Jeff Lewis, the notorious perfectionist, is late for lunch. It is mid-May, and the Los Angeles-based star of Bravo's Flipping Out is in New York for NBCUniversal's annual upfront presentation to advertisers and running around town for various meetings and TV appearances (Rachael Ray, Meredith Vieira) to promote the forthcoming eighth season of his real estate-centered reality show, a cornerstone of the cable channel's programming slate. Back home, Lewis, 45, oversees a domain that includes, aside from the TV show, his day job at Jeff Lewis Design and a burgeoning lifestyle brand that encompasses his own line of paint and (coming soon) rugs and partnerships with Home Depot and other retailers.
"Jeff brings something very special to the products he's developing. It's not simply design theories and studies—it's good design based on years of learning what works and what doesn't," says Newell Turner, editorial director of Hearst Design Group. (Lewis once designed the Kitchen of the Year for Hearst's House Beautiful, a project featured in an episode of Flipping Out.)
To say Lewis has a lot of balls in the air is apt; he likes to call himself a "master juggler." In person, he reveals a relaxed, cheerful disposition that belies his image as a control freak. ("Jeff's tyrannical persona on the show is really an exaggeration," notes Turner.) Less surprisingly, he displays the business savvy and wicked wit that made him one of the best-known home designers around and a TV star.
Here, Lewis opens up about everything from his burgeoning lifestyle empire to fellow Bravo stars he loves (and not so much) to why "Kris Jenner" is his everything.
Adweek: So, Bravo's been good to you.
Jeff Lewis: When the show first got bought, I had lunch with [Bravo producer and personality and former programming chief] Andy Cohen, and he said to me, "These docuseries, they last three seasons, max. My advice to you is to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible." So I kind of always thought, this is over after the third season. And then every time it got picked up it was just a gift really.
You clearly have a solid relationship with Bravo, having been renewed for another season [premiering July 1] and doing spinoffs like Interior Therapy With Jeff Lewis. And you're tight with Andy, who is such a force at the network. [Lewis is a favorite guest on Cohen's late-night talk show, Watch What Happens Live.]
He is, and he's been in my corner since day one. We have a great relationship, friendship, chemistry. I will always be grateful to him. We had drinks and he was kind of saying, "I made you rich!" I'm like, "You know what? You did! You absolutely did."
What's the secret behind the success of Flipping Out and the Jeff Lewis brand?
I never really think of myself as a good salesperson unless I absolutely believe in what I'm selling. I've been watching a lot of HSN and QVC, especially when the celebrities are on because I'm just curious about what they're promoting. The other night I was watching Iman [the former supermodel who now hawks her own fashions on HSN] and I'm just wondering, does she wear those maxi dresses? I want to know: Does she put them in a suitcase and wear them on the weekends? And Suzanne Somers. If I were to open her medicine cabinet, are all those products there in her house? I think that's why I have been very careful and very calculated about the moves that I make, because I guess I don't want to be that flash in a pan Andy said I would be. I want to prove him wrong.
So many Bravo stars have gone on to build brands—you, Bethenny [Frankel of The Real Housewives of New York City, who famously sold her Skinnygirl brand for $100 million], the Million Dollar Listing guys. Why do you think the network has been a launch pad for so many celebrity brands?
Fifty-eight percent of my viewers, according to Nielsen, make over $100,000 a year. These people, they own their own homes, and they have the income to spend. Bravo ended up being a really good place to position my business. If I want to be in front of high-end home owners looking to do big-budget remodels, that was the place for me. It's funny because when the show first got bought, I had a very successful business and I didn't need the show, but I thought, oh, this is great, another stream of income. And then the market crashed a year later, and the show became my safety net and my primary source of income while I was basically reinventing myself and trying to figure it out.
Those were scary times.
It was very scary, and I think Bravo, they were a little concerned about embracing what was happening because it's an aspirational network, and they don't want to show some guy whose business is failing and he's trying to, you know, figure shit out. They were worried about me not flipping anymore, and by me not flipping, I honestly I think I became even more relatable. People were going through the same thing I was going through and I think in the end it absolutely strengthened the show.
