You may know him as Vanilla Ice—Rob Van Winkle is his name, and as famous as he is for being a Hip-Hop icon, he’s also the ultimate DIYer, a house flipper, taking on homes in need of his special touch and turning them into valuable properties. As the third season of his show, “The Vanilla Ice Project” gets underway on the DIY Network, and his special “Ice My House” rewards one family with a special Vanilla Ice home makeover, we had a chance to sit down with Rob and talk about doing it yourself.
Since you can’t hear his voice when you read this, try and imagine the sincere love for his projects and the whole DIY process coming through in everything he says.
Rob Van Winkle (RVW): That’s got a catch to it. I like to do it myself. That’s great.
Justin DiPego (JD): Yeah, we just came up with that.
RVW: Very catchy. How’s it going?
JD: It’s going very well. It’s nice to be talking to you.
RVW: You too man, thank you.
JD: Sure, I just watched Ice My House and I really enjoyed it.
RVW: Cool man, I just saw it myself the first time. I just came from Vegas and I was like, Oh My God, I missed it the other day and everyone’s tweeting about it. I’m like, I got to see it, I got to see it! I know I lived it, but I still want to see it. That’s good man I’m glad you enjoyed it.
JD: Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about that. First I wanted to ask, is it different working on someone else’s home? Because the other stuff you do, you’re flipping your own properties.
RVW: Right. Yes, completely different. I have to stay within some sort of boundaries and I can’t go all out. When I do my houses I do them from ground up, you know, every piece and aspect. Every room and everything. Here you have to understand their theme and what they’re going for and take in consideration their desires and stuff like that and take it to the next level for them. That’s the whole thing, to shock and surprise them and really have them appreciate it. But I really enjoy it man. They get stuck. You really see it. It’s genuine. It’s real, everything you see on television, it isn’t staged. You’ll see they’ll have some good ideas for their kitchen, their living room, they’ll paint the walls and do some tile work or something simple. But when it comes to the complex stuff in other areas they have no clue what to do with it, and they’ll just leave it there. And they run out of funds, or say they’re going to do something later or just get stuck. And we come in there and fix the problem for them and take it above and beyond. It’s just amazing how emotional they get. I love it. It’s touching to me and we feel that energy and it comes back and we get emotional too. We really put our heart, soul, blood and sweat into these things. It’s nice of them to appreciate what we do.
JD: Well you know what I thought that was cool, I mean obviously you are a Hip-Hop guy; but what you do to their house, and also to your own properties, it’s not like Pimp My Ride where you take a car and turn into something that’s not really a car anymore.
RVW: It’s not practical. Yeah. I like to add a lot of class, but I like to also carry a theme for my own houses and with Season 3 the theme is like a five-star Tahitian retreat; this house I found was rotting for 7 years. Beautiful neighborhood in Palm Beach. It’s a mansion and the weeds took over and the swimming pool is turned black, and there’s fish, frogs and snakes swimming in it and everything else. You know, it was a diamond in the rough, so I ended up just gutting it all out and putting new everything. New walls, new roofs, new everything. And I carried a theme with it, and the theme was Tahitian because I was on an airplane and I was looking at the back of a magazine and I saw this five-star resort there that had this tiki hut over the water, with a trap door for fishing, and you could sleep in it. And I said, that’s the theme. That’s the setting. So I opened up the entire back of the house and added floor to ceiling windows with electric drapes that you can switch to open it or close. It just made the most awesome house, because the house is all panoramic by the water, so it’s all beach, and I recreated the tiki hut over the water, the dock, the fishing thing, and it looks just like the magazine. I was like, oh my God, perfect setting. And the way it works is that the sun, it’s a south western exposure, so the backyard has the sun rise and the sunset. So if you want to hang out by the pool or do whatever you always have the sun. Speaking of the pool, I brought the swimming pool completely through the living room of the house all around the backside, so you can see the water from anywhere. I put fiber optic lights in it so it sparkles at night; it’s the coolest thing ever. A lot of water, which gives you that tranquility and peace, so it makes you feel like you’re in your own tropical retreat and never want to leave your own house.
JD: That’s great and I love where your inspiration came from.
RVW: Yeah, just random, and season 2 I did a Gilded Age of Palm Beach, which is like a Flagler or Rockefeller days. You remember how they made them real elegant with different tones and colors and lots of crown molding everywhere? And I did that and I did lots of ceiling application work. You know most people just pay attention to the floors and walls but I do a lot of ceiling stuff. Everything from fiber optics in little twinkle stars up in the sky, to a huge very elegant medallion in the dining room, tin ceilings, and crown made of brass. It’s been a challenge, but it’s awesome. I love doing these things, the bigger the challenge the better the reward. It’s awesome at the end.
JD: That’s great and that leads me, like perfectly, to the next question I wanted to ask. Obviously you’ve had these great ideas inspired by history or a picture that you saw, but originally, I read a quote from you that you owned these properties, you were on tour and you came back and saw them falling apart so you sold them. Did you get into this sort of by accident, or did you have skills in the trades before that?
