“This didn’t exist before! Like I can’t believe it. I’m literally trying to put words together as to what I’m feeling. I’m actually getting a little glassy-eyed.”
Those are the words of Paul, a client of the exterior design and landscaping firm Manscapers. Paul was a hard sell for the three best friends who lead the New York company, and are the stars of Bravo’s Backyard Envy. He and his very pregnant wife are featured in the first episode of the reality series’ second season, after inviting designers James DeSantis, Garrett Magee, and Mel Brasier to develop a plan for how they would transform the haphazard outdoor space surrounding their Greek Revival-style house and the three-car garage around back.
Paul questions the designers at nearly every turn as they pitch ideas for a new paved driveway and three distinct spaces, and then scoffs at their hefty budget of $60,000. He then sends them on their way with little to suggest he’ll come around after taking time to review their proposal. But oh, how he does. He sums up the finished results at the project’s reveal as one signifying “a collaboration of historic, in a way, fading into modern, and not too crazy chic.” He also makes a point of giving DeSantis a hug as a further show of support.
That kind of praise has become all in a day’s work for the three partners in Manscapers, designers by training and practice who have been best friends for well over a decade. They decided to go into business as a team nearly eight years ago, initially doing work outside of their full-time jobs. They saw a need for a design company with a specialty in helping to reimagine the small and limited outdoor spaces found among urban dwellers of a certain orientation.
Backyard Envy: Jim Desantis — Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/Bravo
“It started with this LGBT-focus towards rich gay men in Chelsea to have hot gardeners come and landscape their property,” DeSantis says. “That’s why we called it Manscapers. I’ve always said that people who get the name, get us.” The sassy, suggestive play on words helped the business stand out from its competitors. Moreover, the name takes into account “the Mannies,” the hunky contractors who work for the company on a project-by-project basis, as well as the three partners — even Mel Brasier, the odd man out in the group in more ways than just the most obvious.
“People always ask, ‘Manscapers? You’re a woman. What does that even mean?'” Brasier says. Her response? “It’s not so literal. It’s just kind of fun and cheeky.” It’s cheekier still in the way that DeSantis and Magee have adapted it to custom-fit Brasier. “The guys like to say that I put the ‘man’ in Manscapers,” she says, “because I’m the construction person doing most of the hard work.”
Manscapers has long since expanded to serve clients both LGBTQ and straight, and in both urban and suburban neighborhoods in and around New York City. Two years ago, the Manscapers decided to expand their reach and recognition by agreeing to be featured in a reality show about their work. Backyard Envy was a hit in its first season at the start of 2019. Both its appeal and its relevance and resonance have grown exponentially this year with the show’s second season, which Bravo began airing in August.
[pullquotes]”We’ve had a ton of previous clients reach out to us. ‘Thank you for the work you’ve done in my yard. This really saved my family during these last few months.‘” –Mel Brasier[/pullquote]
The move to television has led to a significant increase in business as well as an additional expansion in operations, plus the promise of a lot more in the offing. The show has also made its stars famous — or at least “B-list stars,” as DeSantis puts it — and recognizable in ways they’re still getting used to.
With each passing episode, Backyard Envy has increasingly revealed more about the stars’ personal lives, as well as their group dynamic, going well beyond their work and the contours of a more traditional home renovation show. As Magee puts it, the producers are “now very interested in hearing about the intricate part of our business and the fights and the drama and me proposing to Andrew.” (Magee proposed to his boyfriend Andrew Walko a year ago now, but the pandemic put a damper on everything from the details surrounding the proposal to plans for the couple’s wedding, currently pushed to 2021.)
Though put to the test by the pressures of the work and the attention of the cameras, the three remain best friends as well as committed business partners, encouraged by their current realities and prospective futures. That includes the company’s expansion to California, which began shortly after filming wrapped on season two roughly a year ago. At the time, Brasier says, “it really became apparent that there was a bit of tension in the group. It wasn’t negative. I would describe it more like growing pains, where we go, ‘Okay James, you’re unhappy here. A lot of things are bothering you about New York. What can we do to make you happy? And how can we wrap that into helping our business?’ And we all landed on, ‘Let’s open an office in L.A.'” DeSantis happily made the move to focus on westward expansion of the business, work that had suffered a setback with the pandemic but has started to pick up again with the run of season two.
During the pandemic, the trio has devoted much of their time to work on an exterior design book set for publication next year. “The book takes you through the Manscapers design process,” Brasier says, and serves as “a primer on how to approach a space and lay it out and design it, [while also showing] off a lot of work that’s not on the show.”
