By Lawrence Ferber
Originally published on Advocate.com July 15 2009 11:00 PM ET
Jason Champion and Nathan Galui are playing for the same team, but only one can win the prize. As the two openly gay finalists on the fourth season of Home & Garden Television's HGTV Design Star , they'll compete against nine others, and inevitably one another, to land the grand prize of their own show on the network.
Born in Mississippi and based in Sarasota, Fla., Champion, 33, is a stylist and product designer with a penchant for reupholstering indoor furniture with outdoor fabrics. He married his partner of six years, Jim, in Wooster, Mass., two years ago and has two stepsons (ages 18 and 15) and two pooches. The show's youngest competitor at 25, Palm Beach, Fla., native Galui earned a bachelor's degree in interior design at Philadelphia's Drexel University and is a "single and ready to mingle" freelance furniture designer and artist boasting a youthful style and edgy graphic-arts eye.
While both finalists share similarities -- they live in Florida, agree on big design no-nos, and prove effervescent during telephone interviews -- plenty sets them apart. A DVD screener of the first episode, in which the finalists are tasked with designing their own digs, proved addictively entertaining, with plenty of sleep deprivation for the finalists, fab deco work, and a few design disasters for judges Vern Yip, Candice Olson, and Genevieve Gorder to cluck about.
Interviewed by telephone, Champion and Galui remained vague when pressed for specifics regarding this season's challenges and hijinks -- especially Galui, who frequently responded "wait and see" and "who knows" -- but were much more forthcoming about personal life and opinions.
In the spirit of the show, and to see how they passed muster as would-be design gurus, it seemed prudent to prod them for advice and tips.
Advocate.com:What is the number 1 design no-no for gays to keep in mind when decorating a new living space?Nathan Galui: No, no, no synthetic flowers! Would you carry a fake Gucci messenger bag? Same thing goes with accessorizing with plant life. Real plants and flowers bring great energy and life into a space. Fake ones kill it. Jason Champion: Fake plants. Come on, guys. If you can't keep a plant alive how will you ever get a man?
Ikea. Yea or nay?Champion: Yea, but this is only for certain pieces. Lighting, flatware, and bedding can be inexpensive and easy to change with the seasons or events. Galui: My life -- Ikea by day, club by night! Yea all the way. The designs are fannnnntastic and you really can't beat the prices, especially when it comes to hardware, accessories and window treatments. Beware though -- some of the furniture is wiggity-whack, but as Vida Boheme [from Too Wong Foo ] would say, "It comes down to that age-old decision -- style or substance?" Hmm?
What is the most overlooked shop or source for housewares? And what is one item you think is genius from that place?Champion: I am so happy that people are starting to recognize thrift and Goodwill stores as great resources for design. Not only can you find fantastic items for low prices, but you're going "green" at the same time. Two birds with one stone. Galui: T.J. Maxx. You can find name brand items at discount prices. Candlesticks, the mix and match of glass, ceramic, and metals can make your place original.
Whose house would you most love to get a look inside?Galui: I would love to visit the home of Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan. I am a huge believer in Adler's design philosophy and could just imagine walking into their home and not being able to remove the smile from my face. So much fun. Champion: Tim Burton. He has an amazing talent for finding the odd and making it beautiful -- sort of like me.
Jason, you have a thing for using outdoor fabrics on indoor furniture.Champion: Yes. I design an outdoor furniture line and just started using [outdoor] fabrics a couple of years ago because you literally can pour bleach on them -- it will not change. As much as my friends drink, and as dirty and clean as my dogs and husband can be, it's the perfect thing to have on furniture. Hose it down. It's amazing.
Nathan, you like repurposing found objects. Have you ever brought home a street find and discovered it had bedbugs or other living creatures inside?Galui: I came across a couple of roaches in some dresser drawers, but that's the extent of it. A couple of them weren't dead, so I let them go out in the wild. No biggee.
Moving on to the show, what did you think of your competitors?Champion: I loved the competitors. I felt like I had a very stiff competition with everybody there. We were picked out of thousands of people to be on this show and I consider them the top in their field. We really truly were the cream of the crop.
Were you pleased when you saw there was another gay person in the house?Galui: Yeah. Honestly, it's a design show so I was expecting a few other gay contestants. When I walked in I wasn't sure who was gay or not. But I met Jason and he became my instant buddy, especially being from Florida.
