Bette Midler, Al Roker & Bravo’s Bickering Brokers From Million Dollar Listing New York

Lunch At Michaels

LunchAtMichaelsWhen it comes to Bravo’s ever-expanding slate of reality stars, it’s hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard. Between the Housewives, hipsters and wannabe singers, few have retained more than a few seasons of fame (or infamy) outside the realm of their melodramatic universe give or take a few Life & Style covers. I can count the number of Bravolebrities on one hand that have left an impression on me beyond registering their sheer delight at their own insta-fame. That’s why my lunch with Luis D. Ortiz and Fredrik Eklund, stars of the network’s Million Dollar Listing New York, was such a pleasant surprise.

Luis Ortiz, Diane Clehane and Fredrik Eklund
Luis Ortiz, Diane Clehane and Fredrik Eklund

Besides being charismatic, funny and extremely well dressed (more on that later), these guys are driven beyond belief and smart as hell. Over the course of our lunch to dish about the new season, (premiering next Wednesday, April 2 at 9 p.m) I learned quite a bit about Fredrik and Luis (unfortunately their castmate Ryan Serhant was tied up at a pitch meeting and never made it to Michael’s.) Fredrik heads up the country’s top selling real estate team (which he founded) at Douglas Elliman. Between bites of his Cobb salad, he told me he sold 36 apartments last year, raking in 2.2 million in commissions during season two. So far this year, he’s sold $400 million (yes, you read that right) worth of real estate. Luis, who now works with Fredrik at Elliman, where he heads up his own real estate group, has sold over $300 million in residential real estate in the past three and a half years.

Almost thirty minutes before the appointed hour, Luis arrived at Michael’s and we sat at the bar chatting about the fickle finger of reality television fate waiting for the rest of our party. Besides being struck by Luis’ impeccable made for GQ style (a perfectly cut, made-to-measure suit “from a tailor in Mexico,” Patek Philippe watch and a Zara coat I’d kill for), I couldn’t help but notice his laser-like focus on my questions. The guy knows how to listen (a very underrated character trait, if you ask me). When I inquired if he thought the show had created a ‘character’ for him he said, “Television can’t edit you differently if you are yourself. I respect myself and I’m myself at all times. I understand the need for drama, but the business is inherently dramatic enough that we don’t have to make things up. I feel like the camera is telling the truth.”

Minutes after our lunch was served (Luis raved about his risotto), Fredrik swept in (equally stylish in his Club Monaco sweater, Prada tie, gleaming Rolex) chatting on his mobile phone until he reached our table. We were in the middle of talking about how reality shows seems to be the kiss of death for some and it would seem that real estate — especially in Manhattan where deals are subject to so much behind the scenes goings on — would be the least likely profession to fare well in the spotlight. But for Luis and Fredrik, it’s been a boon. “It has helped the business,” explained Luis. “With people that don’t know my name, they know ‘that’s the real estate guy on television.'”

The show serves as a heaping helping of real estate porn with Luis, Fredrik and Ryan battling it out — and frequently each other — for the best deals in the high end residential luxury real estate. Business, as they say, is booming. Luis told me “All cash deals are closing in less than 45 days” like 157 W57 that went for 93 million and the Russian billionaire who plunked down 88 million for and apartment at 15 Central Park West to keep the cash out of the hands of a soon to be ex-wife. All of this is sure to bring out the best — and worst of anybody in search of a commission, no?

“The format is unique because we shoot over a long period of time,” explained Fredrik, who had just come from shooting for the show. “It would be difficult to maintain a ‘character’ for that long. Everything is real.” Even, said Fredrik, the rare fails. “When I failed with the Marble House, I didn’t like it and you saw that. Was I humiliated in last season’s finale? Yes. The drama is real. I love our format because every deal is transparent. Unfortunately for us, some of our biggest deals aren’t seen.”

The guys agreed it’s about 50/50 with clients that are okay having their deals play out on camera (“Socialites love the camera,” said Luis, “But the extremely wealthy clients don’t want to be filmed”) and why there’s no need to manufacture drama for the show. Their success in the blood sport world of Manhattan real estate may seem like something scripted for Martin Scorsese‘s next film, but it’s very real, as evidenced by those pie in the sky commission numbers that flash on screen when they close one of their deals. I was surprised to learn that the show is still shooting the new season (nine months and counting) but, as Fredrik explained, “It takes that much time for many of the deals to close so we want to show what really happens and we do.”

While there are plenty of viewers who tune in for the drama, today Luis and Fredrik were more inspirational than confrontational. Luis told me he “escaped” his home in his native Puerto Rico when he was sixteen and wound up in Fort Lauderdale, where he worked as a janitor at a community college. After trying his hand at directing for a few years, he decided it wasn’t for him and switched to real estate. “I’ve always been the guy without a plan,” he said. Somehow, Luis landed in Manhattan and in seven short years rose through the ranks in one of the city’s most cut-throat and competitive businesses. His eyes positively lit up when he told me about the motivational speaking he does in schools, visiting kids in places like Puerto Rico, Dallas and Harlem. “The kids ask me, ‘Why are you so happy all the time?’ and I tell them, ‘I like who I am.’ I came from nothing. I’m not the guy who knows everything. With the show, I want to be a sharper version of myself.”

