Yards to ‘Envy’

By : Crystal Schelle OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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Above: The cast of ‘Backyard Envy.’ From left are James DeSantisMel Braiser and Garrett Magee. (Photo courtesy Bravo)

From small intimate New York backyards to sprawling hills In the suburbs to transforming a Manhattan parking lot into a tropical oasis — complete with live palms — the trio from Manscapers New York have tackled almost every space imaginable.

James DeSantis, one-third of the exterior and interior design team, hopes that those who tune in to watch the three friends get their hands dirty in Bravo’s “Backyard Envy” can take away some helpful gardening tips, but also see three best friends. Check local listing for air times.

Manscapers NY got its start when DeSantis was living with his best friend Melissa “Mel” Braiser in New York. The two had met while attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and were both pursuing careers in interior design. They were also known to throw some good parties for Garrett Magee, their best friend who had an extensive landscaping background. And it was transforming Braiser and DeSantis’ small backyard into an outdoor living space that was the talk of the party more than the drinks.

DeSantis said they would hear remarks from “fabulous people” about their designs. Then those people started asking them to redesign their backyards.

“One of our first clients was in fashion. Most of our first clients came from that world of design and fashion because those were the people that we know,” DeSantis says. “They let you have a little more of creative freedom and are more understanding of the creative process and trial and error. We really are not trained landscape designers. We consider ourselves exterior designers. I think that’s what makes us different. Because we had practiced interior design for so long, we just translated all of those things and all the elements and principals of good design as well, and we took them to the outside.”

By that time they had had successful careers in their own right: DeSantis worked for Ralph Lauren, Braiser worked for elite clients in construction and design and Magee was a respected landscape designer. But as more jobs came in, the friends decided that maybe they had found something that allowed them to work together. That’s when they founded the Williamsburg, Brooklyn-based Manscapers New York.

Transforming outdoor spaces in a four-season climate where backyards are notoriously tiny has had its challenges, DeSantis says

“Number one, New York City is a very small space-driven design palette. There are those constraints and then the actual constraints of the weather here,” he says.

That means understanding the type of plants that can survive a brutal New York winter, but still give their clients some greenery during those cold months.

“There’s definitely a learning curve there. Garrett is really our plant expert, which that’s what helps our relationship. We all are experts in this sort of exterior design and we all do know a lot about design and we all do know a lot about plants, but also let each other shine on certain issues,” he says. “Like I have no problem deferring to Garrett and saying, ‘Hey, what plant is good for this shady backyard?’ or asking Mel, ‘What type of stone is going to look great with this oak tree but isn’t going to stain?’ I do my business and clients relations and design stuff. We pick up each other. … That’s what’s kind of amazing of three people running a business.”

At the core of the show, and their real life, is their friendship. And although some might say getting in business with friends is a bad idea, DeSantis says for them it’s never been an issue.

“I don’t think it hinders us, because we do know how to approach each other. We’ve known each other for so long and so well that we know when someone’s buttons are being pushed, so we know when to back off, too. Some of us — I’m not going to mention any names — have a hard time shutting off business sometimes, remembering that when we’re not working we’re still friends. Sometimes we have to say, ‘OK today’s not a work day, today’s a friend day.’ And that’s trial and error, too.”

Their friendship existed before their business and subsequent show and DeSantis says it always will continue long after the show.

“I don’t think these two people are ever going to be anyone I cannot see in my life or that it’s ever going sour,” he says. “You know that when you work with people. We have supported each other through everything. Once you’re friends and you also share a bank account, it could change things, luckily for us it’s always been very positive.”

In this season of “Backyard Envy,” DeSantis’ father, David, a well-respected metal works artist, makes an appearance on the show. He builds a special light for a wedding arch for one of Manscapers’ clients.

“It was amazing. I’ve worked with my dad on and off for 12 years, since I’ve been in design,” he says.

DeSantis says his father has always been his go-to person when he needs anything in metal.

“When I used to work for Ralph Lauren, he would build a lot of custom furniture for us, and he still has Ralph Lauren as one of his clients still today,” he says. “It’s been great. We just did this huge event last week for the New York Botanical Garden as contributing designers this year, and we did a big installation and my dad built a bunch of furniture for us, which all got purchased, which was great.”

DeSantis, who’s openly gay, says it never crossed his mind to worry about exposing his private life on TV. Mostly because of reality shows like the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and the rebooted “Queer Eye” allowed he and his castmates to be who they are on and off the screen.

“I actually thought of it always as a selling point,” he says. “In my mind it was just two fabulous gay men and a beautiful woman in New York who have an interesting relationship.”

That means all types of audiences will find something in the show.

“I think we have something for everyone. Garrett has that ‘70s porn star look, and I’m like a funny bear and Mel’s an amazing-looking contractor and she’s straight, appeals to everyone. To me, it was like, ‘Oh we’re checking all the boxes,”’ he says.

It also helped, he says, that they were going to be aired on Bravo, which has always been known as an LGBTQ-friendly network.

“I wanted ours to be a LGBT TV show because that’s how we consider our business,” he says. “We started catering to gay men in Chelsea. We have hot guys who wear tank tops (called the Mannies) to work who dig your bushes and plant your holes. Our entire staff is gay, actually like 95 percent are gay. Not because for any reason, it’s just that those are the people that we know and who works for us.”

They also had the support of their producers World of Wonder. The production company produces other LGBTQ-friendly shows such as “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

“We knew we were in the right hands, if we were going to have a show with two main characters who were gay it would be with World of Wonder,” he says.

With their newfound celebrity, DeSantis says it has encouraged them to give back even more to the LGBTQ community and using their new status to help.

“I think anytime you become a public figure or a person in media and you have attention on you, you have to step up a little bit,” he says.

One of their newest projects is working with the South Hamptons estate of the late LGBTQ activist Edie Windsor. Many fundraisers that benefited the LGBTQ causes were held on her estate and with the new project, Manscapers NY are hoping to give it new life as the fundraising continues. DeSantis says they expect to feature the project next season. On April 25, they also are doing a charity event for Housing Works for AIDS research.

All three give back as much as they can to the community as much as they can.

“Mel’s straight but she’s a huge supporter, she gives up a lot of money and her time because everyone in her life is gay except her husband,” he says with a laugh.

Sure, DeSantis says they want people to watch their show for great design tips, but he also wants viewers to see stereotypes broken.

“My goal always for this show was to show reversified gender roles on the way we do things. Mel is such an amazing strong character as a woman who does building and constructing projects. She really does. It’s not bullshit, it’s not just for TV, that’s always been her role in her company,” he says.

And in the media where gay men are portrayed as either flamboyant or drag queens, DeSantis says he and Garrett show that gay men come in all types.

“It just demystifies for some people in Middle America that a gay guy can pick up a hammer or dig holes or do work with their hands,” he says. “We’re not all just hairdressers and fashion stylists. … I hope it can show people we’re not all the same.”

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