A new TV series puts the spotlight on a colorful Hilton Head native and her ‘grumpy’ co-star.
Happy to be home
Story by Barry Kaufman + Photos provided by Magnolia Network
Sometimes you just need a little color in your life, especially if you are one of the millions of Americans who binge-watch any of the legion of DIY/renovation/house flipping shows out there. You know the ones, where they start out with a home that might be a little dated, then simply put up some shiplap, coat everything in some variation of white and gray and call it a day.
If your rods and cones are seeking a little more saturation, we’ve got just the show for you.
“I’m just drawn to bright, happy colors,” said Gray Benko, co-host with her husband, Mike, of Magnolia Network’s new show, “Happy to Be Home With the Benkos.” “There’s a lot of white everywhere, and it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.”
Available to stream on Magnolia Network, as well as Discovery+ and HBO Max, the show follows the Benkos as they renovate historic homes around the Lowcountry. With each of them the driving force behind each fresh look is the fearless use of color that Gray has made her signature. Both in her photography and in her own historic home in Summerville, hers is a palette freed from the monochromatic world of modern design. It makes it only fitting that color is what helped her find her way to television in the first place.
“It was such a weird path that got us here,” she said. “I was working on a project with my daughter called Farris Does Faces. Ever since she was a kid, she’s been putting makeup on everyone. Friends, family. It’s a whole vibe.”
That project proved so popular, it landed Gray and Farris on The Today Show, where producers quickly saw an opportunity after scrolling through Gray’s Instagram. “They said, ‘We love your house, and your husband seems handy; would you ever do a home renovation show?’ I didn’t think anything would come of it, but here we are,” she said.
Fortunately Gray happened to know a powerhouse general contractor – her father, Joe Highsmith, of Highsmith Construction. A long-time local and renowned Lowcountry builder, Joe not only brought a wealth of experience to the show, but he also added the perfect family dynamic.
“We needed a contractor we could trust, so my dad was a natural fit,” she said. “I had to beg and plead a little, but I knew he would make a great character because he is a great character.”
Joe, credited on the show simply as “Grumpy,” is an entertainingly cantankerous addition to the crew, shooting down ideas with side-splitting brusqueness and keeping everyone on track with his outsized personality. Whether he’s going rogue by adding an entire powder room (with plans hand-drawn on an unfinished wall) or dispensing advice, Joe/Grumpy quickly emerges as a breakout star in the first episode.
“I’ve been working on this character for 72 years,” said Joe with a laugh. “A year ago I was fat, dumb and happy on Hilton Head, and the next thing I know I’m on a television show. But it’s been a fun experience, and it continues to be.”
The chemistry between the two of them adds to the appeal of the show, along with the usual sort of off-the-cuff moments that reality shows are known for. And while these candid moments are usually the result of off-camera producers, with the Benkos it’s clear that what you see is what you get.
When Gray and Mike show up at the job site in matching shirts, when Gray has to climb in through a window because Grumpy sealed up the only entrance to the house, that’s all them.
“Everything’s real,” said Gray. “And actually, there are lot of things that didn’t make the cut.”
But what did make the cut is a refreshingly colorful new approach in the pantheon of home renovation reality shows. For those who nerd out about paint swatches, it’s a brightly hued change of pace fueled by Gray’s fearless use of color and inspired eye for design. And for those who simply want some entertaining television, it’s an authentic slice of life from an endlessly engaging family.
“We’re working with a lot of talented people, and I feel very lucky,” said Gray. “I can’t wait to see the final result, but I feel like I might be watching it through my fingers. It’s weird to see yourself on television.”
“I actually feel really good about it,” added Joe, to which Gray replied, “You would.”
Meet the storytellers
Gray Benko, a photographer turned interior designer, has a keen eye for composition and a knack for transforming historic spaces using unexpected colors and patterns. She grew up on Hilton Head Island.
An artisan, woodworker, painter, power washer and occasional guitar player, Mike Benko is a tireless renaissance man. He has a genuine love for the history of old homes and goes above and beyond to put his own thoughtful spin on every project he and Gray pursue together.
Joe “Grumpy” Highsmith
Gray’s dad, Joe Highsmith (aka “Grumpy”), brings wit and expertise to every renovation. He uses his 40 years of construction experience to help bring Gray’s grand visions to life — while attempting to keep her feet on the ground. He is the owner of Highsmith Construction on Hilton Head Island.
Watch the show
Check out the hour-long, six-episode series, “Happy to Be Home with the Benkos,” on Magnolia Network, Discovery+ and HBO Max.