Decorating with Debbie Travis

Canada's painting diva shares her thoughts on decor, success and finding balance

Recognized internationally as the “Queen of Paint,” Debbie Travis’ infectious personality is as bright as the fuchsia walls she’s sure, deep down, everybody really wants. We talk to the successful television host, author, syndicated columnist and public speaker about her career, the decor industry and finding a way to balance it all.

HB: You started your career in England, first as a model and then eventually behind the scenes in television as an editor. How did you end up as Canada’s “Queen of paint”?
DT: I remember being 19 or 20, working in Holland as a model for this boring old catalogue. And there was this beautiful girl in charge of production. She was holding a clipboard and I kept thinking—God, I want a clipboard!

A few years later I managed to get behind the scenes with a clipboard of my own. I started making a documentary about self-made millionaires. I took the film [which was never completed] to the Cannes festival. While I was there I behaved very badly and snuck into a CBC party. I ended up meeting this Canadian guy who I married three weeks later!

Next thing I knew I was living in Montreal, but I didn’t speak a word of French. So there I was, in a strange country, in my late 20s with no friends, no job. I was thoroughly miserable. I had kind of putzed around with painting and decorating back in England, so when we bought our house in Montreal, I started painting it myself.

HB: How did your painted house lead to your television program, Debbie Travis’ Painted House?
DT: By the time I was working on my own house I had begun making friends. Everybody loved what I was doing and wanted me to do their homes too. Within a few weeks I had a business.

Eventually I started a school. By then I knew we had to make a video filled with how-to stuff. I was a terrible host, but the video hit a chord and became a huge seller. It got me invited onto other people’s shows—and after each episode ratings would go through the roof.

I think the timing was just right. Martha [Stewart] had just started, but she was doing mostly food. What I was doing filled a niche. Also, it was real—not perfect, which I think people related to. Eventually we turned it into a TV show, Debbie Travis’ Painted House, which we took back to Cannes and sold to 12 countries.

HB: The Painted House enjoyed tremendous success. As has your new show, Debbie Travis’ Facelift [which has an added element of surprise, because the homeowners don’t know Travis is making-over their space]. Which program is more fun to do?
DT: Facelift, for sure. It’s exhausting—for one show we work anywhere from three days to one week, around the clock—but it’s worth it.

At Painted House I had some really great people working with me. After a while I was able to back off a bit and look around at what was going on in the houses. We would shoot a beginning, middle and end over two months, and there was so much commotion, tears, heartbreak and joy that we weren’t showing in the program. We realized that it was time to let Canada in on what really goes on behind the scenes in these shows. There’s lots of emotion. It’s very much a surprise party. We’ve had people pass out. I had one woman bite my neck and another literally jump into my arms.

HB: The old “your home is your castle” saying is true for many people. How do you keep the homeowners you work with happy and still make sure your ideas prevail?
DT: At the Painted House we had carte blanche to do what we wanted. If we wanted orange walls, that’s what we’d do. If people actually paid for our service, we’d have done a show of 200 beige rooms. Although I do have a theory that deep down everyone really wants a fuchsia wall, or at least to experiment with colour.

With Facelift, we don’t always have permission to be there, so everything really does have to be done properly. But we have a very professional team and the participants have to trust us.

HB: How do you choose who gets on the show?
DT: We get 700 e-mails a day. But a few always stand out. And we tell people, if you want to get on the show you’ve got to have a great story to tell us! It’s about smelling the stories and getting a good vibe from the people, because we have to enjoy working with them.

HB: Out of all the programs you’ve done, do you have a favourite?
DT: There was this man named Lawrence and he was a single dad of two girls and a boy. I was doing a radio show at the CBC and when I was finished, the host asked if I wanted to meet his next guest. So he introduces me to this very handsome man who tells me he works for the government and is a stock car racer. Then he tells me he’s blind.

After we said goodbye I kept thinking—a blind stock car racer—what! Well, I got his number from the producer and asked him if he’d like to be on the show. He was thrilled. He loved the idea of being able to do something special for his kids.

It was a fabulous show. It’s the human element that I get out of these stories that I really love.

HB: Why do you think the home decor industry has become so popular over the last few years?
DT: The home renovation business is enormous. It’s hit a chord because we now live very differently from our parent’s generation, where people got married and were given a bedroom and dining room suite, and that was decorating. When the kids left home the next bit of decorating began—they’d take out the shag rug or paint the walls. But it wasn’t a hobby the way it is today.

Today you have the IKEAs of the world, the McDonald’s of decorating, so anyone on any budget can do something. Everybody owns their own place too—with mortgage rates the way they are, 22-year-olds owns their own space—it may be tiny, but it’s theirs. Decorating has becomes a lifestyle.

HB: Your working life is extremely full—artist, television personality, author, columnist, public speaker. How difficult is it to balance all those responsibilities and still reserve a little me-time?
DT: About two years ago I was asked to speak on balance at a luncheon for about 100 women with small businesses. During the question period, a mother of three who owned a few Second Cup shops stood up and said: “I want to know how you get up every day.” And then she burst into tears—and the whole room started crying with her.

I don’t have all the answers, but I can guarantee that when I get on a plane the thoughts going through my head are not the thoughts going through my husband’s head. When he goes away he thinks about business, but I think about business and math exams and dinner.

But, as I told these women, children are the most versatile people on the planet. And they can better understand you if you’re honest with them. If you come home from work in a foul mood and you snap at the kids, you need to explain to them why you snapped. And you need to make it funny. You need to make them a part of your whole life, rather than keeping work and family totally separate. Whether it’s staying home or going to work, you have to do what makes you tick in order to be happy. I go away hiking by myself every year because I need that time. That’s what makes me happy, which in turn makes me a good partner and parent.