The hour is fast approaching midnight, and Jonathan Scott and I are locked in a room, somewhere in a dark commercial park on the outskirts of Nashville, trying to stop a pretend terrorist attack.
You might know Jonathan better as one half of the perennial hit HGTV show, Property Brothers, in which two siblings help people buy and renovate a home. Jonathan is the half with the longer hair, a penchant for flannel shirts, and a studded goth rock toolbelt. His twin, the buttoned-up realtor, Drew, isn’t with us. He’s spending the wee hours of the night–the only real downtime you get when you’re producing around 50 hours of television a year–with his creative director and fiancée, Linda. They’re training with a physiologist, instead of thwarting an imaginary jihadist plot.
I’d just wanted to hang out and drink, but the Scotts aren’t heavy drinkers.
Instead, they’re cub scouts. Ranchers. Clowns who once charged clients $100 an hour. Freemasons. Models. Flight attendants. Investors. Country singers. Screenwriters. Comedic improvisers. Black belt karate champions.
The brothers still speak of all old hobbies and professional roads passed by in the present tense. Anything they take on is taken on for life. It was a lesson instilled by their father, when he first enticed Jonathan and Drew into practicing karate with him. They could learn it, he said, but at a price.
“He was like, great,” says Jonathan. “You can never quit.”
“Never?” I ask incredulously.
“It was a rule,” says Jonathan. “We were not allowed to quit things.”
“Not even after like a year or something?” I ask.
“Nope,” says Jonathan.
As a result, Jonathan is a world-class magician. Drew is a competitive athlete who doesn’t take up a ping-pong paddle without a professional instructor. He also maintains their collections of coins. Ancient Scottish swords and armor. A shoe closet so large that it involved knocking down a wall and shrinking the garage of their Las Vegas home, literally the day after its renovation were completed.
The Scotts simply have no chill. In fact, in the two days I spent with Drew and Jonathan, I never saw Jonathan more uncomfortable than at a millennial-filled bar, attempting to practice the sort of casual, night-burning behavior the brothers have always considered a distraction. Jonathan and I were sitting in a Nashville speakeasy, sipping blueberry vodka drinks that he ordered. Mine is guzzled; his, nursed. The lackadaisical valet won’t help park his car. His stool lacks a foot rest. And he can’t read the dimly lit menu so he uses the light on his phone. Twentysomethings flirt around, and Jonathan, in his bootcut jeans, appears to be a gen Xer who is a bit out of his element.
What does he do at night, as he travels the world if he doesn’t go out and drink like the rest of us? What’s he into?
Jonathan perks up. Escape rooms! He’s done hundreds, he says. Had I done an escape room before? No? Nashville has great escape rooms! Did I know, he was trying to open an escape room in Vegas, because “they’re all shitty in Vegas,” but it’s a low-margin business–you just can’t get a lot of people through a single escape room. Moments later, he’s on his phone, trying to get us into a nearby room. It’s closed. He tries another. Presto. The magician has escaped the bar.
With a newfound thirst, he chugs his cocktail and we hit the road.
Thirty minutes later, I guess Jonathan is doing what they call “demolition” as he dumps out a pair of wicker baskets onto the floor to the clang of dozens of brass napkin holders hitting tile. The room we’re locked in to stop this terrorist threat is a bit of a low-rent stereotype, a makeshift Middle Eastern market built inside what I swear is an unused broom closet, and he’s searching for clues–keys, codes, ciphers–zealously. As if the world is really going to end.
He’s warned me, indirectly a few times, that everyone needs to do their part in an escape room. And when you check a shelf, you don’t just check a shelf. You run your hands under the shelf, too.
But Jonathan is a seasoned escape room pro, dissecting the floor plan into quadrants, as I nod and take over cursory pointing and holding duties, carrying over waxed fruit to be weighed, and the other tasks you attend to in escape rooms that make zero sense out of context. When time was getting tight and we finally found ourselves stumped, he began assigning tasks. “See what you can do with this,” he says, like a parent handing the nearest unused toy to a child.
Despite our best efforts, we cannot escape the room in time. The terrorists successfully detonate the bomb. Countless imaginary lives are lost.
