‘Flip or Flop’: The phoenix-like rise and bizarre fall of HGTV’s second-favorite couple

At first, the couple’s phoenix-rising narrative was simple enough.

Christina and Tarek El Moussa, now of HGTV fame, were two recovering real estate agents who, amid the 2008 housing market crash, lost nearly everything. In an attempt to salvage their once-prosperous lifestyle, the couple started a business buying foreclosed houses in southern California and flipping them for a profit.

Tarek had the investment eye, Christina the designer’s touch. Sometimes they succeeded. Sometimes they failed. But, hey, they were trying.

It was a great American plot.

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The couple’s riches-to-rags-to-riches-again backstory attracted showrunners at HGTV, the popular home and garden channel, which signed the couple to the network.

On April 16, 2013, the El Moussas debuted as the stars of their own program, “Flip or Flop.”

The show has skyrocketed in popularity in the four years since, ranking as HGTV’s second-most-watched program in 2016 with 2.8 million viewers, behind the network’s other adored renovating couple, “Fixer Upper’s” Chip and Joanna Gaines.

Like all of HGTV’s signature shows, the premise for “Flip or Flop” is compelling. Viewers can, from the comfort of their couch, watch an abandoned structure transform into an inviting home in the time it takes to finish a glass (or two) of wine. They have accomplished nothing, and yet feel, somehow, as if they were there, knocking down walls with the co-hosts.

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What sets “Flip or Flop” apart from the rest of HGTV’s lineup, however, is Christina and Tarek, stereotypically attractive Californians whose personal narrative as husband and wife, best friends, business partners and parents has captured the hearts of their most loyal fans. Blog posts and tabloid pieces about the couple’s seemingly loving family life litter the Internet, buoyed by sappy social media posts from Christina and Tarek.

But like many Americans, 2016 was not kind to the El Moussas.

Fans were devastated to learn in December that the beloved, picture-perfect couple had been separated for nearly eight months, the result of a distressing incident at the El Moussa’s Orange County home that involved a gun and the police. All this came after news reports claimed that their spin-off real estate classes, pitched as training sessions for aspiring house flippers, were a disingenuous money-grab, which they denied.

The couple’s perceived instability had fans questioning whether there was room for reconciliation – and whether a long-term split would mean the end of “Flip or Flop.”

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Then this week, Tarek officially filed for divorce.

He is seeking spousal support and joint custody of the couple’s two children, 6-year-old daughter Taylor and 1-year-old son Brayden, reported Yahoo.

The sense of permanency that accompanied this news thrust fans further into a mournful frenzy, lamenting the death of a love story in which they felt so invested – one that had been sprinkled throughout six seasons on air and included a cancer scare, in vitro fertilization treatments and the birth of their second baby.

When Christina and Tarek met a decade ago, the Californians were successfully selling real estate in the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Christina had just graduated from college. Tarek was a rising star in the industry.

The couple married, moved into a house with a $6,000 monthly mortgage payment and started planning for a family, reported the Orange County Register. Then the housing market crashed.

Suddenly their luxurious home shrank to an apartment, with a roommate, where the rent was just $700. For dinner, they shared Subway sandwiches because it was all they could afford. When Christina got pregnant, she passed on purchasing maternity clothes. They were too expensive.

The couple still had their skills, though, eyes for good investments and tasteful design. On a whim, Tarek recruited a friend to edit video footage of them buying and flipping a house, start to finish.

He sent it to HGTV, and the show was born.

“They liked the fact that we were poor and were trying to make something of ourselves,” Christina told the Register in April 2013, the month “Flip or Flop” debuted.

At the time, the couple’s daughter, Taylor, was 2 years old, giving fans of “Flip or Flop” a chance to watch her grow up as the series progressed.

The couple’s attempts at having a second child early in the series were foiled when Tarek was diagnosed with thyroid cancer – thanks to the sharp eye of a savvy viewer.

