The Ice Man Buildeth

Rapper Vanilla Ice reveals his 15-year double life as a professional home remodeler
By Ellen Sturm Niz
April 25, 2011

Although he’s best known for his ’90s music—who doesn’t remember “Ice, Ice, Baby”?—pop-music icon Vanilla Ice is also a successful real-estate entrepreneur and a remodeling expert with more than 15 years of hands-on home-improvement experience. Rob Van Winkle, Ice’s given name, first began remodeling with his own 15,000-sq.-ft. mansion in Miami Beach. That led to nearly two decades of real estate investments and renovations to flip houses for profit.

Last fall, a DIY Network reality show called “The Vanilla Ice Project” followed Van Winkle and his crew of contractors as they renovated a 7,000-sq.-ft. Palm Beach mansion. In each episode, Van Winkle pounded nails, tiled shower walls and called the shots in a room-by-room renovation that featured the latest in modern home features and technology. Sister network HGTV recently aired an encore presentation of the first season, and the second season of “The Vanilla Ice Project” will debut on the DIY Network in October 2011.

Reality shows may be notoriously low on reality, but during a recent chat with
K+BB, a charming and endearing Van Winkle revealed a true passion for interior design, solid home-remodeling know-how and a genuine interest in the innovative features of kitchens and baths.

Tell us about your first home remodeling project.
My first renovation was my home of 11 years, a 15,000-sq.-ft., 12-bedroom bachelor pad on Star Island in Miami with purple and green rooms and red walls. I was young and inexperienced in home decoration and renovation when I first moved in. It felt like I was living in a huge nightclub. I hated it. It’s true that colors can make you feel uncomfortable, so I completely changed it to earth tones, and made it into a home that felt like a home. After finishing the renovation of this first home, I decided to sell it, which resulted in a very profitable return on my investment. It was at that moment I realized I enjoyed the process of buying low, renovating within a budget by doing the work on my own, and then selling high.

How did you learn about interior design?
I started by reading design magazines and books and going to seminars. I learned how not to make the design so personal but to appeal to the demographics of the people who would buy the house. I had so much fun doing it that it consumed me. I like the gratification of it, sitting back, crossing my arms and looking at it, thinking, “Wow, I did that!” It’s a proud moment.

Did you learn the nuts and bolts of remodeling?
I can get in there and swing the hammer! I got a lot of hands-on experience by hiring a guy and being over his shoulder the whole time, learning from him and asking him questions.

What was the hardest thing to learn how to do?
Plumbing, like sweating lines, was very difficult in the beginning.

What has surprised you about the remodeling business and been difficult to deal with?
Not much now! Throughout the past 15 years, I ran into the hurdles I had to, but now I know the processes so nothing can surprise me. I don’t really buy homes that are older [and have problems], but I have had a few condos where they hired unlicensed electricians. You see it right away when they open the walls—but I’ve got master electricians to come in and fix that. For TV, we create a bit of drama, but there’s really no job that’s going to shock me.

What aspect did you find you had a natural talent for?
I like the decorative side. I hired many [female designers] and learned from them about design—earth-tone colors, travertine tiles, toilets. You would never even think that there are so many toilet designs! You have to have some sort of direction to make the overall picture come together, not just a bunch of sweaty guys. They know how to build and construct but you have to give them a direction, which is what I do.

What are your favorite design elements, especially in kitchens and baths?
I like to use new materials and modern, high-tech features in homes. I get a thrill by finding a really different Jacuzzi tub, for example, or even figuring out how to design for small spaces. I get excited about hidden fridges and dishwashers, soft-close, pneumatic cabinet drawers and doors, high-tech lazy susans, and undermount sinks in the bath because they are easy to clean. Little stuff like that, I love it.

You’ve said kitchens are one of your favorite rooms to remodel. Why?
I’ve been married for 15 years and have two kids, and everyone spends most of their time in the kitchen. I like all the features that make you really feel comfortable in the kitchen doing whatever you want to do. It’s gadget heaven. The options are endless, wherever your pocketbook can go. There are some new things that I’m incorporating next season [on the DIY Network show], like recipe books that are incorporated into a Sub-Zero fridge door.
Van Winkle and his team transformed the virtually empty kitchen space—a partial backsplash was the only existing element—into a high-end kitchen with solid cherry cabinets, Santa Cecilia Gold granite countertops, a brass undermount sink, a crystal chandelier, undercabinet lighting, decorative hardware, and a stainless-steel double oven, dishwasher and refrigerator. The total cost of the kitchen renovation was $48,500. The project also included some green elements, such as using all LED lights and replacing the large water heater with an instant-hot model, which runs on half the electricity.

What’s the secret of successfully flipping houses?
You want it to feel like home right away and take it above and beyond. People want a “wow” when they drive up with the landscaping, and a “wow” when they open the door. I’ll do a man cave to appeal to the guy and a female aspect like floral prints in the carpet or a Jacuzzi tub in the master suite bath. The female is going to love the shower as well with 10 showerheads that hit from every angle. It makes the woman go, “Honey, this is the house I want!” The guy is already sold because he loves the garage and man cave.

How does your rock-star style come through in your renovations?
I put my signature on everything I do. For example, I brought in a famous lighting guy who does huge stadium shows for The Rolling Stones and others to do my landscape lighting. My stuff just doesn’t look like everyone else’s. My stuff is classic, tasteful, but off-the-charts hot.

How do you split your time between your remodeling career and entertainment career?
I’ve got my guys on my team, so I set the projects up and they hold down the fort while I’m away performing shows on the weekends. I check in daily when I’m gone with a foreman on the job that keeps everybody in line. I have a really good team of guys who are licensed in the trade and work hard for me. They respect me because I know the trade as well. We also have a nice, fun work environment—I take them out for lunch and we prank each other a little.

Do your clients recognize you?
Because I buy properties for investment and flip them, I don’t really have clients. Until now, I’ve never been public about it or drawn any attention to it. I was working under a LLC and fairly anonymous until the show. I sold the [home featured on the DIY Network show] to some huge fans, though. They say I did an amazing job on the house.

How’s the rock star thing going these days?
I have a new album coming out in October. I still tour the world and draw the crowds, but it’s also all about chillin’ in Florida with my wife and kids. I love renovating these houses and have found a nice balance between work and play. I’m in a good space. A “happy” rock star is hard to find.
Van Winkle and his contracting crew on the “The Vanilla Ice Project” remodeled a gutted master bath by installing cherry cabinets, travertine shower tiles, a multihead shower system, a soaking tub, a granite vanity, brushed nickel fixtures, and earth-toned striped wallpaper. The entire master suite renovation cost $10,000, including custom closets in the bedroom.

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