Interview With Jeff Lewis of Flipping Out

Flipping Out is the latest addition to Bravo's stable of gay-friendly reality shows, which includes Blow Out and Work Out (not to mention the competition reality shows like Project Runway, Top Chef, Top Design and Shear Genius). The star of Flipping Out is Jeff Lewis, an obsessive compulsive, high-stakes real estate speculator. He buys million dollar homes in and around Los Angeles, lavishly and loving renovates them and then sells them for a huge profit.

The show focuses as much on Jeff's quirky bunch of friends and employees — which includes executive assistant Jenni, her husband Chris (both actors), his business partner and ex-boyfriend Ryan, and his loyal, unflappable housekeeper Zoila — as it does his business deals. Add to the mix Jeff's cadre of therapists, psychics and spiritual advisers, and you've got an extremely entertaining bunch. Oh, and we can't forget the two cats and two dogs!

We recently had the chance to chat with Jeff about the show, living with OCD, and pet integrators. Thanks so much for talking to us.
Absolutely. I'm familiar with the website, by the way.

AE: That's great. We're all big fans of the show. Speaking of the show, congratulations. How did that come about?
Jeff Lewis:
The two assistants that work for me — two of the four assistants presently — Jenni and Chris, they were working on a project with a production company, and basically they made the introduction. They were working on this promo about their relentless pursuit for fame and success in Hollywood. It was called The Wannabes.

They wanted to film me because they're here working at my house five days a week. I was a big part of their life so the producers wanted to shoot their work life. I actually wasn't going to do it. I told them no initially, but they kept pushing and pushing and pushing until about three days before I reluctantly let them into my house to film. After they got the footage back to the production company, they noticed me, and they called and asked if I would be willing to be filmed and shoot a promo for a show around my life.

From then, it happened so fast. They were in my house within fourteen days. Two weeks later, they had edited the promo, and two weeks after that, they were shopping it. Within seven days, we had three different networks interested. It literally happened that quickly. I didn't even have time to second guess.

AE: Bravo seems to be a good fit for you.
It is. I think it ultimately ended up being the best home for me. There was another network that wanted to order twelve episodes, and that of course was a little bit tempting, but I thought Bravo was the best home.

AE: Do you think you'll be back for a second season?
I don't really know that. We haven't discussed it yet.

AE: Would you be interested if Bravo asked?
I think so. I'm really enjoying the break. I mean, it was really a tough time. They followed me for three full months. And we're not talking about just two people. There were two different crews and each crew was comprised of seven people. There were a ton of people in my house at any given time.

AE: How did you get into real estate speculation? What drew you to the field?
Well, my dad. Although he was never doing real estate full time, he was just supplementing his income. So I kind of picked it up by osmosis. I watched him. He owned commercial property and buildings, and I was just a little kid sitting in the passenger seat following him around as he visited his different properties. It was always interesting to me, but there was always a component that was missing. I've always been creative, and the segment of real estate that my dad was involved in really didn't quite interest me. He was all about the buy and sell, just the numbers and the money.

It took me until I was in my late twenties to understand and get my purpose. I liked the facet of real estate that I ultimately went into because it is ultimately very creative. I have that balance, because I really do feel like I have a strong interest in business, but I also want to be creative at the same time.

AE: You must see some awful things in your line of work. What is the worse property you've ever walked into?
I had a property in Hollywood Hills, I think it was in 2001 when I purchased the house. It was truly one of worst we've done. It was an older woman who had illegally divided the house into four separate apartments and was renting to several different people. It was … I'm trying to be politically correct here. There were some really, really low-rent people living there. I'm talking crack addicts, prostitutes. It was really bad.

At one point, after I'd gotten everyone out — and it took some time — we had gone in and some of the plumbing had not been working and they had been using the kitchen sink. We were literally cleaning up needles and syringes. It was really, truly one of the most disgusting places I'd ever seen. Not only did I have to take out all the dry wall, but I had to take up the sub floor just to get the smell out. I had to strip the entire house just to get ride of the smell. That's how bad it was.

It turned out to be a very lucrative investment. Nobody else wanted to touch it. They all thought it was a tear-down, and it almost was. I was able to at least keep the framing, but it was really bad. And the energy! I can't even tell you how heavy and depressing it was in there.

AE: In your experience, who takes better care of their property: gay or straight homeowners?
That's a good question. I don't necessarily think there's a big difference. Hmm. It's a very good question. I want to say gay, actually. Just thinking to myself, looking at all these properties every single day, maybe it is gay.

AE: You're representing two minorities: people with OCD and gay men. Do you feel a sense of responsibility?
No, not really. I'm not really looking at being a role model. I try to run my own race. I try not to look on the sidelines. I don't really feel responsibility. [laughs] What I do find is that a lot of people relate to me. There are a lot of us out there with OCD. I think it's one of the reasons the show has appealed to so many people.

It's something that you certainly have to manage. It doesn't have to be a disorder, but it does take work to manage it. I find if I'm not busy, if I'm only doing one, two, or three houses and I have a lot of time on my hands, that's when the OCD can get out of control and I start to control every aspect of my life and everyone else's. But if I'm busy and I have a full plate, I don't have time to focus it. Me being busy is the cure.

AE: What's been the biggest challenge for you professionally: your OCD or being gay?
I don't think being gay is a hindrance in any way, or a challenge. The OCD could probably be considered a challenge for me. A therapist once told me that if you feel like your life is out of control, then you try to control whatever you can. I can't control the real estate market, and that's definitely a big fear of mine, so maybe in some way, the OCD becomes more exaggerated. Maybe I try to control the little things in my life because there are so many big things I can not control.

AE: Have you ever encountered homophobia on the job?
Yes, I have a few times. No one has ever said anything to my face, but I have heard from other employees comments made on the job site. I usually correct it. I've gone through a few people. And it's not just homophobia. It's also racism. There have been situations where I've had to eliminate someone. My plumber who I've worked with for years, greatest guy in the world, he's African-American. I did have someone make a racist comment on the job, so he was eliminated.

I did hear about some homophobic comments made about me, about Ryan, and they were eliminated. I do try to control the job site as best as I can. There are a lot of different employees, a lot of different personalities, and they all have to work together on each property. Sometimes I have 45 to 50 people together on one job site. They've got to get along with each other. If there's one missing link, if someone doesn't get along with the rest of the crew, I can't use them. It doesn't matter how good they are.

AE: Bravo has now given platforms to gay business owners in hair (Blow Out), fitness (Work Out) and real estate (Flipping Out). What do you think should come next?
I have to say that Bravo sometimes focuses on the gay issue, and for me, it's certainly a part of me, I'm very proud of who I am, but it's just one part of my identity. It's not my entire identity. I certainly don't have a problem being lumped into that category because I'm proud of who I am, but I don't think it needs to be the focus of who I am.

AE: I think the show has done a good job of not making that focus.
That was important. That was something that we had discussed prior to filming. I said you're never going to see me hooking up with someone on camera. It's not going to happen. That's not the road I want to take. It doesn't matter if I'm gay or straight, I would feel the same way. That's not this kind of show.

AE: Your houses are truly gorgeous. You clearly have an eye for design. Would you ever enter a challenge like Design Star or Top Design?
You know, I don't think so, and I'll tell you why. The kind of work I do is a little different. I've heard the comments from critics that all my houses are generic, or they call them McJeffs because it reminds them of McDonalds. And yes, they're absolutely right.

What I do? I'm not looking to get published. I'm not looking to make some huge design statement. When I'm redoing these houses, it's important to create a palette, to create a product that appeals to a general audience, so I can't be too specific with my choices because I will eliminate 85% of the market. That's what some of these critics are not getting. If I decided to break the mold and design some sort of huge statement piece, that wouldn't work for me. It wouldn't work for my business.

AE: Ultimately, you're looking for a sale.
Absolutely, at the end of the day, I want to sell the house, and I want it to appeal to a large audience.

