Yo, VIP, let’s flip it: In the music world, Vanilla Ice might be a one-hit wonder, but in the world of Palm Beach real estate, Rob Van Winkle is anything but. Just how successful is the former “Ice Ice Baby” star? His house-flipping reality show, The Vanilla Ice Project, is about to start its third season on the DIY Network, and Van Winkle now runs a seminar on how to kick-start your real estate career and make millions. In the season premiere (Sunday, Jan. 27, at 10 p.m. E.T./P.T.), Van Winkle has his work cut out for him as he tries to transform a vacant mansion into a Polynesian escape — complete with a tiki hut and a man-made river. We talked to Van Winkle, 45, about his design beginnings and the fabulous life of his state-of-the-art homes.
How did you start flipping houses?
I didn’t plan it. I did “Ice Ice Baby” when I was 16 years old. I had a lot of money to buy some homes. I bought a home on Bleecker Street in the Village in New York. I bought a home in Laurel Canyon up near Michael J. Fox in L.A. I like to snowboard, so I got one up in Utah. I thought I would be using them. For three years, I went on tour and never even saw one of them other than like once or twice. I just came back and thought I was really stupid and young and dumb. I sold them and literally made millions. I was like, “Are you kidding me? It can’t be that easy. Hell, let’s go buy some more!”
And then you got into home decorating.
The decorative side came about 15 years ago. I had a house in Miami that I had professionally decorated. It was cool because I was 19 at the time, but I had purple rooms, green rooms, a yellow carpet, a red TV room and an acrylic staircase with fish swimming in it. It was neat to walk in and go, “Wow, this is cool!” But living there? It was horrible. I felt like I was living in a nightclub. I didn’t feel like I was home. I said, “Instead of hiring decorators and spending all that money, I’m going to do it myself.” I started educating myself. I went online, looked at a bunch of pictures, design magazines. I learned about earth tones and throw pillows and fireplaces and how to make it warm and cozy. It took a year and a half to do the whole house, but after it was done, I was amazed at how awesome it came out.
How did your first get involved with the DIY Network?
I got a phone call from Matt Levine, who filmed a Biography Channel episode on me back in the day. One of the questions was, “How did you not end up like MC Hammer?” I’ve been in real estate for over 15 years now. I never changed my phone number of 20-something years. Matt calls me up and goes, “You still doing real estate?” I said, “Yeah, I’m about to close on a house tomorrow.” He goes, “Really? Can I fly there tomorrow to film?” Before he got on the airplane to go home, he already had the deal wrapped up. It was never pitched. It was never planned. I never even thought about having the TV show, renovating houses or anything. But I absolutely love it.
Were you always handy growing up?
I always took my motocross bikes apart and put them together for no particular reason, just to see how they worked. I just had a tool kit, and I was bored and had nothing to do. I was curious to see how they worked, what caused the piston to go up and down and everything. In school I only made it to the 10th grade. I made “Ice Ice Baby” when I was very young. I wasn’t going to sit there and listen to the teachers anymore when I could go make millions and go on a world tour.
I don’t blame you.
It was the right move, I guess, but I believe in educating yourself. I educate myself. I go to Borders and read books on things I need to know. I go to seminars. I learn along the way. I love that. I think your interests will create the drive you need to find a way.
You went to investing seminars to learn about real estate, and now you’re now teaching your own.
Because my show is so popular, it’s gotten a lot of questions from people wondering how to do it themselves. I love giving the information out. It’s not the same as all the courses from before the market turned upside down. It’s a different market out here. Someone needs to explain that what worked six or seven years ago won’t work today. You can really lose your ass. I felt like this information was valuable. Today — I’m not kidding — you can make more money in real estate than you ever could make. You couldn’t build a home for what you can buy them for right now, and they’re going quick. The time is now.
What feedback do you get about the show?
A lot of my friends’ wives love the show. My friends are like, “Man, I was going fishing this weekend, but now because of your show, my wife’s got me putting in a new bathroom this weekend.”
What’s the fanciest thing you have in your own home?
I built the world’s first home Imax theater. It is incredible. Very hi-def. In the ceiling, I put in all these lights to make it look like a twinkling sky. I had to drill each hole and put in fiber-optic lights. I turned it into a smart home as well. Say you have guests coming over at 8 o’clock to watch a movie. I pull my phone out, scroll through 3,000 movies, I put on Forrest Gump at 8 o’clock. Not only does it turn my theater on, dim the lights, turn the sky on, open the gate, set the thermostat, everything ready for the guests — I could be in London! I could be anywhere. It’s one button. Click. Bam. The popcorn machine is already popping.
How many houses do you own?
I don’t even know. I’ve got quite a few homes. I have commercial real estate as well. I have vacant land, acres and acres. Horse farms. All different stuff. You diversify. I’d have to pull the files out of the filing cabinet to count all of them.