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.