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.”
Fears that plague me about a surprise home makeover—what if the surprised person doesn’t want their home changed? will someone like the aesthetic choices? what if you accidentally toss a person’s treasure?—were also on Sarahi’s mind. Luckily, she was able to combat most of this by dropping subtle hints in the months leading up to the renovation. “I was like, ‘Would you ever like something like this?’ or things like, ‘What do you think of this color?’” she explains. The strategy paid off, and when her mom came back to the remade home, she cried tears of joy.
KC Cibran, a content creator based in Brooklyn, used a similar technique—although arguably even more conservatively. “She knew the gist of what would be happening, but she didn’t know what it would look like until she came home,” KC says of the makeover she surprised her roommate, Marcella Jimenez, with. The pair sat down to plan certain elements of the transformation together before Marcella, who is a teacher, left on a spring break trip. “We had a vision board,” Marcella adds. “And I set a threshold of the max amount that I would want her to put on my credit card.” In a video of the reveal, Marcella gleefully screams at the sight of her made-over space.
It’s worth noting that in both of these cases, there’s a certain threshold of “before” that makes the transformations possible. Sarahi’s mom’s home was a fixer-upper and Marcella admits that her room heavily favored function over form before KC stepped in. For Hira Mustafa, a content creator and law student who also surprised her mom with a bedroom makeover, this condition eased any doubts about an undertaking like this. “I was really confident that she would like what I was putting together,” Hira says. “It was just such an upgrade from what she had before that even if it wasn’t perfect, it was a change in a positive direction.”
For her, the biggest benefit of a surprise home makeover isn’t just in the remade space, but removing decision fatigue or psychological stress from the person you’re surprising. “It was really freeing for her to come back and so much of that emotional work that she would’ve had to do was done,” Hira says, adding that, at times, her mom has had a hard time letting go of things she no longer needs. Sarahi agrees. “The biggest thing for [my mom] was that she didn’t have to think about it, and it was just this brand new space where there wasn’t clutter or any stress,” she says.
This, of course, proves another important point: The surprises aren’t just surprises but acts of love. “This was a really specific gift that I wanted to give my mom, and I wouldn’t have that same energy, love, or care for someone else,” Hira says. KC and Sarahi shared similar sentiments: They undertook these projects not because they’re fun and exciting—although that is true—but because they were for people they care for deeply.
“I perpetually have struggled with how to design a space,” Marcella adds. “I can understand aesthetically what looks good or what I’m into, but actually being able to create it and generate it for myself has always been really hard.” In some ways, the surprise room design might not have been just a way, but the way for Marcella to get the space she always wanted—and she couldn’t have manifested that without KC. “As humans, we all want to live in a space that we feel comfortable in, so if I’m able to help give that to someone else, that’s the reward in itself,” KC says.
Everyone who spoke to me agreed that the payoff was worth the process, and those who were surprised have been living happily in their new spaces without having to change anything back. “KC is all about creating spaces that bring you joy, and she was really able to channel that in my space,” Marcella says. In these stories it’s easier to understand that, when there’s a genuine need for transformation and the project is done with love, an unexpected renovation is not just welcome but, at times, warranted. In some ways maybe I’ll always be a bit afraid of the sensationalized trope, but when it comes to the truth of surprise home makeovers, I’m sold.
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest