One of the questions I get a lot, outside of the ones about design, is--"How did you wind up here? With this career? And on TV?" I know, it's surprising to people. Hey, it's surprising to me!
Here's the deal, there wasn't a plan for this. Especially the TV part. There's genuine panic, self-doubt, flop sweat and the occasional vomiting whenever I have to appear on TV, or in a photo shoot. It's not natural for me. I really prefer being behind the scenes.
There was never a plan to do my job in front of a camera--that part was a bit of an accident. One that I am quite grateful for but also an experience that I realized is not always the perfect fit. The person I am and the person reality TV needs you to be rarely match up. Actually they're not even operating in the same room and if they run into each other, they act like the person you try to avoid at a gathering. We're not compatible.
My very early training was in theater and fine art in Chicago. It's where I designed and built sets, cultivated my love of color and scale through painting and sculpture, and where I studied acting. The focus in my acting classes was less about me and more about the story being told. It was thrilling to be a part of a story and to be able to participate in the vision that the writer and director had in mind.
The idea that I could make a living designing didn't even cross my mind. I knew I loved it. I thought I was pretty decent at it and I figured, so was everyone else. Don't we all just design/style our own homes? You mean people actually pay other people to put stuff in their home? To buy things for them? What the what?!
Even though I loved (and still do) theater/film I knew that I wasn't gifted enough to make a career out of it. I had seen and worked with brilliantly gifted actors and getting out of their way made sense. Architecture felt like a career/job type thing and though I studied it, I couldn't get past the mathematics and design by committee aspect of the process. So, I bounced around. I was always designing---department store windows, theater sets, friends apartments, their friends houses, while I kept looking for my "career." I never felt comfortable with the word *career*, but everyone told me I needed one.
I had been secretly sketching furniture, pieces that I dreamt of making for myself one day when I could afford to, and I was also planning of opening a little store. I thought that I could combine my love of changing space, art, design and helping people through the wonderful world of retail! One of my earliest design inspirations, as a high school kid in Illinois, was to go into downtown Chicago and walk through hotel lobbies and fancy department stores that I couldn't afford to even breathe in, and see what they were doing with color, displays, furniture and all around ambiance. So, here I was working at a coffeehouse in Los Angeles, Starbucks to be exact--back when there was only one location in all of California, they hadn't gone public yet, and no one outside of Seattle had even heard of them. This was in the coffee dark ages.
My plan now, was that I would eventually save enough money to open my little store and live happily in the world of, design can be life changing. What I was unaware of, was that my life was about to change with the meeting of an unassuming woman who ordered a doppio macchiato everyday. She would come in at the same time, stand in line, I'd see her and we'd wave to each other. I'd start making the drink and by the time she was done paying for it, there it was. We'd exchange a few pleasantries and off she'd go. I knew her name was Judy, she knew mine. That was pretty much it. One day, she asked me what my plan was. I told her I was going to eventually quit the coffee rat race and start my own design business. She offered to be my first client and invited me to her house for dinner and the opportunity to design it. Now, in order to fully appreciate this, you have to realize that we are talking about two people that are painfully shy, rarely socialize outside their comfort zone, and also like spending off hours by themselves. Alone. The fact that she invited a total stranger to dinner and the fact that I accepted was a small miracle. We are the best of friends to this day and we still marvel at this scenario.
The process of designing her home (and the 2 others she's owned since then) was transforming for both of us. Outside of the style changes that happened in her space, it was an emotional transformation as well. She was dealing with an enormous personal tragedy in her life that had all but paralyzed her emotionally. The design work was more about helping Judy get out of her psychological darkness, as it was her aesthetic one.
As we got to know each other, I found out she had worked as a film producer, talent booker on the "Today Show", author of a couple of books, producer on "Entertainment Tonight" and was a world class cook! She had a circle of friends she thought I should help---design wise. After her home and psyche had been spruced up, she started to entertain again and all her friends wanted their homes to look like hers. She started screaming my name on street corners in Beverly Hills to anyone that would listen. I freaked out. She calmed my nerves and pretty much told me to "Shut the f*&k up and do it." The first such ".....and do it!" job was an event for a few hundred people at the Playboy Mansion. My gig was to design and set up the event. No pressure. Within the first 15 minutes of being on the Playboy Mansion grounds I managed to slice my finger with one of the glass vases I broke (my vase, not Hugh's) and since I was so panicked that I would lose the job, I wrapped paper towels and duct tape around it and told no one. The job turned out great and was the beginning of my design business. Towards the end of the night, my photographer friend Inta, who was there as my assistant and now photographs all my angelo:HOME products, noticed that I "...looked a little green." I told her what happened earlier in the day and she wanted to see the cut. After almost fainting, she rushed me to the hospital where I received a shot, a few stitches and a look I'll never forget from the doctor when he asked, "Where did the accident take place?" "At the Playboy Mansion, Sir." Yep, that was a good day.
Thusly I say, a "career" was born.
The part where design met the world of TV is another kooky, serendipitous story.
Remember "Trading Spaces?" Remember when designers were putting hay on the walls and essentially punking homeowner's for ratings? Well, the Design TV genre was a huge hit at the time and every network and production company was desperate for people that could walk and talk, and knew how to spell the word *design.* Another friend of mine, Mike along with his lovely wife Jennifer, heard of an agent that was looking for someone that could do just that. They threatened to send my info, since I was not having any of their cheerleading for me to do it. Knowing what a control freak I am, they knew if they tried to send stuff about me to an agent, I'd want to be involved.
I met with this agent to pretty much tell him I wasn't sure about all this. It felt odd, but I agreed to go to some meetings with producers. Within a week I had booked two shows. They really did want anyone that could walk/talk and spell the word, "design."
I shot two test pilots. One for Lifetime. A show called "Merge" with Lisa Rinna and another yet unnamed show for TLC about organizing. When they both got picked up for series, I had to choose. "What do you mean?" I said to me now agent. He told me they were on competing networks and I couldn't do both. Since most of my life has been all about work my response was, "Oh, I can do both. It's not an issue. I have plenty of energy." He didn't even bother looking up from his desk when he delivered, what should have been obvious to me, through a clenched jaw, "Contractually you cannot be on two design show on two different networks. It's not done. Pick one and let's get this thing going." Feeling stupid I replied, "Which one do you think I should do?" He said, "I'd go with Merge. It has a star attached to it (Lisa R.) and it will run longer." I chose the other show. With that logic, I figured it would barely last a few episodes and also, it was cast with all unknowns, and how many messy, disorganized homes could there possibly be? That show was TLC's "Clean Sweep" and it went for over 120 episodes while the Lifetime show did less than 20, maybe?
The realization that with television, my idea that our spaces can be a life changing experience, I could reach more people--started to excite me. I loved the crews I worked with and the homeowners I got to help were fantastic and incredibly inspiring! I was beyond fortunate enough to go from "Clean Sweep" to a couple of other shows before landing on HGTV with "24 Hour Design" and "Rate My Space" as well as a few specials.
The challenge was, the more I did this---the being in front of the camera as myself stuff, the less I wanted to be just a "talking head" and the more I wanted to have input and control of the message, since it felt so personal. Being a part of someone's makeover journey is one of the most personal and intimate experiences and I never want to lose sight of that. It's a privilege to be asked into someone's home and to be trusted to change it. Putting their story on TV just for the sake of TV wasn't/isn't enough for me. At the end of the day, I get that television is first and foremost a business. I'm OK with that, but I also believe that you can have a great business without compromising your values or the people you put on air. At the same time, you can still inform, entertain, have fun, and enjoy a thriving business model all while creating some damn good TV--without resorting to ridiculousness.
Maybe I'm being naive here, but I think it can be done.
Hopefully, when THAT kind of TV is a part of my life, there will be less vomiting and flop sweat.