RVW: No. The design side came a little later but the investment side came, well when I was 16 I did Ice Ice Baby and I bought homes everywhere around the country. I thought I would be staying in them. Bleaker Street, in the Village in New York, one in Los Angeles near Michael J. Fox. I had homes everywhere and I went on tour for 4 years and I never saw them. So my plan didn’t work out because I was on tour for so long. I thought, oh my God, there is no way I can use all these houses, they had cob webs everywhere, and so I sold them. And I thought, well that was young and dumb and I was going to lose money, and I ended up making millions. And I said, oh my God it’s that easy? And that was when the market was that great, you could just buy it and sell it didn’t have to paint it or do anything really. So I was like, well let’s go buy some more. But the design thing came later because I had my personal house on Star Island that I lived in and I had decorated by professionals. It was really cool at first, but after awhile it was horrible. Because it had purple rooms, green rooms, red rooms, yellow carpet, whatever. I had a staircase made of acrylic that had fish swimming in them. It sounds cool and it looked cool for a while, but when you’re coming home from tour it didn’t feel like you’re coming to a home. It’s like you’re coming home to a night club, and you’re living in a night club, which is an awful feeling
JD: That’s like the Pimp My Ride thing.
RVW: Right? Exactly. And it just didn’t feel like a home. You want to walk through the front door, smell something cooking and feel comfortable. So I started looking in magazines and online and collecting all of these pictures of ideas, and I learned about earth tone colors, throw pillows, fire places, and how to warm a whole place up and make it feel homey. I did that and I decorated it myself and that’s where I got the bug. I was like, oh my God, I did pretty good. I haven’t stopped ever since and that was 15 years ago. And now I just love showcasing all the state-of-the-art features in homes, gadgets and cool things. I built the world’s first home IMAX theatre. It’s amazing the crystal clear 250 inch in screen. And all the smart house stuff you can do with your phone. Built a lazy river in the back, on 2 acres. It just takes you through a lazy river through a cave, under a bridge, got the fiber optic lights inside the cave. It’s really romantic. You can make your little stop in there and get out. I just love doing all these design ideas and stuff. It’s neat to see people appreciate it. I’m honored really
JD: You mentioned doing ceilings, crown molding and other stuff like that. Would you say that’s a signature of yours, you’re going to do that in every house you come to? It’s obviously not the same style in every house…
RVW: Right. I always come up with a theme and then I’ll just marinate on it and it evolves. I have a good idea what I’m going to do probably 70 to 80 percent of the house, the rest I free-style as I go. I see things as we’re going, so I’ll make changes. It just really polishes it up big time. The thing is, a lot of my ideas, because I go around the world, with music; I play in Russia, and I play in England a lot, even have a house in England; I get a lot of good ideas from European influence and different ideas like that. So I bring that back here. A lot of the stuff you see only over here is your Home Depot, your Lowes, your local design centers and stuff like that. So I try to go outside that box and incorporate something that they haven’t seen or something they can’t just go out and get. Something you have to really search for hard, or go to Europe or go to Russia to find. Even with designers, I don’t use them, but they’re friends of mine, they’ll come to the house, you know top designers, from Palm Beach (I live in Palm Beach so there are a lot of them) and they’ll say, you can’t do that because it’s transitional or that’s ultra modern and won’t fit with a contemporary style. And I’ll go, you know what, I’m here to show you we can do whatever we want to do, as long as it looks right. And every one of them that would say, this kind of crosses the boundaries of a professional designer, and don’t do this or don’t do that, but I did it anyway because I used my best judgment. And they’ll come in afterwards and I’ll open up their mind. They’ll go, oh my God, I didn’t even think you could do that. How could you take a 1930s gilded age and mix in a pneumatic elevator? And I’ll go, well you have to think about how it works. You’ve got to put the wine cellar next to it to make it fit. There are little feng shui things that you have to do to make it work. That’s where I guess I have, I don’t call it a gift, I just call it an interest. I’ve developed a talent for it because I’m so interested in it. Does that make sense?
JD: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
RVW: I go to sleep thinking about all these ideas; countless hours of looking through photos and different ideas in magazines, on the internet searching for the latest and greatest. I just absorb it and it shows when I translate it back into construction end.
JD: So that approach you’re talking about, on a smaller scale, is that something you would recommend to someone who's doing their own DIY project? Say I’m working on my own home, and I’m looking for design inspiration, what’s something I could do to my own home?
RVW: Well, that’s the great thing about this show too. We’ve heard a lot of negative news about the housing market out there, and people being upside down in their homes, and not trying to spend any more money on their home because it’s not worth what they paid for it. This show is great because people will go, well you know what, I’m going to raise my family around here. My kids might run up and down these streets for 30 years, and by God, I’m going to change my kitchen, make it look like what Vanilla Ice just did in his kitchen. It depends on your budget, what you have and what you want to do, but you’ve got to live that American dream and wherever your house is doesn’t matter, you’ve got to be able to live in it and enjoy it.
