To any HGTV fan, Andromeda Dunker has a voice that is instantly recognizable. Her gliding intonation and dulcet tone are as soothing as the comfort-food reality TV shows which she narrates.
Since 2009, Dunker has voiced literally thousands of episodes of the House Hunters franchise, becoming an integral part of the HGTV juggernaut, which drew almost 25 million primetime viewers each month last year.
While the buyers and cities may change, the narrator does not. Episode after episode, Dunker introduces us to a new couple and a new location but with the same sing-song intonation and honeyed tone. She is the show.
Yet, she hasn’t been seen on camera on the network, not even once.
On a channel brimming with handsome homebuilders and homespun husband-and-wife property stars, the woman who gives voice to some of the network’s most popular and obsessively-watched shows stands apart — unlike the others, she is heard but not seen, HGTV’s most famous unfamous person.
“I’ve remained in the shadows,” Dunker told BuzzFeed News. “The conventional wisdom for voiceover actors is you are kind of heard and not seen. It’s just kind of the way it’s always been.”
And she’s never given an extensive interview before — until now.
“The network has preferred to keep me in a little bit of mystery because that’s just worked out, but now it’s kinda different,” she said.
From just 26 episodes in the 1999 first season, the House Hunters franchise has exploded into a cult pop culture phenomenon, airing an astonishing 447 episodes in 2015 across a seemingly endless list of spin-offs: House Hunters International, Tiny House Hunters, House Hunters Renovation, House Hunters Off The Grid, House Hunters: Where Are They Now?, to name but a few.
“My first year [in 2009], we did not know there would be so many shows and spin-offs,” Dunker said. “There was only just House Hunters and House Hunters International at that time and not every day like how it is now. There have been, like, 10 spin-offs now. So, I had no idea it was going to explode into this much work.”
All the shows are unashamedly formulaic — but hey, the formula works: One property-hunting (hopefully slightly annoying) couple with completely opposing views of what they’re each after; a local real-estate agent who must show abundant patience; three house tours, including a “budget-buster” and a fixer-upper for good measure (“This house is too tiny!” someone on Tiny House Hunters will inevitably proclaim); and a walk-on-the-beach finale where a choice is eventually made. Watching on the couch with friends and wine invariably involves guessing amongst one another which house will be chosen, and then screaming at the television when a couple makes the “wrong” decision.
It’s real estate porn, for sure, but the real fun is in the parade of characters searching for homes: the married couple moving for work, where one person is silently less-than-thrilled to be making the shift; the lonesome student decamping for college, for whom the producers have had to rustle up some other expat and pretend that they’re awkward friends; and, of course, the people with quirky jobs but inexplicably bountiful budgets — a trend so inherently ridiculous, it last month spawned a meme.
Andromeda Dunker was born at Yale University in Connecticut, where her father, a respected biophysicist, was completing post-graduate studies. Her unique first name comes thanks to her Chinese-American mother, an astrophysicist who named her daughter for the Andromeda galaxy.
“That was entirely my wife’s idea,” her father, A. Keith Dunker, now an emeritus professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News of the name. “I thought, why not? It sounds like a great name.”
When Dunker was 11, the family moved to France for a time while her father worked in nuclear research. It was there she became fluent in French, in addition to the Chinese and English she spoke at home. Dunker started college in Oregon when she was just 15 to study linguistics, picking up Russian along the way. (She now puts her polyglot skills to use by ensuring she correctly pronounces the names of the foreign cities on House Hunters International).
After deciding she wanted a career in entertainment over linguistics, Dunker pursued a drama major in Seattle and began booking work in the Washington area. During one audition, a casting director suggested she tell her agent to start putting her forward for voiceover work. “In my head, growing up, my voice sounded annoying and nasally,” she said. “The first time I heard it in a microphone I was like, ‘Oh, wow. That sounds kind of nice!’”
In 2009, while out driving with friends during a visit to Portland, Dunker got a call from her agent, asking her to quickly send along a recording of her reading a script for a reality show. They needed the audition within five minutes. “So, we raced back to my friend’s house,” Dunker recalled. “I sat in my goddaughter’s room with a Hello Kitty blanket over my head and I recorded this House Hunters script audition really quickly and sent it in. So, I almost missed it. It just goes to show you have to audition for everything that comes your way. It’s feast or famine in this career.”
