Fans of home-improvement TV shows know Nicole Curtis as the hands-on blonde of Rehab Addict. But her road to becoming a design and media star has been paved with struggles and setbacks along with successes, chronicled in her new book: Better Than New: Lessons I’ve Learned From Saving Old Homes (And How They Saved Me) (Artisan).
In eight chapters, each focused on a house, starting with her first Florida fixer-upper, the Detroit native shares her unvarnished personal journey – from Hooters waitress to struggling single mum, through relationships good and bad – to her complicated life today.
“Some women – what I used to think of as ‘normal women’ – colour their hair when they need a change,” she writes. “Some get a manicure or buy new clothes. I buy a house.”
We talk with Curtis about her grandmother, mall bangs and why she left Minneapolis.
How and why did you come to write a book?
I wanted to write a memoir, so I put the word out there and wrote a sample chapter. I had no interest in writing a design book. That’s kind of boring to me. Everyone on TV writes a design book ... People want more of the details of my homes ... People are always asking me questions, and telling me their stories. ... “We feel so stupid. We lost our house.” Things work out so well on TV but not in real life.
What was your process for writing? Did you use a coach or ghostwriter?
When we started, it wasn’t chronological. It was a completely different book six months ago. After Gram [her grandmother, to whom the book is dedicated] passed away, I hunkered down and changed it all. ...
I’m old-school. I was taking my book to Kinko’s every couple of days and printing it out. But I wrote it the way I write for social media. It had to go through so many hands. The editor takes things out, like when I referred to Terminal G22 at the Minneapolis airport. They took it out, but I said, “It doesn’t sound like I talk. I would say G22.” It reads like it’s off the pages of my social media.
You write pretty candidly about some difficult things in your life, such as breakups and legal battles. What was the hardest thing to write about?
My grandmother dying. She passed away in May. It wasn’t how I was going to end the book. The first time I submitted it, she hadn’t passed away.
What about losing one of your houses in a legal dispute with an ex?
It’s water under the bridge. I’m so blessed that didn’t work. It really changed my life, and now I have my son [age 18 months]. I have a whole different life. It wasn’t a healthy place for me, but I didn’t know it at the time.
Will you continue to work on houses in Minneapolis? And what’s the status of the house you’ve been rehabbing in north Minneapolis?
I’m not there in Minneapolis for the most part. It’s been an uphill battle. I still have one project, and I’ve been trying to get a building permit, but the city is blocking it again. It turns into one thing after another, red tape. What is wrong with this situation? I’ve tried to be part of the community. I’m so frustrated right now.
What did that house teach you?
Persistence. Keep your head where you need it to be, when other people are trying to bring you down. I did an open house, raised money for a friend [who was battling cancer]. But it brought all this negative energy, so much negative press. What they don’t realise, I have to answer to the network, and when there’s negative stuff with Minneapolis, they say, “We don’t want to shoot there anymore.”
Minneapolis isn’t my hometown but I treated it that way. I tried to bring something positive to it. ... I’d love to do houses there, but how many times can you get kicked in the teeth? Let’s go to another city.
You share many personal photos, like that one of you sporting 1980s mall bangs.
I’ve always taken snapshots, and I had great fun going through them. Ethan [her teenage son] approved all his photos. I did have some bad hair. All these little girls come to my signings, and now with the Internet, they know what’s in style. We never knew what was stylish.
If you could leave readers with one takeaway from the book, what would it be?
That they have the power to do anything. I love these book tours and speaking. I make it a party. Women come up to me, crying that they lost their job, they lost their first house, they haven’t made it and they feel like such losers. I’m 40, and I’m just starting to hit my stride. Life is not easy for anyone. If they say it’s easy, they’re lying. – Star Tribune/Tribune News Service/Kim Palmer
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