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TELEVISION & RADIO | Howard Rosenberg

Idol of designing women, men

March 17, 2003|Howard Rosenberg

Take "American Idol" and stuff it.

You can have "Survivor," "Friends," lovable Raymond and "The Sopranos," with or without James Gandolfini. I don't care if Larry King books Michael Jackson or Stonewall Jackson, if Bill Clinton argues on "60 Minutes" with Bob Dole or Bob Denver. I have my own American idol.

"I'm not an actor at all," he boasted. "Can I ask you, aren't I exactly the same person that I am in front of a camera?"

Meet Michael Payne of Home & Garden Television's "Designing for the Sexes." My favorite good-taste maven, my favorite program, my favorite escape from rumblings across the globe. And yes, he's the same in person as on TV: age 58. The lean body of a marathoner. Dressed nattily in earth tones. Warm, gracious, cheery, effusive, still a bit of Brit in the voice despite 33 years in the U.S.

"Welcome," he said. "I'm delighted," he said, "I'm truly thrilled," he said.

What was I doing inside his orderly, all-white office in the middle of the day when I should have been home watching Wolf Blitzer? The spacious workspace attached to the pink stucco house that Michael shares with his wife, Janice, and their cat, frog, two iguanas and pot-bellied pig named Hampstead? The richly landscaped house built in 1926 on a twisty street in Nichols Canyon with a view of Catalina on a clear day?

I'd come to meet the impresario of the TV show I never miss. A real hoot at 6 and 9 p.m. Thursdays. Description: "Host and interior designer Michael Payne helps couples work together as they tackle home and room renovation projects."

And yes, that includes Frank and Debbie clashing over how to redecorate their cockamamie family room. And also Don and Gloria, who had different visions for their living room. It was the old story. Don wanted retro, Gloria wanted classy. Don wanted bare windows, Gloria felt simple sheers would give the room a finished look. It was war.

Then up strolled Michael, a TV camera just happening to capture him ringing the doorbell and going inside. He listened, asked some questions, went home to make some sketches, and two shopping trips later, voila! Everyone was happy. They always are. Why? Because Michael, God bless him, is an animal.

Endorsing that is my sister-in-law, Frances, in Kansas City. She's the Michael zealot who sent along her own list of questions for him to answer. Her sister -- my wife and minder -- is no less fanatical. She joined me on this assignment at once to monitor my behavior and sit at the feet of the One She Most Adores. One nasty word from me about Michael, one sly smirk, even a hint of sarcasm, and my marriage to Carol would be history. Worse, she'd get the bird and cats.

As if she had to worry. I worship Michael too.

Flashback to earlier in the day: We were planning our outfits (you dress for the pope) and wondering aloud what Michael, a maestro of feelgood, would say if he dropped by our place to help us with our own design crises. Tasteful Martha Stewart would recoil. Showboating Christopher Lowell would faint.

But Michael, we agreed, would survey our tract tragedy with its popcorn ceilings and maze of crummy styles, spread his arms wide and say, "Howard and Carol, if I must say, this is [pause while he digs for the proper adjective] charming."

We decided we needed to re-do the place immediately.

Flash-forward back to the present and talk of Michael's show, which began in 1998. His new season starts in October with slight revisions that have one male and two female design assistant sharing camera time with Michael separately, prompting him to joke: "I'm calling it 'Designing for the Sexes' meets 'Charlie's Angels.' " His old shows have run for more than a year, Michael said, while he negotiated a new contract with HGTV.

"Michael and I don't watch the repeats," said Janice. We were in the kitchen where she was preparing to serve afternoon tea on a glass table in a dining room featuring that fabulous view. "But when a new one comes on, I'll look at [the design project] and say, 'Oh, my God!' But Michael will come in and tell them things like, 'Oh, what a big, bright room' or 'This is certainly ... interesting.' "

These are what Janice calls his "opening euphemisms."

My favorite program found Michael mediating a dispute over decorating a bedroom. "This is it," said the wife as they entered. "Yes," said Michael, gripped by rare euphemizers' block, "it certainly is."

Coincidentally, we happened to visit the Paynes when they were renovating their own house, living their own version of "Designing for the Sexes," and the fray wasn't pretty.

Janice brought us to the living room at the end of a long hall. It was certainly ... interesting. "He wants to paint it from yellow to orange to red, and I say no way," she said. "I'm more conservative."

Michael agreed to disagree. "What I'm going to do in the living room, I can describe to Janice, but she just doesn't see it."

This wouldn't be easy to resolve.

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