In 1990, he created a sensation with his hip-hop single, Ice Ice Baby. Two decades, several public controversies, and many life lessons later, Rob Van Winkle emerges from the shadow of his alter-ego, Vanilla Ice, to debut a mellow, more mature attitude and a new show, The Vanilla Ice Project, on the DIY Network.
We spoke exclusively with the rapper-turned-remodeler about his life in and out of the public eye, and how he found solace as a professional DIYer.
The Vanilla Ice Project premeires October 14th on the DIY Network. In it, Rob Van Winkle renovates this 7,000-square-foot mansion in Florida. Photo: DIY Network
When you hear the name Vanilla Ice
, you probably think of the young, cocky rapper
who exploded onto the music scene with his 1990 hit, Ice Ice Baby
-- the first hip-hop single ever to top the Billboard charts
. You probably would not
imagine the serene, grounded, knowledgeable gentleman I spoke with by phone recently following an appearance of his in London.
During his early adulthood and beyond, Vanilla Ice -- born Rob Van Winkle in 1967 -- drew both fame and disdain for his outsized personality, over-the-top outfits and hairstyles, and -- a bit later -- his onscreen rants while destroying sets on MTV and VH1's The Surreal Life. While most of these antics happened years ago, they live on in YouTube clips and the collective public memory.
In the past decade, though, out of the camera's eye, Rob got married, had two children, rediscovered his childhood love of making things, and grew into an accomplished builder, renovator and savvy house-flipper. "A lot of the things I do in these homes are personally gratifying," Rob told me. "You can cross your arms at the end and say 'Wow. I did that,' and you can take pride in it."
Most recently, Rob landed his own half-hour series, The Vanilla Ice Project
, which premieres October 14th on the DIY Network
. In it, he chronicles his experiences flipping a 7,000-square-foot mansion in Palm Beach, Florida.
We had a few questions for the star of the show:
DIY Life: How did you get into flipping (buying, fixing up and selling) homes?
Rapper-turned-remodeler Rob Van Winkle installs hardwood flooring in his new TV show, the Vanilla Ice Project. Photo: DIY Network
: I learned to invest in real estate by accident. When I was in my early 20s, I earned a ton of money; about $20 million. I'm not a rocket scientist. I don't know anything about the stock market. So I thought, "Ok, I'm going to buy a home in L.A. because I work a lot in L.A." I bought a home in New York City too -- on Bleecker Street in [Greenwich] Village -- because I'm there 3 or 4 months out of the year. And I bought myself a ski resort house in Snowbird, Utah.
For three years I was on tour around the world. Finally I went back home and looked [around my] houses. No one had been there, and there were cobwebs in the corners. I stood there going, "Gee, I spent all this money on these houses and haven't used any of them. [I'll just] sell 'em all and if I need [someplace to live] I'll rent something." When I sold the homes, I made money on every single one of them -- hundreds of thousands of dollars. I thought, "You've got to be kidding me. It can't be this
easy." Of course, that's when real estate was really good (in the 1990s).
Finally I bought a home on Star Island in Miami Beach, and I lived there for 11 years. I was a bachelor and had like 14 bedrooms. So I had [the house] decorated. I had a purple room. I had a red TV room. It was like a big nightclub. I'm talking bachelor pad to the -nth degree. I loved it for a year or so and then I'm like, "It's just not feeling like home. I want to get out of there. I want to take vacations." I didn't even want to stay in my own house. And I always had to have friends over. I'd say to them, "Can you come spend the night with me? I'm lonely. I'll pay for your plane flight."
DIY Life: So you got married in 1998 and you had two kids. Is that when you seriously got into building?
Rob: Yes, I've been doing this for more than 10 years. Not just flipping homes, but remodeling them. And when the market was really good, up until 2005, I was also buying land and building homes. It would take me more than a year to get a return on the money [for each home].
So I [went] to these seminars by (real estate investing guru) Robert Shemin. I read his books and learned a ton about real estate. And with the economy dropping and the real estate market dropping like it did [in the past few years], I learned how to adapt -- and it actually works better for me as an investor now. Now I can buy a home [for less money] than I can build one, and I don't have to go through that long-term process of building it. I can get these distressed homes, and get some really good deals. Then three or four months later [after renovating them], I can make money. It's very profitable. And it's something I enjoy doing. It's actually fun for me, you know?
DIY Life: It was reported in the news that you had some rough years and got into drugs. Were you living in that house when you had some of your lowest years?
Rob: Yeah, I had a "weekend" that lasted a few years. But I made it through. I'm a survivor. You live and you learn. They say yesterday's history and tomorrow's a mystery. I strongly believe in that. That's what makes you who you are, when you think about it. All the negatives that happen in your life, you can turn [them] into a positive. You know that path leads to self-destruction, and it's miserable and you don't want to end up down there and so you don't take that path.
DIY Life: You have a reputation for having a temper. On this show, people might be expecting you to get angry; after all, construction and remodeling houses can be frustrating. But watching the first couple of episodes, I was amazed that you were so calm.
Rob Van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, says his crew loved being on camera during the filming of The Vanilla Ice Project. Photo: DIY Network
Rob: I've had therapy so I'm good. (laughs)
But years ago I went onto MTV and with Jon Stewart, Jeneane Garofalo, Chris Kattan and they wanted me to take a hammer and destroy my own music video. It was like throwing me out there in a pack of wolves. And I (had) made MTV millions and millions of dollars. And I said instead of me smashing my own video I'm going to smash your whole set up. And it was great. It got the highest ratings of all their shows.