Your nucleus is kind of around your kitchen so I like starting with the kitchen and making a really nice area for people just to hang out and marinate. Then I work my way over to the living rooms. My main ingredient is starting with the floor. You’ve got to put in some serious floors for everything to tie in together. Because if it’s not right from the ground up, you can’t just work your way in and then hopefully it will blend in with the floor. The floor has to be right. I just keep the same theme throughout the house and let it evolve.
I love standing there after a work day is finished and everyone has left, and I’ll come back to the house and pull up a chair and sit there, cross my arms, and just stare at it, getting ideas. I love this so much, it’s the greatest thing. I’ll come back the next day and everyone will be like, what did you do? Stay here all night and come up with all these ideas? And I’m like, yeah. My guys they think I’m a trip, great guys they know my passion and they feel my energy, they’re good friends as well. Everyone is really enthused when they come to work and in the end we all bathe in the glory together. It’s an amazing adventure and journey, not easy, but the harder it is the better the reward. We’re all stoked to be doing what we’re doing.
JD: So, if it wasn’t for the show, I think a lot of people would be surprised to hear you talking the way you’re talking because, not just you, but a lot of guys on your show and in the trades in general have a bad boy, outlaw kind of image with tattoos and baggy clothes.
RVW: Haha yeah!
JD: I’ve worked in the trades and stuff, so it’s not a shock to me, but if you’re going to do good work you’ve got to be on schedule, you’ve got to be up on code, you’ve got to care about what you do and you have to know how to pick out flowers. So I think people are surprised to see such gangster-looking dudes doing that stuff.
RVW: I know, it’s great. I love it because there’s a side to me. A lot of construction guys who are licensed, they know how to build just within a square frame and it’s neat to take them and say, well okay let’s look at this from a different perspective. It’s not only men who are going to buy this. It’s not for your own personal way. You’re making this to attract females as well; let’s put a floral design in this carpet. Let’s turn this bathroom into a master suite, spa retreat. Let’s put some teak flooring in hear and make it smell right. Let’s put some flowers in the corners. Let’s use some colors that you might not use for your own personal judgment. Because you know the wife is going to come in and be like, this is our house, this is the way I want it. It caters to the male and the female; happy wife happy life. I do a lot of my homes in family areas, and in the kid aspect I have my daughters, who are the greatest designers for the kids’ rooms I have, and they come in and design it. They shock me on how great they are, really. They design all the kids’ rooms and we do a special murphy bed multi-function thing. And we did a big surfboard theme, so we did wall-to-wall murals with surfers on it and we made it really classy with really thick padding under the carpet. Girls like the padding with a big shag carpet. A lot of female aspect there. You wouldn’t think some rapper/macho guy would be like that, but you’ve got to keep an open mind.
JD: Yeah you’re not going to build a whole place out of diamond plate.
RVW: Exactly who’s going to buy that? Maybe one guy out of every 200 families.
JD: Do your daughters know how to swing a hammer? Do they get on that side of things?
RVW: Yeah, since I work on my dirt bikes and everything, they’ll come out and work the wrenches with me and help me change a tire. Even when I’m doing the heavy construction, sometimes, but mainly its dangerous for them so I leave them mainly as designers. And they’re getting a little older so they don’t want to get as dirty, but they do come around. Mostly they avoid the construction side because it’s a dusty mess, you know ‘cause you’ve done it. It’s pretty much a disaster until the last day when you clean it all up and you’re like, wow finally it’s all clean. You peel up all the paper off the floors, and it’s like, oh my God, this is the first time I’ve seen it. So it gets really rewarding at that point.
JD: What about the beginning of a project? For me, I love doing demo. You know a monkey could do demo, but I like taking my time. It’s almost like being an archaeologist.
RVW: Yeah, that stuff is fun. A lot of my guys really like all that. But putting it back together is definitely the main ingredient.
JD: Did you ever find anything cool when you knocked down a wall?
RVW: On this last one I found a picture of some little boy in there and randomly some guy drove up and told me that he grew up in this house so I said, are you kidding me? Let me show you this picture I found after I demo’d this whole closet. And he says, no way--that’s me. What!? He said, this was my bedroom, and when I was a little older I used to sneak out of this window, go around here and go to my girlfriend’s house, and there was a whole story behind it. Kind of a cool thing, you never know what you’re going to find.
JD: Alright, well I’m looking forward to Sunday when I will be definitely watching your show.
RVW: Well cool man, thank you for doing the interview with us, we appreciate it.
JD: Well, thank you.
RVW: It was a pleasure speaking with you and thanks for watching.
New episodes of the Vanilla Ice Project air Sundays on the DIY Network. Check your local listings.