Jul 17, 2023

How HGTV’s ‘Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge’ Became a Neighborhood Nightmare

In recent weeks, prospective home buyers have pored over the listing for a spacious five-bedroom home in Santa Clarita, California, a suburb northwest of Los Angeles. The house has much to offer, beginning with its location on a quiet, sloping cul-de-sac in a well-to-do neighborhood just down the road from the local country club. A sweeping black staircase welcomes visitors, who can take in the sunny home office, the three-car garage, and the airy primary suite.

Yet for all the home’s nods to sleek and crowd-pleasingly neutral style—pale hardwood floors, mid-century modern fixtures, a palette composed almost entirely of black and white—here and there lurk flashes of quirk. In the kitchen, retro appliances await beside a long kitchen island with hidden compartments that rise with the press of a button; out back, a waterslide into the pool is reachable by a pink spiral staircase. Then there is the listing itself. “Featured on national TV!!” it reads, without offering specifics. “This incredible Sand Canyon home has been turned into a literal dream house by 16 celebrity designers!”

Just months ago, neutral colors were hard to find in the house. If anything, the pink stairs by the pool had seemed understated, rising as they did from magenta turf to a similarly hued slide, now solid gray. The fashionable dark-green kitchen cabinets currently on display were instead a rosy blush. That staircase in the foyer, the one all but designed to make new arrivals think of prom photos and holiday decorations, had been fluorescent pink with a neon-yellow banister. In the front yard, where realtors escort clients down a path lined with flowers, there had been a trio of supersized pink flamingos, a fuchsia fountain, and a matching front door. Upon the house’s roof perched a 900-pound pink handle crowned with a looping B.

Indeed, this is what many who’ve sought out the house expect: the real-life Barbie Dreamhouse, designed by teams of HGTV personalities for Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge, whose finale aired Sunday.

Deep into the summer of Barbie, you could be forgiven for feeling a little overwhelmed. There’s the movie Barbie, the box office Goliath that has passed $1 billion in global earnings, introduced inescapable memes and earworms, and heralded a rosé wave of brand collaborations.

Then there’s Barbie moving onto your block. Perhaps you signed up for two hours of Barbie at your local movie theater. But for the residents of Michael Crest Drive, a sudden and unexpected outpost emerged this year—one that lingered far longer than the movie’s running time. To hear those on Barbie’s block tell it, the experience of living next to the real-life Barbie house featured on HGTV’s Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge wasn’t exactly a dream.

“It was just a huge nightmare,” says one neighborhood resident. “Nobody was happy that this was going to happen on our street.”

In 1997, hopes in Santa Clarita’s Sand Canyon neighborhood were high. On Michael Crest Drive, 14 houses were being laid out in a new subdivision, and soon-to-be homeowners gathered to watch as their homes were built from the ground up.

“It was all families,” says Nancy Radomski, who purchased one halfway down the block. “We would meet at the corner where they had all the models built every weekend to see what was going on with our houses.”

Radomski was pregnant at the time, as was another new neighbor, and the two swapped tales as their bellies and houses grew. “Everybody who moved to the neighborhood pretty much had kids,” says Radomski, who would eventually raise three boys in her house. “So our kids all grew up together and played baseball together and all that fun stuff.”

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Last summer, after 25 years on the block and with her sons now grown and out on their own, Radomski decided to downsize. Santa Clarita had expanded in the years since she and her family first moved in, but much about life on Michael Crest hadn’t changed: Many of the families who first arrived in the ’90s were still there, and it remains such a sleepy hamlet that there aren’t even streetlights. The neighborhood is among the city’s most exclusive; when homes on the block sell, they can go for double Santa Clarita’s average home price of $760,000. When creating the listing for her own (a copy of which remains online), Radomski says she declined to even offer an open house, lest visitors crowd the narrow street.

So it was that late last year, two men appeared for a tour scheduled by Radomski’s realtor. The visit stood out, Radomski says, because they didn’t seem to be a couple. And there was another sign that something strange was afoot: “They kept on whispering, which I thought was a little odd,” she says. The pair arranged a second visit, when they shocked Radomski by arriving with what she calls “a caravan”: multiple vans full of people armed with notebooks and cameras and numbering perhaps 15 strong.

