Having a hit HGTV show like Inside Out might seem like a direct path to superstardom, but for Carmine Sabatella it has been anything but. From an early eye for design aesthetic to a detour that started in real estate, Sabatella is exploring his passion for design, real estate, and interior design to craft a “one stop shop” of sorts. As he balances being a partner, friend, and dad with his burgeoning stardom, Sabatella and I sat down for an extended chat. We discussed his earliest memories of his creativity, being a dad to a young woman in today’s world, and how he is merging all of his passions to craft a brand that is as unique as the man behind it.
Michael Cook: What was the road like for you to go from the restaurant and bar industry to home renovation, which has now turned you into a television sensation with your show on HGTV, Inside Out? Has design always been a passion?
CS: Since I was a little kid, I have been infatuated with design. When I was a kid, my mother’s girlfriends would come over and I would say “Mommy that lady is really pretty, but she should have longer hair and she should be wearing ‘this’ color”; this was at seven or eight years old. Design has always been in my wheelhouse. My ex-boyfriend was a professional photographer and I spent maybe five years doing his wardrobe for his photo shoots. I have always been involved in design to some level.
MC: So the road to design was definitely not a direct one, is that right?
CS: I graduated from USC with a double major in business in public relations. At the time, I thought you needed a business degree to suceed; although design was my infatuation, I never thought it would be a career for me. I bought a bunch of books and taught myself horticulture in my twenties like it was my job, and taught myself landscape design. Then I started doing design as a hobby for clients on the side when I had my restaurant business. I actually redesigned my restaurant and I didn’t really have to; I think I got bored and decided to redo my restaurant. I also redesigned my bar from the ground up. I started doing one-offs for friends and family who wanted my opinion on their backyard or changing their color palette for the interior of their home.
I started to take on jobs like that as a hobby to keep the creative juices flowing; as an Aquarius and someone who gets bored easily, I have to keep that going. The last five or six years in the restaurant business, it was like I had golden handcuffs. I hated it, it became very litigious, it was not what it was when I stared in the business, and I could not deal with it anymore. I always had a passion for real estate and the whole concept of home ownership and design always appealed to me. I decided to sell my businesses and my house so that I could be liquid and start into real estate. I didn’t want to borrow, so I liquidated and started studying real estate and got my license.
MC: What was entering the real estate world like?
CS: My first year in the business I didn’t do much; I was working with another agent and he was mentoring me and I was doing leases, so I blew through my savings. I did have a nest egg set aside for my daughter, but I knew I couldn’t touch that, it’s hers. For the first time in my life, I borrowed money from a very good friend of mine. I was doing real estate in WeHo and Beverly Hills, and it just wasn’t my thing, and I wasn’t established there. An agent I knew in Pasadena called me and she suggested I do real estate in Pasadena. She suggested I partner with Mark Ogden at Sotheby’s and he took me on as his partner. After our first three transactions he simply said “you don’t need me anymore-you’re going to soar”. The second year of my career I ended up in the Top Ten Sales Volume at Sotheby’s in Pasadena. I paid by loan back and started making money. Starting in real estate, I was helping people I knew try to flip homes. I was finding them homes, fighting for them to get the house, and then helping them design it. I was staging it and then selling it, getting commission on the front and back ends. I started to see how I was putting money in and giving everyone else the profit and only making commission.
MC: That is when you started your own design business, correct?
CS: Yes, I started CS Domains, which is my design company. I restore houses from a designer’s perspective. I only work on historic homes, usually homes that were built in the 1800’s to 1950.Shoryly thereafter, I was approached by a House Aid Media company who had an idea for a show on HHGTV. That was such a dream of mine, a bucket list item; I always wanted my own show on HGTV. We met, I knew my co-host through a mutual co-host, as we had collaborated in the past. We filmed probably three years before HGTV green lit the show. That is my whole journey….
MC: Inside Out is a smash on HGTV, and when traveling in places like Provincetown, you must be getting a whole new kind of attention.
CS: Absolutely. I actually was kind of surprised, more in the Midwest than on the East Coast, I definitely get a lot more recognition. Pretty much every day there was someone coming up to me and introducing themselves and saying that they loved the show. It is really cool, I love that.
MC: An HGTV show has always been your dream and it’s been picked up again; what is one thing that you thought would be true of the experience and is actually something completely different?
CS: (laughs) I thought this would be cakewalk! I thought I would go in with my cute shoes and my Gucci t-shirt and walk around waving my wand and designing. They took my wand out of my hand and told me that I would be demolishing the homes; I was like “what”!? They never told me that on the front end and I still joke with the producers to this day about it. I take down walls and do demo for seven to eight hours a day, I am in the trenches. They want to make it authentic, which I appreciate, but they also want to send the message to the crew that I am down to get down and dirty. That was the biggest surprise for me.
MC:Do you still encounter homophobia in your industry in today’s day and age?
CS: You know, I feel blessed that I don’t. My husband came from a very religious background from a little town in Kansas, and his story is so different than mine. I came out at thirty and never had any backlash from anyone. I have asked my daughter if she’s been made fun of for having two fathers, and she never has. If anything, her friends love hanging out with us and think it’s fun! In the community that I am in right now, I don’t experience that. Occasionally, I might walk into a situation where I am not jumping at the chance to say that I am gay, but I certainly don’t ever hide it.
MC: So many people ask what it is like to be a gay father, but from your daughter’s perspective, what is it like for her to have a gay dad that everyone knows?
CS: She is a daddy’s girl and we are thick as thieves. I’ve been honest with her from day one and she has never known any different. I dont think she thinks of it as being any different; she sees people as people. I love that about her; she is such a wonderful kid and so well rounded. She gets a kick out of it when people recognize me. We will go to the Americana and walk around and someone stops me and asks for a picture and she eats it up, she loves it; I personally love it (laughs)! I always call myself and extroverted introvert. I like being around a lot of people but I like it on my terms. I like my own time and my own space, I love being alone and travel alone sometimes. I am taking my dog to Vermont one last time, just she and I since she is getting older. If I am in the mood, I love being around people. If I am in the element and in the mood, I love the recognition and I love being around people.
MC: So working with animals is another passion of yours it seems, correct?
CS: I think I am definitely a humanitarian and that I do have a big heart. Once I have the platform to do so, I will be working towards animal rights, since I am a big animal rights activist. There is always the big picture for me.
MC: Where do you see Inside Out going in terms of a five year plan.
CS: Right now, I am trying to streamline and see who I am and what exactly what my brand is; there are actually three separate Carmines. There is the real estate Carmine where I have seven agents with me, there is my design business where I have my own projects and I do interior design for clients, and then I have the show. Right now, I am working with my publicist to streamline it and encompass all of it. Within five years, I want a one stop shop brand. kind of like, they can hire me to find me them the house, design the house, and it is a one stop shop. It is already starting there, but that is my long term goal. To also have my agents learn the craft as much as possible. I would love to get more seasons of Inside Out also, and if the show takes me in a different direction on HGTV, that is fine too. I want to stay with HGTV because I love the community.
MC: Being a gay dad and a partner has both joys and challenges. When do you feel the most authentically yourself?
CS: I feel the most authentic and the most “Carmine’ when I am with my people. We surround ourselves with lots of different people, but there are only a select group of people that I really feel are my people. Those are the people that I feel the most comfortable with when I feel the most free. That is my family, close friends, and some of my work associates/friends. Whether at home, visiting someone’s home, or traveling with them I try to surround myself with my people. About five years ago I eliminated negative people from my life. Once I did that, my whole being of who I am shifted in a really good direction.
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