Brasier also notes that the pandemic has helped heighten appreciation of their work — and not just amongst viewers of the show. “We’ve had a ton of previous clients reach out to us,” she says. “‘Thank you for the work you’ve done in my yard. This really saved my family during these last few months.'” Calling it “very humbling and rewarding,” Brasier adds, “We get so heady about design work and horticulture and planting, and we don’t realize that it’s not just design, these are people’s lives that we’re helping to improve.”
These days, when people are doing nearly everything from home, clients are asking for a lot more from their outdoor spaces. “Client requests now are really crazy,” DeSantis says, ticking off a typical list of wants: “A home gym. A kids play area. A dining area. A place to grow vegetables. An outdoor office. A place to do Zoom calls.” Asked what makes an attractive Zoom spot in particular, DeSantis says, “It’s finding a nook or a corner that can be outside that’s shaded in a quiet area of the yard,” ideally one with “a nice ivy wall that looks really beautiful in the background.”
Magee, who playfully refers to himself as “the plant whisperer,” has been heartened by another change he’s seen in the wake of the pandemic. “They’re looking for more than just an installation of a garden, they really want to get to know how to garden, how to plant,” he says. “It’s become more of an educational thing, which has been really fun. I’ve been working with clients and friends, and showing people how to really care for plants. It’s almost become a sort of therapy.”
It’s that kind of nurturing sensibility that has helped Manscapers grow — particularly so, when considering the path taken by each of the company’s creators. As it turns out, all three Manscapers were nurtured by supportive parents who encouraged their interests in the arts in ways that shaped who they are today.
“Client requests now are really crazy: A home gym. A kids play area. A dining area. A place to grow vegetables. An outdoor office. A place to do Zoom calls.” –James DeSantis
“I always said I wanted to be a lawyer, and my parents were like, ‘No, you should go to art school.’ Which is just so funny to me,” says DeSantis. Growing up outside of Syracuse, New York, DeSantis describes his father as “a craftsman [who] makes custom furniture, really beautifully handmade.” It was his father who helped steer the erstwhile painter, one originally focused on fine art, to move in the right direction. “He said, ‘You should be an interior designer. It’s a mix of what you like to do, but also it’s practical and you can apply problem-solving in with creativity.'”
Backyard Envy — Photo: Kathy Boos/Bravo
It was also his father who saved DeSantis from having to come out officially. One day, he just asked his son point blank: “You’re gay, right?” When DeSantis said yes, he responded “Okay, cool.” “And then he just talked to my mom about it,” DeSantis recalls. “I don’t know, it just became this thing. And now I’m a gay person on television. But I’ve been out to them for a very long time. I think everybody’s always known. I’ve been creative and a little different than the rest of my three brothers my whole life, so it was kind of obvious.”
Magee came out in a very similar way — except it was his mother who posed the question. While on a phone call from Chicago, where Magee went to college and had just broken up with his first boyfriend, his mother sensed something was wrong, and opted to get right to the heart of the matter by channeling Joy Behar.
“She was watching The View, and apparently they were walking up to men asking if they were gay or straight,” Magee says. “And then they would follow up asking if they were offended by that question, and all of the men, gay or straight, said ‘No.’ So she asked, ‘Garrett, are you gay or straight?’ And I figured this was probably the best opportunity to just go ahead and say it.
“She was very supportive, and called me back an hour later, crying that she wouldn’t have grandkids. I was like, ‘Mom, you can totally still have grandkids!’ Then it took her about a week to get over it and then my entire family was super-supportive of me, and they always have been. So I’m very thankful for that.”
Soon after his family moved to Virginia Beach, the Houston-born Magee started high school at the Governor’s School of the Arts. He followed that up by studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and then working in motion graphic design for companies in the Windy City and eventually New York. All while also dabbling in gardening and landscaping, laying the groundwork for his true calling. “I always had a passion for landscaping. My brother has a landscaping company [in Tennessee] so I would work with him in the summertime. And then eventually just as a hobby, I started taking classes at the New York Botanical Gardens.”
Magee started putting into practice what he was learning by helping DeSantis and Brasier decorate the backyard the two shared back then as roommates. And it’s that very backyard where the idea for Manscapers took root, as the three worked together throwing elaborate, themed garden parties that drew interest from friends working in fashion and fashion-related fields. “They would ask us if we could come help them with their spaces, everything from a really small terrace to even a fire escape,” Magee says.
