Story by Tova Gelfond | Photography by Jimmy Johnston
This story will appear in the Spring 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.
Todd Chrisley (@toddchrisley) sits on his legs with the ease of a 6-year-old watching cartoons. We're sitting in the middle of one of his many living rooms, this one decorated with dozens of original dried-leaf prints from Coco Chanel’s apartment in Paris. I feel at home in his realm, though a third party would see us as stark opposites: him, with his finely manicured blonde coif, zip-up white sweater, shorts and bare feet; me, dressed in astute all black with overly pale skin and dark hair. Perhaps it’s a Southern thing to open your house with arms wide as he did for me, and I wonder if America will be able to pick up on those intangibles through the TV screen.
Julie (@JulieChrisley), his wife, is getting her hair done in the next room, so for now it’s just me and Todd — a man known for his ferocious use of discipline as much as his keen fashion sense. I’m not scared, but I’m alert. The goal is to connect with the real man — not the millionaire real estate mogul or TV personality, but rather the human and marketing genius behind the Chrisley brand. I also can’t afford to miss a Todd-ism — one of the many coined and vibrant phrases for which he's known. But I'm already thrown off-guard. There are punchy one-liners he’s tossing about, and he’s innovating new sayings at such a pace he might have his very own dictionary one day. But he is being authentic. His conversations are even revealing. By the time I notice the clock, there are tears rolling down my cheeks, and Todd’s eyes are watering up. Yes, we are, in fact, crying in the Chrisley house.
Say what you will about reality television. I have probably said the same. It’s staged. It’s trash. It’s a load of bull. There are acceptable guilty pleasures (“Top Chef,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”) and trashy wastes of airtime (“The New Atlanta,” “Bad Girls Club”), but the expectations don’t seem high to begin with. I’m wondering what type of show “Chrisley Knows Best” (@Chrisley_USA) will be seen as when I drive up to the gate of the 30,000 square-foot Georgia mansion that I've already become cozy with on USA network trailers.
Oh look, there is the pool where Todd threw his son's laptop. And how about the kitchen where he was fighting with his daughter? And even later I was bestowed with a peek of his drool-worthy closet where the magic happens. These dramatic moments are the stuff network executives dream about: follow around a brazen man and his feisty wife with their five precocious kids (and two grandkids) while they work on building their very own name-brand department store, and you’ve got a hit show. A hit worth fighting for.
It was a sizzler-turned-series situation that started a bidding war between the networks to snag the rights to this family’s drama. “Chrisley Knows Best” didn’t even have a pilot. Preliminary footage of the Chrisleys was so exciting, nine networks bid for the show — the biggest offer coming from the Oprah Winfrey Network. But in the end, Todd chose USA as the show’s launch- pad and home because, “It just has the most viewers of any network,” he says. “And they have never done a reality TV show before.”
“What you see on TV is real,” he assures me, and by the chaos I’ve already presided over, I would say it’s true. His daughter, Savannah, pops in and out of the kitchen to grab things; Julie has already doled out bags of McDonald’s treats and Styrofoam cups of sweet tea for breakfast; the housekeeper is screwing in lightbulbs above while the house manager takes a tally of what needs to get done. The other kids are out doing a charity drive at a local school, and I can’t imagine what it would be like should they arrive home soon. But in this way, the show hasn’t changed their lives. “We have a controlled chaos,” Todd explains. “No matter what your family looks like, it’s your family. This works for us.”
Just then, his granddaughter wobbles into the room, barely walking in pink-patterned jammies. Todd lights up, stops talking and immediately engages with the energetic infant, cooing, “Come to Papa!” He holds his hands out for her, and she smiles a wet, spattered smile and hobbles toward him. Todd is in the zone. He’s a dad at his very core. A family man.
Perhaps it’s this characteristic that sets the Chrisleys apart from their spring-lineup counterparts: the way in which they approach the standards of family together. Both parents want the best for their children, however, Todd rules with an iron fist and Julie with an open palm. The greatest part is, unlike most, they are not afraid to discipline their children in front of millions of Americans. It’s a bold move — one that comes at a cost of negative social media comments and aggressive digitally launched judgements — but one that exposes the challenges all parents face in this age. Later, Julie tells me, "It's hard as parents because, of course, you want to shield your children from the hard stuff. And being on the show certainly hasn't made it easier. As parents, we reassure our children what people say has nothing to do with who you are."
Todd agrees: “This has removed their blinders through life,” he says. “Overall, this show has given them a different perspective. We are still the same parents we always were, we just reinforce what we have already taught them.” Todd agrees: “This has removed their blinders through life,” he says. “Overall, this show has given them a different perspective. We are still the same parents we always were, we just reinforce what we have already taught them.”
