The New York Times ran a story this weekend about the start of the second season of the Vanilla Ice Project.
Read it here…
“JUST Bulldog it!”
It’s advice, sure, but really it’s an order. In my hand is a piece of thick burgundy 3M sandpaper, and in front of me is a stubborn knot of wood, jutting out maybe half an inch from an otherwise elegant circular staircase. Surely there is a power tool designed to address this situation, but on this balmy day I am the power tool.
Minutes before, trying to maneuver in the tight space, I stepped on a Bostitch nail gun, resulting in a bitter hiss. Obstacle avoided, I go back and forth with the sandpaper for a few seconds at a time — any more and the heat generated sends my fingertips into paroxysms of agony, as if I’m gripping matches by the lighted end. Sandpaper on, sandpaper off. Sandpaper on, sandpaper off. The aggressive bursts of heat begin to numb my fingers as wood bursts into sawdust, and the grain gets more beautiful and the surface more smooth. That’s when Vanilla Ice, seeing that the goal is near, leans in and commands again, “Bulldog it!”
Yes, Vanilla Ice, once the most famous and reviled rapper in America, a towering figure of hip-hop crossover and identity crisis. He’s still making music, but he’s also now flipping homes.
Next Saturday marks the start of the second season of “The Vanilla Ice Project,” the unlikely DIY Network hit. But even more notable than its popularity is its accessibility and authority. Watch just a few minutes of the show and it’s clear that Vanilla Ice, 44, is a man in command of his kingdom. He’s at ease with all aspects of renovation, having flipped or built more than 100 houses in the last 15 years, he estimates.
So on a sunny, optimistic day in September I reported for work about midway through the renovation of the Season 2 house, hoping to imbibe some of that cold Ice wisdom, and to avoid causing problems that would infuriate the home’s future owners.
The house is nice but not ostentatious for this relatively well-to-do neighborhood about 15 miles southwest of Palm Beach, one of several planned communities that unfold to the west of the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, just past the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame. Vanilla Ice began exploring the areas around Palm Beach after Miami, where he lived, became “invaded by tourists,” he says. “I never even came up here before.”
What’s here is a sea of expensive, secluded homes, surrounded by multiplying luxury strip malls and big-box stores. There are new developments, foreclosures, short sales and plenty more to occupy a real estate investor’s time. “I keep up on foreclosure statistics, population growth, where everybody’s going,” he says. “I find out where’s the next artery on the turnpike, ’cause I’m going to buy some land up before they put that in. Where’s the next Walmart being put up? Where’s the government putting money?”
He likes to drive, so once the knotty wood has been tamed, we hit the road, heading to some home-supply shops. When we pull up to Lowe’s, he takes a V.I.P. parking spot, which is to say he drives his S.U.V. right up to the door and hops out. Mostly we’re hunting for decorative moldings to give the staircase a quick hit of faux dignity. After scavenging through the store, he finally finds a handful of light wood ones — the better to curve with the staircase — and scoops them up.
As he heads back to the cash register, a little girl, maybe 6 or 7, freezes up when she sees him. “She loves you,” her mother says, as Vanilla Ice stops for a picture and some conversation. As he pays from a wad of 50s and 100s stuffed in a clip in his pocket, he reaches into a small fridge in the store and grabs a sugar-free Red Bull. I mention that I’ve never had an energy drink before, which he takes as an invitation, grabbing one more, this one with sugar. “You’re going to love that,” he insists. Back in the S.U.V. I start to take slow sips, as if it might burn holes in my esophagus. It tastes like formula for baby robots.
Then it’s on to the Radio Shack at a mall, where an older woman tosses him an “I love your show” as he’s telling me how health issues lead him to go vegan, and to quit smoking weed. The Red Bull is taking hold, because I find myself extremely interested in the particulars of blood oxygenation. Also I’m sipping slowly, because now it tastes like clouds and glitter.
By the time we return to the house, I’m ready to work work work and am set up with one of his garrulous friends and four or five silent laborers who are slapping wet concrete on stone slabs and then attaching them to all sides of some square columns at the back of the house, giving a more rustic edge to a house that began as pretty modern. I pick up a trowel and try hard to spread the concrete evenly. “Think of it like peanut butter,” Vanilla Ice’s friend says, which doesn’t help. I put a couple of dozen pavers up, pressing them hard against the column so they stick. I get the sense that everyone else is putting theirs around the columns more tightly to compensate for mine.
At one point Vanilla Ice takes a break to let me drive a Bobcat loader, but it appears to be out of hydraulic fluid. Miffed, he dispatches someone to call the maintenance company. A little bit later, after the laborers have moved on, he checks in on the work. “See this? Carelessness,” he says, as he bends down to wipe up some stray concrete. Then he gazes over the backyard: “Damn, that looks rich. I don’t see how you’re not going to want to live in this place.”
And he’s right. Despite my best efforts, everything looks flawless or on the road to it. There’s a tiki island in the middle of the pool (that he excavated himself) with a grill and TV, all controlled by iPads. In the pool are reverse osmosis filters. “It’s what the space shuttle uses,” he says.
Inside, the house has preposterous details. There’s a walk-in humidor and wine room beneath that circular staircase, designed to envelop a pneumatic elevator. One room will have electronically controlled Murphy beds, and another has video gamer chairs by X Rocker with wireless functionality and built-in speakers. There’s a helicopter landing pad in the front yard. During lunch he signs off on an elaborate sprinkler system, dripping hot sauce on the property appraisal form.
“When we were in high school, what did we do? Find the new rap record,” he says. “Now I want to show you how you can put a flush-mount iPad in every single room, even the laundry room. Maybe you just want to watch a soap opera in there.”
“We’ve lost a lot of hope in America,” he continues. “Let me get some encouragement in these people. It’s not about the resale value. It’s about enjoying living.”
Vanilla Ice (real name: Robert Van Winkle) has had nice houses since at least the release of his 1990 multiplatinum major-label debut, “To the Extreme” (SBK), which spawned the genre-reshaping single “Ice Ice Baby.” After that, even as he music career rose and fell, he splurged on everything, including homes, one of which was on Star Island in Miami. “I felt like I was living in a frigging nightclub,” he recalled. “It became lonely and miserable.” So he started liquidating his properties, and came to realize that real estate held its value. A second career was born.
An offhand comment to a TV producer about his side hustle a couple of years ago led to the opportunity to turn it into a reality show. On site the filming is pervasive, with several parts of the house being worked on and documented at once. Throughout the day he is so focused on the tasks in front of him that he often forgets to look at the camera and explain what he’s doing. He’s meticulous, and he’s efficient; the cameras, you sense, may be cutting into the bottom line by slowing him down.
It’s a nice life, this. He home-schools his two daughters, “to protect their innocence,” he says, and to give them the stability that he never had as a child, when he moved from house to house, school to school. And he enjoys it here, in this least urban of places. “My house is pretty nice,” he says with a laugh. He lives in the nearby gated community Versailles.
The house from Season 1 was sold to a Chinese family who saw the show on TV while visiting Disney World, drove to see the house and closed quickly. And Vanilla Ice already has his eyes on a home for the show’s third season. It was hit by lightning, and “the whole roof is laying in the living room,” he exults. “It’s waterlogged, but I know the structure is fine.”
By this point it’s dark, we’re outside, and bugs are eating us alive. Having abandoned all pretense of work hours before, I’m more than ready to punch my card.
“You know what I’m going to do?” he says. “Get some Liquid Nails and stick that vent in that no one seems to want to do, for the dryer.” I’m curious, but there isn’t enough Red Bull in this town. The bulldog rests.