“Where are you guys getting all these plants from? And how did you all do this?” Brasier recalls friends asking at their parties. “It was kind of instinctual to us. We all come from a design background, [and] you design your interior space the same as your exterior. You might use different materials or different fabrics or whatnot, but the design principles are the same from inside to outside, so it came really natural for us to design outdoor spaces.”
Brasier, who is straight, has had a lifelong interest in the arts and the creative economy. In fact, it was her childhood passion that inspired the Las Vegas native to move to New York in the first place, right out of high school. “I went to dance school at Marymount in Manhattan,” she says, “and once I got through that, I lived the dance life for many years.” Dance to construction is a big leap, Brasier concedes when asked about her unusual career pirouette. “I wasn’t so much really wanting to have a dance career as it was, I just wanted a creative career,” she says. After deciding to study design at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology — which is where she first befriended DeSantis, a fellow classmate — “I worked in commercial design where I was thrown into the construction world. And I kind of got my education there in my first few jobs.”
DeSantis and Brasier also gained valuable experience shortly after college, working at different times as set designers on various renovation shows on HDTV. For DeSantis, the work is what seeded the idea that TV could help boost his future career.
Backyard Envy — Photo: Greg Endries/Bravo
“We would do all the shopping and designing for these big projects under other designers,” he says. “I saw how much they actually did design, which is great [and] we would work collaboratively. But they were able to get so much more easy notoriety from it. Design in New York is extremely competitive, [and] I knew that pushing towards our own series would help because it just gets your name out there times a million. And I watched our old bosses have that same thing happen to them. I thought, ‘This is totally doable. They’re just like me. Similar backgrounds. We act the same. We’re all funny and interesting people and creative. And if this person can have a TV show, I don’t know why I can’t.'”
For her part, Brasier never expected or wanted to move into the spotlight. “It was really odd for me to go from working in an art department behind the camera to actually being in front of the camera,” she says. “Anyone who knows me would say I’m the least likely person to have their own show, just based on I’m a naturally shy person. So it was a little bit of a stretch for me.” In the end, it was a stretch very much worth taking. “Having a TV show and having this platform and exposure has just done wonders for where we’re at with our business. So there’s definitely a huge upside to having this show and kind of getting over myself in that shy way.” Beyond the boon to business, she also appreciates the personal sense of nostalgia that the show should generate in her future. “I’m filming with two of my best friends, and my younger daughter, she’s also on the show every so often. And so I’m looking at it more as this time capsule memory that I get to have that is very unique and special.”
Likewise, Magee has struggled a bit with the challenges of being a TV personality, something that “was never really anything that I was seeking.” Although he says it took time to adjust to the cameras, Magee has shown himself to be a natural, as ready to show off his horticulture know-how as his ripped physique. He clearly relishes the attention he generates, as viewers frequently inquire about the form-flattering tight shorts he wears. “That is probably my number one most asked question on Instagram,” Magee says. “You know what? They’re just J Crew. I think I bought 12 pairs of them, because they’re great. They’re really stretchy and are perfect for gardening.”
All told, all three Manscapers hope that Backyard Envy gets picked up for a third season. Any such decision isn’t expected from Bravo until after the second season finale airs, according to DeSantis. Even if the show doesn’t go on, the company will. In addition to the expansion to California and the forthcoming book, Manscapers is focused on growing in other unexpected directions.
“We’re in the development stage right now of our first retail store [with a focus] on plants,” Brasier says. “We’ve been wanting to do this for a really long time. [It] just became more and more apparent that this is something that we can help people do and we can enter that market.”
“If there was a business that could be successful at the moment, it would be plants,” Magee says. “People are at home more and I feel like everyone has room for an extra plant in their home.” Adding greenery to even the smallest of spaces, “makes everyone feel happier and it cleans the air. It makes your space feel fresh.” Provided, of course, that you resist the urge to overwater. “That’s the number one way you kill indoor plants,” says Magee.
Also up their sleeve: The development of a Manscapers product line. “That’s something that we’re going to try to work with a big box retailer on and sort of license it out,” DeSantis says, calling the move one that would help further position them as “the approachable face to landscaping. There are really famous landscapers like Miranda Brooks and Piet Oudolf, but they’re very, very, very high-end art landscapers, where their clients are Anna Wintour and these big estates in Connecticut and the Hamptons. While we love their work and we try to emulate it and we really work for that, it’s not our brand. Our brand is much more approachable. And I hope that’s the future that we continue to develop.”
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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @ruleonwriting.
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