Dunker’s father recalled visiting Los Angeles with his wife a few years back when he realized his daughter had landed a plum job in the notoriously difficult entertainment industry. “For the first time ever, my daughter paid for dinner!” he said. “So, I should have realized something was up.”
Dunker is, in fact, the third narrator in the show’s 18-year history, after Suzanne Whang and Colette Whitaker. Whang actually served as the on-camera host for many years, before the show switched to the off-camera narrator format we have today.
“Part of my job is to be in the background,” Dunker said. “I’m not really with you, but I am leading you through this journey as a narrator. That’s kind of how I see it. If I were to come out more as a personality of my own, then it kind of breaks it. I’m not sure it would work as well.”
Dunker now voices anywhere between 10-20 episodes of House Hunters each week, on top of auditions and other jobs. She records the House Hunters International episodes in a home studio because that show’s production company, Leopard USA, is based in New York. For all the other episodes, she travels down the road to the office of Pie Town productions from the Hollywood home she shares with husband Joshua Sliwa, a photographer and meditation instructor, and their two dogs, Sadie and Chloe.
“Over the years I think the narration has changed,” Dunker said. “If people look at House Hunters International from the first season I was on it, it’s a lot more dramatic, and now it’s become more conversational. And that’s just an evolution of the show, I think. It’s been on for so long it evolves with the style of the time,” she said.
Like any good reality show, House Hunters is, of course, partly a fantasy. A few years back, former participants began opening up online about their experiences on the show, with some revealing they were only selected when they had closed on a property or had their “story” embellished by producers to make it more interesting. “To maximize production time, we seek out families who are pretty far along in the process,” Brian Balthazar, the network’s then director of programming and development, was forced to concede to TODAY.com. “Often everything moves much more quickly than we can anticipate, so we go back and revisit some of the homes that the family has already seen and we capture their authentic reactions.”
Dunker defended the program for being as genuine as a half-hour reality show about buying a property can be. “It’s not a five-hour documentary following them to see 25 houses. We can only show so much,” she said. “People who are shocked like this are not familiar with production at all. You can’t just follow a couple around for 10 years while they look for a house.”
For Dunker, the show’s success lies in its simple “Goldilocks formula, where you see three houses and this one’s too big, this one’s too small, and this one’s just right.”
But she acknowledges that in addition to people’s genuine interest in real estate and travel, there is also a “tongue-in-cheek fandom where people just want to make fun of the contributors.”
“We get so angry at these people,” she says of the house hunters. “They seem like such idiots or jerks, but they’re not actors. They’re real people. They’re on camera, they’re probably nervous. This guy sounds like he’s being a jerk to his wife or vice versa, but maybe he’s perfectly lovely and he’s just nervous and trying to make some joke.”
She’s also proud of the “cross-section” of people featured on the show. “Some of them are richer, some of them are less rich, but the cross-section is all races, all genders, gay and straight,” she says.
Dunker is incredibly friendly and warm, but unlike other creatures of Hollywood she professes to being very uncomfortable with self-promotion and says she’s terrified at speaking to her first reporter. She only recently created an Instagram account, which she updates hesitantly with photos of her dogs and homemade quilts — an activity she discovered helps calm her after hours of exhausting speaking every day.
Asked to describe her voice, Dunker groans in embarrassment. She prefers to share what others have said: “A lot of people have told me that they watch it in the background or at night and it lulls them to sleep…I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I’m tucking them in at night or that I’m giving them a big hug.”
“As an actor, especially as a commercial actor, it’s hard sometimes to justify your job as being very meaningful,” she said. “My dad is this world class scientist. He’s doing very important work. A lot of times, if I’m just doing a commercial for a fast food chain or something, I’ve wondered in the past what I’m contributing to society. But with House Hunters, people seem to like it so much and it makes them happy and makes them soothed or go to sleep or whatever. That feels good. It feels like it’s useful.”