There’s an infamous episode of Trading Spaces, an early-2000s home-renovation show, where a contestant, Pam Herrick, is caught in a state of distress over the transformation of her living room. In the iconic series, a set of neighbors are tasked with redecorating a room in the other pair’s home, which, surprise surprise, doesn’t always turn out too well. As soon as the homeowner opens her eyes in the reveal scene, you know what’s coming—there’s the obvious anguish on her face as she nervously writhes her fingers. “She’s not happy, she’s really not happy,” her husband says as she respectfully excuses herself to another room. Then, seconds later, the sobs begin. The emotional reaction earned her an appropriate—albeit not overly creative—nickname: Crying Pam. If not for the fact that this happened in 2002, she likely would’ve been turned into a meme.
All laughter aside, I deeply resonate with Crying Pam. Though she was a willing participant on the TV show, I don’t know if there’s anything more terrifying than a surprise home makeover—at least in the world of design. The thought of coming home to my room completely changed, my things all gone, and my stuff rearranged in a way that I would never conceive is almost too much for my type A heart to handle. And while the trope makes for juicy TV (even in instances with joyful reveals), it feels like quintessential reality programming: something we pass off as genuine when everyone watching at home knows it would never actually happen.
And yet, surprise home makeovers for the plebeians like myself seem to have taken over with unusual fervor. Over the past year, videos of friends and families overhauling spaces for each other started popping up on my TikTok feed, and soon enough the YouTube algorithm had me clicking on longer-form versions of the admittedly indulgent content. The hashtag #SurpriseMakeover has been viewed over 8.6 million times on TikTok, and other tags like #SurpriseRoomMakeover or #SurpriseHomeMakeover have racked up hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. But when our homes are such physical extensions of our personhood, it seems impossible to design one without the input of the human who will be living there. So how are real people pulling it off?
“Surprising someone to this level is such a beautiful thing,” says Sarahi Mena, an events planner and founder of the Divine Plan who shocked her mom with a complete home makeover in 2020. “I could see my mom’s demeanor change emotionally because all these things were dragging her down, but I think a lot of people are reluctant [to do this] because of many valid concerns.”
In early 2020, Sarahi’s mom was planning a six-week trip to Honduras, her native country, and Sarahi took it as an opportunity to overhaul the fixer-upper home her mother had recently bought. “She’s a single mom, and she had four kids and did everything that she possibly could for us,” Sarahi says. “Now that I’m older and I have my business, I was thinking of ways I could do something and give back to her.”