Paige Davis: 'Trading' Up

MERIDIAN, Idaho (KBOI) - She walks into the RC Willey store sporting her signature pixie haircut, but with stylish streaks of royal blue and aquamarine. And that sort of sums up Paige Davis: demure but with a devil-may-care attitude.

On this day, Davis, of "Trading Spaces" fame, is in the Treasure Valley to meet fans ahead of her brief stint at the Morrison Center in the road company of the musical "Chicago." She joined the production for the month of September and earned glowing notices in cities like Portland, Eugene and Boise.

But TV viewers, at least in the Boise area, know her for the nearly non-stop commercials for the RC Willey Company. She says the pairing was a no-brainer.

"With people identifying me with (a) program that focuses on doing things on a budget and in a timeframe, "she says, "I think RC Willey thought it would be a perfect fit to represent them."

But then, almost slyly, she looks around and admits she has no interest in home improvement, but does love home decorating.

Living in a Manhattan apartment has its drawbacks, but Davis says she nevertheless is drawn to making things pretty. So the hosting job on "Trading Spaces" was like a deal with the devil. The exposure was a godsend, but the pulling up of carpet and the tearing down of wallpaper, she says with an eye-roll, was drudgery on a massive scale.

"That part of it wasn't so easy. And because the rooms had to be done in two days, most of the time we were up through the whole night."

She admits that in a tone that mirrors the memory of sheer exhaustion.

The "Trading Spaces" premise was fairly simple: find two friendly families and goad them into re-working a room in each other's homes.

"Thousands and thousands of people would apply, " she offers, "and by the time I met them, they had been through the screening process, and they're probably really fun people and a little touched in the head."

The makeovers were handled by a team of designers with points of view that ran the gamut from elegantly simple to wretchedly bizarre. But with a budget of only $1000 to cover both rooms, corners had to be cut and some of the best design elements discarded at the last minute.

Sometimes, Davis had to be the one to broach the delicate subject of returning things like paint or wallpaper because the project budget had ballooned out of all proportion.

"Luckily for me," says Davis, "as the host, I was never responsible for coming up with ideas or even shopping for those things. That responsibility lay on the designers' shoulders."

The lightning rod for ridicule was decorator Hildy Santo-Tomas, for her out-there aesthetic and design choices that often proved too bold or crazy for homeowners.

"The ironic thing about Hildy," Davis points out, "is that she was kinda known as the witch of the show. The ironic thing is that she was actually, of everyone in the cast and on the crew, the kindest, most generous, thoughtful, maternal, gracious person."

But Santo-Tomas usually didn't earn much love for her on-the-spot inspiration. Case in point: a room where she inexplicably glued straw to the walls. The episode is the one most longtime viewers rate as their "Best of the Worst."

Davis says Santo-Tomas was fiercely proud of her ideas, despite the frequent criticism.

"She believed in kind of blowing out the norm and so, yeah, I guess some home-owners' rooms got sacrificed."

Davis then lets out a huge laugh that echoes throughout the RC Willey showroom. She catches herself and then laughs again.

"I should never say that!"

But she's more gleeful than embarrassed.

"Trading Spaces" proved to be the career boost that anyone in television dreams of. She says it literally changed her life.

"People knew who I was," she admits, suddenly serious. "If I wanted a meeting or an audition, I could get it."

Her celebrity helped her gain crucial footing, if not more confidence, as a singer and dancer. It always had been part of her DNA, but was something she had to shoe-horn into a busy career as a host and commercial pitch-woman.

But that all changed this summer when she joined the road company of "Chicago" as Roxie Hart, the role made famous by Renee Zellweger in the Oscar-winning movie version of the Broadway hit.

Hart is the seemingly timid housewife who gains notoriety after shooting her extra-marital lover. For a woman used to projecting an image of corn-fed Middle American innocence, Davis found the Hart character a fascinating challenge.

"I just try to get into the mindset of being hurt enough, mad enough and selfish enough. It's my job to tap into, as deeply as I possibly can, qualities that aren't always necessarily on the surface for me."

Davis suddenly becomes reflective and thoughtful.

"Before I did 'Trading Spaces,' I was never comfortable on camera."

It's a fairly startling admission coming from someone who makes being on TV look so effortless. But the show proved both freeing and, in the end, validating.

"It literally changed everything in my life--on the outside and on the inside."

And then she smiles her trademark Paige Davis smile, with her face lighting up like Broadway on opening night.