The stars are out in Summerville! Meet the Benko family, coming next spring to the new Magnolia Network series: Happy To Be Home With The Benkos.
Summerville is a quiet town, so six months of filming a series soon to be the newest addition to Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network went largely under the radar. The pronouncement in Variety described Happy to be Home With the Benkos as a six-episode, hour-long series filmed in the Lowcountry. The news hit the town like a meteor. It introduced Summerville’s newest stars, Gray and Mike Benko, reading, “Designer Gray Benko brings color and happiness to historic homes in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Her whimsical vision is brought to life with the help of her thoughtful, craftsman husband, Mike, and eccentric contractor father, Grumpy.”
Best known as a world-class photographer, it seems as though everything Gray Benko touches these days turns to living color—from funny faces to historical places. But step back in time to 2008. Gray Benko was not completely sold on Summerville when she and her husband, Mike, moved to a new development across the Ashley River. “I wanted to live in Mt. Pleasant,” she admits. “I had friends in Mt. Pleasant, and it seemed like the place that would fit our lifestyle.” The realization that Mt. Pleasant prices for comparable houses were far higher made Summerville the most sensible alternative. The newly constructed house had everything they wanted, and they called it home for six years.
“Gray was miserable,” says Mike. “She’s always had this passion for older homes. There is just something in her brain that draws her. She wants to fix things and leave her mark on them.” He remembers her talking him into buying their first historic home off Richardson Avenue in 2014. They fell in love with historic downtown Summerville. In the five years they lived there, the Benkos extensively renovated the house, even adding a second story. Mike shakes his head at the memory. “As soon as we bought it, the roof caved in.” He was not interested when Gray came across another historic home’s listing on the internet. After all, they already had their historic house in town. Mike recalls Gray’s invitation to look at the home “just for fun.” Every husband knows “just for fun” is code for “this is happening.”
The stately white house that has stood since 1815 had weathered storms and an earthquake that shook it to its foundation. Most recently, its owners, Jonathan and Susan Lee, had raised their family here. With their children grown, they were ready to return to their hometown of Hartsville. Gray fell in love immediately. When they discovered the Lees were related to Gray’s family, and ironically, she had almost been named for Jonathan’s mother, it seemed evident that this was where the Benkos were meant to be.
“I am not going to participate in this one,” Mike told her. Having just completed their last renovation, Mike was adamant. “It’s too much. I’m out of it.” He laughs when he recalls, “The next day, I came home, and there was a For Sale sign in our front yard.”
As if things weren’t crazy enough, around the same time, Gray and daughter Farris embarked on an Instagram project, #FarrisDoesFaces. With her creative flair, Farris, long fascinated with fun and funky make-up, began painting faces of family and friends. Gray photographed and posted the results. The account caught fire, and soon Farris was making up and interviewing inspirational women, celebrating what made these women successful. Actresses, astronauts, singers and drag queens, entrepreneurs, and athletes all signed on to be part of the concept. In 2019, the Today show came calling, and Farris’s creations and interviews celebrating female empowerment caught the attention of producers, who proposed creating a series. Then Covid hit. The two adapted to the pandemic by switching from face-to-face interaction to Zoom interviews. Though there was plenty of network interest, the timing just wasn’t right.
Meanwhile, work on the Benkos new home renovation project moved forward. Gray injected the house with the whirlwind of color and energy that lit up her Instagram posts. At the same time, Mike hammered it up with his woodworking craftsmanship and creativity. Her unique design style was noticed. When a follower’s producer-husband asked if the couple might consider a home renovation show, a chain reaction that changed their lives was set off.
Some things happen by coincidence, and then there is destiny. Gray reached out to Ashley Allen, her best friend from college, who happened to be a producer on The Bachelor and America’s Got Talent. Ashley loved the concept and wanted to help make it happen. In a twist of timing that could only have been providence, Magnolia Network, the brainchild of media darlings Chip and Joanna Gaines, sent out feelers for home design and renovation projects. The Benkos still marvel at how quickly things started moving.
“Just like that, it happened,” Gray remembers. “It all seems like a blur. We had two weeks to find six homeowners in Summerville, willing and ready to undergo restoration projects in their historic homes.” Gray recruited her friend, Summerville native, Chelcie Eastman, to help identify and enlist prospects. In addition to the Benkos, the cast of characters includes Gray’s dad, Joe Highsmith, a long-time high-end contractor in Hilton Head. His self-appointed nickname is Grumpy. “He and Gray are polar opposites,” says Mike. He’s very black and white, and everything about Gray is color.” The banter between the two makes the show’s authenticity undoubtedly. “He hates my kitchen,” Gray says of their home’s dark blue cabinets and ceiling. She laughs, remembering his reaction. “Why on earth would you paint the ceiling blue?”
Before they knew it, it was lights, cameras, and action at the Benko home. “We truly hit the ground running,” Gray recalls. “They (the production company) sent a crew to the house and said, “We start filming on Saturday. It was wild!” Three months and six houses later, they called a wrap on Season One.
“There is so much character in historic homes, says Gray. “So much heart and soul.” Mike echoes her sentiment. “You know, there are only so many out there. You can’t build an old home.” The Benkos shared passion for their historic home made them naturals for this exciting endeavor, and Summerville could not be happier to share the spotlight with the dynamic pair. As they say in TV land, stay tuned for more! You’ll find it on the Magnolia Network next spring. AM
The Benkos would like to thank Ashley Allen, Ryan Ross, Chelcie Eastman, Bobby McCullough, Justin Allen, Tracy and Russ Norton, Allen Mitchum, and Mary Highsmith.