She left the house during their visit, walking her dog up and down the block to pass the time. When the tour dragged on, she called a neighbor across the street and asked whether she could wait in their backyard, where she could see the group at her house repeatedly opening and closing the garage door. “I could hear them saying, ‘We’re gonna pull this out this way, and we’re gonna get rid of this front and we’re gonna—’ and I was just like, What the heck is going on?”


Still, when an offer appeared and Radomski’s counter of $1.75 million was accepted in November, things moved forward. At the final walk-through, a large group again descended on the house, this time asking for the most minute details. Offering guidance on the air-conditioning’s drainage line, Radomski led one member of the group to a Jack-and-Jill bathroom, where a cluster of the others had gathered nearby. “I heard them talking: ‘Here’s where we’ll keep all the talent, in this room. And here’s where we’re going to—.’ And then as soon as I walked in the room, they all went, ‘Shh-shh-shh-shh-shh!’ I was like, ‘Holy crap. Like, what is going on?’” she says. “They thought I was stupid.”

The deal formally closed at the beginning of January. It wasn’t until the final paperwork came through that Radomski says she looked up the names of the two men who had bought the house, Dwight D. Smith and Michael Agbabian, and discovered that they are copresidents of a Southern California production company called Mission Control Media.

Radomski was packing her final boxes in her garage when she received two farewell visits from friends on the block. First came a neighbor who had also recently listed his own home for sale and said the same group that toured Radomski’s house had visited his as well. But they didn’t put in an offer. “They asked if they could rent his house,” Radomski says. “And he says, ‘I told them yes, because I can’t sell it.’”

The next visitor had a more concerning update to share. “Then my next-door neighbor comes flying over and she goes, ‘Do you know what they’re doing here?’” Radomski says that neighbor had looked up the permit, and there it was: Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge.

Radomski was shocked. But the sale was final at that point; there was nothing she could do. “I was sick to my stomach,” she says.

“‘They’re asking if they can rent some of our yard,’” Radomski remembers the neighbor saying. “‘We told them, ‘Go to hell!’”

The Santa Clarita home wasn’t the only Barbie house to emerge amid this summer’s Barbie fervor. Another surfaced in Malibu alongside an Airbnb giveaway pegged to Barbie’s release, itself a redux of a slightly less vibrant 2019 offering at the same property. That house, though, is hidden by foliage and a long driveway from Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu’s less developed western end.

The Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge home, on the other hand, sits smack-dab in the middle of suburbia. The series premiere showed host Ashley Graham winding through Santa Clarita in a light-pink Corvette, passing look-alike subdivisions before finding her target: Radomski’s two-story tan house with white trim, a well-kept lawn, and a white picket fence.

Mission Control primarily produces unscripted competition shows; its biggest hits in recent years include Hollywood Game Night with Jane Lynch and Face Off. Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge represented the company’s first series for HGTV, for which the program served as a clever bit of corporate synergy: Barbie, the movie, was distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, which, like HGTV, is owned by Warner Bros. Discovery. The show would feature the stars of some of HGTV’s most popular programs, including Flip or Flop and Property Virgins, competing to re-create elements from specific decades of Barbie Dreamhouse dollhouses, with the winning team to be crowned victorious by Margot Robbie, a.k.a. Barbie of Barbie.

“Home reno is a very different type of television production—it’s just a different beast,” says Mission Control’s Smith, who also served as Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge’s executive producer. “There was a lot for us to learn.”

Within weeks of Smith and Agbabian’s purchase, representatives from Mission Control went door-to-door down the street, greeting neighbors and informing them that a production crew was about to arrive. “Nobody was happy,” says one neighborhood resident, who requested anonymity to discuss a situation that became fraught. “It’s a very small, quiet neighborhood where people really value their privacy.” Another neighbor declined to speak because they had signed an NDA.

