Jeff Lewis (blue shirt), flanked by Jenni (left), Chris, and Ryan Brown (above).
In season one of Flipping Out with Jeff Lewis, Bravo’s twist on Home and Garden’s House Hunters/Designed to Sell, it didn’t take long to figure out that Bravo’s twist was significant, humorous and compelling enough to make the show–and Lewis–a cult favorite. Lewis, an OCD, narcissist egomaniac, as the story goes, was not the original subject of the show that Jenni and Chris were developing for Bravo. Both fledgling actors, they had gotten Bravo’s ear and were pitching a show about their lives, which included making the rounds to casting calls and open mics, while working at Jeff Lewis’ design business, which at the time, and in a different economy, concentrated on remodeling and flipping houses.
Ryan Brown was Jeff’s partner, former boyfriend, and best friend, who had a new boyfriend, some gay dude in cooking school, and they had a daughter, Chloe, who Jeff most certainly regarded as his own as well. When Bravo took a look at Lewis, Jenni’s and Chris’s own show was forgotten, and a star was born in Lewis, a meticulous and fastidious worker with undying work ethic, perhaps only matched by his drive for control and success, and an inability to let small things go. The combination of Lewis’s character traits, along with his acerbic wit has made Jeff Lewis one of television’s best kept secrets and most interesting personalities.
In season 1, Jeff spent a lot of the time verbally sparring with Jenni’s husband Chris, whom he regarded as lazy, and whom he felt did not take his business as seriously as he did the pursuit of his acting career, and his bit part in the Method Man film How High. Jeff battered Chris constantly, and battered Jenni about Chris, her husband, because Jenni, as Jeff’s executive assistant, was always with him in the car, and making the rounds to different properties–a captive audience. An obvious conundrum for Jenni, who stuck up for her husband, and believed she was right to do so. Jeff said Chris was using the internet to chat amongst friends on Jeff Lewis’s time from Jeff’s office. Jenni and Chris said he wasn’t. Chris quit a few times, came back, quit some more, and so forth, but the internet problem was never adequately resolved in Jeff’s mind. So that’s when Jeff set up a secret camera in his office to catch Chris in the act. In a thrilling climax to the end of season 2, Jeff not only caught Chris on tape, but caught him on tape chatting over the net to other women. The ripple effect crushed Jenni and her marriage, and when season 3 convened, Jenni was newly divorced.
Jeff is quick to point out that he only did what he did to protect his business, and had no idea that he would be destroying Jenni’s marriage in the process. That said, Jeff, obviously remorseful on some level, was also unapologetic. Jenni’s husband was bad news, he contested, and Jeff forced a hard, but necessary change. But he had to live with the damage he did to Jenni’s life up close, during a dark period for her. And despite his rampant sarcasm and the fact that he’ll make you wear a hazmat suit as punishment for not saying his phone recitation properly (“It’s a great day at Jeff Lewis’s office! This is Jenni speaking. How may I help you?”), you could tell that Jeff felt awfully about Jenni, and that he had a heart.
Season 3’s controversy centered around Ryan Brown. When Jeff found out that by googling the name “Jeff Lewis”, the first google redirect was to Ryan’s website, Ryan Brown Desgin, Jeff was incensed. Ryan claimed it was innocently done and that anyone who called looking for Jeff Lewis was directed by his staff to Jeff. Jeff didn’t believe that, and if Ryan was lying, it meant that Jeff would be losing a business partner, whom Jeff had made rich, a best friend, and his connection to Chloe, the little girl Jeff so obviously adored. Jeff tried to keep the business separate from the personal as best he could, and his huge heart was evident when he insisted on taking care of all of the children’s entertainment for Chloe’s 3rd birthday party, from balloons to bouncy houses to kid’s games, sparing no expense. Jenni, a talented slam poet and a rapper, even showed up in a giant frog suit and regaled Chloe with a special birthday rap. But at the end of the party, an obviously distraught Jeff, realizing that this was probably the last good time he’d have with Ryan and Chloe, because of Ryan’s unethical business dealings, did something we thought we’d never see: he lost his composure and became emotional, sneaking away from the party quietly in very un-Jeff like fashion.
Was Ryan stealing business from him? Yes he was. Despite his denials, and his forceful if not logical denial that people “simply do not steal business from competitors in this business”, he had exploited Jeff’s name, and Jeff later found that many clients looking for Jeff ended up with Ryan. But Ryan, in weasel-like fashion, tried to make it a poker match with Jeff, claiming such outrage at having such an accusation leveled at him that if Jeff went forward with it, then his and Jeff’s long standing friendship was done. A cruel move indeed, considering that Ryan was essentially stealing from Jeff and then using his daughter as a chip over Jeff in what amounted to blackmail.
Jeff once again did the right thing, which was also the hard thing, and it would devastate him, the way the evidence against Chris devastated Jenni. But now we are seeing an older, more retrospective Jeff Lewis, even perhaps a crazier Jeff Lewis. Examples? Jeff ordering his male employees, Trace and Jett, to urinate in jugs and then pour the urine out around his estate called Valley Oak, to mark the territory, because he had heard that human urine repelled hyenas, and he was worried about his pets’ safety, having heard about a hyena problem in his neighborhood. Jeff obsessing about his housekeeper Zoila’s house work, despite the fact that she is up there in years and still does an amazing job in a huge house that always seems spotless. After reducing Zoila to tears repeatedly, Jeff’s assistant and sister-in-law’s sister, Sarah, told Jeff to go and apologize. “Why?” Jeff asked. “Um,” began Sarah, “because you really aren’t very nice.”
Good for Sarah, who had done the right thing. But it was very bad for her the next week when Jeff turned Sarah’s personal life into television fodder by picking at her over the fact that her boyfriend of 10 years had not yet proposed. Jeff made it a topic of conversation with everyone in the office, and hammered away at Sarah until she had her own crying fit. Zoila–as much a mother figure as employee to Jeff–this time had Sarah’s back. “Jeffrey,” said Zoila, “you are a professional man. You have to treat people professionally.” We also learned that Zoila worked 29 or 30 days each month, including two Sundays each week at Jeff’s grandmother’s, for whom she had worked for in some capacity for many years.
The next week, Jeff took to absolutely hammering Jenni, repeatedly citing her absent-mindedness, threatening to fire his best and most long standing employee, practically firing her when she misplaced Jeff’s planner, and then telling the rest of the office that Jenny is ditzy, unreliable, and that whatever he tells her goes in one ear and out the other. Was the planner that big a deal? I don’t think so. It could only have been at a few places, where they had just finished making rounds. But Jenny was fired if she couldn’t find the planner, and even when she did find it, she never heard the end of it. Frankly, as a big Jeff Lewis fan but also a Jenni fan, the verbal abuse was not funny. It was over the top, incessant, and remarkedly short sighted, and at that moment, I was hoping that she quit.
When Jeff Lewis flips out it is often good comedy and very entertaining. But in the progression of the show and in Jeff’s life, we now see a man who may never have another intimate relationship, and whose obsessive behavior has probably cost him that. We feel for him. This man is a design genius that is probably unmmatched by any home designer on television. He makes those people who remodel properties with the 9 kids look like completely annoying amateurs, has made Trading Spaces virtually unwatchable by nature of his impressive talents, and even designed House Beautiful’s Kitchen of the Year for 2010 which was displayed all summer here in New York City’s Rockefeller Center, a truly singular honor.
Jenni, one of the show’s producers, thankfully did not quit. And we are grateful that Jeff finally calmed down. Sarah, to her credit, got engaged. But let’s be real. Jeff Lewis could get tears from a stone. On the flip side, we’ve also seen him buy Zoila a new car this season, ask Zoila to raise the child he plans to adopt when he took her along on a business trip to New York, because she has “never gotten to go anywhere”, and tell Zoila how important she is to him over a nice dinner in Little Italy. Jeff has even let Jett, his house manager, bring his baby to work. We don’t think we’d have seen that from Jeff five years ago, and don’t believe we’d have ever seen it had his relationship with Ryan and Chloe not fractured. We’ve even seen Jeff, used to getting his way and seeing his design visions carried out unilaterally bend on account of sentimental reasons, which never before had even a diagram in his playbook. He attended Trace’s college graduation, and despite being impatient while there, playing with his Blackberry every two seconds, and running out to the car to drink Coronas, he saw the kid’s big moment.
When Jeff found out that Chaz, a high end stylist who owns a luxe boutique called Cole, with whom he has also forged a friendship with, wanted to keep a mural in his boutique because that mural reminded him of his brother’s passing, Jeff actually felt badly for pushing so hard to have the mural scrapped, and proposed a way in which the mural could be properly preserved. It reminded me of Terminator 2: “I now know why you cry.”
Does it mean that people who hate Jeff Lewis have stopped leaving human fesces at his job sites? Not hardly. Has he softened on his stance that his employees “should not eat dinner”? No. And we wouldn’t want him too. But if I had an extra $ 100 K, would I want Jeff to shape up this old house? You bet. And after tonight’s finale, Jeff Lewis will be greatly missed, and we can only hope that Bravo is smart enough to bring back one of television’s best characters, and maybe, it’s best reality television show.
Flipping Out with Jeff Lewis, season finale, tonight @ 9 PM on Bravo.
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