It's hammer time for Vanilla Ice
Vanilla Ice is tuning up his well-worn guitar. As he breaks into song, a couple of guys in dirty overalls barely pay attention. In fact, the place looks pretty trashed — a large empty room with bins and paper scrawled everywhere.
But that’s just the way it’s meant to be. Because this is the kind of venue Ice prefers to play in these days. He’s on location for his latest gig — renovating a sprawling Palm Beach, Fla.,
"The Vanilla Ice Project," which follows the singer over the course of a single renovation and sale, began its second season on the DIY Network late last month. The first season, which premiered in fall 2010, not only took the network’s home improvement fanatics by surprise but has also helped refurbish the image of the rapper who once seemed destined to be a '90s punch line.
The man who turned the single "Ice Ice Baby" into a cultural phenomenon in 1990, however,
was initially hesitant to enter the world of reality television. "What is Vanilla Ice going to look like as a construction worker?" said Rob Van Winkle (Vanilla Ice is the moniker he once hated but now embraces). "Is this going to be a joke?"
Apparently, the 44-year-old who was celebrated and mocked for his monster polarizing hit, overcame any fears he had about not being taken seriously as a blue-collar man. With his manicured goatee, wide smile and permanent baseball cap, the singer is taking to his new role as a house flipper with the gusto of a late-night-TV salesman. Swamped for advice after his first series, he began a real estate website, wrote a how-to book, and plans to hold house-flipping seminars.
"When we launched ‘Vanilla Ice,’ there was a lot of skepticism," said Ross Babbit, senior vice president and general manager of DIY Network, which counts the "Vanilla Ice" show as among its most popular. "We get plenty of celebrity pitches, but they have to really know what they are doing or our viewers would see right through it."
He attributes his affinity for home improvement to his mother. Despite a tumultuous childhood that included never knowing his real father and growing up with three siblings (all with different fathers), his mother always maintained a clean and well-kept home.
"We didn’t have much growing up, but she would keep everything spotless," he said. "She would even rake the carpet. It’s taught me to be very meticulous and to take pride in my work."
His meteoric rise from local mall break dancer to one of pop’s first crossover hip-hop artists was spectacular — and so was his well-documented fall from grace, which included hard drugs and a suicide attempt. He brushes it off now with a one-line mantra: "I had a weekend that lasted a few years."
"I had to figure out who I was," said Van Winkle, who has been clean and sober for years. "I’m happier today than I’ve ever been."
The vegetarian father of two daughters — 14-year-old Dusti Rain and 11-year-old KeeLee Breeze — is a strong advocate of early rising.
"When the sun goes up, I’m up," he said. "That’s how you get things done."
His latest renovation for the series is a 10,000-square-foot, six-bedroom Mediterranean-style residence on 3 acres in Legend Lakes Estates, a residential development in Lake Worth, a city in Palm Beach County. Van Winkle bought the house, which had been abandoned for three years, last year for $575,000. Initially, he envisioned spending $200,000 in upgrades and improvements. But his budget eventually ballooned to roughly $1 million.
"I kept getting ideas, and I didn’t realize how extravagant I would get," he said. "But I can still turn a profit. This house completed will be worth over $2 million."
Viewers can see where the money is invested over the 13-episode season — among other things, a heli-pad, a barbecue area with a tiki hut and fire torches, a 400-foot zip line, and a once-rundown pool that becomes a tropical play land with a 2-mile lazy river. And there’s a gold pole in the upstairs master bedroom upstairs.
A stripper pole? "No. I’m not that kind of rapper," he says with a laugh. "It’s a genuine fireman’s pole from a 1928 fire house."
The house’s interior may best be described as the Jetsons gadgetry meets Palm Beach extravagance. There are 20 televisions in the house, including in a game room with three panoramic 3-D screens; a pneumatic elevator; and flush-mount iPads in every room.
"You will be able to control everything in the house from your smartphone or an iPad. You don’t even have to be home," Van Winkle said. "You can turn the lights on around your pool, set the heating, scroll through 6,000 movies and decide which one should start at 8 p.m., turn on the waterfall, open the gates and have the popcorn machine running all before you even get home."
"He decided to do a much bigger and better house this time," says series executive producer Matt Levine. It was Levine, who after filming Ice for a profile on the Bio Channel two years ago, suggested a reality show. "It was so unexpected that here is this music icon we are profiling talking your ear off about real estate and construction," says Levine. "If this show goes away, he will still be buying and fixing up houses."
His new life as Mr. Fix It has rejuvenated his entertainment career. He recently released an album, a techno-dance-hip-hop hybrid, and now regularly plays concerts here and overseas. He spent the last two months in the London playing Hook in a Christmas pantomime production of "Peter Pan" and has been cast in an Adam Sandler comedy, "I Hate You, Dad." (Sandler reportedly was inspired by watching the DIY show.)
"There were some really low points over the years, but now I can look back and laugh," he said. "I never expected all this to happen."
It’s late in the day. The cameras are off, and his workers have gone home, but Vanilla Ice is heading back to the house. "I will probably be here 'til till 10 p.m. My crew don’t clean that well, so I like to get things in order for when we start again tomorrow," he says and smiles.
"That’s my mother coming out again."
— Katherine Tulich
Photo: Robert Van Winkle, better known as Vanilla Ice, left, with MC Hammer in 2009. Credit: AETN/Zach Dilgard.