Clipped's Fernando Wong on Co-star Martha Stewart, Celeb Clients, and Achieving the American Dream
Fernando Wong is ready to show the world his shear genius!
The acclaimed landscape designer joins lead judge Martha Stewart and Chris Lambton on Clipped, a new topiary competition series hosted by actor Michael Urie debuting May 12 on Discovery+. But Wong has been creating beautiful backyards — and winning celebrity clients — long before his new TV gig.
His career which began in 2001 when he arrived in the U.S. from Panama with a head full of design ideas and lots of ambition, but no money.
"I originally wanted an interior design career in Rio de Janeiro, but when I came to visit friends in Miami, I fell in love with the light, weather and friendly people so I decided to stay," says Wong, 47, who now resides between Miami Beach, Palm Beach and Key West with his husband Tim Johnson, 54, the CEO of their outdoor living design company.
Wong got a job working for a general contractor driving landscapers to nurseries, but struggled to make ends meet in a new country. He learned English by watching television, but says, "When I made an effort to speak English in Miami people would respond in Spanish," he remembers. "They said I didn't speak English properly so I continued to learn but had a hard time understanding humor. It was a tough process."
It was a difficult time for the burgeoning talent, but Wong was accustomed to being different and fighting for his dreams. In Panama, his dad wanted him to be an athlete, especially a track runner, but Wong wasn't a fan. "At the same time, I started drawing houses, driveways, chickens and people on a wall in our house to express myself," says Wong. "I wanted to study art in Spain but when my dad said we couldn't afford it my mom got a job cutting hair so she could send me to a local art school during my high school summers. I did sculpture, oil painting, etching. I loved it." He eventually earned a degree in interior design from the University of Panama.
Just as his design talents began to manifest, he ran into other hurdles. His grandfather is Chinese, his mom is Panamanian and his dad is half Chinese and half Panamanian. Because of his mixed background, he says, "I was not allowed to go to wealthy people's homes in Panama. It was an unspoken social code."
He fared far better in Miami Beach, where he eventually began creating freelance drawings for interior designers in his off-hours. While working toward his dream, he lived in a $400-per-month apartment in the pricey city, and recalls not being able to afford a car and having to put pricey items back on the shelves at the supermarket.
Still, his design work was appreciated when shown to prominent architects and designers and in 2003, he landed his first big project, a garden commission for film director Ridley Scott's Los Angeles home that took two and a half years to complete. Once he created a resume with his renderings, Wong got seven more calls for landscape design gigs, and things exploded.
"I did the landscaping for Cher's Key Biscayne home, and Matt Damon hired me to design a garden for his wife and a soccer field for his kids at their Miami Beach home," he says. "But the Damons moved to New York so my plan was never implemented." After that, Wong was hired by Pharrell Williams to design a Japanese garden outside of his Miami penthouse — the same space where the designer once watered plants for the previous owner. During the project, Williams moved to Los Angeles, and again, Wong was unable to implement the design.
But he went on to create landscapes for other residential projects around the world, including the Palm Beach home of the late Malcolm Glazer, owner of the Tampa Bay Bucs, and for many well-known athletes, including golfer Greg Norman. "Greg hired me to add zing to the landscaping which recently helped sell his Jupiter Island estate," says Wong. "I worked with his wife Kiki. When I told her I envisioned something like Ralph Lauren's Round Hill property in Jamaica, she got excited because that was exactly what she wanted."
Wong's commercial projects include golf clubs, several Four Seasons resorts and residences, the sculpture garden of the ICA museum in the Miami Design District, Perry Lane Hotel in Savannah, Georgia, and a national park for the Bahamian government. "I still pinch myself at what has happened in my career," says Wong, who recently won the architectural Palladio Award for his landscape design on a three-acre estate in Palm Beach. "I was poor and worked so hard when I arrived in the U.S., which I think is the best country in the world because we can express ourselves in our own way and live our dreams."
One of his dreams was working with a professional like Stewart on Clipped. "Martha is simply amazing," Wong says. "She is funny, generous, and eager to coach and gives me advice on judging the topiaries. She was actually filming three shows at the same time. I don't know where she gets her energy."
One night after a long day of filming, Martha called Wong and Johnson and asked if she could come by for martinis at 9:30 or 10 p.m. "We couldn't believe it," he says. "She loves Clipped, and wanted to gossip about the show."
"Working with Fernando as a fellow judge was lots of fun," Stewart tells PEOPLE. "I was impressed with his knowledge of landscape design and elegance in his use of plant material."
One Saturday morning, Stewart invited them to breakfast at her 153-acre estate in Bedford, New York, and gave them a tour of her barn, horse trails, greenhouse and chicken coops. "She cooked us a delicious breakfast which was unreal," says Wong. "We may have put the wrong things on the coffee saucers but she got over it!"
RELATED VIDEO: Watch the Trailer for Clipped, the First-ever Competition Series set in the Eye-popping World of Topiary
Throughout the month of filming Clipped, which Wong found to be "fascinating in every way," Stewart brought cakes, cookies and other goodies to the 70 people on the set. One day, she had made a coconut cake for her Bedford neighbor, Richard Gere, but he was traveling so she gave it to the topiary artist contestants. "They really deserved it," says Wong. "I enjoyed watching how their imaginations work and how the creativity flowed despite their rigid time constraints. It was a major challenge for them."
In the six-episode series, the trio of judges scrutinizes the work of seven talented artists who create beautiful sculptures out of "meticulously trimmed shrubbery, plants and flowers-designing colorful, larger-than-life, living works of art," according to a press release.The artists need to be physically strong and stay up all night to get their sculptures completed," says Wong. "Each week of the series is a different challenge to test the garden sculptors' talent." The winner receives a $50,000.
For Wong and his thriving career, challenges occur daily, but there's nothing that he can't handle. "I grew up with a father who put a stigma on my being an artist so I was reluctant to ever call myself one," he says. "Now I understand that I am an artist and my creativity comes from within. I can create a form of art from living things. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had and am no longer afraid to call myself an artist."
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