If only Drew were there to save the day.
Together, Jonathan and Drew are making every right step to construct a distinctly American empire. Over the past nine years, they’ve transcended from two northerly nobodies to the undisputed kings of HGTV, with not one, but two of the top-five rated programs on the channel this year.
Now the third biggest network on cable, HGTV edged out CNN in 2016 as a powerful time capsule of mid-aughts, suburban American values, a place where the subprime mortgage lending crisis never happened and the name “Donald Trump” can’t spoil the appeal of a tiki bar or Corian countertop.
The Scotts are the highest paid talents on HGTV–insider sources estimates their payday ranges from $75,000 to $150,000 an episode–and that’s a sum disbursed outside of their Scott Productions company, which has produced six shows on air, while developing new scripted and unscripted series–even documentaries and, with any luck, an Ellen-esque talk show that the brothers are hoping to debut on a major network.
The brothers’ Scott Living line of home furnishings is a $100 million business that aims to do $250 million in revenue in 2018–bolstered by support from Lowe’s and QVC. This is all on top of a new, top secret Scott Brothers-branded design service the duo hopes to launch next year–a combination of an app and at-home consultancy meant for their middle American audience that wants to renovate their home, but doesn’t have the sort of budget available to hire a designer.
In an era when most Americans can barely afford to rent let alone buy, the Scotts present a fantastical illusion: six-figure home makeovers paid in cash framed as downright attainable aspirations, demonstrating that the American dream is still in reach for someone. Even if the show is technically produced with Canadian tax credits. Even if the brothers themselves embody the paradox of achieving the 21st-century American dream.
Twenty years earlier, Drew Scott was a teenager parked in his car on a street in Burnaby, an idyllic Canadian suburb surrounded by the vast wilderness of British Columbia. He came to this particular spot frequently, with a Tony Robbins tape playing through the car’s speakers, staring at a house in which he wishes to live. He repeated Robbins’s positive, reaffirming mantras to himself. Drew grew up nearby, on a horse farm built by his father and twin brother, with animals and all the free entertainment offered by nature. But now he yearned for a McMansion and fine cars. You always want what you don’t have.
By the age of 18, Drew and Jonathan pooled together $500 to buy one of the Carleton Sheets, No Down Payment real estate programs you may have seen on TV in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The plan was to photocopy the pages and send it back for the full 30-day, “no questions asked” money back refund. They ran out of time. But in the interim, they studied the program closely, cherry picking the best bits and getting advice from their mother’s legal firm. Then they bought their first $200,000 house for $250 down, fixed it up by hand, and flipped it for a $50,000 profit in just over 12 months. They put those profits into the next house, which they lived in while working on it, and then the next, and the next.
“It was such a mistake. It was dirty, we were always waking up with a sore throat, living out of boxes and stuff,” says Jonathan. “I remember, this one time one of my best friends was living with us for a little while, this place we were renovating. We got back, we’d been cleared out. The place had been robbed. They must have backed up trucks to get the appliances. And our buddy was still sleeping.”
Drew pursued his real estate license once he realized how much more profit they could bag without paying realtor fees. Jonathan took night classes to learn more about construction than the ad hoc, not-always-to-code lessons learned from his dad. The duo’s work culminated into a successful commercial real estate development company, inspiring the Property Brothers show, which has spent the last six years consistently in HGTV’s top 10.
At the same time that the duo was flipping houses, Drew also got a job as a flight attendant on WestJet, allowing him to work a few days a month to supplement his income. As for Jonathan, he’d gone to college with the complete intent of creating a touring magic show. “I remember thinking, if I just had $200,000, I could build this whole show and be the biggest thing since David Copperfield,” he says. “And now I look back like, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
Jonathan had been constructing many of his own illusions for the tour and thought that by selling some of his older ones off, he could raise the funds to go on the road. Through an acquaintance, he met up with a fellow magician–an escape artist who was trying to transition into illusions and needed some gear.
“So I met the guy. He showed up with his wife and baby. He seemed super nice. And he reminded me of trying to get into magic back in the day. He was just trying to take the next step,” says Jonathan. But he had no money, either. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what, I have this big show coming up, and if I could use some of your illusions for that show, I could pay the whole thing off at one time.'”
