'You think I'd know that number by now, wouldn't you?" says Ellen DeGeneres when asked how many homes she's bought and sold in Southern California since finding success as a comedian, actress and talk show host. "Let's see…one, two, three…five…that's eight…" she says, counting quietly aloud. "I guess about…twelve? Yeah, that sounds about right."
The Emmy-winner's dozen residences represent a who's who of architecture and boldfaced names: a Beverly Hills Buff & Hensman previously owned by actor Laurence Harvey, which she later sold to Ryan Seacrest; a Hal Levitt in the Trousdale Estates purchased from designer Kelly Wearstler; and an A. Quincy Jones estate in Holmby Hills that she quickly flipped to Napster founder Sean Parker. But it's not all about mid-century architecture — DeGeneres and wife Portia de Rossi once owned a horse ranch with eight cabins and multiple barns originally built by William Powell in the 1920s, and they currently spend downtime at a 1930s stone villa overlooking the Pacific in Santa Barbara.
Her new book, simply titled "Home" (Grand Central Publishing, $35), includes drool-worthy photos of these properties, along with DeGeneres' insights and advice on home design. There's even a handy section in which she details the SoCal retailers she depends on for furnishings and inspiration.
Address the title of the book: What makes a house a home to you?
Well, because I move so much, it's different every time…but home is just somewhere you feel really comfortable, where you don't feel like you can't put your feet somewhere. I mean, I like beautiful things, maybe more than most people, but I don't want to live somewhere so precious that you can't let your dog or cat on the sofa, or put your feet up. Also, I have to look at pretty things; like, if I'm sitting in a chair and look at a corner of the room and it's not pretty, I have to do something — move things around there or try something completely different.
I assume this obsession with houses started young. What was your childhood home like?
I didn't grow up in a house — we moved a lot and we always lived in apartments. But we looked a lot, we went to open houses almost every weekend. I think that's why I always wanted a house. The first house I bought was a little Spanish bungalow on Clinton Street in West Hollywood, right behind the Improv. I was renting it and I asked the owners if I could buy it and they were really nice and let me work out a deal. And I fixed it up and later sold it. That was when I realized that if you make some improvements, you can make money.
You're known as a successful house flipper. Is it true that you sell the homes furnished?
I never buy a house thinking that I'm going to sell it. But, anyway, yes, I learned as I went along that selling them furnished is lucrative. Obviously, I haven't sold things that are, you know, sentimental or personal; you can see from the photos in the book that a lot of the same pieces appear in each house. Sandy Gallin [manager/producer] was the first person I ever heard about who did the same thing, selling houses completely furnished. I also just think it's can be really fun to move in somewhere that's completely furnished.
What are some of the items you won't leave for the buyer?
The Royère sofa and chair, my Prouvé pieces and the art.
Is there a "one that got away," a property that you really wanted but didn't get?
[Pause] No, I've gotten every house I ever wanted. But there have been some that got away from us. We had a 250-acre ranch in Santa Ynez that we did a lot of work on. It had a huge lake with turtles and ducks and we had horses — and then we ended up selling it. It was amazing, so I kind of miss that one. And I love the house we sold to Ryan Seacrest, but it just got to be too much.
Define "too much."
That house has a really large living room with several seating areas, which is great when you're having a party, but what do you do when it's just you and, like, one other person? Which of the seating areas do you sit it then? It was just weird for me. I worked on that room and changed it over so many times, but it never felt quite right. That's probably why I sold it!
A lot of people move into a new space and are immediately flummoxed by where to start. Your advice?
First of all, start before you move in — envision where, say, your sofa is going to go, where certain pieces will go. And not that I believe in feng shui completely, but I do think there are certain aspects of it that make sense. Like, you want to have a clear path, you don't want a lot of things in your way as you walk through a room. And you don't want to see the backs of things when you enter — if you have to position the sofa that way, put a console behind it. And always remember: paint makes all the difference in the world.
The absolute dread of moving prevents many of us from doing it, but you don't seem to have that fear—why not?
That's so funny that you say that. Last night, Portia and I were talking about that very thing. We're sort of thinking about buying another house, but she was just, like, "I can't." I said, "Why not? We have lots of help, it won't be that hard." But she looks at it and sees it as a stressful experience, whereas I just think about the new-ness of moving into a different house. To me, it's actually really fun.
Are you and Portia on the same page about interior decorating or is there a lot of compromising?
We pretty much have same taste … well, she does like Art Deco and Regency a lot, and I don't like Art Deco that much, but I do like some Regency. But for the most part, we like the same things, so we're pretty lucky.
Three rapid-fire questions: Favorite architect?
I have more than one: Robert Skinner, Buff & Hensman, Wallace Neff.
Favorite furniture designer?
With your knowledge and passion for interior design, I'll bet you've been asked to redo other people's homes all the time, right?
People ask me to all the time, but I don't have time! Just yesterday, a friend asked me to come by and give her advice on her new house. But honestly, with everything else going on, I don't have time. I do fantasize about having my own shop one day. I go to Galerie Half all the time and a lot of my furniture ends up there as well. The owners go shopping all over the world and they bring back the most amazing things. And I think I'd like to do that, too. Of course, I'd be, like, a shop hoarder. I'd cram tons of stuff into the store and wouldn't want to sell it because I'd like it too much.