Recently, I had the great honor of sitting down with the inimitable Debbie Travis, (and, full disclosure, an idol of mine ever since I bought my first house in the early 90’s and sponge painted my kitchen walls ochre for a Tuscan effect). We met at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto to chat about Debbie’s life, career and exciting new business.
KB:You have had quite the illustrious career that has included being a model, a home decorating guru, TV personality, author and now doyenne of Tuscan retreats for women. How did it all start?
DT: I left home, a small town north of Manchester, at 16 and got on the first bus to London to seek the excitement of big city life. The only way I could make money was to sign with a modeling agency. That work took me to Amsterdam, Hamburg and Tokyo, which gave me my first taste of foreign countries.
While in Amsterdam I was doing a lot of TV commercials and became fascinated with the behind scenes stuff, the work that producers were doing. I got an internship with the BBC and worked for all the major networks. I became an assistant editor, which paid very badly, so I took a course on paint finishes which were a hot trend in the UK in the late 80’s but hadn’t come to North America yet. Then I decided that I wanted to marry a rich, famous Hollywood director. The only way I could meet him was at the film festival in Cannes, where I was sent on assignment. On my first night there, I met him, and within three weeks we were married. The problem was, he wasn’t rich, and he lived in Montreal [Debbie laughs]. We bought a Victorian house and I painted it with all the finishes I had learned. People came over and saw my work and within weeks I had a business from [one of Montreal’s largest department stores] Ogilvy’s, and places like restaurants and synagogues. I did this work for four years, and started a studio to train window decorators from Bloomingdales. DIY wasn’t what it is today.
Then I thought, what if I made a video? – it was the days of VHS and Jane Fonda fitness videos- to show faux-marble and faux-bois techniques. I ended up selling nearly a million copies and through this started to get invited to do radio shows. Every time the switchboards went crazy. That led to invitations to appear on TV morning shows. One of them was the old Dini Petty Show. Every time I went on, it went crazy. It was a topic people were fascinated by because it was something people could do themselves. One day the producer of the show asked if I was interested in turning this into a TV show. The new networks were just starting up, so I did the show with “W”, a new women’s network back then. I did the show [Debbie Travis’ Painted House] for seven years, then did Debbie Travis’ Facelift and From the Ground Up. And that led to All For One on CBC.
KB: To what do you attribute your success?
DB: I developed discipline and confidence while working as a model. It’s also about being excited about new projects, moving forward. And, in any business, you have to be very nimble. I’m a long-term thinker and I partner with interesting people, working with people I like. Money always comes later. Adapting and giving people what they want is also important. For our television production company, we’ve now moved into doing crime shows such as the CBC series Detective and Real Detective. Lifestyle shows aren’t getting the numbers anymore, but male programming is growing.
KB: How did the idea for a Tuscan retreat come about?
DB: After doing the home decorating shows for many years, my attitude was starting to change. I was getting tired and bored. Then I had this vision. I always wanted to buy a house in Italy. We had filmed across Italy for two weeks for The Painted House and we fell in love with everything: the people, the food, the way of life. We started a dream. The dream was to one day buy a little shack on a hillside. The dream grew. We rented houses, then started searching for properties and the dream went from a shack to a monastery.
We met a lot of expats who had retired to Italy, but we said, “what are we going to do once in Italy?” I didn’t want to sit and stare at my husband for next twenty years.
Then I had an idea. I felt so incredible when I was in Italy, health-wise, alive. Every day was a story and an adventure. What if I created a haven for like-minded women who wanted to look at their next chapter and where they were going? A weird thing happened during an interview I was giving in Vancouver. The interviewer asked, “What’s next for Debbie Travis”, and I said, “I’m inviting women to Italy and we’re going to hike through olive groves and vineyards”. The audience went quiet. Then hands went up and people shouted, “Take me, take me”.
