Updated November 9, 2005 Interviewed by Mike Fitzpatrick
Thom Ertl: “Look What I Did!”
Milwaukee Gay Man’s Home Profiled On New HGTV Do-It-Yourself Series
Interview by Mike Fitzpatrick
Milwaukee - The producers of HGTV’s new series “Look What I Did” recently went looking for “unique, cool and creative projects designed and done by real people” without the help of contractors or interior design experts. One of their stops on their cross country talent search was on the east side of Milwaukee at the home of gay graphic artist Thom Ertl where he shared what producers call his “fun stories and incredible results” about the remodeling of the two-story home he shares with his partner Scott.
In advance of the series’ mid-November debut on the cable network, Quest visited with Ertl and got the inside dish about how his episode segment came about.
Quest: Tell us a little about yourself.
Ertl: I’ve lived in Milwaukee since 1980 and have owned a house in the Riverwest part of city for the past nine years. I have always been a person with an artistic bent. My current occupation is as a free-lance graphic designer. I also have worked as a cosmetologist and a visual merchandising specialist.
Quest: Tell us a little about the program you’re going to be on.
Ertl: The program is called “Look What I Did” - or as I’m subtitling it - “Smell Me.” What basically happened is that I came back from a vacation right before Labor Day and was rifling through my messages at home. There was this message from a woman who was identifying herself as one of the producers of this new show on HGTV - Home & Garden Television - called “Look What I Did.”
Immediately I thought: “Well, someone is playing a really cruel joke on me.” I know enough people who would be silly enough to do something like that. I went into it thinking “I’ll go with the joke until somebody screams ‘April Fools’ or whatever is going to be yelled.”
I got in contact with her and she asked for background information on a specific project that I’d done with my house. The reason she had gotten in touch with me to begin with was the fact that I was profiled in the Entree section of the Sunday edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel two and a half years ago.
A section of that article that discussed one of the rooms of my house - the room I’m calling the den. My house was built in 1919, an older home. In that room I tore out a closet. The existing walls were uneven. I was trying to find a way to camouflage that but do something more interesting than doing a stucco wall or textured wallpaper.
The room had a lot of my industrial kind of stuff in it - for lack of a better term. I wanted to do something that was sort of metallic and graphic and linear. That’s when I came up with the idea of doing a metallic wall in there.
Quest: What was it like to have a television crew invade your house?
Ertl: Having done versions of videotaping before, I sort of knew what to expect as far as a production crew coming in. The HGTV crew was a producer, an associate producer, a sound and camera crew - like five people.
What they first had me do is doing some very extemporaneous, unscripted kind of interview where I gave info about what I’d done to the house and the whole process of designing and decorating it. They were trying to have me sound scripted but spontaneous.
Being that its a new show, I didn’t know exactly what their focus is. I knew they wanted people on the show who had done things to their house that was interesting but didn’t require an interior designer or contractor.
Quest: What was your take on the actual taping?
Ertl: It was fun. It was a six hour taping but within that six hours they were going to use about 5-7 minutes for the actual segment. They shot a lot of what they call “B-roll” which is stuff that doesn’t require any kind of audio. Then they did an interview with me as well as some demonstration shots, showing how I did the wall in my den as well a second demonstration on doing the ceilings in my living room, dining room and kitchen areas. The latter was weaving that was done with corrugated cardboard.
Quest: Is there anything they crew asked you to do that made you feel uncomfortable?
Ertl: One thing they were trying to have me (and my partner Scott) do was have everything come off as being big. They had me do some of that kind of big drama thing where I threw my arms out and screamed Look what I did!” Everything we did had to have a feel of an exclamation point at the end of it. While some of that could be done, there were moments where I felt kind of like “Oh please! Look what I did - my ass!”
Quest: As you know there’s an old saying that goes “Oh Mary, It takes a fairy to make something pretty in life.” Will that shine through in the program?
Ertl: And what part are you suggesting there? The “Mary” part? Or the fairy part? (laughs) Oh gee! I get to choose between “Mary” and “Fairy?”
Quest: No, I’m asking if the “gay angle” in your segment is going to show through to the viewers at home?
Ertl: Well, unless they’re Helen Keller - I would think so, yah! When we were discussing the whole process, they were talking to me about the elements of the shoot. They wanted to show me and my process but they also wanted sort of an affidavit shot to include in the final segment.
When they talked to my partner Scott, they asked me who he was to me. They kept asking if he was my roommate. I kept saying: “No, he’s my partner.” There was this debate - not high drama or anything - but this discussion of what the terminology of Scott and my relationship should be. I asked them “What’s wrong with partner?” and they kept saying “Well, this is a conservative show - we’re not sure how America handle it.”
I said the them: “Let’s put it in a different perspective. I’ve seen shows of this genre where they have a male and female on who have a baby, but they say that they’re no married. I’m sure there’s people out there who don’t consider that ‘status quo,’ but it’s still being shown. Or they’re showing a male-female couple of different enthnicities. And that may not sit well with Joe Public in Bumblefuck. Our relationship is a fact of life.”
Quest: Are you telling all your friends to tune in and watch?
Ertl: Well, the way it stands now is that the show is scheduled to be debuting on HGTV on November 21. I won’t know exactly when my segment is going to air until Friday, November 18. I was told it will be within a four month period of the show’s debut. But I don’t know now when it exactly will air.
Quest: Will it repeat over and over like so many of those cable home improvement shows?
Ertl: I think so. It’s part of a series. It’s one of those kind of shows that will be shown multiple times.
Quest: Any reservations about what the show is going to look like?
Ertl: I’m not nervous but I’m kind of a little concerned about what are they going to do with this (the footage). I have no idea what the end product is supposed to be. For all I know this is going to be so schmaltzy and queer that I could be throwing up a little bit in my mouth as I’m watching it. After this they might change the name of the show to “Look What Mary Did!”
Quest: That show’s already on the air. It’s called “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” or Christopher Lowell.
Ertl: Yeah, we don’t want to do that again. He’s the Rudy Galindo of fabric!
Quest: Were you compensated in any for this?
Ertl: No. the only compensation is -you know - going public with what I’ve done and seeing where it goes from there, at this stage of the game.
Quest: So the only payment is to be able to go up to a person and say “Look what I did!”
Ertl: Shut up! Spare me! (laughs)
Thom Ertl's designs are now available online at www.designbythomertl.com