Something I’ve discovered about myself over the years is that if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s reinventing myself. Not really in the sense that my personality changes – I’ve kind of been the same person since I was 14 – but creatively and professionally. So it’s not surprising to me that over the last few months as the entire world has had to press the reset button, I’ve been able adapt to the changes around me.
Just a little over three years ago, my life fell apart. My long-term boyfriend dumped me a few weeks before I lost my job as a creative director at a startup. The startup is dead now (probably because they laid me and all the other higher level employees off). The ex boyfriend is likely not dead, but I have no idea what he’s up to.. Needless to say 2017 was a shitty year for me. I had to go from making a six figure salary to figuring out how to pay for my newly signed lease and otherwise too-expensive life in the matter of weeks. I had no idea if I was going to have to give up my new apartment or move in with my parents (I did, for a bit, mostly for fun and to write my book). It was an extremely uncertain time where at my lowest I had to be ridiculously proactive and figure out how to make a living. How to work against the depression and figure out how to take care of myself when life felt like meaningless and like an endless succession of career fails and unsuccessful relationships.
I think that’s how a lot of people are feeling right now. Covid came during the time of year that normally feels hopeful, in the early months of 2020 when most people were starting to set goals for their year, making travel plans, and thinking about all the possibilities that lie ahead. Cut to March, when the U.S. ground to a halt, and all of us looked around wondering how long this was going to last and how we were going to get by as we lost our jobs and our financial futures began to dim.
I found myself riddled with anxiety for the first few months of Quarantine. At the end of 2019, I’d started chatting with a realtor about buying a house, my income had increased dramatically since the disaster that was 2017, and my future was looking bright as I shot another season of my TV show. In an instant, my 2020 went from seeming like it was going to be my best year ever, filled with financial gains, vacations, and regular visits with my family to feeling like it was yet another year where I’d be struggling to get by. I thought it was going to be a year of “gains” but instead it looked like it was going to be yet another year treading water.
Like many people around the world, I went through a mourning process for what I thought 2020 was going to be. It was hard to say goodbye to the idea of 2020 that I’d created in my head. And I took the time to actually just feel shitty about it. That was most of March and April. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), I was also extremely busy during those months. I say “unfortunately” because I wasn’t really being paid much for what I was doing, so while seemingly all of my friends were receiving unemployment with no responsibilities, I was spinning my wheels trying to finish some low paying jobs I was obligated to do.
Once I came out of my depressing, busy March and April, I started to lean into Quarantine and actually started to enjoy it. Finally I finished the aforementioned busywork jobs and had time to focus on things I’d been wanting to do for years. I started making art again, began developing products to sell, spent time cleaning my apartment, organizing closets, and working on a few writing projects including a memoir and a TV show about growing up in Yosemite. When I turned around and looked at how much I accomplished in May with nothing to distract me because I never left the house, I was excited.
For the past few years my main source of income has been sponsorships and brand partnerships on my instagram account. While many people assume I’ve gotten rich from my television appearances, the amount I’ve made for being on TV is a negligible fraction of my income. So when the “influencer” market dried up immediately when Covid took hold, my income dissolved overnight.
This was, of course, terrifying. But also welcome. Being an “influencer” kind of sucks. You feel like a tool, brands *say* they want you to use your authentic voice but then by the time you’ve created content for them it’s gone through so many rounds of approval that it rarely still feels like your personality, and it turns off your audience.
That isn’t to say I don’t like working with brands, I often do. I only promote ideas/services/products that I actually like and use in real life. But I never set out to be someone who does nothing but push other people to consume things other people make. I set out to make a living as a creative and as you’d probably guess, that can be a difficult and winding road. I imagine that’s how a lot of influencers end up “influencing.”
So, my income imploded, my future is uncertain, why am I happy?
I guess I’m happy because this disruption pushed me over the edge and is making me tackle the things I’ve been wanting to do forever: working with design clients again (in real life, not just on TV!), making and selling things, and getting back to my art background. When I was laid off from Homepolish, a company I’d been itching to leave anyway but didn’t because job security and health insurance is rare in creativeworld, I was forced to figure out my own business VERY quick. And I did! I wrote a book, I began making decent money creating content for brands, and I created a TV show that HGTV bought BASED ON MY OWN FUCKING EXPERIENCE GETTING DUMPED AND MOVING INTO MY OWN PLACE.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned about myself over the years: I always land on my feet. I know this sounds cocky, but after years of beating myself up and living in a state of existential dread because I was so scared of failing, I can say with confidence that I’m pretty good at getting shit done, at being a leader, at making money, at taking care of other people and being generous, and at being resourceful. One of the gifts my last breakup gave me was self-confidence. And it was a long time coming. For the first year after that breakup I felt worthless, disposable, and unloveable. But slowly, as time went by and I realized it was actually kind of amazing I was able to make a lucrative business out of nothing, that I had a lot to offer creatively to the world and that I am, and have always been, a very loyal friend and (aside from what I’m saying at this exact moment) a really humble and genuine person who almost always does the right thing.
