Alison Victoria's career since walking across the commencement stage has been anything but cookie-cutter.
After completing dual degrees in psychology and interior architecture at UNLV in 2008, Victoria joined Las Vegas-based Christopher Homes. She was the firm’s youngest designer and soon tasked with creating eye-popping interiors for semi-custom homes.
The ensuing decade saw the Chicago native build her résumé with one impressive accomplishment after another: She launched her own consulting firm, created a modern luxury furniture line, oversaw the $160 million expansion of the Silverton Casino Hotel, and spent nine seasons as host of Kitchen Crashers, a renovation show on DIY Network.
The latter job gave the affable Victoria — whose given name is Alison Gramenos — a national platform on which to showcase her talents — well, some of her talents anyway. Away from the Kitchen Crashers cameras, Victoria was still doing interior design work, and over time she had discovered her true passion: identifying, purchasing, renovating, and selling historic homes in Chicago. Sitting on the Kitchen Crashers set one day during her eighth season, Victoria had an epiphany: I should turn my day job — my REAL job — into a TV show.
“I remember sitting down in front one of the houses we were crashing,” Victoria recalls, “and I looked at my cameraman and my producer, and said, ‘Hey, I want to do a new show. I want to show people what I really do. I want to shoot a sizzle reel. Who’s with me?’”
Soon after, Victoria shot that sizzle reel, pitched the idea to HGTV, then spent a year shooting the pilot. On New Year’s Day, Victoria’s passion project finally became a reality with the debut of Windy City Rehab. The weekly show (new episodes air Sunday at 6 p.m. PST) takes viewers on a tense ride as Victoria locates a distressed property, purchases it, renovates it, then attempts to sell it (ideally for a profit).
On the eve of Windy City Rehab’s premiere, we caught up with Victoria and asked her to share some home-renovation tips as well as stories about her UNLV days, how the Las Vegas and Chicago markets differ (she splits her time between both cities).
Mind Over Matter: “It doesn’t hurt to have that psychology background in any business, especially in design. To be able to understand what people want before they even know, that’s psychological. So in my business, that psychology background has helped me immensely.”
Her Kind of Town: “Chicago is where I was born and raised. It’s where my dad would drive us around, and we’d look at these historic brownstones and greystones. And while I was living in the city, all around my neighborhood I watched these general contractors come in and build crap. They would tear down old homes — and let’s be honest, some of them need to be torn down; there’s nothing to save, and they’re not structurally sound — but what they would put up were these massive concrete and glass block homes, if you can even call them that. They would just get in, get out, and make a quick buck, and they were ruining the neighborhood.
"They weren’t giving the neighborhood back what it deserves, which is the architecture that this city is known for. I wanted to get into this because that’s what I did with my own home in Chicago, and I want to keep doing it on every single street in this city. I really do. My goal is to make sure when people are walking by my [renovated] homes that they’re stopping, they’re admiring, they’re taking pictures, and they’re looking at it like, ‘Wow, this must’ve been here for 100 years.’ That’s the goal.”
A Tale of Two Cities: “While Las Vegas is very cookie-cutter when it comes to home design, Chicago’s architecture offers designers more opportunity to make [their mark]. That said, the politics of this city, the weather in this city, and the difficulty of building on a 25-foot by 125-foot lot (the standard size in Chicago) make it really tough.”
First on the To-Do List: “Before beginning any renovation, you absolutely must do your homework on your contractors. Vet every single one before deciding who you’re going to use. You call all of their references. You go see their work. You spend time — tons of time — finding out who these people really are, what their work ethic is like, if they’re honorable, if they’re honest, if they’re on schedule, if they’re on budget. And if you plan on being your own general contractor, do the same homework on your subcontractors. That’s going to save you so much time and money.”
Think Before You Flip: “What I hope with my show is that people see the truth. Because I don’t want people to quit their day jobs and start flipping homes. I want people to be smart about how they’re doing it, I want them to be absolutely passionate about the process, and I want them to understand the risk in what we do. Because it’s not easy-breezy. So don’t go into [house-flipping] assuming you’re going to make money. … Too many people do stuff just to make a quick buck. Have purpose, have passion, and know that not every property will turn a profit.”
Make Decisions with Conviction: “When things don’t go as planned, you have to make snap judgments, in the field, right then and there. There’s no time to wait. There’s no time to go back to the drawing board. There’s a decision to be made, and you better be really confident with that decision, whether it’s firing someone or taking a huge loss profit-wise because we know we have to. When making those decisions, I really do look for what’s in my gut, and I trust my gut — I always have, and I always will.
Rebel Remembrances: “UNLV has evolved so much since I left. When I was there, it was a commuter school — you went to class then left campus, which means you don’t get involved as much. So I feel sad that I didn’t really get to have that sense of camaraderie when I was there. But I was so focused on what I wanted to do after college that I just kept my eye on the prize. So the fact UNLV was a commuter school kept me more regimented. There were no distractions for me, even though people might think, ‘Oh, you lived in Vegas.’ No, I lived in Henderson, I had my grandmother down the street, my whole family lived [nearby]. So I went to school and worked — I took fewer classes every year because I worked full time. That’s why it took me seven years to finish!
“But I’ve gotten more involved with UNLV since I graduated. And I was actually part of a stadium project a few years back. I really wanted to bring the stadium to the campus. That was something I dreamed of — giving the students something I didn’t have.”
What You See Is What You Get: “Viewers of Windy City Rehab are going to appreciate not just the start-to-finish process, but [my] transparency, honesty, and vulnerability. I’ve never been more exposed in my life. I’m showing people exactly who I am. And they might love it, and they might hate it, but you can’t run this business being a princess and being super sweet and great to everybody. You’ve got to rule with an iron fist, because it’s tough to manage this many projects and this many people. And managing people is the hardest thing in the world to do. Finding great people? Extremely difficult. Managing those people? The most difficult thing to do in business.”