Design mogul Esther Lavonne: Equal parts creator, performer, philanthropist
I spot Esther LaVonne as she walks into The W. Standing a towering 5-foot-10-inches, she is clad in all black, raven hair pulled into a modern pomp with red lips and her signature tan.
The Austin/Los Angeles-based designer, is a sight to behold. Her image conjures up Amy Winehouse mixed with an Indian princess (LaVonne is part native American). She is every bit the head turner as she makes her way over to join me. The hotel makes a fitting place for an interview, as LaVonne occasionally makes The W her second office, logging dozens of hours a week here meeting with her high-end design clients.
Esther LaVonne is a woman of many hats and she doesn’t intend on hanging any of them up soon. She is equal parts design mogul, performer, philanthropist, and at heart, a role model to women everywhere. At the age of 30 she has accomplished more than many of us have in a lifetime.
At 18 she was attending school for pre-med, by 22 had moved both of her sick parents to Austin, by 25, she owned her own home and business and last year she was the winner of a reality TV show. If that’s not determination, I’m not sure what is.
She sits before me personable, humble and talking excitedly about the future. As the hour ticks by, I’m increasingly blown away by her life story, a story fraught with hardship and loss that somehow gave birth to this powerhouse of a woman.
A self-made woman
Esther LaVonne is the definition of self-made. She was born in Santa Anna, Texas (population 1,000) to a father suffering from Parkinson’s disease and a mother with schizophrenia. She is the youngest of eight children. But even as the baby of the family, she grew up fast. “I was raised around people who were always sick,” she says to me. “It made me want to become a doctor, all I wanted to do was help them."
You can hear in her voice that a “normal” childhood was never an option for her. Between her family’s chronic illness and full household, they often had a hard time making ends meet.
She was cooking, cleaning and learning how to pay the family bills by age eight. At 10 she convinced her father to purchase an aging Victorian mansion located on an acre of land in nearby Brownwood. He bought the home for $17,000 and by the time Esther had redecorated it at age 15, he was able to resell it for $45,000. It was clear that his daughter had a gift for making spaces beautiful.
However, LaVonne’s real passion as a teenager was music, not interior design. The only musical outlet in Santa Anna was church, a place she spent the majority of her childhood, singing and helping out wherever she could. When her parents separated, she pleaded to go live with her mom in Brownwood — a town with a school choir program. Her father agreed. She attributes the experience to her blossoming from a “shy bookworm” into a confident songbird not afraid to take on the world.
In 1999 LaVonne won a scholarship to study pre-med at UT, a field she pursued with duty and pride. Her childhood dream to become a doctor was what had motivated her to escape her small town upbringing. But a year into the program, it became clear that becoming a doctor wasn’t a good match. “It was the first time in my life I didn’t have a backup plan," she recalls. "I was terrified.”
She confided in her aunt who suggested that she pursue a degree in interior design. While studying to get her license, a friend talked her into cocktail waitressing. After a few months, she became a bartender at some of Austin’s biggest establishments: Oslo, Barcelona, Shakespeare’s Pub and The Belmont.
LaVonne credits bartending for opening some of the biggest doors in her life. “I learned to talk to anybody and not be scared. People would come in and offer me modeling jobs. One time Robert Rodriguez came into my bar and cast me to be an extra in Sin City. I’d take home sometimes $400 a night bartending — it blew me away."
It was at a casting to play a singer that LaVonne realized she missed music being a part of her life. After developing confidence from the years of success in Austin, she formed a band. Her first show drew 90 people. Although her stage presence and crowd draw was strong, she was going broke paying for a band and demo fees. In 2005 she put music on hold to focus on her design career.
A career in design
“I knew since I was a kid that I wanted to own my own business,” she says of how Esther LaVonne Design came about. After obtaining her license, she heard about a design firm that piqued her interest: a woman who’d run her firm for 27 years out of her own house and focused on heavily creative, more internationally appealing projects. “I called her 12 times before she called me back," LaVonne says. "But when I finally met her, she hired me on the spot."
