m like, ‘No, stick with what you’re doing,'” he added of his pep talks with the competitors. “Sometimes we second guess ourselves, especially when the whole world’s going to be watching. That’s the kind of pressure I can see people under and I love that I have enough experience to be like, ‘No man, you guys stay the course, you’re on the right track.’
That advice certainly pertains to Pennington’s own career as well. See him in action when “Rock the Block” returns today, March 6, on HGTV.
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