For someone known for his meticulous attention to detail and to-the-brick planning, Ryan McNaught was uncharacteristically spontaneous when it came to one of the most important moments of his life.
In June last year Ryan, who is best known as ‘the Brickman’ from Nine’s hit television series LEGO Masters, proposed to his partner of seven years, Tracy Britten, while on holiday in Las Vegas, but it was what happened next that surprised them both.
“We had this moment of wondering when we should tell our families,” says Tracy, who hails from Canada.
“We knew that once we shared the news we were engaged, their first question would be ‘when’ followed by ‘where’ we would marry, Canada or Australia? Knowing it could make life complicated for everyone if they had to travel, in the spur of the moment we said, ‘Let’s just get married right here, right now’.”
And so it was, two days later, that the popular TV co-host and his fiancée pledged their love and commitment to one another before an Elvis impersonator, wearing whatever was in their suitcases – their hearts on their sleeves.
“It was so much fun, just perfect,” Tracy says. “We had a great time.”
As series five of LEGO Masters launches onto our screens, The Weekly is meeting the newlyweds and taking a sneak peek inside the Brickman empire.
From the outside, Brickman HQ seems like an unassuming factory in a line-up of identical industrial buildings just a stone’s throw from Melbourne airport, but behind an unassuming steel roller door is an Aladdin’s cave of LEGO treasure: 35 million LEGO bricks stacked from floor to ceiling in every colour, shape and size imaginable.
“This is where the magic really happens,” Ryan says, pointing to a Brachiosaurus dinosaur coming to life at the heart of the workshop. More than 2000 hours of work will go into creating the piece that will feature in an upcoming Jurassic World exhibition in Sweden.
Not that long ago Ryan McNaught was an IT executive, putting LEGO sets together in his garage after work. Today he employs 28 staff whose colourful and incredibly detailed creations are exhibited in museums, retail stores, offices and galleries around the world.
And of course, he is co-starring in a hit TV show alongside Gold Logie winner Hamish Blake.
“I do pinch myself, for sure,” he says. “The whole premise of what we do is to make people happy – what a great job if you get to spend every day making people smile.”
Making a living from playing with LEGO wasn’t one of the career options offered by the nuns of St Kilian’s in Bendigo where Ryan went to school in the 1980s.
In fact, it happened almost by chance. His path to becoming a professional LEGO maker began unwittingly with the arrival of his twin sons, Riley and Alexander, in 2008.
As a gift for the new dad, Ryan’s mum, Lyn, brought over a milk crate full of his childhood LEGO that had been gathering dust in her garage.
Just for fun, Ryan put together some of his favourite sets, relishing the nostalgia and challenge. Not long after, during a business trip to the US, he came across a LEGO store, when there were no LEGO stores in Australia at the time.
“I was like a kid in a lolly shop,” he enthuses. “It was like, ‘Wow, look at all this stuff,’ and it wasn’t just for kids, it was for adults too.”
He was hooked. In 2010 he thought he’d show off one of his pieces at the annual Brickvention event in Melbourne.
He’d made a remote-controlled model of the Qantas Airbus A380 that incorporated LEGO Mindstorms technology. The plane was so impressive he was encouraged to exhibit it at Brickworld in Chicago, where a representative from LEGO tapped him on the shoulder and offered the opportunity of a lifetime, to become a LEGO Certified Professional, one of only 21 people in the world with the prestigious honour.
“It was the start of something really special,” he says. “I still get excited and inspired by LEGO and by my team. When I walk in here and see my team making something I’m like, ‘Wow, look at that’,” he enthuses.
“I savour watching other people’s creativity, I love it, because there’s nothing my team can’t make. “
“He is exactly like this at home,” Tracy adds. “He’s got so many ideas and he’s constantly thinking, whether it’s planning a trip or something totally not creative, he makes it creative. His imagination is incredible, limitless – it’s one of the things that attracted me to him.”
As Ryan’s Brickman empire was beginning to boom, behind the scenes his marriage of 16 years to Melinda, the mother of his twin boys, was sadly coming to an end. There was no animosity, just two people who’d grown apart, but nonetheless it was a bittersweet time.
A year on, his mates encouraged him to give dating app Tinder a try, where serendipitously Tracy was also dipping her toe back in the dating waters after a marriage break-up.
“I was looking for love, for a partner,” he says. “It’s hard to put yourself out there, and I remember joking with some mates who’d gone through the same thing about how times have changed. Back in the old days you met someone through work, or friends or social circles; you don’t go to the pub and meet someone anymore and putting yourself out there online romantically is really hard, but Tracy made it very easy.”
Their competing work and business schedules meant it was some time before they actually had their first face-to-face date, but it was worth the wait because they both instantly knew they had something special.
“We were never in the same city, let alone the same country, so it took us a long time to meet. When we did, it just clicked,” says Tracy, who works in HR for an international company. “The attraction was instant.”