Anyway, I didn’t come here to brag. I came here to tell you what I’m up to and how, like so many people right now, I’m pivoting. But! I do hope that my discovery of my own incredible ability to adapt and to make something out of nothing will encourage you to do some shit you’ve been wanting to do but have been scared to. NOW IS THE MOTHERFUCKING TIME.
Oh, and that brings me to a sidenote: Sometimes in real life I curse. Not often, but sometimes. And if that’s going to bother you, you might want to stop reading my blog. And stop following me on instagram. Watch my TV show because I’m not allowed to curse there. But you don’t have to pay attention to me anywhere else. One of the liberating things about not being an “influencer” anymore is that it doesn’t matter if you follow me. I get to be myself because my value has nothing to do with how many followers I have. So, go ahead! Unfollow me! I don’t care! I’m saying this because I’ve had multiple people call me out, tell me they returned my book, etc for cursing. I’m just kinda done with that energy.
I rose to “fame” (LOL) about ten years ago when I was on a TV show as Emily Henderson’s assistant. Since then, I’ve been blogging and instagramming and have attracted an audience that I didn’t necessarily choose. Oddly, some of those followers were the same type of religious conservatives who have tormented me since childhood – coming into my comment feed to damn me to hell. When I was seven, my mom accidentally sent my sister and I to a religious camp where we spent the entire time being told we were going to hell because we weren’t Christians. Since then, I’ve had little patience for people who try to bully other people into their belief systems. I also think that the type of people who fixate on doing things like monitoring other peoples’ language tend to be the worst types of people, who do the most selfish and destructive things while pretending to be better than everyone else because they conform to outdated societal norms. If you’re that type of person, stop reading this and unfollow me. Again, I don’t care. I was raised without religion but anyone who knows me knows I have an extremely strong sense of ethics and morality and quite frankly I don’t have any interest in censoring myself for anyone anymore.
I have edited myself over the years for fear of “turning people off” or scaring away socially conservative people. But hey, I was raised by uberliberals in California. I believe people should have healthcare. I believe presidents (and other rich people) should pay their taxes. I believe women should have the right to choose and men should shut the fuck up. I believe Gays can get married. I believe Black lives matter.
For a long time, I’ve remained apolitical on my blog, instagram, and publicly. I’ve done this for a few reasons. Firstly, because I think that for the few conservative people who follow me, I am gay friend they might not have access to in real life and seeing me as full person might help them not be dicks and vote against my rights in the next election. Also, I kinda think social media can turn into an echo chamber and while it’s fun to scream about what a fucking asshole our piece of shit president is, it falls on deaf ears becuase Republicans have been brainwashed by FoxNews and never seem to care when Trump does something terrible like call Mexicans rapists or make it legal to discriminate against trans people just trying to get health care. Thirdly, and least importantly, I thought it might scare off potential sponsors and TV networks to be associated with someone who was open about their political beliefs.
But no one I work for ever asked me to quiet myself. No one (aside from conservative followers) ever asked me not to express my liberal politics. When I emerged from shooting my TV show directly into Quarantine (which literally started the day I finished shooting), I looked around and realized I had no employment safety net, I didn’t work for anyone. And while that was scary it also meant something: I don’t have to report to anyone and I don’t owe it to anyone to be apolitical. I can say whatever I want.
It might seem like I’m being a little aggressive here, but you’d never guess how many times I’ve been targeted for stating my beliefs or told to “stay in my lane.” Some people just want me to be a sassy, nonthreatening gay guy who fluffs pillows and shows them pretty pictures. I have a brain, I spent lots of time educating myself, I’m allowed to have opinions.
OMG NOT BEING AN INFLUENCER IS SO FUN I LOVE THIS.
So, now that I’ve meandered all over the place telling you what’s changed about me this year, here are the relevant structural things that have changed about what I’m up to professionally.
WORKING WITH DESIGN CLIENTS
I’ve always loved designing spaces for clients, but in the last few years working that into my life has proven tricky. Yes, I have designed countless spaces for people on “Unspouse My House” and “Build Me Up!” but I haven’t had time to work with clients in real life. This is mainly because I don’t have any employees and about 95% of interior design is coordinating, logistics, and minutiae I don’t have time for when I’m doing things like filming TV shows, developing products, speaking at conferences, and doing the myriad of other things I do.
I’ve had multiple assistants over the years and we’ve always parted ways amicably. However, it can be really frustrating to spend time training someone only to have them leave to pursue their own thing (which I myself did after working for Emily Henderson and which I totally understand). So while I was anxious to get to working with clients again, I wasn’t anxious to hire another assistant I’d have to manage.
My solution to this is that I’ve brought on a Lead Designer (Kara Thomas, pictured above) who has the talent and expertise to carry out my design plans without being micro-managed. Kara is not an assistant but is instead a collaborator. I’ve realized in watching myself and countless friends deal with having employees that I have no interest in having a staff. I’d rather work alongside people because I think in general people who are self-starters and ambitious are motivated by having autonomy and need to be compensated adequately for their work. Thus, I’ve created a horizontal structure for my design business rather than a vertical one, I have very little interest in a hierarchical workplace. My Lead Designer makes more than I do on our design projects because she does more of the work. I can do this because my new business model is about diversifying income streams rather than focusing only on one. Before, I was relying completely on brand partnerships for my income. My new business model incorporates three income streams: Design Clients, Product Sales, and Content Creation (TV and brand partnerships).