Within a year and a half of working for her mentor, she opened her own business. “People started calling in asking, 'Who did this room, who did this such and such?' I was pulling in $80,000 projects. My boss looked at me one day and said, 'It's time for you to open your own business.'"
Esther LaVonne's personal design style is a fusion of Philippe Stark, glam rock and old Hollywood glamour. Her tagline, “Classic luxury with a modern twist” is perfectly representative of her approach- mixing designer chic with one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. The end result screams “Vogue," producing colorfully eclectic yet dazzlingly elegant spaces.
With the money she saved from years of bartending at upscale clubs, she was able to purchase her first home and open her own business. Tragically, as everything seemed to be coming together, her father passed away from complications with Parkinson’s disease in 2004. “My father’s passing was a very hard time for me. HGTV’s Design Star flew me to LA a month after to interview for their show and I bombed the whole thing because I was so depressed. My happy go lucky creative self didn’t shine through. It was a pivotal learning experience”.
In the spotlight
LaVonne's relationship with HGTV’s show Design Star is a long-standing one. The year after her first audition, she turned down HGTV due to the growing demand for her work. The third year they flew her to NYC, this time praising her audition. But the entertainment industry is notoriously fickle. “I still didn’t make it the third year. I think they wanted me to be this bitchy brunette because that’s my ‘look’ but I’m actually very sweet and cooperative," she says with a laugh.
This past year, HGTV called her again and said they had a new show they wanted her to try out for. She recalls flying to LA for the audition. “By the third time I auditioned, I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t scared whatsoever. I knew after they finished taping that it was a done deal. I knew I was meant to be there”.
HGTV signed her to episode 7 of the new miniseries, White Room Challenge where five interior designers compete to create one-of-a-kind spaces from scratch. The catch? Materials can only be purchased from a store chosen by the producers and contestants are given 15 hours to design their room.
LaVonne's theme was “restaurant supply store." Can you imagine trying to make living room furniture from plastic produce bins and soup ladles? That’s exactly what she did. Her room, with perfectly painted pop art walls and makeshift Lucite loungers was a hit. “We were all exhausted by the end of day one but I stayed awake in my bunk drawing out my room, all the lines, everything I had to work with. I fell asleep on my drawing that night.”
Her dedication paid off and she was awarded the $10,000 cash prize. Even more remarkable was the fact that she shared a portion of her winnings with one of her fellow cast mates. “There was a guy on the show, Joey, whose dad was dying," she explains. "He auditioned for the show to help pay his medical bills. I bonded with him having gone through the very same thing with my dad."
After her win on White Room Challenge, LaVonne will be featured on a yet-to-be-named design show. “The compensation is better and the concept is right up my alley. The projects are ones I’ve always dreamed of doing on my own."
After her reality show success, LaVonne has kept her roots firmly planted in Austin, while also establishing herself in Los Angeles, providing her design services and shopping around for record producers. “I’m not going to stop doing what I love [music] just because I’m successful in another field. My goal in the next five to 10 years is to have my design company run itself. I would love to be on tour, developing myself artistically and getting my sound out there."
“I’d also love to be married, have kids, establish my own design brand, have a show, have a few records under my belt and create a charity organization for neglected and abused girls," she continues.
I ask her to elaborate more on her charity project, to which she replies, “I feel like there are so many broken women in the world and if that cycle is going to end it has to start in childhood. If my aunt hadn't supported me, I might not have been inspired to make something of myself. There’s a million ways to have a good life, but my purpose is to help people."
It is most likely this mentality — her instinct to give back — that is responsible for LaVonne's success. While her goals may seem steep, it would be foolish to think they’re out of her reach. The three huge prints that sit framed on her wall read, “LIVE — WORK — CREATE."
I can’t think of a more fitting mantra for Esther LaVonne.