Against his better judgment, Jonathan agreed, only to be cleaned out. The escape artist was really a con artist, and Jonathan learned later that he immediately sold off the borrowed illusions. Jonathan pursued the matter in court, only to realize he was not the first to be swindled, and he would only be able to claim pennies on the dollar for the $80,000 of stolen illusions.
“By the second pretrial meeting, he disappeared,” says Jonathan. “No pun intended.”
Jonathan–having already acquired a truck and trailer for his big magic tour–was forced to declare bankruptcy, too ashamed to ask for help from his parents.
“I was very depressed,” says Jonathan. “That was my entire dream.” Jonathan spent his life savings to reaffirm a simple lesson: trust his gut. And, perhaps, to trust his twin brother above anyone else, too.
Jonathan tells me the story now in hushed tones, in the dark cabin of a late-night Southwest flight, the circles under his eyes unmasked by concealer. We’re on the last plane from Las Vegas to Nashville. Drew and Linda sit in the row across the aisle. Earlier, they’d shared her iPad Pro, with Drew ever-smiling at the illustrations drawn by his fiancée and creative director. Now, she’s fallen asleep on his shoulder.
From these unassigned seats on a budget airline, it’s hard to believe that the Scott brothers are ascending at a billion dollar trajectory. Their wealth is a shared entity–as is the workload so vital to building it. Drew and Jonathan operate as 13 feet and eight arms of tight genes sharing one brain. Even as they speak, they hop between “I” and “we” interchangeably. And why not? Wherever one succeeds, it’s good for the collective of two.
On their shows, it’s a recurring joke that Jonathan does all the hard home renovation work while Drew buys or sells a house and escapes the majority of labor. The reality isn’t far from this. While Jonathan breathes in asbestos on set, Drew is often attending to the other growing tentacles of the Scott empire. To sync up so that Drew properly represents Jonathan’s perspective, the brothers block out time for secret planning sessions–to create a brand with end goals only known to them.
The tacit strategy continued through their hustling years. When Jonathan was declaring bankruptcy, Drew encouraged him to dust himself off and get him a job at Westjet. When Drew grew tired of real estate and wanted to invest in his acting career, Jonathan held down their commercial real estate business in Calgary while Drew moved to Vancouver to pursue entertainment.
With a giant spreadsheet, Drew–who operates with a social efficiency that’s earned him the nickname “The Robot” from Jonathan–color-coded his networking, as he wined and dined the Vancouver entertainment industry and honed his own production skills. “If it was something creative, like voice lessons or an acting class, that was one color. If it was a networking opportunity, that was another color,” Drew says. “If it was putting in more rods out there in the water, to create more opportunity, that was another color. And I systematically would continue to push and grow in that sense.”
But after spending over $100,000 in his pursuits–pulled largely from the Scott brother business cash pool–Drew felt guilty for his professional indulgences. So he picked up the real estate agent hat again and began to show houses between his meetings, even as he worked his way into film production. His efforts would culminate into a second assistant coordinator role in the campy David Hasselhoff film Dancing Ninja. Drew also takes one pretty good slow-mo punch in the film, too.
In 2008, the real estate market crashed. Predatory subprime mortgage lending–loans that allowed risky, oft-unqualified buyers to overextend on real estate purchases–coupled with countless, interrelated domino investments, led the American housing bubble to burst. In hard numbers, that meant U.S. household wealth fell by $16.4 trillion between its height in 2007 and its bottom in 2009, which had repercussions to real estate markets across the globe. But for the Scott brothers, it was a boon.
Just as Jonathan and Drew’s commercial development firm seemed in jeopardy, Drew received a call from a production company to star in a show called Realtor Idol–which was, yes, modeled largely after American Idol. It took Jonathan’s immediate snickering at the show title for Drew to realize how dumb that idea was, to return to the production company, and mention that he had a twin brother who had complementary skills in construction.
With the housing market burning down, Drew and Jonathan received a surprise green light to shoot the first season of the Property Brothers for a women’s network in Canada–they had a week to move to Vancouver and go all-in. Drew says season one paid so little that he’d have made more working at a McDonald’s.