Benjamin Helquist says his initial response to the news that the project was coming was “annoyance”; he and his wife, both lawyers, moved to Michael Crest with their young children in 2021 in large part for the street’s calm environment. Curious, and unfamiliar with this particular corner of the law, he looked up what sort of recourse he and his neighbors might have, only to learn that legally there’s not much that can be done in California.

“There’s definitely a push, particularly in Santa Clarita, to give a lot of latitude to production companies to further the filming industry in the city,” Helquist says. “You have protections from your own house being filmed or your person being filmed. But as long as they’re focusing their cameras on the house that they purchased, then that’s permitted, by and large.”

Before construction began, Mission Control, which handled the production’s day-to-day operations, invited neighbors to a town hall at Radomski’s former home. About 30 turned up, Helquist says, asking whether they would be paid (no) and whether the construction crews would be sure to point their wheels into the curb as a precaution against the road’s slope (yes). One neighbor asked whether he could have the gutted house’s kitchen cabinetry.

At the time, no one at Mission Control would say what the show was going to be: The series wouldn’t be publicly announced until months later, by which point production had nearly finished. But between the unearthed permit and the national media coverage of the December death of Stephen “tWitch” Boss, which mentioned that Boss had been slated to host Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge with his wife at a house in Santa Clarita, word had spread on Michael Crest Drive.

Helquist says he asked a producer whether that was the plan; the producer “got a look on his face” in response. The future, it seemed, would be pink.

Work on the house began early this year, with a projected timeline of three months. And while few neighbors anywhere would welcome the arrival of a major construction project on their street, the creation of a real-life Barbie house presented unusual challenges. Because this was a TV show as well as a renovation, construction crews were often joined by a phalanx of studio staff; on taping days, when the competing HGTV hosts were flown in to build out and show off their respective spaces, the street was closed to traffic, with a police squad car posted nearby. (As is typical on HGTV shows, the vast majority of the renovation work was completed by construction crews who were based at the house on a daily basis.)

Across the street, Mission Control did indeed rent a house that it used as office space. Out front, private security hired by the production company observed the home renovations 24 hours a day from a parked SUV in the name of preventing onlookers—or plain old dog walkers—from snapping photos.

“I offered him pizza once,” Helquist says of one of the security guards. “He didn’t take it.”

Even as production staff remained mum on the specifics of the show, the fact that it was Barbie related quickly became undeniable. Michael Crest Drive doesn’t have a homeowners association, so there were no guidelines limiting what could be done to the house; soon, even the mailbox was painted hot pink. And the renovation raised questions about property value. What would future buyers considering the neighborhood make of the house with turquoise trim and purple curtains billowing over the patio?

Even though she relocated to the East Coast, Radomski says her old friends in Sand Canyon kept calling her. “They had to stop doing stuff that was normal and natural for them,” she says. “My direct neighbor was mowing his lawn, and they told him he had to stop. He goes, ‘I mow my lawn on this day every week.’ And they told him, ‘Nope, not today you’re not.’”

As the work went on, multiple residents interviewed for this story described how tempers could flare. Nannies were blocked. Gardeners were canceled. A towering crane trundled down the hill, then left, then came back. One Michael Crest resident heard that a fellow neighbor would respond to the ongoing disruptions by regularly blasting music from a back patio in an attempt to interrupt taping.

Smith declined to discuss these incidents. “I’d rather not get into things about behind the scenes, any challenges or things like that,” he says.

In April, a swath of influencers was invited to the house in exchange for embargoed access and a pledge to promote the series when it aired. They descended en masse, swaddled in pink regalia. “I don’t know if this house belongs to anyone, but I could live in this house,” said one; another video featured an influencer sliding into the pool fully clothed.

David and I got to visit Barbie’s Dreamhouse thanks to @HGTV and their new design competition series #barbiedreamhousechallenge #barbie #barbiemovie #margotrobbie #vlog

The influencers’ messaging reinforced the stated emphasis of Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge: that the competition was creating a dream home—not for Barbie, exactly, so much as for the right kind of Barbie superfan. The eight teams of HGTV personalities were each assigned their own fan, who appeared in grainy videos beaming from pink bedrooms, armies of costumed blond dolls arrayed behind them. The winning design team—100 Day Dream Home’s Brian and Mika Kleinschmidt, the creators of the Barbie-fied backyard—won a prize not for themselves but for their appointed fan, who spent three nights in the house with friends and a production chaperone after the house’s completion.

