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Jeff Lewis on Cannibals, Cremation, and Transgender Crack Addicts

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Welcome back to Curbed Interviews, a column in which Raina Cox (of If the Lamp Shade Fits and Curbed's Moonlighting series) interviews major players in shelter media and interior design. Have a suggestion for someone whose voice should be heard? Send it here.

Interior photos via Jeff Lewis Design

America's favorite obsessive-compulsive house-flipper is back! The fifth season of Bravo's Flipping Out premieres tonight (at 9 p.m. EST) and its star, Jeff Lewis, is at his unfiltered best. This season promises loyal fans even more over-the-top office hijinks, including plastic surgery for Lewis's long-suffering housekeeper, Zoila, a stripper-riffic bachelorette party for assistant Sarah, and spats with work/life partner Gage. A more-subdued-than-we-expected Lewis recently spoke with us about meaningful spaces and plans for the future. But he couldn't resist slipping in a few zingers about Zoila and how he plans to profit on his own demise.

Which house on the show was your favorite and which one was the biggest challenge?
I’ve flipped a lot of homes and I’ve lived in most of them, so I do have several favorites but one in particular. Although I sold it and it was very profitable for me, I wasn’t quite ready to move yet. It was a house I really loved. I sold it in 2006 and ironically about four years later the people who purchased it went into foreclosure, and I’m now trying to buy the house back for $1M less than what I sold it for.

Fantastic! Which house is it?
Amazing, huh? I don’t want to say and have someone steal it just because I’m in the process of negotiating right now with the bank. But you know what’s funny is that I reluctantly sold the home. It was a lot of money and the offer was so good that I couldn’t turn it down. I just couldn’t refuse. That said, I cried all the way to the bank. Over the last five years, I tried to buy it back from the sellers on two separate occasions. Then they got into a little financial trouble, and they ended up letting the house go back to the bank, which is kind of silly considering I tried to buy it back from them twice. I don’t think my “time” was done there, so to speak. I have this weird feeling that I’m going to end up with that house back. It was my favorite home, I put a lot into it. I lived in it two years. I lived there the first year to live in the space and see what I wanted to do. I did some minor improvements while I was living there. Then I moved out for six months and did a major renovation and moved back in, lived there for six months, and sold the house.

Have you been back in the house? Did the owners do much to it or is it still your vision?
Pretty much everything I did is still intact. Granted, there is deferred maintenance because the bank has had it for eight to 12 months. I’m going to want to do a little updating. It was remodeled in 2005 and I sold in 2006. So that was probably one of my favorites, if not one of my favorites. It has a lot of history, it was built in the early '30s and it has a lot of original detail still intact, which I preserved. It’s a beautiful house and I hope it all works out.

What's your least favorite of all the houses you've flipped?
The worst one—there was a house I bought on King’s Road in Sunset Strip and it was in really bad shape. The older woman who owned it had rented it out to four different people who lived there. She was renting out rooms, basically, and to very undesirable people. Normally when you buy a house, the house is delivered vacant. I thought it was delivered vacant, but when I started the demo I realized there was this basement that I didn’t see during the inspection, and there was a transgender crack addict. A lot of times when you buy a house you inherit a feral cat or a raccoon or something, but in this particular case I inherited a crack addict—no joke! It took me a couple of weeks to get rid of he/she. But I didn’t even know he/she was living there. It was pretty crazy—I didn’t know until demo day!

And you hadn't inspected the house before?
There was kind of this door on the side of the building and there was so much stuff in it that during the inspection I wasn’t able to properly inspect the house. I just knew that the house basically had to be torn down to the studs, so I didn’t take a good hard look. Also, the smell was so bad because the plumbing had failed and these people, they were animals. I mean they just started going to the bathroom in sinks. The smell was so bad that I just couldn’t get near some of the rooms. We had to tear out all the drywall, the stucco, and all of the plywood in the floors—the smell was so bad I couldn’t get rid of it. It was probably the worst house I’ve ever done. It turned out beautiful and I ended up living there for a little while. But, yeah, it was a mess. It would make you physically ill to walk in that house.

If you were stranded on a desert island, which of your employees would you want with you and why?
Well, I don’t know how self-sufficient I am. I mean I don’t know if I’m going to be able to, you know, hunt and kill and cook animals. Most likely I would have to resort to some sort of cannibalism. So I think that if I brought Zoila I would probably have some leftovers. Plus I really love spicy food, so I probably would go with Zoila.

You have a new show in production for Bravo, Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis. Tell us how it's different from Flipping Out.
It’s a little different. Basically I’m going to be moving in with psychologically disturbed people with really bad taste, versus Flipping Out where you follow a psychologically disturbed person running a business. It’s very, very different because I get way too personal with these people—I live with them. It’s not even just changing a room—it’s changing how they live, how they view their decor. They’ve adopted some pretty negative bad habits over the years, and it’s about trying to push them to improve themselves through designing their home.

So, more about interior design and less about flipping.
I think with me—it didn’t really turn out this way—initially I was kind of at the top of my game. I was a very successful house flipper and all of a sudden it came to a screeching halt, and I had to reinvent myself and the logical thing to do was to start a design business and work for clients which has been a really tough transition for me.

In what way?
I wasn’t used to working with other people. I was my own boss for going on 10 years. And I’ll tell you, it certainly allows me to really kind of understand what people go through because most people are employees not employers. I was an employer and am now kind of to some extent an employee. It’s very difficult because you have to pick and choose your battles. You have to learn to deal with difficult people. I’m not saying it wasn’t good for me, because it has been. But it certainly makes you appreciate what you have, too. I think what happens with many degrees of success is that you maybe don’t appreciate things like you used to. And when it’s taken away and when your comfort zone kind of changes, your routine changes, and things don’t come as easy as they did before you certainly appreciate what you had. And what you have.

Do you know when the show's premiering?
We’re hoping for [a premiere] either the end of this year or the beginning of next year. I know there’s a target date of December/January but I know that could always change.

Any other new projects in the works?
I’m in the process of looking for a new house. I sold my house last October and I got myself settled in a very comfortable rental, and now I’m aggressively looking for a house. But the good news is I’m kind of in the driver’s seat where I don’t necessarily have to buy something next week. So I can take my time and really search out a really good deal in the neighborhood I want to live in. I don’t know how long I’m going to be in the next one. It could be a while. And I’m encouraging people—I think it’s a good time to invest in real estate but only for the long haul. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good time to flip unless it’s a steal of a deal. You know, who knows when this market is going to turn around. It could be three years, it could be seven years. For me, I have to make sure that I can exist in this home in the long term, that it’s large enough to accommodate my employees and it’s in the area I want to live in. And I also want something I can improve over time, because I get bored once a house is complete. I need a project or I get myself in trouble.

Which is your most memorable Flipping Out moment?
I think the most memorable moment in the entire series is when [in Season 3] I strangely got food poisoning and blamed Zoila. There was this really kind of sinister scene where Zoila’s stirring a pot of rice and it looked like, you know, kind of a witch stirring a cauldron. And she responded to the accusation, she said something like “Jeffrey, you said, ‘You tried to kill me, bitch.’” And then she said, “I tried but nothing happened.” And that’s when I knew she did it. That’s the moment she did try to kill me.

Speaking of death, what will your tombstone say?
I actually am probably not going to have a tombstone. I think I prefer to be cremated and I’ll tell you why. I think there’s too many people who would line up to spit on my grave. I’d be opening myself up to some sort of grave desecration. I mean, that said, it could be a pretty lucrative tourist attraction. I have a lot of ex-employees, ex-spouses, ex-partners, ex-friends that would probably line up to desecrate my grave. So I’m not going to have one, and I think it’s more environmentally friendly. I'd prefer to be cremated.

And rest forever in a lovely vase?
Exactly! And this way, too, there’s so much hopefully that we can spread my ashes around, so a lot of people basically could hold onto it as some sort of memento.

· Jeff Lewis Design [official site]
· Flipping Out Season 5 [Bravo]
· Flipping Ain't Easy [Curbed LA]
· Bravo Announces New Show: Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis [Curbed National]
· If the Lamp Shade Fits [official site]