He still remembers that moment, even as the chaos of his life swirled about him two decades ago. On the upside of his epic hit, Ice Ice Baby, Robert Van Winkle surveyed what his soaring career had afforded — the cars, the parties, the good times and this modern pad on Star Island. It was a professionally designed showcase of flash, but deeply bereft of soul.
“I felt like I was living in a nightclub,” said Van Winkle, the rapper who commanded the stage as Vanilla Ice. “It never felt like home.’’
Van Winkle, 45, who has spent more than half of his life in South Florida, re-imagined his space in warm earth tones. For Van Winkle, it was about so much more than decorating, but rather the beginning of the next chapter after a rap career that had been so promising, then careened into pop culture obscurity.
Many turns later, Van Winkle emerged from the wreckage as a successful, self-taught real estate investor, renovation whiz and a popular reality television home star, the seeds first planted that moment on Star Island when his house wasn’t a home.
Van Winkle’s third season of the DIY Network’s Vanilla Ice Project premiers next Sunday in which the rapper — who still tours performs concerts — buys, guts and makes pretty upscale homes. With his easy personality and hearty laugh still intact, plus a newfound Zen after a troubled past, Van Winkle mines South Florida’s rich housing landscapes for homes that can be grabbed, renovated and returned to the market for a profit. He is also the star of a DIY special called Ice My House, airing this Sunday at 11 p.m., and has a new lighting collection called, you guessed it: Vanilla Ice Lighting.
“With the recession, people have been feeling so miserable for so long. People don’t want to put money in an upside-down house,’’ said Van Winkle who lives with his wife and two daughters in a Wellington community. “I wanted a show that motivated people to want to invest in their homes, to get that kitchen they always wanted. I want people to enjoy their homes.’’
The show is just the latest stop in Van Winkle’s transformation, and his leveraging of his monster single.
“Vanilla Ice is one of those figures in pop music who was able to successfully reinvent himself,’’ said Matt Donahue, of Bowling Green State University’s Department of Popular Culture. “ Ice Ice Baby is his signature phrase and he has been able to take it all the way to the bank.’’
The Vanilla Ice Project’s 13-episode season follows Van Winkle and a crew of contractors as they transform a 6,000-square-foot house in a Lake Worth subdivision. “This place was rotten, we had to take down every piece of drywall, gut it down to the cinderblocks,’’ he said. “Everything in here now is custom, with state-of-art in-home technology and made with a whole lot less carbon.’’
On an especially muggy weekday, Van Winkle is taking a break from filming. Tattooed arms outstretched, he is animated as he talks about the plans to make this home a showpiece, a lifetime away from his early days as a rising rapper.
Van Winkle, who grew up in Dallas, exploded on the music scene in the early 1990s — just as rap was settling into its second decade — and sold 15 million To the Extreme albums worldwide on the popularity of Ice Ice Baby, the smash that started as a B-side song. The catchy song — along with Vanilla Ice’s high-stepping in parachute pants — became the first rap single in history to top the Billboard charts.
But the backlash was just around the corner. Dogged as a novelty act, Van Winkle released several more albums, but before long, had dropped the mic. He returned to his love of motocross racing, took on the rock rap and rap-metal genres and, at one point, joined the celebrity reality television wave with appearances on the Surreal Life.
“I was young and dumb. Basically I had a weekend that lasted for years and years,’’ Van Winkle said in summing up the lows. “There was a very negative part of my life and a lot of self-destruction, but I turned it into something positive. I have found a purpose in my life.”
In the early 1990s, Van Winkle purchased homes in Miami, Los Angeles, New York and Utah.
“I was on tour and basically never saw these homes for like three years, so I decided to sell them. I thought I had made a really bad investment, but I made all this money on the sales and realized that that I could make a fortune in real estate. I really started getting into it seriously,’’ he said.
Van Winkle said he began studying the art of investing, focusing particularly on short sales and foreclosures. By his own estimate, he has purchased and flipped more than 100 houses in Florida’s “hot little pockets.’’
After years of partying, Van Winkle said he wanted more from his home.
“The Star Island home had red rooms and green rooms and purple rooms. It had an acrylic staircase with fish swimming in it. It was pretty lonely and I was miserable. I knew I wanted to warm the place up, make it cozy. I didn’t just redecorate, I gutted and started over,’’ he said. “I looked at design magazines to figure out what I liked and I hired crews and began learning about how to do construction and renovations. I found another passion.’’
By the late 1990s, he said he had grown tired of Miami’s tourists — his former Star Island house is on the celebrity boat tours — and headed to the quiet of Palm Beach County.
Van Winkle said he was content running his real estate and renovation businesses and the occasional concert, but got a phone call from a television producer he knew who thought the Vanilla Ice story, his charm and the new ventures could translate to television.
“I had worked with Matt Levine before, so he just came down and shot a demo. I was working on a foreclosure so he was able to see me working,’’ Van Winkle said. “For me, it was really just about putting a camera to what I had been doing all along.’’
Levine, of Departure Films, said Van Winkle’s fluency in renovations keeps the viewers coming back.
“I think once it became clear that he really knew his stuff people started to look at him in a different way,’’ Levine told The Associated Press.
Last year, in season two of the show, Van Winkle and crew took on a home in Lake Worth. He gave it the Ice treatment: luxurious finishes, outdoor splashes and a ton of high-tech gadgets. The home, which he said salutes the 1930s Gilded Age, includes a walk-in humidor and wine room tucked under a spiral staircase featuring custom oil paintings. Soaring windows overlook a Tiki island built in the pool.
At least for now, the house is not for sale, serving as a showroom of sorts for his renovation and design business.
DIY sponsored a contest last year for homeowners who wanted Van Winkle to pimp a room out. The result is the special one-hour program Ice My House. Van Winkle and company show up at the winners’ home and he declares, “I am here to Ice Your House!’’
Van Winkle surprises a Lake Worth family with a $30,000 rock-star renovation of their backyard and patio.
Late last year, Van Winkle also partnered with Capitol Lighting to produce a six-piece collection of chandeliers and sconces. It will be available this week online and at showrooms in South Florida and New Jersey exclusively. He also worked with the company on a Habitat for Humanity awareness campaign.
And he still has one foot in the entertainment world: performing in concert in Denver on Saturday, working on a new album, and last year playing alongside Adam Sandler in the movie That’s My Boy. Before that, he was Captain Hook in a stage production of Peter Pan in London.
“It took me a while and a lot of hard times to figure out my purpose,’’ he said. “I am so happy in my life. I just want to help make other people happy too.’’