Ryan Read, a registered nurse in Texas, was watching the show in 2013 when she noticed that, at certain angles and in certain light, it appeared Tarek had a lump on his throat.

Concerned, she emailed the show’s producers: “This is not a joke. I’m a registered nurse. I’ve been watching Flip Or Flop. I noticed that the host Tarek has a large nodule on his thyroid, and he needs to have it checked out.”

Tarek and Christina heeded her advice, and within days they learned Read’s instincts were right – the lump was cancer and had spread to his lymph nodes.

He had surgery to remove his thyroid and lymph nodes and underwent radiation therapy, which was exhausting and gave him migraines, Tarek told the “Today” show, but didn’t force them to quit the show.

“We made a decision that same second: We’re not going to slow down. We’re not going to stop,” he said. “We’re going to run the business. We’re going to fight through this cancer, because the second we slow down is the second it gets scary and you start getting depressed.”

The couple later met Read, captured on film by HGTV, and fans reached out to share their own cancer stories.

That battle, though, posed a second challenge for the couple. The radiation therapy meant they couldn’t conceive naturally for six months to a year after treatments stopped. It took two failed attempts at in vitro fertilization – including one that ended in a miscarriage at eight weeks – before Christina became pregnant with Brayden.

“I had to be super strict,” Christina told PEOPLE magazine. “I had to do one full week in bed. For 13 weeks after that, I couldn’t go for a walk and couldn’t lift anything over a gallon of milk. We planned it during Christmas break so I wasn’t working. We did everything we could to make sure this one worked.”

As their family – and ratings – grew, the TV personalities began expanding their empire, hosting spinoff shows and developing house-flipping seminars to teach fans the tricks of their trade.

But it didn’t take long for attendees to push back.

A trip to promote the training sessions in Washington and Oregon was canceled at the end of 2015 when social media users loudly objected to the premise.

“Do you have the courage to retire rich?” an invitation to the event asked, which locals felt was tone deaf to the challenges facing their communities, included high eviction rates, fast-rising home values, skyrocketing rents and historically low vacancy rates, reported the Oregonian.

About six months later, new reports from the Associated Press, CBS News and ABC News, among others, revealed that students of their real estate seminars felt duped by the couple.

The classes, they said, were misleading, cost thousands of additional dollars beyond the advertised price and didn’t actually provide face time with Tarek and Christina.

The El Moussas defended their program.

“I stand by our product,” Christina told ABC News. “It’s our tools, it’s our system. It’s what Tarek and I do. I’ve only heard very minimal complaints.”

It was only a month later that the police were called to the couple’s home over what Tarek and Christina termed an “unfortunate misunderstanding.

Deputies responded to the home in May after getting a report about a possible suicidal man, according to the Associated Press. Tarek El Moussa was later found in a nearby state park with a handgun, but he denied being suicidal, reported the AP. He voluntarily gave up several guns.

Eight months later, in a statement to People in early December, Tarek and Christina announced that they had sought marriage counseling but decided to split up while evaluating “the future” of their marriage.

“Like many couples, we have had challenges in our marriage,” the pair said in the statement. “We had an unfortunate misunderstanding about six months ago and the police were called to our house in an abundance of caution. There was no violence and no charges were filed. … During the process, we are committed to our kids and being the best parents we can be. We will continue to work through this process civilly and cooperatively, and plan to continue our professional life together.”

They said they had dated other people amid the split but weren’t ready to speak about it further.

Heartbroken – and outraged – fans took to social media to lament the split. Some wrote that they felt lied to by the couple, who had continued to produce episodes on the show as if they were together and whose social media posts never hinted at complications with their marriage.

Almost exactly one month later, Tarek filed for divorce.

In a statement released when the couple announced their separation, HGTV said they respected the El Moussas’ personal privacy and would support them moving forward.

They added that filming of “Flip or Flop” would proceed as scheduled.

On Wednesday, Christina posted on Instagram a photo of her children at church.

“A lot going on lately,” she wrote in the caption. “But making time for what’s important is what’s really important.”