In the many conversations they’d shared in the lead-up to their first date, they never actually discussed what one another did. When they finally broached the topic, Ryan confessed he thought Tracy was a spy because she travelled so much. He then gave her a multiple-choice quiz to guess what he did. “He’d mentioned that he was an artist or creative so I had a few clues,” Tracy says.
“He said, ‘Do you think I’m a mason who builds sculptures? A carpenter who makes wood creations? Or a LEGO creator?’ I actually burst out laughing and said, ‘Like that’s a job!'”
“And he was like, ‘Yep, that’s actually my job, I play with LEGO for work.’ Well, I had to swallow my words very quickly and it’s a really cool job!” she says.
For Ryan’s part, the initial anxiety of heading to an online dating site was very quickly overcome.
The relationship blossomed and it wasn’t long before they moved in together. However, neither was in a rush to remarry.
“Building the relationship was the most important thing to both of us,” Ryan says, describing his new wife as the calming influence on his life.
“She’s the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. I can’t ask her a question that she hasn’t already figured out the answer for. Running your own business is full of challenges and her vast life experiences help me tremendously, and she’s just a voice of reason. She is an amazing sounding-board. She offers wise thoughts, she’s the calm shoulders I lean on.”
Tracy says that among the many qualities that attracted her to Ryan, his sense of humour was key. When the relationship became serious, they flew to the US to meet Tracy’s parents who live the ‘snowbird’ lifestyle, fleeing the icy Canadian winter for the sunshine and beaches of Florida each year.
Ryan told Tracy he was going to dress up to meet her mum and dad but didn’t tell her exactly what ‘dressing up’ entailed.
“I’d flown ahead to spend Christmas with my family,” Tracy says, “so I took my parents to the airport to meet him and as we were waiting in the luggage area, this guy is coming down the elevator dressed as Donald Trump with a wig and hat and the whole thing.”
‘My dad was like, ‘Oh my God, take a look at this guy,’ and I said, ‘Dad, that’s Ryan!’ It totally broke the ice. My parents were howling laughing and got his sense of humour straight away.”
“Canadians have a great sense of humour,” Ryan adds.
He officially won her heart when he gave her an intricate mosaic portrait he’d crafted from LEGO, which now takes pride of place in the couple’s bedroom.
“I came home from work one day and there was this massive portrait of me made out of LEGO. I just burst into tears, it was really beautiful. I knew how much effort had gone into it, it was so special,” she says.
The couple share a love of marathon running and travel, and have ticked off an impressive bucket list of running adventures, including completing marathons in Russia, the Falkland Islands, and even North Korea.
“We were mucking around one day doing a tit for tat thing about the strange places each other had run, and Ryan said, ‘Would you ever go to North Korea?’ I was like, ‘Yeah!’ and two weeks later I was on the internet booking us in to run a marathon in Pyongyang. People told us we were crazy but it was amazing, surreal.”
“Our goal is to run a marathon on every continent,” Ryan adds. “We’ve got Africa and Antarctica to go.”
In fact, it was just after they’d run a marathon in Moscow, as they were resting their weary legs on the Trans-Siberian Railway, that Ryan accepted an offer from producers Endemol Shine to join a new Australian production of the television series which has been hugely successful in the UK.
At first he was reluctant to be on TV, but when Hamish Blake came on board it sealed the deal.
The show, which invites everyday LEGO fans to test their creative talent, has been a ratings hit, but Tracy says that despite its success their lives haven’t changed too much and at home Ryan is exactly the same as he is on screen.
During the COVID lockdowns I got my first proper LEGO set since my own childhood,” Tracy says. “It was Big Ben, and I sat down at the kitchen table one night with a bottle of wine and thought, ‘Right, I’m going to do this’. As the night wore on, everyone went to bed and I was still up drinking wine and building Lego determined to finish it, having a lovely time.
“By the morning I was so excited and proud, I couldn’t wait for Ryan to see it. He said ‘you did an awesome job Trace, really good … but these parts here … they’re not meant to be spare!” she laughs.
“I was actually impressed because we know that skill is proportional, as the wine goes down, so too does the skill level,” Ryan jokes, “but she did a really complex one and she dived right in and had a go.”
At some point the couple, whose alarm goes off at 5.05am every day for their ritual morning run, will have ticked off all their marathon goals, and although they show no signs of slowing down, they’ve already pencilled in plans for the next phase of their life.
While Ryan is particularly inspired by Tracy’s parents’ lifestyle and loves the idea of dividing their time between Canada and Australia, his new wife, however, might take a little more convincing.
“I’ve grown up shovelling snow and I’m not so keen on that,” Tracy says, “but whatever life looks like for us, I know with Ryan it will be exciting, I’m looking forward to it.”
LEGO Masters Series 5 is coming soon to Channel 9 and 9Now.
You can read this story and many others in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.