AE: Your business partner Ryan is also your ex-boyfriend. Has that been difficult to work together after dating? Were there any challenges you had to overcome in order to have a successful business relationship?
Yeah, there was certainly a lot of tension, a lot of resentment. It was a friendly, civil breakup. I haven't had too many of those. [laughs] This one in particular, it was a good relationship. Ryan was always a good friend. I always completely trusted him. I probably couldn't be business partners with anyone else, because there was that complete trust. I rely on Ryan to make really important financial decisions and I don't have to worry about that with him. I don't think that I would have a business partner if Ryan weren't around.

AE: Trust is a big issue for you, something you've brought up numerous times in just the first two episodes. Who do you trust the most in your life?
It is difficult. I'm sure other people can relate, but it is difficult for me to trust. A lot of people have let me down and disappointed me. I try very hard to get through it. I try very hard to give people the benefit of the doubt. That said, I do have a close-knit group of friends that I trust. I do generally trust my employees, the ones that are working for me presently, until they give me a reason not to.

AE: Speaking of your employees, they almost serve as a sort of surrogate family for you. Chosen family is a common experience for many gay people. What drew you to the people in your life?
I've been through a lot of assistants, and I've certainly been through many, many interviews, but there were some redeeming characteristics with these people that work for me now. I felt like, ultimately, at the end of the day, I needed someone in my home that I could trust, and that had my back, and were good people.

I'm not sure we didn't come together out of dysfunction, [laughs] but I do — and I think they know this — I really do care about the people who work for me. I do want the best for them. I am flexible with their career goals. They're all pursuing other careers — except for Zoila — and I'm very flexible with that. I'm very supportive. I move their schedules around the best I can so they can pursue their dreams and goals. It is difficult for me to manage. I don't want to hold them back. I don't feel like they're going to be working for me forever, and I don't want them to be working for me forever.

AE: Have you watched the show at all since it began airing?
I have.

AE: How did you feel when you heard Jenni or Chris call you crazy?
When I first heard that, I was a little thrown back, but I'm self aware enough to know that my behavior isn't always so normal and that most people would consider it crazy.

That said, when Jenni finished that sentence, she went on to say that all geniuses are crazy. Which really, I found the second half of that sentence to be a huge compliment. I thought, wow, this is a girl who really respects my work. She knows how hard I work, and how much I put into this, and how much I care. It's very hard to shut off. As much as I'd like to shut it off at 7 o'clock and continue with my evening, I'm always thinking about it — thinking of ways to make the houses better, important changes that could take the property to the next level. I'm always thinking.

AE: Are you single or are you seeing someone now?
I am seeing someone now. It's been a long-term relationship. Although we don't live together, it's been about five years.

AE: Does having OCD affect your relationships?
Oh yeah. Absolutely. It's difficult for him. I'm obviously extremely neat and organized, and he is not, and that creates a lot of tension. Although, he's gotten better, and I've gotten a lot better. By that, I mean I let him keep his house messy. [laughs]

AE: Sometimes it almost seems as if you like your pets more than people. True or false?
[long pause] True. [laughs] True. I love animals. I love my pets. They changed my life for so many reasons. I just care about them so much. I'm responsible for them, they depend on me. I hate to say it, but I do. I care more about my animals. [laughs]

AE: In the first episode, Jenni mentions that you have a pet integrator. Pardon my ignorance, but what is that, exactly?
This is somebody who is very much like the Dog Whisperer. I rescued Oliver, the little dog. Somebody had just abandoned him at the dog park and we brought him home. The cats were not happy, so we hired the integrator to work with the cats and dogs so everyone could live together harmoniously. It actually really worked. We probably had four or five different sessions with this guy. He worked with Oliver, and Oliver learned to respect that the cats were there first, and ultimately, the cats run the house. [laughs] They're in charge.

AE: Jeff, thank you so much for talking to us. I hope you come back for a second season.
Thank you. I really appreciate it.

Flipping Out airs Tuesdays at 10 P.M. on Bravo.