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Designing bedrooms, wooing spectators

Kids like to watch the tractors.

Men gawk at the power tools.

And for women, there's Rib Hillis.

A model-turned-actor-turned-designer, Hillis generates a buzz of whispered compliments when he passes the spectator gallery at Charlotte's “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project in Windsor Park.

“It's quite flattering,” admits Hillis, 37. “I just thank my parents for good genes.”

Hillis, who joined “Extreme Makeover” last season for eight shows, learned the basics of the construction business from his father, who liked home repair. In college, Hillis framed houses and later had a handyman business.

But the upstate New York native was more of a success in the international modeling business, which he started in 1992. Soon his acting career got off the ground with a role in the ABC soap opera “Port Charles” and has since been in dozens of shows including “Ugly Betty” and “CSI: Miami.”

In the Charlotte build, Hillis is designer for the bedrooms for the sons of Curtis and Alisha King – Kirkland, 11, and Justin, 19. He met with them Monday to get ideas about what they'd like.

Even though the meeting only lasted about 10 minutes, Hillis says he knows where he's going with the rooms. Casting agents assembled a lengthy profile of the family, surveying their tastes and ideas.

Hillis, who is married and has twin 5-year-olds back in San Clemente, Calif., says he doesn't take compliments about his looks too seriously.

“Some guy said I looked like Brad Pitt. I'd love just to have a piece of Brad Pitt's success.”

Hillis' real first name is Robert, but when he went to a new elementary school for third grade in Newton, Mass., he told everyone in class to call him Ribet. “They thought that name was so cool,” he recalls. And it stuck.

New to the “Extreme Makeover” cast this season is Didiayer Snyder, an Australian native who is designing a room for the Kings' daughter, Laila, 7. She is troubled by asthma and the Kings' house had mold problems. That is one priority Snyder says she's addressing.

She chose special paint with a minimum of potentially harmful chemicals. And for the drywall, she picked a special brand manufactured by National Gypsum in Mount Holly that is resistant to mold and mildew.

Most of all, she's proud of the air conditioning and heating system Sears agreed to provide – an industrial-grade product with filtration appropriate for hospitals. It should help with Laila's asthma and give all the children in the Kings' home day care better air.

“This structure really should be safe for everyone,” she says.

Snyder, 33, who grew up in Brisbane, built her own playhouse at age 6 with materials she scavenged up around her home. After college, she became a building inspector and built homes for Habitat for Humanity.

She came to the United States in 1998 intending to stay a few months and follow her dreams.

On the third day in Los Angeles, a man approached and started chatting her up. He told her he had a feeling they were going to get married. He was right. They've been together 10 years.

“This country has given me great dreams,” she says.