Were you shocked that all the other guys were hetero-identified? As you said, this is a design show.Champion: Yes, I was. Galui: Um, no. Honestly, I think the way the show has been arranged in the past it's been a good balance of people. Half straight guys, half gay guys, so I was definitely proud to represent with Jason as one of the few.
Did being gay give you an advantage or edge over the other contestants?Galui: When I went out there, I didn't really disclose I was gay right off the bat. But you know us gays. We definitely have that flair for design and that can be intimidating to some. All of us had our advantages. I don't think being gay was a skill set that was required or needed, but I was going there proudly to represent.
Conversely, did you feel a sense of competition with Jason?Galui: When we met there was an immediate sense of brotherhood. For sure. But again it's a competition, so there could have been some conflict -- who knows. Check it out.
Is there a "villain" this season?Galui: There is. I wouldn't say villain though. A conflicting character. Definitely some strong personalities and there will be drama.
Is there a hot tranny mess?Galui: This season did not have a hot tranny mess. No Michael Stribling.
What was the biggest surprise for you taking part in this whole affair?Champion: Well, you go into it with a game plan and then you get there and it's completely different than what you thought and you have to do things on the fly. Galui: I will say that joining a reality TV show is the best weight loss plan ever. I lost 12 pounds while I was out there. It was intense. The competition is just so strong, fierce, and intense when you're going, you're eating but not eating regularly. You're constantly on the move. Definitely experiencing some weight loss. Perfect. I loved it.
Who are your favorite designers or icons?Champion: I really love Steven Gambrel out of N.Y. I think he's amazing. Handsome, got style, and can hold it together. I really like Michael Graves. Marcel Breuer. Those mid-century modern, verging on contemporary. If you look at my furniture you can see it's not your momma's wicker. It's a little over the top, bright colors. I definitely am drawn to things like that. Galui: The Campana Brothers. They're fantastic and I think are going to have a huge influence on furniture design. But the thing that probably inspires me most is travel. I just traveled to Peru. The urban culture and exposure to different places has probably inspired and influenced me the most.
On the flipside, who is a total hack in the design world?Galui: If they are a hack, you probably don't know about them. Oh. Bobby Trendy. Hack. There you go. A hack right there.
Tell me a secret about each other.Champion: Nathan is very smart. He's very creative. But he's very quiet. I felt like I wanted him to step up sometimes and we be the team because we did talk from the start of the show. Oh wow, we're the only two, we've got to keep going. We had our challenge with each other to keep going through the show. Galui: Jason's great. He's definitely my buddy and I feel like I have a friend in him after the show.
That's not really a secret, Nathan, but OK. If you were the winner, what would your show be like? Have you already come up with a concept?Galui: Of course, I've been thinking about it forever. My showâ€¦ I'm not going to answer that question. You just have to wait and see. It's my dream, any designer's dream, to have that platform to showcase their abilities. Champion: Well, my show would consist of my personality, my design creative ability, and being able to relate with kids. Maybe [a show] called Big Kids or Crazy Adults. I've got a weird, kooky sense of design and maybe something will be developed out of that.
If you get your own TV show, will your personal life inform it -- talking about your husband or boyfriend the way heterosexual hosts always discuss their wives, girlfriends, etc.? Champion: Of course. Jim and I have been together for six years and married for two. Our life being married is just like all other married couples -- it's the same sex all the time. [ Laughs ] Galui: Absolutely. I am proud to be gay and I am constantly referencing all the people in my life -- family, friends, partner, pets, neighborhood mailman, whatever! If something is on my mind, I'll be sure to voice it. Now if only I had me a husband to refer to.
Does your hubby have design taste, Jason?Champion: I would love to say he has no design taste at all, but we butt heads all the time. He should have been an architect. We complement each other well but also have strong personalities and want to kill each other.
And do you see yourself using this platform and your work for philanthropic or LGBT activist causes?Champion: Yeah. I am a huge activist in that sense. You tell me what to do and where to be and I will. I would love to [volunteer for] gay student alliances across the country and speak to kids about what I had to do growing up in Mississippi to survive and what kind of person it made me today. I got one of the most touching e-mails the other day from a woman from a small town in Alabama. She wrote, "My son loves design and is 12 years old, and I told him to watch the show because if you can make it he can make it too." And I just started crying. I never knew the show would impact people like that. So I'm glad I'm true to myself on this show and people will see who I am. Galui: Yes. A friend and I have been working on a concept of possibly creating great gift baskets for cancer patients. I haven't really pursued that just yet, but it's in my future to make changes with design.