Such lessons include how to dress like a lady, when to listen to your father (always) and family togetherness as the ultimate credo. For a man with serious Southern values, he’s pretty liberal. The colorful use of colloquialisms and tell-it-like-it-is no-nonsense is a Todd Chrisley calling card, while Julie is known for poignantly timed smiles and quippy responses. It’s a brilliant pairing. They are also progressive when it comes to gay marriage, women’s rights and racial equalities. “No one is going to tell me how to feel, who to love and what to do with my kids,” he explains.
But this doesn’t detract from an overly generous moral compass. What sticky tabloids and adventurous TV clips won’t show you is the Chrisley’s commitment to charities — like the dozens of fundraisers they host and to which they devote time — or the empirical outreach they take on — like Todd personally buying Christmas toys for hundreds of underprivileged kids during the holidays. Truth is, compassion isn’t a great storyline for primetime. Kindness is centered around a slow-moving progression of choices instead of the raging excitement of spousal fighting, mischievous children and luxurious overspending.
As I ask Todd about these endeavors, I get the sense that he doesn’t really want people to know about all of those things. In a world of “gotcha” media and commitment to an open-book lifestyle, some things are meant to be personal, and he’s happy just to help people and stay quiet about it ... even if it means he’s misjudged. “I don’t care what people think,” he says. “We are who we are. This hasn’t changed us.”
Todd grew up in a small town, taking a chapter from the quintessential rags-to-riches story. He’s used to being name-called and suppressed — it would take a massive force of hyperbolic proportions to alter this man. But something did. The past three years have beaten down on the Chrisley family in the form of embezzlement of funds from his former CEO followed by the death of Todd’s father from liver cancer, all while Julie was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I watch as Todd describes the moment he found out his wife had a tumor: his eyes are heavy with sadness and his hands motion through the air with purpose. I can almost feel his heart pounding through his chest as he relives what was “the worst time of my life,” he says. “At least with the CEO, he didn’t steal what was important. It’s just money. With Julie, I remember praying more than I ever had.”
He takes me deeper into his memory, recounting the moments of despair he whispered prayers to God, the force of action he took, flying to Johns Hopkins for tests and treatments, and the conviction of support when they decided, as a couple, for Julie to get a double mastectomy — all while being a rock to his father who lay dying in a different hospital bed.
“If it weren’t for this woman, I wouldn’t have survived. And it has been so hard, this process, and letting go. And loving.”
He stops ... takes in staggered sips of breath.
“I think I have been afraid to love her that much, you know?” he asks, looking down at his hands. “Because I’ve just been so afraid that something could happen to her ... and ... that woman is my entire world, the mother of my children.”
My throat is hot, choking on my own tears. I can hardly pose my next question:
“How did you survive your dad dying while your wife was also fighting cancer?” I ask apprehensively. He looks at me and smiles a sad smile. “I think God put me on autopilot ... so I could focus on taking care of her. I learned, you have to let go and let God.”
Julie comes into the room, hair done, makeup on. “How do I look?” she asks Todd. I wipe my eyes and try to compose myself. “Less makeup,” he says. He’s direct; the master stylist of everyone’s life. “What should I wear?” she replies while rushing past us to dig into her gargantuan closet. “I told her what to wear,” Todd says to me, with a formidable Southern twang. “She just doesn’t listen to me!” He rolls his eyes. I laugh.
Style is Todd’s world. Every angle of this house is a fashion moment. Southern in manner and timeless in execution, each detail of his existence seems to have a life and a sophistication — down to the built-in espresso machine in the master bedroom (that Todd has never actually used!). Chrisley & Co., the new department store with the family name (the first store set to open in Nashville next year), is certain to be filled with his trademark high-octane, opulent swagger. He’s even launching several products down the pipeline (think clothing, housewares, beauty) including an elite skin care line with renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Miles Graivier. I see why it’s hard for him not to micromanage everyone — he has such a powerful point of view, which comes off as demanding and unyielding.
If you think that puts Todd in command, you’re wrong. Julie is strong, intense and full of passion — a woman who is also in charge. Their toying and playful juxtaposition is complex and even charming. It’s a respect that has been honed over the course of a rocky history filled with children, illness and disappointment. It is, however, equally full of love, optimism and, of course, sex. “I have marched to my own beat,” Julie says. “What works in our life works for us. We are not a brand that’s forcing you to be a certain way. You don’t have to agree with us, but perhaps you’ll find something that you have in common.”
Yes, there are collective similarities I see. Family is family, and they are no different on TV or in-person. It’s the usual suspects coming together to break bread and bicker. Something undefinable between the McDonald’s sweet tea and laughing spouses that’s just so normal. Well, almost; I certainly don’t have original Coco Chanel prints on my walls. Do you?