Not everyone was an immediate fan of the Scotts’ often subdued onscreen personas. One of their earliest production associates nicknamed one Scott brother “The Cryptkeeper” and the other “The Not-So Hot,” “but they were the nicest guys,” the source quickly clarifies. The Scotts were used to creative pushback in their early years, as producers urged them to be more “hosty.” So they agreed to shoot two takes of everything on the show–one the traditional host way, one with them being themselves. It was these second takes that won out with the network, and audiences.
The public bought what the Scotts were selling–a relatively straight-laced home improvement show, which goes down easy en masse, like an addictive bag of saltine crackers interspersed with the occasional zany bro-hugging, sibling rivalry fest, a slice of cheese to make sure the informational content never gets too dry.
While HGTV America originally passed on the show, Property Brothers broke records on W, and then HGTV Canada. The series would finally be greenlit for HGTV America in 2011–right as the housing market was beginning to recover, and the public could dream of living in a better home again.
“I watched about 30 seconds of the pilot,” recalls Kathleen Finch, chief programming, content and brand officer at HGTV parent company Scripps. “I stopped it and said, ‘I want them.'”
If HGTV is a time capsule of mid-aughts American values, then perhaps it’s only fitting that we’re here in a city that’s never heard of cultural appropriation, where people still smoke indoors, where the ’90s mall lives on to its fullest potential, where I’ve just walked by a fedora emporium and a store simply called “America!”: Las Vegas. At the annual Licensing Expo, brands ranging from ’80s slasher movie franchises to Kathy Ireland set up booths to woo retailers and licensees to make money off of white-labeled goods.
Across from a stand for Bosco, Moon Pies, and Pez, sits the new Scott Living booth, which looks like the cross between a talk-show set and an upscale suburban wine bar. A thirtysomething guy walks by, noticing the video loop of the brothers, which cuts between the Canadians rapping in full Run DMC gab and renovating homes. “My wife loves them,” he laments to his friend with a tone of defeat.
Behind the facade, Drew sits with a brass compact in his hand, scrubbing his teeth with a cloth. I don’t see any remnants from his green protein smoothie in his gums, but Drew remains unconvinced, as he slowly inspects every crevasse for the slightest glimmer of kale.
Moments before, they’d received a parade of fans–90% of whom were women in HGTV’s core demographic of 25- to 54-year-old, college-educated women–for photo ops at the booth.
“Twin sandwich!” shouts Drew, as the brothers squeeze around an eager viewer.
The duo launch into a rapid-fire schtick for every fan. Often, it drips with the slightest PG-rated innuendo, the equivalent sexiness level you’d find in the underwear section of a Target ad. One woman just bought a house, she tells the brothers, as they shoot a video for her husband. They’ll come over to renovate, they say, before adding something or other about “a party in the bathtub.”
Another fan barely holds it together when she meets them. “You’re in my house all the time!” she squeals.
“We thought we snuck in!” the brothers laugh.
For the Scotts to be attractive, but not explicitly sexy, is a carefully branded balance. “When I first saw the tape, one of the things I thought was that Jonathan’s hair was too distracting. It was long, it was bleached,” says Finch. “He looked a little bit like a pinup boy, not as much like a contractor.”
Now, quite literally behind the scenes at this kale-smoothie-powered business meeting, the sibling repartee is gone. They’ve transformed from the two-man, Disneyfied Magic Mike routine into shareholders slumped in their chairs. We’re at a table with a team of close associates, including Fashion Snoops, the company advising on Scott Living furnishings, and the brand’s week-old president.
“We’re really two brands,” says Jonathan to the table. “I’m surprised a car company hasn’t come after us: luxury and pickup or sport utility,” as he motions to Drew and then thumps his own chest.
As teens, the Scotts had what they were convinced was a million dollar idea: to make a boy band the world had never seen before–a country boy band, albeit with three people (themselves, and their older brother, J.D.). They laugh when telling me the story, noting its layers of impracticality and sheer silliness, starting with the fact that there weren’t enough people in it to hit that requisite five members.