I’ve been working with Kara for five months and it’s going great. I get to work with clients to design homes while also not having to deal with the logistical coordination. And she is compensated fairly while also adding a tremendous amount of creative and organizational energy to the projects we do. Soon, I’ll also be launching an E-Design service where I can work with clients all over the U.S., which I’ll have more details about soon.
If you are interested in working with me (and Kara!), please reach out to us at:
Another aspect of my new “business” is something I’ve experimented with a bit in the past and enjoyed, but haven’t had time for until recently, making and selling things. I’ve done a pillow before, and greeting cards and enjoyed doing both. One of my first jobs was working in a retail store and I’ve always dreamed of having one. I also love the idea of selling things I design or make because to me products are just another way of communicating, they’re little ways of showing your sensibility to the world.
In 2017 while I was writing my book I discovered that the driving force behind what I’ve been doing my whole life has been communication. I have always had a strong desire to be heard, to talk to people, to hear peoples’ stories and to help them. If you watch my TV show (“Build Me Up!” premiers July 22!), you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s all about listening to peoples’ stories and using their own stories to help them move forward (and also to help people at home going through something similar).
Creating and selling products is just another arm of my way of communicating and I’m excited to exercise it. I’m starting by selling items I designed for Pride, which took so long to develop that they’re coming out right as it ends. But I think they have a universal appeal and also, Pride should be all year long anyway.
You can see the first of these products here.
Why’d they take so long to develop? Mostly because I’m controlling every step of the process and producing them in a way that is sustainable from an environmental and human standpoint. I want to know how each step of the process works in case someday this turns into a larger business and I need to understand it so I can tell someone else what to do. Right now this is an experiment, but I’m hoping it leads somewhere else. During Quarantine, I’ve been giving myself the liberty of trying new things, understanding that they might not all work but they very well could.
A lot of people have asked me why I don’t do a licensing deal instead of trying to do this all myself. Firstly, I haven’t received many offers. Also, aside from huge partnerships like Target, where you don’t often have control over how everything is made (i.e. it might be made in China in questionable factories by people NOT making a living wage), most licensing deals are not lucrative for the “influencer.” A lot of my peers do them because they are good branding but it’s rare they make a lot of money from them. Typically the person whose name is getting slapped on something gets 5-8% of the profits from it. So you have to sell a TON of volume to make money (ie you’d have to sell like $4000 of product to make $100, which is a lot). My math is VERY loose here but you get the picture, selling licensed products isn’t gonna pay my rent. And right now, I’m trying to figure out how to pay my rent.
I have my first three products designed: A Rainbow People Tee, A Rainbow People Pillow, and a Rainbow People Print and they’re almost all ready to go on sale (the pillow is taking longer to produce as sourcing fabric/buttons, etc has been a TASK). I’m enjoying the problem solving aspect of this process though, and looking forward to continuing it.
You can view my new online shop here.
Another way I plan on continuing to make money is through creating content. “Content Creation” is a very broad term and an often maligned occupation. But it covers the other stuff I do to make money, which is everything from creating video content for toothbrush companies to filming TV shows and specials. These opportunities vary in how lucrative they are but tend to be what gets you noticed for the other stuff.
As you’ve noticed, the way this site is designed is less “bloggy” than it used to be. That’s because I wanted it to be a better marketing tool for me as a Designer, TV host, and maker. That’s not to say I don’t want to blog anymore, it’s just not the main focus of my web presence. I love writing and I love sharing my life. I say this to people in real life and I said it to everyone who was kind enough to share their stories on my show, “Sharing your story helps other people in ways you might not know. They might see themselves somewhere in your words, it might make them feel less alone, and that makes it worth it.”
However, having a blog these days is hard work. When I started blogging ten years ago, it was basically like “HERE I FOUND A PICTURE OF A DRESSER DO U LIKE IT?” Now, blogs are online magazines, complete with professional photo shoots of projects, makeovers, and stories that take months to produce. I don’t really have the bandwidth for that. So I’m hoping my blog will be more of a slow-information, hyper-personal diary that shares my life and ideas with anyone who is nice enough to read it.
I’d like to have the time to blog every day again someday, but I’m not sure when that’s coming. So for now, I’m going to write when I can and concentrate on my different professional, creative endeavors. For now, I’m pretty excited about all the changes going on in my life. I’m not gonna pretend this time is a blessing. It fucking sucks that we can’t see our families and hug each other. But this time has definitely made me tackle some things I’ve been waiting far to long to get to.
LET THIS BE A LESSON TO ALL OF US NOT TO PUT THINGS OFF UNTIL A HORRIBLE STUPID PANDEMIC COMES AND FORCES US TO TACKLE THEM.