The problem was, I didn’t have a property. That next summer, in 2009, we rented a villa and took sixteen women with us. It was a runaway success. After that, from 2011 onwards, we did one trip a year. And then we found a property. In 2015 Marilyn Denis came and we did a one-hour special, and we also shot a documentary around the journey, the trials and tribulations of what it’s like to start your next chapter. But it’s important to note that it’s not always a dream. There are disappointments, challenges, and scary bits that come with dreams.
I was then approached by the OWN network to produce a documentary series. I didn’t want to do it at first. It felt too private, and I didn’t want my husband and family in it. But people love seeing my husband – he was the reality in the project!
I learned that these women who were on the retreat could be anywhere. What they love is just the energy of being somewhere where we look after them, make meals. Through the living in the moment the noise in their heads goes down, and they realize they’re not alone. These are women who are empty nesters, people who have burst through the glass ceiling and feel there should be something more to life. We get people who are early widows, people who are tired of their job and just want to do something for themselves.
I’m currently writing a book, a type of self-help book – there is a huge audience of women (some men too) who are not their mothers who were old at 50. It’s a much more sophisticated generation with a mentality of a certain age where people want to do what they want to do. But there may be a risk to that and there’s things that come with that. If you’re 55, starting a new business, don’t invest every penny you’ve got in it because you don’t have time to make the money back. But there’s a great hunger out there, and what we want to get across in the retreats is that these women come to us with challenges such as, “I’m getting old, I need Botox”, but really what they need in their life is to get happiness back and excitement, and a lot don’t have that. Happiness comes from being challenged, starting something new and having something to talk about.
KB: Do the women have an ah-ha moment while there?
DT: Yes. It’s like having a massage. You go in all tense and crazy and then halfway through your mind starts to empty. When you empty your mind, you’re super relaxed, and ideas start coming. But you become open and I think it’s a really interesting concept. The retreats are built around where people can relax and where they can feel special. There’s an attention to detail that has been quite deliberate, such as sockets that take all international plugs, air conditioning that balances the air and is completely quiet. We have modern features such as heated floors and we’ve mixed beautiful old stone with modern furnishings as well as antiques on a rustic scale. It’s really been designed as an equivalent to a seven- star hotel but with the warmth of staying with somebody. It’s a very hot thing in the UK at the moment. Country weekends in a country estate, and even though it might be a hotel you feel like you’re staying in somebody’s country manor house. So that’s what I wanted to do in Tuscany. I wanted the women to feel like they are in our home, but they also have the privacy of their own space. For example, every room has its own garden. We have a pool, which is the most awesome pool you’ve ever seen. There are lots of sitting areas, whether they are sitting areas as groups, or just a tiny bench under a 900 year- old olive tree. We’re on 100 acres. We’re putting in a small lake/big pond, women can wander off and it’s all going to be filled with beautiful wild flowers.
KB: Sounds idyllic. And you’re also producing olive oil.
DT: Yes, we’re just finishing the harvest now. We’re producing about 2000 bottles a year. We’re 100% organic. We also now use the olive oil to make lavender oil and we make essential oils through a distillery process. And we’ve just started producing rosemary oil, which is the new hot thing. Very good for joints and very good for hair loss for both men and women and brain action. Rosemary is good for Alzheimer’s and dementia. If you have an older person who has it, it’s a soother, a calmer. This is real rosemary. We take vats of our rosemary, which has never been sprayed and we infuse it for two months into our olive oil, which has never been sprayed either. It’s amazing. I rub it on. Every since I did the olive harvest my thumbs hurt, so I’m constantly rubbing it into my thumbs and the ache stops.
We’re launching a Tuscan wine next year. This is in addition to the Pinot Grigio from Niagara, already available on the market. The idea and concept is that we’re trying to teach people about why they feel so good when they spend time in Tuscany. You feel good because you’re eating naturally, you’re eating local produce. We’re trying to show people how to bring that home. It’s not a diet. It’s a lifestyle. What I am doing is finding opportunity, so people can be inspired by Tuscany through product lines such as furniture and accessories. It’s about Tuscan tables and how meals are created, rather than an eat and leave mentality [that we have here in North America]. Well, you understand, having spent time there.