But while they never pulled off the boy band of three, with the help of HGTV, they’ve essentially done the same thing with just two guys. They’re a luxury car and SUV, the boy you want to meet your mother and the one you don’t tell her about, in one. Jonathan, a former spokesperson for Dove and Mr. Clean, and Drew, whose face is on Realtor.com.
“We very deliberately made sure that Drew is wearing a suit, and Jonathan a plaid shirt [on the show], and we stated that in the beginning because we thought people would have a tough time telling them apart, because they are identical,” says Finch. But the wardrobe came with an added bonus, too. When Property Brothers premiered on HGTV America, the Wednesday nights were renamed “Mensday” nights. “Because they were adorable and we played off their boy band image a little bit,” says Finch. “We have a female audience, and it’s about time we got a little eye candy.”
Within three weeks, they were the top show of the night. Within three months, they were 1 of the top 10 shows on the network. Property Brothers now commands 20 million viewers–and a foundation to what Drew and Jonathan hope will be a billion dollar future.
“Holy smokes,” says Drew, as he drives his Infiniti rental through the rain to his rented condo, on a Nashville highway that’s quickly flooding. “One-hundred and forty people are moving to the city a day,” he tells me as he confidently slices the car through the water. (Local papers put that number closer to 80 or 100). The brothers have invested in some Nashville property on the side. It’s a great market.
Nathan Haddox, who I’d met in Nashville earlier that week, is less sure. In January, he reluctantly sold his father’s downtown pharmacy–one of Nashville’s oldest black-owned businesses–to investors building a TownPlace Suites by Marriott. Taxes are set to double this year, as developers moved in and the city capitalized on the gentrification. There were jobs other than those old family businesses, he said, so long as you wanted to wait tables at one of the many new hip restaurants.
A few minutes later, we arrive at one of the city’s new developments, which Scott productions has rented out during its time in Nashville, treating the space as a small family dorm. The space looks like an upper-end long-stay hotel, or perhaps something the Property Brothers themselves would have designed a few seasons ago. The kitchen is the dining room is the living room. Dark wood cabinets juxtapose a light–was it granite?–countertop. The gray furniture looks straight out of a West Elm catalog. Crystal lamps sit on the end tables. Happy birthday balloons half deflated floating in a corner, while another houses yoga mats.
An awkward chasm sits between the couches and table and living room, which Drew himself readily points out. The brothers haven’t made their own dwelling a renovation priority. Neither has Linda, who works at the dining room table on her laptop.
Over our two days together, I’ve probably asked the same question a half a dozen times. If millennials are renting, largely because they’re broke, do the Scotts worry that the absurd budgets of their shows makes them look out of touch?
“We’re trying to be realistic to show that you don’t need to spend half a million dollars but you can get that same look for . . . “
“You only need to spend $250,000!” I intervene.
“I kind of don’t like filming as much up in Toronto because the market is so crazy expensive that 90% of the U.S. and Canada can’t relate. A $1.5 million or $2 million budget–no one can relate to that. Then we go somewhere like Vegas, some areas between New York and Connecticut, Atlanta, Nashville . . . we’re working budgets that are $150,000 to $500,000, so much more relatable for the country.”
“But rentals are going through the roof because no millennials have any money to buy,” I say. “Are you worried about creating content for them?”
“The main thing is, most viewers, they want to see a house hunt, they want to see demo[lition], they want to see design, and they want to see construction,” says Drew, falling back on the winning formula that the brothers had pioneered on HGTV.
“They want to see the transformation,” Linda–the resident millennial–chimes in. “We’re always looking for content that appeals to millennials and their situations. We talked about a show where friends pool together to get a place.”
“We have that in development right now,” nods Drew.
Drew and Linda are right, of course, that their transformational formula sells, if not to millennials, to someone. They have to be. They’re running a couple of the most successful shows on television. But HGTV’s Kathleen Finch had another equally true insight about the absurd budgets of the seemingly everyday people on HGTV: “Hatewatch is part of the appeal.”
On our way to the set–1 of 17 houses the brothers are currently renovating in the area for the show, via the local construction crews and design leads they hire in every city–I can’t help but consider that 59% of Americans have less than $500 in their bank account. That’s not stopping the telltale signs of a real estate over-investment, however. Debts are growing again. The “subprime” mortgage label is being applied less liberally than in 2007. And some experts believe that banks, still lacking a safety brake of regulation, may once again overinflate the real estate industry until it bursts, just like the early aughts.
But go to Chase, and you’ll see the Property Brothers smiling at you before signing a mortgage. Go to Lowe’s, and you’ll spot the same thing before enrolling in a 0% financing credit card to fund that updated kitchen countertop.
“My husband and I got into flipping houses because of your show,” a fan confessed to Drew and Jonathan just hours earlier, and it’s not the first time I heard the sentiment from a fan over our time together.
When we reach the house for today’s filming, a $350,000 bungalow from 1920, it exudes all the charm of an early 2oth-century bespoke home. It’s also on a street where no one mows their lawn. The rain mixed with the open pipes of construction has filled the air with a sweet rot.
The rosy-cheeked Canadian crew waits for our arrival under the awning. I imagine on this crummy morning, they’ve filled their bellies with flapjacks and Northwoods maple syrup–even though I hear many have taken to eating the premade, Paleo-leaning meals the Scotts prefer.
They’re shooting the shit on this easy day. While most shoots are 10- to 12-hours long, this one is a quick scene pick-up, the premise of which is that Jonathan has tricked Drew into showing up to the house to do some work for a change.
“I am laying down the law!” Jonathan proclaims to Drew, as I huddle with the director in a back room, next to a blue plastic container of craft services, and two monitors streaming the camera footage. It’s Drew’s job to take the hardware off of a French door then sand it down. (Drew, of course, knew such a scene was coming before he even got there, but he asks people on the set to keep his tasks a surprise.)
Drew pretends to sprint off, and Jonathan bear hugs him before he can make it off the porch.
They shoot the scene again and again, with breaks lasting no more than a few seconds, from various angles. I hear shouts of “twinning” and “bro hug!” Then they cut the scene, break off to different parts of the house, while crews pick up separate footage of them in tandem.
“In the last six years, they’ve barely changed,” their director Steve Milne tells me as he takes notes for one of the many editing teams who will have 30 days to flip this footage into a full hour-long episode. “They’re super focused. When they’re here, they’re 100% here. They’ve stayed grounded with their eyes on the prize.”
Inside the Scott’s on-set RV after the shoot, the brothers snack on low-carb proteins. I’m reminded, again, how larger than life they are, even as these two six-foot-four men gingerly share a booth in an RV. They’re here, stuck inside another box that they asked the network to provide. In season one, before they had this modest creature comfort, they were changing between takes in the street.
I ask about their twin powers. “When you orgasm, do you feel it?” Jonathan mocks, referencing himself and Drew. But the brothers admit the advantage. “It’s like being able to finish each other’s sentences, like best friends do,” says Jonathan. “But times 100.”
What will they do with those twin powers now? The Scott brothers are HGTV famous, and they’re hoping to leverage that into an even greater hustle. The 50 hours of TV they make a year isn’t sustainable, they admit. Enter Scott Living. It’s a nest egg business, a long tail investment. And if you think about it, it ties back to the only real category the Scotts have been successful making money off of: homes.
The other aspirations are larger reaches for a home brand phenom. The talk show–it might be in New York or L.A., depending if it’s more newsy or entertainment focused. The three screenplays they’d like to produce (the most pressing one was actually written by their father, a No Country For Old Men-style modern western called High September). And of course, acting, directing, music making. It’s so ambitious your eyes will want to roll–the big talk every 18-year-old has until the world inevitably shuts them up–until you realize, the Scotts built a fanbase of millions and a massive home furnishings business from exactly this bravado.
“Our dad gave us advice when we were young. It’s ‘if people tell you that you can’t do something, find five ways to do it,'” says Drew. “That’s kind of been a philosophy in our lives. There’s always a way to do something. People say find your way into the White House. Well we did that.”
“They got arrested, but . . .” quips Jonathan on cue.
“People say, find a way to build an empire,” Drew continues. “We found a way to do it.”
“Our new goal right now is to host Saturday Night Live,” says Jonathan.
“Yeah, that’s a new goal,” says Drew. “It’s gonna happen.”