Having binge-watched this season’s episodes of Bravo’s Million Dollar Listing New York during my recent bout with the flu, I was more than a little excited about today’s lunch with two of the series’ stars, Ryan Serhant and Luis D. Ortiz. Now in it’s fifth season, the show had its best ever ratings last week with a record-setting 1.9 million viewers tuning in to watch Ryan, Luis and Fredrik Eklund negotiate the tricky — and oh-so-lucrative — world of Manhattan real estate. “In New York, buying a 5 to 7 million dollar apartment, is still technically considered middle class,” Ryan told me, fully aware of how completely bizarre that sounds. Alrighty then.
For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of watching Million Dollar Listing New York is when the guys sell a property at some head-spinning sum and their commissions (often in the six figures) flash on the screen. For some Bravolebrities, insta-fame is the big payoff but for these guys, it’s all about the business. “You couldn’t buy this kind of exposure,” said Luis before Ryan interjected, “Well you could, but it would cost you a billion dollars.” Worldwide fame helps, too. Said Luis: “The show is huge in Australia. Fredrik told me when he was there the people at the airport went crazy and [makes Fredrik’s signature sound — Schwee!]”
Clearly, being on the show has been a boon for business. Ryan’s team at Nest Seekers International has racked up $630 million sales just in 2015 (!) and were ranked the No. 1 sales team in New York by The Wall Street Journal. Luis has sold over $100 million in residential real estate in the past three years.
Not everyone thought signing on to do a reality show about selling real estate was a good idea — at least at first. “In the beginning, there were people who were upset about [the idea of a show,]” said Luis. Ryan agreed. “Everyone said, ‘Don’t do it. It will destroy your business. It’s a lot easier being a ‘Housewife.'”
Fast forward five years. Now potential clients come to meetings armed with screen grabs from episodes to illustrate what they expect for their own deals. “The show has changed the way people think about real estate,” said Luis. And it’s not surprising clients want to cast themselves in the best possible light. “They also say, ‘I’m not going to be that guy,'” said Ryan, referring to the guys’ notoriously difficult clientele.
Television has clearly given these guys a huge career boost, but trust me, their hardcore work ethic, desire to succeed (more on that later) and crazy charisma would no doubt have landed them on the top of the city’s food chain eventually.
I first ‘Lunched’ with Luis in 2014 when he arrived a full half hour early (“My father always said if you’re on time, you’re late”) and talked about how he “escaped” his native Puerto Rico when he was 16 and wound up working as a janitor at a community college in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Somehow, he landed in Manhattan real estate. “I’ve always been a guy without a plan,” he told me then. Maybe, but on camera, at least, he’s always on a mission. In a recent episode, Luis stuck his neck out by schlepping out to Brooklyn to track down one of the city’s biggest developers, who was watching a Brooklyn Nets game in a swanky suite at the Barclays Center with Luis’ boss, Douglas Elliman honcho Howard Lorber. While both men were watching the game, Luis somehow got the developer to reinstate the initial lower Schedule A price of 13.8 million (It’s all relative, right?) which had been offered to a prospective (and very difficult) client before the developer decided to up the ante while Luis was still trying to reel in the deal. All that was missing was the theme from Rocky. For the record, he also arrived early today but seemed decidedly more relaxed than at our first meeting — but was still as relentlessly positive and upbeat (“Life is beautiful!”) as he was at our ‘Lunch’ two years ago.
I’d never met Ryan before (he didn’t make it to our earlier ‘Lunch,’) but I was intrigued by the always impeccably dressed (today he was sporting his off-duty casual look and some uncharacteristic stubble) fast on his feet broker, whose deft touch with extremely high maintenance clients has saved plenty of Million Dollar Listings from real estate oblivion. Born in Texas and raised in Massachusetts, Ryan came to New York in search of an acting career. He did some hand modeling (“I held phones for AT&T”) and logged four months on As the World Turns before the writers’ strike stymied the show and he wound up as the in-house rental agent for 99 John Street. In March 2010, his boss encouraged him to go to an open casting call for Million Dollar Listing and that, as they say, was that. “I don’t remember doing real estate before this show,” he told me.
This season, viewers have seen Ryan tirelessly negotiate with unrealistic clients whose certainty that their properties are worth more than the markets says they are (One guess on who usually walks away the victor) and lock horns with Amy, the prickly co-listing agent who lambasted him in one episode for taking a call from a seller without bringing her into the conversation. She now works for Ryan. “I told her I don’t ever want to be on the other side of a deal opposite her again. I want to be able to sic her on other people.” Smart, huh?
I’ve interviewed my fair share of television ‘personalities’ and suffice to say reel life and real life personas rarely match up. I knew the Luis I met was the same laser-focused, sincere guy viewers love to root for on the show. I’m happy to report Ryan is as smart, quick and funny as you’d expect. And today, there was no bickering between brokers. The guys explained when it happens on the show “it’s business.” To hear Ryan tell it the three of them are bonded for life. “We’ve become a family. The three of us understand what this is in a way that no one else does.”
While the show has certainly helped their businesses, I was more interested in how it has affected their personal lives — which it certainly has.
Two weeks ago, the cameras followed Luis, who was in a celebratory mood after his victory at the Barclays Center, home to his empty apartment. His loneliness in the scene was palpable. Luis broke down in tears during his ‘confessional’ explaining that he often talks to an empty chair in anticipation of the woman he’s in love with — but hasn’t yet met. “My mother called me and asked,’ Why did you cry on television?'” recalled Luis, blushing at the memory. “She said, ‘You have to protect your image.’ I said, ‘I’m human.'” A human now in receipt of over 600 letters and emails “from mothers who say their daughters would kill them if they knew they were writing to me to tell me they have the girl for me.” I’m guessing Luis won’t be talking to an empty chair for much longer.
For Ryan, his upcoming wedding on July 7 in Corfu, Greece to fiancée Emilia Bechrakis has given viewers a glimpse into his life beyond real estate and his regular 5 am gym runs. He told me it took a while for him to convince Emilia to be part of the show, but “now she’s okay with it.” Coincidentally, the wedding will take place the same night of the season finale, which I’m told, will have “a lot of drama.” You expected otherwise? “We’ll be huddled together somewhere in the village looking for wifi so we can watch it.” (Ryan told me they only get to see the show’s episodes a few days before they air instead of the longer lead they once enjoyed “because that gave us too much time to complain.”) The couple is planning to have 150 of their family and friends at the destination wedding and have enlisted not one but two wedding planners — one in New York and one in Greece to handle logistics — “We talk to both of them and then they fight with each other.” The church where the ceremony will take place is on a separate island. It all sounds rather romantic, doesn’t it? Sorry, that’s all the dish on the wedding I could score — the rest of the details have been promised to another outlet (I’m sworn to secrecy!) who landed the exclusive on the nuptials.
We hadn’t even gotten our entrees when Luis had to leave (Ryan arrived nearly a half hour late because of traffic so we had some catching up to do and he gamely stayed to chat) so I decided to ask Ryan more about what has motivated to do so well in a career he never planned to have. He told me of his earliest memories of being aware that success was important to him. While other ten year-olds were dreaming of being professional athletes, Ryan knew he wanted something else, even then. Nothing much has changed on that score. “I’m always thinking about the future. Emilia is always trying to get me to be more present.”
Real estate just happened to check off all the boxes. “The American dream is the harder you work, the more successful you’ll become. On Wall Street, you can make tons of money for a company but there’s a base salary and depending on what happens, bonuses change. In real estate, there’s no salary — but there’s no ceiling and there’s no floor.” Freedom to be his own boss is also something Ryan told me makes it a perfect fit for him. “I hate the idea of being changed to a desk. I can sit here and have lunch and talk to you and not worry about checking in.”
But make no mistake about it, selling real estate in Manhattan is no easy job — even with the added bonus of celebrity. “People get their real estate licenses and according to the agency that tracks that, the retention rate for new agents after six months is 15 percent. [They] watch Million Dollar Listing and want to know, ‘Where’s my million dollars?'” And, it should be said, the bigger deals north of 10 million are far trickier than selling less expensive properties. “The lower deals are always easier. No one selling a 15 million apartment is afraid of being homeless. They can sit it out. Want and desire are much harder to deal with than need.”
As the check came, I asked Ryan if he wanted a big family. “Emilia comes from a big family and I have a big family, so probably.” No doubt his dreams for “Little Ryan” will only ramp up his ambition to stay on the top of his game. “My biggest fear in life is wasted potential,” he told me reeling off a slew of movies (including The Kid starring Bruce Willis) that brought home that very point to him. Somehow, I don’t think he has much to worry about in that department.
Perhaps viewers will get to see how marriage and possibly fatherhood will change Ryan’s life beyond Million Dollar Listing New York (and hopefully a newly engaged Luis can make a cameo appearance.) I asked might there might be a reality show about the newlyweds in the future? (Hopefully with a much happier ending than the one Bravo’s reigning diva Bethenny Frankel chronicled after her exhaustively chronicled engagement) Ryan’s eyes lit up at the idea. “Put that in there!” he joked as we said our good-byes. I’m betting there are plenty of fans who’d tune in.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1.Producer Freddie Gershon and pals
2. Cosmopolitan editrix Joanna Coles and Donna Lagani
3. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh with the fabulous Francisco Costa. I was thrilled to stop and chat with the former designer Calvin Klein designer, who told me he’s off to Brazil and the Amazon and “working on his next big move.” Bon Voyage!
4. Author Jay McInerney
5. Politico Ed Rollins and his wife, Shari Rollins, who was celebrating her birthday. Cheers!
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Jeff Greenfield, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer
7. Book seller Glenn Horowitz
11. Bisila Bokoko with a well-dressed gent I didn’t get to meet
12. Producer Joan Gelman (we’re ‘Lunching’ later this month), PR maven Judy Twersky (who has been responsible for some of my dishiest ‘Lunches’) and their pal, Cynthia Kayan.
14. Star Jones
15. A&E’s Nancy Dubuc
16. United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky
17. Peter Price
18. LAK PR CEO Lisa Linden with Katherine Lemire, president of Lemire LLC, a compliance and risk management firm specializing in investigative due diligence and “complex” investigations for the public and private sectors. A little birdie told me Katherine was a formal federal prosecutor and assistant Manhattan DA. Impressive, no?
20. Beauty Fashion-Cosmetic World’s George Ledes and wife Christine Schott-Ledes.
21. Cablevision’s Charlie Schueler
23. David Blum
24. British Heritage Travel’s publisher Jack Kliger
26. Carl Peterson
27. Ryan Serhant, Luis Ortiz, Imani Ellis and yours truly
28. Gwen Norton (wife of the gentleman responsible for the Norton virus protection for computers, so we’re told)
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.