And so then I went on [VH1's] The Surreal Life and smashed up the set. But a lot of people don't get it with these reality shows, and I hate to say this, but a lot of the stuff is staged. It's not as real as people think. I played up to that role because I know it creates ratings and people really get into it.
DIY Life: Tell me about the house that The Vanilla Ice Project revolves around.
Rob: It's a 7,000-square-foot mansion that once was beautiful but had been completely gutted, inside and out. There was no cabinetry, no toilets, no air conditioning, no stair rails. They took the doors and the door frames, the Jacuzzi tub. They even took a hammer to the beautiful Travertine tile on the walls of the shower and the pavers around the pool. They ransacked this house.
DIY Life: Who would ransack a beautiful house?
Rob: You basically have someone who bought the house in 2005 or 2006 and they probably paid way too much for the house with the market dropping. And they probably had to spend 20 percent to get the mortgage so they've lost a couple of hundred grand. So they took everything, even the crown molding. On one side you really can't blame them for trying to recoup some of their money. But on the flip side, they destroyed a beautiful house. And what didn't work out for them worked out great for me. I got a great deal on it from the bank on a short sale. The shell was there, the concrete work was in, and the roof was tight, so I didn't worry. To me it was a lot of work, but it was all cosmetic. I knew I could handle the job pretty easily. We spent a couple of hundred grand fixing it back up and remodeling it.
DIY Life: So do you think you'll make money on this house?
Rob: Yes. The process is pretty simple. If you buy a house, even today, way under the appraised value, you can make money. This house appraised for way over what I paid. I paid about $420,000 and there are about $300,000 in fix-ups. It's 7,000 square feet. It's got vaulted ceilings. It's got 8-foot doors all throughout, Travertine tiles, hot tub, tons of crown molding. It should appraise at about $1 million when it's done.
DIY Life: Is this a good time to be fixing up and flipping houses?
You can get some really good deals out there because people are hurting; they want to work, so labor costs a little less money. You can get some good deals on cabinetry and floors because manufacturers are struggling too.
DIY Life: On "The Vanilla Ice Project" your crew seems to be having a good time. What's it like in real life?
Rob: We have a good time. [I could] crack a whip on the guys and say, "You didn't show up for work on time," or "Here's your agenda for the day; get this done," but that just kind of make it miserable for the guys. I do it way different.
I'm the kind that likes to get in there with the guys and swing a hammer. I also take [the workers] to lunch every day and make it fun. We jackass around; I want them to have fun at work. But I also let them know [they shouldn't] take that for granted.
I also like when the guys take on a little project themselves so they can sit back and feel proud of what they're doing, and it's not just like punching a time clock. I create a long-term relationship with these guys so that when it's time to go work for Rob, they drop everything else. It's fun to go to work. When you keep the morale up, [people] work harder and get your stuff done better and easier, with less headaches and drama.
DIY Life: One of my favorite scenes in the first episode is when you're fixing the pipe that goes from the lake to the sprinklers and you're on your side on the grass and barefoot. You're very relaxed but you know what you're doing with the pipe and adhesive. How did you learn all that?
Rob: I guess I learned just [being] hands-on, doing it for all these years. It's kind of [a new concept] to the public, but like I said I've been doing this for over 10 years so I know the way a house goes together, how the sprinklers work, how PVC pipe works. You just pick it up along the way.
DIY Life: Do you fix your own houses up too?
Rob: (laughs) Yes. I can't stop. It drives my wife crazy. I'll sit in the backyard and go, "I could see a fireplace over there, or an outdoor kitchen or something." And sure enough, there will [eventually] be one.
DIY Life: What else should we know about your show?
Rob: Whether you're a fan of Vanilla Ice or a fan of construction -- or neither -- I think people are going to get a really good kick out of the show. Not only is it interesting as a celebrity-type show, but we do a lot of things that are ultra-modern, that will wow people.
[For instance] we put an infinity pool in the yard with these fire pods that throw up like 8 feet of fire and change color. We put a theater in what used to be an attic. You hit one switch and the lights go down, the screen comes down, electric curtains slide open. And then we have mood lighting. If you walk in and you're in a bad mood, the lights go red. And they're fiber optics, with shooting stars all over the ceiling.
Plus, we create less of a carbon footprint. We use a lot of LED lights. We got rid of a big dangerous water heater in the garage. If you ran into it it would have flooded the garage, or if you break a gas line in the garage and light a cigarette it would explode. So we installed a tankless water heater outside. It costs less to run, and you never run out of hot water.
DIY Life: Besides touring with your music and releasing albums, what's next in the flipping department?
Rob: I'll be working on my next house whether [it's filmed] or not. But it would be great if there were a show because my guys seem to work harder when the camera's on. That motivates them. At the end of this house [project] we sat back and patted each other on the back and said, "Good job guys." I think it's a feel-good house and I hope that translates through the camera.
The Vanilla Ice Project debuts October 14, 2010 on the DIY Network. Check your local listings.
Ex-rapper Vanilla Ice Flips Houses in Florida (Housing Watch)
House-Flipping Makes a Comeback (Wall Street Journal)
So you don't have a reality show and you're not an ex-rapper turned renovator -- it's okay! You can still start a renovation with great tips in this video: