DEBBIE TRAVIS: On Her Lifestyle, Love at Home, and Loving Her Home
By Carol Crenna
Home décor expert Debbie Travis is a four-time Gemini-award winner with four successful home renovation TV shows. In 1995, The Painted House was the first décor program on TV in North America (Martha Stewart focused on food then), and Facelift was the first reality show. Popular shows From the Ground Up and All For One followed.
Debbie also owns two production companies, a line of condo designs, and three home product divisions.
But when she gives lectures, she fields more questions about raising a family while having a career than decorating. Her book Not Guilty: My Guide to Working Hard, Raising Kids and Laughing through the Chaos answered those questions. Here, Debbie discloses her secrets about her home life and home renovating.
CAROL: You openly talk about your home life. Why is that important?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: We don’t allow ourselves to be normal anymore, or admit to others that we are.
I have cried myself to sleep; I have told my children I loathe them; and I have thrown things at my husband during a fight and even wrecked a newly painted kitchen wall after a coffee mug missed him. And that’s just being human.
CAROL: How do you relax?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: I love yoga – I’m not good at it but somewhere underneath all of me is a yoga body. I walk a lot. I do charity treks – popular in the UK – that travel through Third World countries to experience the adventure. And since food and tenting cost very little, more of the money raised goes to charity – about 75 per cent.
A few summers ago, I took 150 Canadians to hike Machu Picchu and raised money for children with arthritis; it’s probably the toughest thing I’ve ever done.
CAROL: Do you have stress?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Flying gives me stress. Sometimes I think the only exercise I get is running through Pearson International. People often say, “I’m stressed,” but a lot of it we force on ourselves.
For example, we don’t have to get as involved with our kids as we do. We’re stressed because they don’t do well in kindergarten; I was still doing my son’s homework when he was in university.
Maybe they don’t need to be playing the violin, and they would be better off playing Scrabble. Family life is stressful but it is constantly changing, balancing highs and lows; one minute everybody is happily having dinner and the next minute doors are slamming when someone is sent crying to their room.
Looking back, if I’d relaxed more I wouldn’t have felt so guilty. I shouldn’t have tried to force things on them since they are going to be who they are going to be. Simply ask, “Do I really have to be doing this?”
CAROL: Your two boys are older now.
DEBBIE TRAVIS: There is just as much stress because I’ve got less control than when they were under my roof. One went to Israel and I told him that if he didn’t call me every three days I would be on a flight to find him, and of course he didn’t.
I worry when he rides his bicycle home at 4 a.m. when he’s drunk coming from a bar. I’m much clingier than my mother was with me.
CAROL: How do you let go of the reigns?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: It’s a heartbreaking day when your children turn on you. Small children boost your self-esteem, but then the first criticism comes in the insecure teen years when they don’t feel good about themselves so vent on parents. They know what will send you running upstairs in a flood of tears.
It’s important to walk away and take time for yourself, to have a job or hobby that is yours throughout their growing years. If life has been nothing but kids, it’s a frightening time for women when the kids no longer need you.
You can’t hang on, not letting them breathe. You need the strength and self-esteem to answer the question, “What am I going to do next?”
CAROL: And you?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: I originally launched my show out of a hobby simply because I was bored at home with two small kids, and discovered while renovating what I could do with paint.
I got the feeling that everybody could walk away from the chaos in their lives by doing this type of creative work. But changing careers to remain passionate is important. You have to stay fresh or you go mad.
CAROL: What do you do now that your children are gone?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: I launched week-long women’s retreats in a 300-year-old villa in a national heritage site in Montepulciano, Italy for women to share time with other women. The retreats take place in summer, with a maximum of 12 Canadians aged 40 to 55.
Women need to talk to other women though we often no longer do it. Our mothers used to complain to each other over the picket fence, but today we rush around and then collapse, sacrificing the therapy of daily friendship.
CAROL: Do you have a lot of work stress?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: My work is good stress, full of adrenaline and daily challenges that won’t kill me.
Unlike bad stress that we can’t control, we really do have control over daily stressors: if you’re unfit, you can lose weight and get exercise; if you don’t like your job, you can change it; if you’re time-strapped with four kids and too many commitments, you can cancel commitments.
CAROL: Don’t you find renovating stressful?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Yes. And I feel much more stress renovating my own home than someone else’s! That said, doing a reality show is 10 times more stressful than a typical renovation because of the short timeframe — we were often saying, “I didn’t mean to call you that.”
The most stress is from worrying about injuries with people working with saws, electrical equipment, ladders and four large cameras crammed into small rooms. Sometimes crews are working 24 hours, having to sleep under a table because we’re late.
There have been electrocutions, a broken arm, and fights with neighbours because we’re banging all night; policemen have arrived; one neighbour came with a shotgun. And sometimes it’s just tough trying to stop someone from crying or having a hissy-fit.
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Yes. I don’t eat junk food. I eat a lot of vegetables and fruit, and we don’t eat much meat; I prefer beans. But I drink too much wine, especially when everyone is home during holidays, which I do to keep sane.
When I have gained weight and eaten wrong, I detox for a week with juice fasting at a retreat three times a year (at Halifax-based Detox International).
The changes are amazing. I watch people de-flowering – getting skin problems and excess mucous – and by the seventh day they have glowing skin and a clear mind.
CAROL: You recently celebrated your 53rd birthday and look fabulous! Do you worry about staying slim for the show?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Believe me, yes. Television used to put on 15 pounds; now it puts on 40. The new shows are filmed in wide screen.
I’m 5 feet 9 inches tall and when filming with tall crew, we all look the same size vertically and horizontally; I’m not going to hire short people anymore.
CAROL: How does a woman manage kids and career?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Having a sense of humor and pacing yourself are important. You need a little stress every morning, because if you don’t then you’ve stagnated and you’re not growing.
But if you’re exhausted because you’ve taken on too much, you can guarantee that your eleven-year-old is feeling the same.
Use your common sense; I think common sense is coming back again, though it had completely disappeared after our mothers had it.
CAROL: How did you manage to keep your boys slim and healthy?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: I found that once they got into girls and sports they became so conscious of their bodies that they would eat well.
Watching the boys go out on dates is painful — they spend hours gelling their hair and putting on face cream, and then they’re back an hour later because they had little to say to the girl.
CAROL: Why are people renovating so much now?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: When I started, only wealthy people had decorators. The majority of the population only considered renovating when the kids left for college. It was considered a chore.
But then it became a hobby as we got more involved with technique and started to enjoy using our hands. It’s like gardening: you can hire someone to do it or you can put a big hat on and maintain it yourself, and at the end of the day, you feel like you’ve lived when you relax after your work.
It’s the same as cooking: doing it for the kids was a chore, but having a dinner party is now a fun social event, appreciated by everyone.
CAROL: You didn’t like to cook for your kids?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: I learned my lesson when I was preparing a different meal for every one because they didn’t like certain things. When we were young, we ate what our mother prepared — she said, “There it is; eat it.”
CAROL: Do you take your decorating advice in your own home?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Absolutely. I often sit on the stairs with a cup of tea and everywhere I look throughout my home makes me smile with pleasure.
Visual pleasure can come from many things: a room that works for you, even if it simply allows kids to sit and play with toys, or a wall of family photographs that you spent five hours placing.
Loving your home from every angle makes something inside you feel good just like a glass of wine or a bar of chocolate.
I don’t like change, though, so several of my rooms haven’t been renovated since they were featured on TV shows years ago. When I see guests looking at them with a bewildered expression I think maybe it is time I did something new.
I have renovated a powder room; I put in a bright yellow mosaic glass tile floor with black and white wallpaper and it looks fantastic.
CAROL: What was your dumbest furniture buy?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: I bought a sofa that I couldn’t get upstairs and it cost me money to take back. Before purchasing big items, I now borrow it first or map it out to make sure that it works with the room’s dimensions.
CAROL: How do you take a room from awful to awe inspiring?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: If I thought, “I hate going into the basement,” for example, I’d consider exactly what it is that I don’t like, and then create a plan to make it better.
So many of us live in cookie-cutter homes on the outside but there is no reason why every time you open your front door and walk in you can’t think, “Wow, I love that wallpaper!”
CAROL: What’s a favourite room in your home?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: It is a sitting room which is dark and womb-like. Some people are afraid to use dark colours in a small room, but it depends on its use. This “winter room” has a log fireplace, deep green velvet curtains and a bronze ceiling.
The walls look like brown leather — a simple technique where you paint the wall, then apply cheese cloth over the wet paint, peel it off to get the texture, and then paint it again when the first coat is dry.
There are two big tan leather club chairs; everyone ends up sitting in this room, reminiscent of an old man’s comfortable study.
CAROL: What’s your favourite piece of furniture?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: If there was a fire, the piece that I would run in to save is an heirloom, a Queen Anne secretarial desk that was my grandmother’s and then my mother’s; it was in my house as I grew up. It’s got lots of bangs and scratches and it’s beautiful.
It rests in my living room, where no one is allowed. It’s a small room with good lines and all white furniture, and when the kids come home, I want to put yellow tape across the door so that nobody can enter… except our party guests.
CAROL: Tell me about your old house.
DEBBIE TRAVIS: Our house in Montreal was built in 1875. You have different problems with new and old houses, but fixing older ones is more expensive.
CAROL: Any constant repair issues with it?
DEBBIE TRAVIS: My roof has leaked in the same place more than once. A beautiful custom-made bookcase pulled away from the wall because the water from the ceiling was running down inside it.
I asked my husband if he could get the roof mended before we had the bookcase put back together but he assured me it wasn’t necessary. Well, when the roof leaked again the bookcase did the same damn thing, and it cost me $1,000 to get it fixed the first time.
I’ll never understand why houses in North America are built with flat roofs; with the amount of snow that we always have, its weight does so much damage.
Article by Carol Crenna, originally a portion of the interview featured in VISTA Magazine and a portion featured in Canada Wide Media’s BC Home Magazine.