Fannie's live-to-give spirit has made her one of the guests Oprah just can't forget. In February 2003, Oprah donned a crown and scepter to bestow a very important honor—Princess for a Day—on some very deserving people. One of the women who received the royal treatment was Fannie, who was nominated by the woman she worked for as a housekeeper and nanny.
After the death of her younger sister, Fannie raised her nephew and two nieces as if they were her own. Money was always tight, so Fannie had to drive an old van without air-conditioning.
Oprah gave Princess Fannie the royal treatment—maid service for a year, an all-expenses-paid trip to New York City and a new set of wheels!
Two and a half years later, Fannie and her family became some of the thousands of people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. "When we found out Katrina was coming, I was able to pile 12 of my relatives into the van that Oprah gave me and we were able to get out," Fannie said. Before evacuating, Fannie made sure to take her prized tiara. "Being the van was as crowded as it was with kids, I didn't want it stepped on, so I put it on," she said. "I made sure it was safe."
Fannie and her family returned to New Orleans three months later to find their neighborhood and home destroyed. "We lost everything," she said. "All we had left was the bricks and the floor."
In November 2006, Fannie and her husband moved into a FEMA trailer on their property. For 18 months, Fannie and her husband, Gene, have been living in the small trailer on the front lawn of their unfinished house.
When Oprah's designer pal Nate Berkus heard about Fannie's living conditions, he knew he had to step in and help. Nate tells Fannie to say goodbye to her FEMA trailer—he's bringing a team down to New Orleans to finish her house!
When Nate arrives, Fannie and Gene give him a tour of the trailer they've had to call home. "There's barely enough room in here for you and me," Nate says.
When Fannie first returned home after Hurricane Katrina, she says she couldn't believe her eyes. "I knew it would be bad, but I wasn't prepared for it. I didn't recognize anything; it was unrecognizable."
Fannie shows Nate her unfinished house, which used to be a place where 15 to 20 people could gather at any given time. "We always had big dinners," Fannie says. "We all just sit around and catch up. We can't do that anymore."
The high cost of construction in New Orleans has left Fannie with an unlivable space because Nate says many people were given loans at pre-Katrina costs. "So apparently, except for the big retailers down there, to buy a little plastic light switch that in Chicago would cost $1.99, it costs $12 in New Orleans," Nate says. "That's why she was living in a trailer for all these months. She couldn't afford to finish her house."
With a team from Lowe's behind him, Nate gets started by removing the FEMA trailer Fannie has been living in for a year and a half. "I thought that would be a way of life for me for a long time," she says.
Now that the trailer is gone, Nate can get to work on finishing a home that is truly fit for a princess. "My goal, truthfully, is going to be to make this place a place where you can forget about the past and really look toward the brightest of bright futures," Nate says.
After sending Fannie and her husband to a hotel, it's time to get to work. Nate knows that Fannie always has a house full of guests, so he keeps that in mind when picking out and placing furniture. He also has to focus on the essentials. "There was no floor. The toilet wasn't hooked up," Nate says.
After working his magic, Nate brings Fannie and Gene home for the big reveal. "This is beautiful," Fannie says.
Since guests are never turned away from Fannie's home, Nate made use of every inch of space. The living room sofa pulls out to a full-size bed, and storage space was built in concealed places, like under an end table.
During the hurricane, Fannie lost her Princess for a Day sash, but Nate has a surprise for her hanging on the wall. "I thought, 'We're the ones that gave you the sash, so we should be able to make you another,'" he says.
For the heart of the home, Nate wanted Fannie to have space to feed an army. A banquette adds more seating to the kitchen table, and a beautiful hutch for Fannie's china is perfect for her big buffet-style dinners. And doing a load of dishes just got a lot easier—until now, Fannie didn't have a dishwasher!
Nate knew Fannie would love a nice guest room to pamper her visitors, but he also wanted something special for her. "You might need your own space a little bit too," he says. "This room doubles as a den."
The room has plenty of space for guests with a daybed and trundle bed that slides out underneath. Custom closets by California Closets
with plenty of drawers and shelves maximize the space and keep extra pillows and blankets out of sight.
For the bedroom, Nate wanted to create an escape. Since Fannie is in school, Nate added a desk in the bedroom so she would have a place to concentrate on schoolwork. He also wanted to create an illusion of space, so he added mirrors along one of the walls. "All I could think about for the last few weeks was how narrow that trailer was. And, I thought, 'I want this to feel even bigger than it is, because it's time for you to have some space,'" Nate says.
Knowing how important Fannie's tiara was to her, Nate made sure to create a place of honor for it in the bedroom. "When you wake up every morning, it's what I wanted you to see," Nate says.
Fannie uses a bathtub of bubbles to escape from the world, so Nate made sure her bathroom would be like a mini spa getaway. Nate and his crew removed the old tub and installed a whirlpool bath. Fannie says they always wanted to get one but couldn't afford it. "Well, you have it now," Nate says.
In designing the layout of the backyard, Nate had one priority: shade. Nate and his team built a pergola in the center of the yard and placed a table with seating for 10 underneath.
"Oh my God. This is beautiful," Fannie says. "I don't know what to say."
In her old house, Fannie would have to walk outside to get to the laundry room. Now, thanks to Nate, she won't need to set foot outdoors on laundry day. "This is the crowning jewel," Fannie says.
California Closets outfitted Fannie’s laundry room with cabinets, shelves, and baskets to sort and organize her utility necessities.
A few months after moving back into her new home, the threat of hurricane Gustav forced city officials to give the order to evacuate New Orleans. Before leaving, Fannie made certain to grab her crown. "Everywhere I go, my crown goes. It's very important to me. It keeps me grounded. It lets me know that good things do happen," Fannie says.
After seven anxious days waiting out the storm, Fannie was finally able to return home. To her relief, there was only minor debris in her yard. "Somewhere in my spirit, I just knew that my house would be okay because God had already blessed me to have it done, which was a huge blessing," Fannie says. "I knew it wasn't going to be taken away from me just that easy."
Fannie's family represents just one of the 4,000 families still living in FEMA trailers three years after Hurricane Katrina. Although Oprah says this makeover wasn't the most expensive she has seen Nate do, they both agree it was the most moving. "My producers, my team that was down there with me, the Lowe's team, everyone I think was really taken with this story," Nate says. "When I was in New Orleans the whole time, people were staying late and we were working around the clock."
"Be blessed in your new home, Fannie," Oprah says.
The Lowe’s team was responsible for the overall construction and management of the makeover of Fannie’s house. Thanks, too, to California Closets, who provided Fannie with the custom closets and the cabinets/shelves for her laundry room.Get more home decorating tips.