KB: I do. I do. But I ask myself all the time why aren’t we living like that here? Why is it that you come back from Italy and you get back into a rush, rush, rush, way of life?
DT: Of course, we rush, rush, rush there as well. There is a level of easiness here [in North America] that you don’t have in Italy. I remember when I needed a hammer once. There isn’t a home Depot. Somebody said, “oh no you go to the butcher’s”. Of course, you do. That’s what’s so fascinating. The butcher sells hammers. You can buy your meat and your hammer. Things like that are a challenge, though. In Italy, you never get anything done because you go to the post office in the morning to pick up a parcel, you end up meeting someone, and you go for a drink. Before you know it, two bottles later, it’s four o’clock.
Buying a chicken can be an adventure that can take an hour. I remember once standing behind an old lady who was like ninety. She was discussing this week’s chicken, last week’s chicken and what the kids think. It can be annoying but that adventure of going and buying the chicken becomes part of your life, and you have to adapt. Bit by bit you start to relax and realize that it’s the experience that matters.
KB: The same thing happened to my husband and me in Greve this past May. We were trying to buy some cheese and there were ten people ahead of us all talking together about the selection of different cheeses, which probably hadn’t changed in years, the weather, the upcoming tourist season, anything and everything. It was like one big party. We were there for half an hour before we could order.
DT: Everybody talks.
KB: Yes, everyone talks. A lot. It’s the Italian way.
DT: Greve keeps winning the best place to live and is one of the most famous places in Tuscany, in Chianti. There is a very famous butcher called the singing butcher. I don’t know if you went.
KB: Yes. I know the place well. His name is Dario Checchini.
DT: It’s the most beautiful butcher shop you’ve ever seen in your life, and he sings opera from nine in the morning. You can sample the meat and they have wine out at nine in the morning. It’s in Chianti, which became famous because that’s where all the British went. But it’s not the most beautiful. South of Siena is the postcard view, the most beautiful, and that’s where we are. If you Google Tuscany, the first twenty pictures that come up are one minute from our house and where all the movies are shot. While we were there in September and October, they were shooting the new Michelangelo movie. They’re always filming around there.
The other thing that is really important, and what we try to get across to the women, is the camaraderie of village life. How they live together. They like each other’s company. The family lives together [multi-generationally]. Italians have very few old people’s homes. They look after their parents. It’s tragic, in a way, that we’ve lost that in Britain and in North America. The older people are still working in Italy. The nonnas are buying the food, making the meals and that’s why they live such a long life. Research shows that it’s all about camaraderie and friendships. That’s why every coffee shop in Italy is packed from five o’clock on. We take women to our village café. They are mesmerized by the old ladies playing cards and they start to realize “where are all our old people at home?”.
KB: Any plans to expand the franchise?
DT: No, no. I’m a big believer in sticking with the brand. I’ve been asked to do trips to places like Thailand. But I’m not a tour operator. What I have now is a great collaboration between the audience I have here [in Canada] and a dream that a lot of that audience have and trying to bring it together. Whether it’s with the wine, a sofa, olive oil, cushions. It doesn’t have to look Tuscan, but it’s about the inspiration behind it.
KB: All your retreats are already sold out for 2018.
DB: Yes, for 2019 we’ve just put up a few dates. We’re probably going to do a design retreat. We’re trying to do corporate retreats as well. Corporations can take over the place, which is a cool thing to do. They’ve done it for men for years. You’re giving the magic of this wonderful place. There are so many ways that I can go with the property, which is exciting. But what’s really exciting is how we bring this dolce vita back here.
KB: It is exciting, indeed. I for one can’t wait for your line of Tuscan-inspired products to come out. Good luck with the roll-out and thank you so much for your time today, Debbie. It’s been a great pleasure.
DT: Thank you and good luck with Gentlemen, Gigolos & Gelato.
For more information on Debbie Travis’ Tuscan Getaway visit www.tuscangetaway.com