article

08.08.10

Flipping Out's Real-Life Fall-Out

Designer/reality star Jeff Lewis talks to Jace Lacob about Season 4 of Bravo's Flipping Out, his booming business, and whether TV ruined his relationship with Ryan Brown.

It’s a good day at Jeff Lewis’ office.

Lewis, the 40-year-old obsessive-compulsive designer and real estate prospector and the subject of Bravo’s docuseries Flipping Out, has in the last year created his own QVC line of interior furnishings, launched a proper business website, and designed the House Beautiful Kitchen of the Year, while taking his design firm beyond Los Angeles to a national level, consulting on projects in San Diego and New York and regularly traveling via private jet.

“I still lose it now and again,” said Lewis about his trademark anger, with a knowing smirk. “But I lose it less now.”

“Less” might be relative, however. Season 4 of Flipping Out—which returns Tuesday night—finds Lewis adapting to an onslaught of new business opportunities, juggling multiple clients, and clashing with his employees, including long-time executive assistant Jenni Pulos (now doing client consults for Jeff Lewis Design), new hire Sarah Berkman, design assistant Trace Lehnoff, house assistant Jett Pink, and, of course, everyone’s favorite housekeeper, Zoila Chavez.

“Never in a million years did I ever think we wouldn’t be friends,” said Lewis about Ryan Brown.

It’s a stark contrast to the nearly defeated Jeff Lewis we saw on Season 3 of Flipping Out, where—amid the crumbling real-estate market—Lewis’ relationship with long-time friend and business partner Ryan Brown (whom Lewis had dated several years ago) disintegrated as the episodes unfolded, finally collapsing during a reunion special that aired last October.

Following a season of suspicions and accusations—including Lewis’ claims that Brown had allegedly diverted business from him via a “smokescreen” website and paid for sponsored Google links that would take prospective clients to Brown Design when searching for Jeff Lewis—their friendship publicly imploded on national television.

Ask Lewis what changed between now and then and he’s instantly on alert.

“Well, we know what happened,” said Lewis, polishing his Blackberry’s screen with a napkin at Trader Vic’s at the Beverly Hilton. “The problem is that I’ve really tried to move past all this. I was really angry and then I was really sad and then I was angry and I was sad again... I don’t want to bash Ryan because, really, I forgive him… but the fact is that he diverted a lot of business to his office. It did affect me emotionally because I didn’t think that anyone wanted to hire me and I didn’t really understand it. I was scratching my head… I have a television show with all these viewers. People see that I’m good at what I do. I work my ass off, but yet I have no business.”

For Lewis, the reunion show confrontation was a pivotal moment in his life, the ending of a personal and professional relationship that had lasted more than five and a half years. But it was also a turning point for reality television itself, one of the first times we've seen a genuine relationship collapse on TV. Not a Real Housewives-style catfight or a post-rose ceremony Bachelor break-up, but an actual real-life relationship meltdown that viewers are still talking about a year later.

“It was incredibly uncomfortable,” said SVP of Original Programming and Development, Andy Cohen, who facilitated the reunion episode and also hosts Bravo’s late-night talk show Watch What Happens Live and is no stranger to on-air conflict. “You saw a relationship ending before your eyes… It was very clear at the end of it when Jeff got up and closed his door and Ryan went downstairs. I think they probably were both in tears. It was very upsetting and very emotional. I felt like a couples therapist. I was trying to get them each to realize that they were never going to agree on this one issue but that maybe they could agree to disagree and move on or move forward in some way. But it was not to be.”

Brown, who has recently returned to the U.S. after completing a job in Argentina, is in the process of relocating his family to Santa Barbara. Reached for comment about the reunion and the allegations that Lewis made against him last season, Brown referred The Daily Beast to his final blog entry on BravoTV.com in which he called Lewis’ accusations “ludicrous.”

When pressed about the situation, Brown kept his words brief: “It was tough,” he said. “It was very difficult to lose a good friend.”

Cohen, meanwhile, confirmed that Brown won’t be featured in the fourth season of Flipping Out, but acknowledged that his absence—and the estrangement from Lewis—will be dealt with on the show.

Lewis, over lunch at Trader Vic’s with Pulos—his assistant, co-star, and foil—said that there had recently been some contact between him and Brown via email following Brown’s return to the States, but that things had once again stalled.

“I came to the realization that this might just really be totally completely done and that the damage is irreparable,” said Lewis, as he compulsively rearranged the silverware and glasses on the table in front of him. “Never in a million years did I ever think we wouldn’t be friends. I thought our kids would grow up together.”

“I probably cried like six times on a plane, just sitting there, by myself, crying,” he continued. “People must think I totally lost it… I have to say this was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me because I trusted him so completely… Even more than losing money and the business coming to an end, it was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me.”

For viewers of Flipping Out—or of reality-TV series in general—that reunion special was one of the most painful and heartbreaking things to watch on television, a reminder of just how potentially intrusive cameras can be to relationships and how very few friendships can withstand the sort of scrutiny that docuseries place on them. For Lewis, whose career—the source of those allegations—is now skyrocketing, it’s about regrets, really.

“I still think, when all this business was coming through and I had to start turning down [work], you freaking idiot, if you would have held on for 12 months, we could’ve built a really huge design business together,” said Lewis. “I still need him. I understand when times get tough people do crazy things, but I understand the motivation behind it, but it was also more than just fear, I think. He became competitive… I realized that when he said, ‘Jeff’s just upset because this is the first year I made more money than he did.’ I’m like, What? Where the fuck did that come from? I don’t care about that. So, it became some sort of a competition and I don’t know why.”

So, would Lewis and Brown’s friendship have fallen apart had they not done the series?

“The show changed a lot of people that were very close to me,” Lewis said. “My relationship just disintegrated the day the show was bought… I remember he was very upset that I chose to do this. He was embarrassed in front of our friends. He was embarrassed for his family. Look, Season 1, I didn’t look so good, so that caused a lot of problems and ultimately that relationship ended.”

But even with all of the drama, things are decidedly looking up for Lewis this season on Flipping Out, even if Lewis himself is bound to still, well, flip out.

“I was afraid of not having any more work,” said Lewis about overcompensating early on in Season 4. “I’ll warn you that I’m on my way to a breakdown. I just get too stressed and then I take nine steps backwards … When I act out, I torture myself with guilt after the fact. I’ll do something to Jenni and then I’ll apologize 19 times afterwards … There are often times when I overreact. Maybe it’s displaced anger or frustration from something else.”

The quick-witted and eternally patient Pulos agrees. “I think it makes him so crazy when people don’t accept any personal responsibilities,” she said.

“That’s my biggest pet peeve,” said Lewis. “Even over cheap people.”

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment Web sites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.