The Strange, Delightful Appeal of 'The Vanilla Ice Project,' According to Vanilla Ice
Vanilla Ice has a palm tree problem.
“Who’s this guy over here?” Ice asks his crew as a car door slams. A man in a blue shirt and dark sunglasses introduces himself as “Steve with inspections,” and he’s here to give Ice some bad news: the tiny palms he just planted outside his Wellington, Florida home are too small.
“They’re about two-and-a-half feet, so you’re going to have to replace all three of these trees,” Steve says.
“All three of ’em?” Ice asks incredulously. When Steve confirms that, yes, all three trees need to go, Ice lets out a belabored sigh: “Ugh! I just planted these.”
It’s this sort of scene from The Vanilla Ice Project, the rapper’s DIY Network show that just wrapped its 9th season, that hooked me. There’s just something so mind-numbingly entertaining about watching Vanilla Ice strap on a hardhat, take down some walls, and navigate the nuanced world of homeowners association bylaws.
Sure, in many ways, The Vanilla Ice Project largely fills the same niche as other home improvement shows. But it’s the little touches — like palm tree drama and his fantastically goofy catchphrases — that make it unlike anything else on TV.
“We’ll make it cool as ice, at a price that’s extra nice.”
“Curb appeal looks for real.”
“We gotta grind, rain or shine.”
The rapper is joined on screen by the members of his crew, but the real stars of the show are his gleefully maximalist renovations (gold-plated faucets! Guy Fieri-designed kitchens!), the over-the-top likes of which are a breath of fresh air in a television genre bubbling over with reclaimed wood and neat Scandinavian minimalism. While promotional material, especially in the show’s early days, billed Vanilla Ice as a home flipper, it’s hard to imagine him reclaiming his full investment in the houses that appear on The Vanilla Ice Project — especially in those cases when Ice spends six figures on a closet renovation or bathroom upgrade.
That’s part of The Vanilla Ice Project’s charm. Ice is the home makeover genre’s true anti-hero, splurging on the highest end appliances and dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars from room to room in joyful pursuit of his vision. Even when he’s working on a budget, like in the most recent season, Ice’s designs still deviate from the norm. If you watch enough of The Vanilla Ice Project, certain questions will begin to ruminate within: Is he actually into this? How did he get here? Does he know what he’s doing? And, most importantly, can he teach me to save a buck by learning to spackle or grout?
Back With a Brand New Reinvention
If you haven’t been keeping up with Vanilla Ice since the ’90s, you might have missed some pretty big moments.
There was that time in 2004, when Ice’s pet kangaroo, Bucky Buckaroo, got loose in Port St. Lucie, Florida ( “I have all kinds of animals including a linx named Jynx,” Ice told Nascar Illustrated when asked about Bucky Buckaroo). There was his major theatrical debut in 2011, when he played a rapping Captain Hook in a British production of Peter Pan, some of which appears to have been captured on video. There was the fall of 2016, when he posted a string of Tweets saying he was riding out Hurricane Matthew from a house “right on the ocean in Palm Beach,” which prompted the verified Florida Democrats Twitter account to warn Ice’s fans to listen “to your local officials, not @vanillaice.” And who could forget the quarantined Emirates flight of 2018, which Ice apparently experienced first-hand? “So I just landed from Dubai and now there is like tons of ambulances and fire trucks and police all over the place,” the rapper tweeted, adding, “This is crazy. Apparently there is over 100 people sick on the bottom floor, so happy I’m up top, it’s a double-decker plane 380.”
Even beyond his home-reno projects, Vanilla Ice’s presence is today a part of Palm Beach County — so much so that the Wellington, Fla. Chamber of Commerce named Ice 2014’s “Outstanding Citizen of the Year” in a sold-out event. There’s the good: he’s appeared at area tourism trade shows, emerging from offstage for a rendition of “Ice Ice Baby” with the Palm Beach Symphony and Ballet Palm Beach. He helped a Florida couple make a fitting baby announcement (“We are starting them off from the beginning,” Ice told an area ABC affiliate. “We are bringing more Ice Ice Babies into the world.”). He’s hosted a popular winter block party for more than a decade that has found him, on occasion, reading Christmas poems aloud with the mayor.
And there’s the bad: Ice faced charges for allegedly stealing $6,000 worth of furniture, bicycles and other goods from a vacant house in 2015, according to ABC (Ice accepted a plea deal and the charges were dropped in exchange for 100 hours of volunteer work for Habitat for Humanity. “I’m going to do what I do anyway,” Ice told the Palm Beach Post about the mandated volunteer work. “This is an easy thing. It’s like asking the Pope to pray.”) He pleaded no contest to a domestic violence misdemeanor in 2001 and was sentenced to one year’s probation, according to The Palm Beach Post, and a 2008 domestic battery charge was dropped, according to the Sun Sentential. And, in March 2018, a Miami Herald article on Ice’s ongoing divorce reported that, in response to claims that the rapper was hiding assets in divorce proceedings, a lawyer for Ice’s wife put liens on nine of Ice’s properties. (The case appears to have reached a settlement in early September 2019, according to Palm Beach County court records.)
Thus Vanilla Ice’s second act in real estate is a small sliver of his personality, but it’s a significant one, especially in his adopted home of Florida, the state where Ice got his start in renovation. After “Ice Ice Baby” fame, the rapper told The New York Times, he bought houses in places like Los Angeles, Utah and New York City — not that he really lived in them. “I thought it was the worst investment of my life,” he told the Times. In actuality, it would appear Ice hit the market right. “When I sold them, I made, on each one of them, $300,000 to $400,000.”
But he held onto one home, a 14-bedroom house on Miami’s Star Island, he told DIY Life in an interview reprinted on vanillaicerealestate.com. The place showcased his love for going to the extreme with decadence: it had an acrylic staircase with fish swimming in it and felt like “a big nightclub,” he said. But it was lacking something, he just didn’t know what. “It was pretty lonely and I was miserable,” he told the Miami Herald. “I knew I wanted to warm the place up, make it cozy. I didn’t just redecorate, I gutted and started over.”
Vanilla Ice sold the home after spending 11 years in it, but the rapper made Florida the base for his real estate career. Ice tells me he got his contractors’ license 23 years ago and started his career off building his own houses. But Ice “got tired of spending those big checks,” on designers, he says, so he “started reading magazines and learning about, you know, earth-tone colors and throw pillows. But then I got more into the targeting aspect — the analytics of it.”
While Ice, a rumored multimillionaire, might seem to spend recklessly on his show, the rapper tells me he’s stingy when it comes to buying fixer-uppers. He goes to auctions and prowls the streets for distress sales, cruising through ritzy Florida neighborhoods in search of bargain houses. “Every single contract I do on houses, they’re all insulting,” laughs Ice. “I go, ‘hey, well, thanks for showing me your house. I’ll put a contract together, hopefully we can close the deal, and I’m going to send you a very insulting offer.’” While this might be an unorthodox way to find a home, Ice says it’s worked for him on “probably a dozen houses,” often owned by “older people that were ready to get out of there.”
Some of those houses eventually end up on the show, which is when they get the star treatment, with Ice meticulously redesigning their landscapes and rooms until they go “from zero to hero,” as he’s fond of saying. “I have very calloused hands,” Ice says. “I’ve had many stitches, blood, sweat — all kinds of things throughout the years.”
By the time The Vanilla Ice project was pitched to him, Ice says he had already been renovating homes for years — and was not a fan of the idea. “I was like, really, I don’t know if I want all these cameras around,” Ice says. “It took me a minute. I had to absorb it. I was already doing this, I was full steam for at least 10 or 15 years already.”
Ice might have been wary of the show, but it was far from his first time on TV after his meteoric rise on the Billboard charts in the early ‘90s. The rapper co-starred in The Surreal Life in 2004, where he found companionship with porn star Ron Jeremy and CHiPS actor Erik Estrada, who he credits for changing his perception of himself of being just a one-hit wonder, according to the Miami New Times. After The Surreal Life, Ice went on to appear as himself in many shows, including but not limited to: Dancing With The Stars, Vanilla Ice Goes Amish and Rachael vs. Guy, a Food Network show in which teams of celebrities compete alongside Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri for culinary glory and a donation to a charity of their choice. The Vanilla Ice Project, though, is by far his longest-running, with 107 episodes having aired across 9 seasons.
“And then to have success of over 100 million viewers,” Ice adds. “I’m just like, wow, it’s amazing. I get people walking up to me all the time, you know, loving some of the ideas they get.”
Vanilla Ice: Will It Ever Stop?
“Mad cribs, money stacks – yo I still got ’em/Fancy ships, candy tracks – yo I still cop ’em,” Vanilla Ice raps in a 2017 guest verse on Vanilla Sprite Remix, a song featuring Rick Ross by Florida rapper Forgiato Blow. “The industry should call me Stomp, I’m stepping on them toes/Build another crib by the ocean I suppose.”
Yes, Vanilla Ice still raps — though it’s more of a side-gig at this point. He hasn’t released a studio album since 2011’s W.T.F. (Wisdom, Tenacity and Focus), and even his features have been sporadic, from his verses on Vanilla Sprite Remix to his 2011 guest appearance on a MattyBRaps cover of “Ice Ice Baby.” He still performs — as part of the traveling I Love The ‘90s lineup, after keynote speeches at trade shows and, as recently as 2017, at Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering of the Juggalos — but Vanilla Ice has by-and-large traded rapping for renovation. “I could dance around like a teenager on the weekends,” Ice tells me, “but come Monday, I’m up at 5 a.m.,” he says.
When I press him on his transition from music to real estate, Ice does admit he was worried about the switch when he first started. “I was really nervous in the beginning, because it’s not all a pleasure cruise, you know?” he tells me. “You can still lose your ass out there.”
But, for the most part, Vanilla Ice is hesitant to delve too deeply into the past. “You can’t go back and change yesterday, we all know that” he says. “You can learn from it, but you can’t go back and change it. So don’t harp on it.”
Living in the moment is all part of Ice’s life philosophy — as he tells me, “yesterday’s history, tomorrow’s a mystery.” Yet, I detect some irritation in his voice when he talks about watching those around him worry about the future. “So many people watch the dang news and get worried about what’s gonna happen tomorrow,” Ice says. “People panic and pay and worry about tomorrow — and it hasn’t even happened. What they’re doing is spreading all their creative juices into something that hasn’t even happened yet.”
Renovating homes might be the center of Vanilla Ice’s life now, but it’s hard to get a read on how profitable Ice’s real estate empire actually is. When I ask Vanilla Ice how many houses he’s worked on, he tells me “oh my god, I couldn’t even count.” When I ask how quickly his houses sell and how much they typically make, he says anywhere between $500,000 and $5 million, depending on the size of the project, in “record-breaking time.”
After our conversation and countless episodes of The Vanilla Ice Project, I finally cracked the Ice appeal. Those same elements that made Ice a cultural moment in the early ‘90 — the ones that inspire people to tweet up a storm when he gets quarantined on a plane, drop everything to sing along to “Ice Ice Baby” at a wedding or even show up for a Vanilla Ice keynote speech — are what make The Vanilla Ice Project so watchable. He’s the last person you might expect to be there — but he is, and he’s larger than life. That’s a mentality that transfers to his homes, too.
“I don’t want to show things on my TV show that most people can get out and about at the local hardware store,” Ice explains, “so I go out of the country and I get these crazy exotic things and ideas and stuff, and I incorporate them into the show. And people are just losing their mind.”
But, he adds, it’s not all about novelty. “I love making money and I love, you know, accomplishments. That’s the thrill of life for me,” he says. “But I always stop and smell the roses and always find time to enjoy the simple things in life. There’s nothing better than hanging out with your little girl, [with a] bag of chips, watching Netflix.”