“I can tell you it is very livable for the right person,” says Tiffany Brooks, a designer and HGTV host who served as one of the series’ judges. “I remember being, like, this is a livable house.”

But Santa Clarita’s Barbie Dreamhouse was never meant to be livable—in fact, it was never even meant to try. From the outset, the plan was to rid the house of its Barbie aesthetic as soon as the cameras switched off.

“We never intended to come into some neighborhood and put up some house that was garish and leave it,” Smith says. “That would have been, I think, sort of disrespectful to the people in this neighborhood. And I also think it’s not really a home that was intended for someone to live there in terms of the way it was done on the Barbie show.”

To that point, Helquist remembers Mission Control emphasizing a strange aspect of the production before construction began: While still vague on the details, they assured neighbors that what they were going to do to the house wouldn’t be for good, or even for very long. “The showrunner dude had indicated that it’s going to be weird at first,” Helquist says. “It’s going to be kind of crazy, but then they’re going to put it back to normal.”

True to their word, about two months after the Barbie Dreamhouse was completed, crews returned to Michael Crest Drive to get rid of all that pink. Out went the miniature purple elevator in the living room—for pets, the designers insisted—and the light-up disco floor in what the show had dubbed the “Ken den.” Down came the roof handle, which Smith says was a composite of preexisting pieces; “the structure underneath it was all rental pieces that had been assembled” to take on the handle shape. They were broken up to be reused in the future. Painters swept through the house with buckets of black and white, neutralizing the pink mailbox, the pink patio, the pink staircase.

On the day that Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge premiered last month, a home hit the Santa Clarita market: The former Dreamhouse is now listed for $2,049,995, $300,000 more than it sold for in January.

Asked where the potential windfall would end up, Smith told The Ringer, “There is a, I would say, third-party investor company that purchased the house, and it was purchased as an investment.”

Public records indicate that the home changed hands in April, from Mission Control Media copresidents Dwight Smith and Michael Agbabian to Dwichael Industries LLC, a company associated with Smith and Agbabian and an apparent play on their first names. Asked whether the third-party investor company was Dwichael Industries, Smith said yes, and confirmed that meant that the money would go to Smith and Agbabian.

But the Barbie Dreamhouse isn’t completely gone. “We continue to have people driving by and taking pictures,” says one neighbor. “Multiple times a day.” The visits by curious tourists—would-be Barbie pilgrims destined for failure in their search for a life-size dollhouse—are unlikely to stop anytime soon: Recently, the home was labeled on Google Maps as the “HGTV Barbie Dream House,” a demarcation that is likely to last longer than its pink facade did.

Indeed, houses made famous on HGTV often have a long tail. The home whose exterior was used as the Brady family abode on The Brady Bunch recently hit the market, nearly four years after it was renovated on HGTV’s A Very Brady Renovation to resemble the Brady house’s 1970s interior, which had previously existed only on a soundstage. Its listing cautions that security guards are on-site around the clock and pleads, “Please respect the neighbors.”

Radomski’s sons were initially sad that she sold the house—and that it was to be remade à la Barbie. “Now seeing the house back up for sale, they say that’s not our house anymore,” Radomski says. “My youngest one said this: ‘Nobody will ever see the color of the walls how we saw the colors. Nobody will ever see how these lights were that they tore down. Nobody will ever see why we had this, this, and this.’” Their house is still their own.

Still, Radomski can’t help but chuckle at the latest renovation’s efforts to cover up the pink, which might yet have the last laugh. She thinks in particular about that grand staircase in the entryway, which was lightly stained wood in her time on Michael Crest before it became pink and, now, black. “My kids used to go from upstairs and put a grappling hook to have G.I. Joe go down the top banister, but it would always come back and hit the wall and chip the wall,” she says. “I was patching and patching.”

“So if a family does get in there and some kid does that, there you go, he’s gonna have pink paint. They’re going to say, ‘There’s Barbie!’”

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