You have a line of paint called Jeff Lewis Color [featuring 32 shades with names like "Skinny Dip" and "Green With Envy," sold at Dunn-Edwards stores and HomeDepot.com], which we used for this photo shoot. That was really something.
I will say, it was kind of a crazy shoot. And I'm glad I was open-minded to it because, you know, I tend to become controlling from time to time.
Are you happy with where your brand is at the moment?
If you had asked me a year ago, maybe not, but I think that now I'm very confident with the choices that I have made. There's the design business, the show, the speaking engagements, the paint line. We are now going to expand to rugs [also via HomeDepot.com]. We're talking about wallpaper and window coverings, and then the market has rebounded in L.A., so there is the potential for more flipping. Also, two years ago I [became creative director] of a West Coast [furniture] retailer, Living Spaces. I've been aligning myself with companies that have incredible expansion potential that need me as much as I need them, so it's been a much more equitable partnership.
Other designers have aligned with big national chains like Target and Macy's. You seem more selective about your partnerships.
I've had thousands of opportunities, and thousands do not pan out for a number of reasons—maybe it's lack of creative control, maybe the money isn't right, maybe it doesn't align with my brand. I was once offered a lot of money to endorse hot tubs—those above-ground, horrible hot tubs that you can finance for $19.99 and make three years of payments on. They were going to pay me a lot of money to be the face. It was one of those moments where I really could have used the money, but I felt like long term it would soil whatever I was trying to build.
Is it ever weird revealing the intimacies of your life with millions of viewers every week? [On Flipping Out, Lewis shares screen time with business and life partner Gage Edward, with whom he is having a child via a surrogate; his rapping office assistant, Jenni Pulos; his cantankerous live-in maid, Zoila Chavez; and a houseful of other extremely colorful characters.]
It can play with your head. I can see where some of these housewives [from Bravo's Real Housewives franchise]—who, by the way, have 10 times the exposure that I do—I can see where it goes to their head.
On the show, you seem to rely upon your partner Gage a great deal.
Gage is very bright, very advanced beyond his [30 years], very mature. I call him "Kris Jenner," because he's kind of the Kris Jenner behind this whole machine.
Have you ever met the real Kris Jenner?
I have not, but we recently stole one of her assistants—and I don't think she's happy. But he is so good. I mean, the way she's training those guys over there! If I have to stand outside Jenner Communications and make offers on the spot, I will.
How do you feel about being part of the dog and pony show at NBCU's upfront presentation?
I'll tell you why I do it. Half of those fucking people at Bravo are so self-involved and unprofessional—the talent, not the executives—they don't get why we're there. We are there to talk to advertisers, schmooze the advertisers, take pictures with the advertisers. And what [some of the network's stars] do is just talk to each other the whole night and go to the bar and drink. Do you know why you're here? These people are paying your bills. I mean, I get where the money is coming from. It's a job.
You were nominated for an Emmy Award for the first time last year [in the Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program category]. Did that blow you away?
I didn't even know we had been submitted [by the network]. The phone started ringing at like 6 a.m. I picked it up and they're like, "Congratulations!" I'm like, "For what?"
Your obsessive-compulsive tendencies feature prominently on Flipping Out. How do you see your OCD as playing into the trajectory of your career and work?
I think the OCD is actually paramount to my success. I was able to take this—what people call a disorder—and channel it into something productive and positive. That attention to detail has actually become quite an asset to me, because I see things that no one else sees.
Could you envision Jeff Lewis becoming a brand on the level of, say, a Martha Stewart someday?
I try to focus on what's going on in front of me and in the near future; I don't know what five or 10 years will bring. But you're right, maybe I should think a little bigger …
But let's say I did have $500 million. I would be doing exactly what I'm doing—my own projects, my own investments. But I would probably still have clients because I like it; it's fun and it's rewarding. Now, since we're having a baby, then maybe I would want …
I can't believe you're going to do that.
It's crazy, huh?
I mean, a house with a baby is not a house that stays in order, you do realize this.
All I can tell you is that I've become a master juggler and delegator.
There is going to be shit everywhere, and I do mean shit.
I clean up messes all day long. One more won't change anything.
This story first appeared in the June 22 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.