Growing up in Stockholm, Sweden, Fredrik remembers the exact moment he knew he wanted to come to New York. He was six years old and visiting the Statue of Liberty with his father. “I was walking down all those stairs and looking out the windows, I thought, ‘I’m going to live here one day.’ I was obsessed.” Having founded a high-end residential real estate brokerage in Scandinavia and worked as an investment banker in Stockholm, London, Singapore and Tokyo, he came to New York 12 years ago and now oversees 5,000 agents in 85 offices all over the East Coast at Douglas Elliman. Something of an ‘older brother’ to Luis now that they are working with, not against each other this season, Fredrik sounded downright warm and fuzzy when he admitted he even like arch nemesis Ryan “a little bit” this season.

While Luis, who joined the show in its second season, is unsure how he wound up on the short list for casting (“I have no idea — they found me”), Fredrik seemed fated to be part of it. In 2006, he hired a production company to film his own pilot, Billion Dollar Broker where he pulled out all the stops “yelling at people on camera” and pitched the show to Andy Cohen.With Million Dollar Listing, Los Angeles already on the air, Andy passed on the project but when it came time to casting a New York version of the show three and a half years later, Fredrik was a sure thing.

Lest you think it’s all brotherhood and big deals (Fredrik told me he earns three times as much as last year in commissions) in season three, the guys agreed there is plenty of drama on tap and one of the biggest blowouts occurred during shooting just last Wednesday between Fredrik and Luis. “We really go to a very dark place,” Fredrik told me. “I cried. It was bad.” So what gives? “I wanted to help him,” said Fredrik as he shot Luis a look, “But he doesn’t want it.” Luis jumped in: “It’s not that I don’t want it, but sometimes you’re not sure where the other person in coming from.” Sounds interesting. Luis was quick to add that even with all that went down, “[Fredrik] is the person I respect most in this business. We’re both very passionate about what we do.”

And surely plenty of that passion will be on display as the show delves deeper into the guys’ personal lives. Luis tells me that we’ll meet his family in Puerto Rico “There’s all these aunts, uncles and kids. It’s crazy with a lot of food and music.” For Fredrik who got married on the show last year to artist Derek Kaplan, things sound, of course, much more dramatic as he and his husband continue to disagree over whether to have a baby. “I want to and my husband is not sure we should.” Is it hard to see something so intimate play out this way? “I don’t even think about the camera anymore. It’s scary for some of the things to have happened on television the way they have but that’s the way my life is.”

Not surprisingly, both take a different approach to watching themselves on television. Luis, who doesn’t own a TV, has to be reminded to watch the screeners, while Fredrik “turns out the lights in my big apartment and watches the whole thing.” Neither one has seen the first episode of the new season but will be getting their screeners tomorrow. (We’re giving it four stars) One guess who will be meeting the messenger at the door. But the boys have one thing in common: both are thrilled at what being a Bravolebrity has brought to their already skyrocketing careers. “There was this time when we were both on Watch What Happens Live and we were in the men’s room peeing and we just looked at each other and said, ‘Can you believe this?'” said Fredrik. Adds Luis: “We’ve had to fight to get here and we’re both really grateful.”

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. American Express Publishing’s Ed Kelly presiding over a table full of movers and shakers

2. Discovery ID’s Henry Scleiff and Al Roker

3. ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong and David Zinczenko

4. Bette Midler and agent Boaty Boatwright. I bumped into the Divine Ms. M in the powder room (literally, it’s tiny) and asked her how she felt about her performance at the Oscars this year. On the red carpet she told reporters it was the first time she’d performed there. While she seemed a bit nervous on stage, she gave a heartfelt performance of Wind Beneath My Wings during the ‘In Memoriam’ segment. “I enjoyed it,” she told me. When I told her most people I knew thought she was fabulous, she smiled and said, “Well then, I’m so glad” before scurrying back to her table. What can I say, I had an opportunity and I took it …

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. Dr. Gerald Imber and Jerry Della Femina

7. Birthday girl Fern Mallis celebrating “her day” with some well dressed pals. Cheers!

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Brooke Hayward

9. PR princess Deb Shriver with Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel

10. Inside Edition‘s Deborah Norville and Joe DiSalvo

11. Hearst’s high priestess Ellen Levine with a “catch-up” lunch with former colleague Jessica Kleiman who now toils as EVP-Communications, for Sandow handling PR for a multitude of titles including Worth and NewBeauty as well as non-media clients like Fred Segal and talent management agency Culture + Commerce. Long time no see!

12. Andrew Stein with author Ed Klein and Nancy Ross

14. Bill Siegal

15. TV Guide’s CEO Jack Kliger

16. United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky and pals

17. PR maven Lisa Linden

18. Tony Hoyt and pals Arlyn and Ed Gardiner

20. Producer Joan Gelman

21. Michael Garin

22. Peggy Siegal

24. Scalamandre’s main man: the perennially best dressed Steven Stolman and home furnishing honcho Ken Rood

25. Kelly Langberg with her husband Jeffrey Langberg and their son

26. Rubenstein’s Steve Solomon and two ladies we didn’t get to meet

27. Fredrik Eklund, Luis Ortiz, Bravo’s Ryan McCormick and yours truly

29. Steven Haft

30. Adam Platzner

81. Peter Price

Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.