‘Kitchen Crashers’ host Alison Victoria on leveling the playing field, her new lookbook and finding love in Chicago.
As the host of DIY Network’s “Kitchen Crashers,” Alison Victoria has destroyed (and subsequently rebuilt) a total of 77 kitchens. But the 33-year-old interior designer would rather smash expectations than countertops. “I’ve always wanted to be the first to do something,” says Victoria, who, during our conversation, alternates between bawdy humor and bold reflections on her success. “I’ve just always known that I wanted to make a footprint. I wanted people to know me. I wanted to be recognized for being great.” She pauses, then adds with a grin, “I can do anything men can do. Except go to the bathroom standing up.”
Victoria has already accomplished more than most of her peers, gender notwithstanding. She’s currently approaching the seventh season of “Kitchen Crashers” (having packed nearly 80 episodes into just two years), helming her own design firm and coming off the launch of a new project, Alison Victoria Lookbook, which allows her fans to seek her expertise via email.
Her early career stands as a testament to the power of pure ambition: After completing a degree in psychology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, the Chicago native snagged a spot as the youngest designer ever to grace the halls of high-end Las Vegas design firm Christopher Homes (she met the owner while interning for another local designer). But two years into her tenure, Victoria grew tired of building posh homes and handing over the keys. “I wanted more,” she says. “I wanted to get in, do the space planning, the furniture, the lighting.” Then only 25, Victoria walked into her boss’s office and quit.
By 26, Victoria had already started her own full-service design firm, Alison Victoria Interiors Inc. “I had to let go of the ledge — a [consistent] paycheck, insurance,” she says. Letting go paid off: Over the next several years, Victoria went on to design everything from LA boutiques to condos in the Trump Tower to a $160 million expansion at the Silverton Casino Hotel in Vegas, where she served as creative director. And she did it all in a male-dominated industry, a reality she addresses with trademark aplomb. “My entire career, my entire life, I’ve had to prove myself to men,” she says. “I think I proved, not only am I here because I deserve it, but I’m here because I’m going to continue to work hard.”
That assertiveness proved crucial in landing “Kitchen Crashers.” In 2011, Victoria was one of hundreds of Chicago-area designers who received a vaguely worded mass email, asking if they were interested in “doing a design show.” To prove her prowess, Victoria invited the producer to tour her work at Trump. Her show of initiative worked: The producer offered her a job as a “ghost designer” for an existing series. “It meant I wasn’t going to be on TV — I’d do all the work and get no credit,” Victoria says. “But I thought, ‘You know what, everything’s a stepping stone. Let’s see what happens.’ ”
Fast-forward a few weeks, and DIY Network executives were already offering to move Victoria in front of the camera for a series based on her life in Las Vegas. But, always pushing to break new ground, Victoria didn’t accept right away. “They pitched me an idea, and I was like, ‘I don’t like that,’ ” she recalls. “I knew the [network’s existing] ‘Crashers’ brand, and I said, ‘What if I was the first female Crasher?’ They said, ‘You start shooting in a month.’ It was seriously that fast.”
Six seasons later, Victoria is on track to become a household name, as it were, traveling around Chicago to surprise homeowners with instant and impressive revamps of their current kitchens. Each week, she and her team give viewers a warts-and-all look at what it takes to tear down and rebuild a space within a matter of days. “There’s a lot of humility in doing TV,” says Victoria. “Some of the stuff we do isn’t gonna work, and I don’t want to hide it or edit it out. I want people to see, ‘Yeah, she screwed up. That stencil project she wanted to do looks like s***.’ ” It’s important, she explains, to tell the truth about what she does, especially for the benefit of her younger fans. “I’ve [met] some 10-to 12-year-old [fans],” she says. “To know you’re inspiring young women is great.”
Victoria insisted on filming the show in Chicago, where, as a young woman herself, she first dreamed of drills and drywall. Growing up in the Hancock Center and later in Lincolnwood, Victoria staged regular redesigns of her own room, which she shared with her sister (“I was really into space planning, but really, I was selfish and just wanted to be near the window”) and constantly rearranged her best friend’s home. “I knew what I wanted to do at age 8,” she says. “I didn’t waste time.”
Victoria (who uses her middle name professionally; her legal name is Alison Gramenos) attributes that early tenacity to watching her mother decorate their home and sew clothes for her four children. But she also admits to being a “control freak” who was desperate for independence. “My dad paid for my brother to go to college, and I didn’t want that. My first job was at Subway at 14 — I wasn’t even supposed to be working,” she laughs. “I just knew I wanted to buy that purple Neon.”
Despite her strong sense of self, Victoria prides herself on being flexible when crashing kitchens or working with private clients, something that sets her apart from many of her peers, who insist on adhering to their own aesthetic. “You can’t open a magazine and go, ‘Oh, that’s Alison Victoria Designs.’ Because I’m not like that,” she says. “I work with so many different clients and I try to give them exactly what they want, then refine it, perfect it.”
Victoria’s open-minded approach to design is what’s driving her newest venture, Alison Victoria Lookbook. The concept is simple: Fans interested in redecorating with help from Victoria can fill out a form on Alisonvictoria.com, describing their personal style, their budget and the details of the room they’re hoping to overhaul (plus pay a flat fee that varies based on the room; for instance, entryways are $950 and bathrooms are $1,300). Six weeks later, Victoria sends the client a box filled with one color rendering, a floor plan, samples, a recommended shopping list and a workbook — essentially, everything they need to revamp the room themselves. “[My fans’] main question is always, ‘How can I get you to come to my house?’ ” she explains. “Well, here’s the way to do it. I really want this to be the heart and soul of what I do.”
The designer is the first to admit that she’s capitalizing on her DIY Network fame, which she sees as potentially fleeting. “The network could say goodbye tomorrow — I have to make the best of it,” she says. But for now, Victoria’s celebrity is growing, something she’s confronted with whenever she strolls around Chicago with her husband Luke Harding, a State Farm insurance agent she met on Match.com in 2011 and married last year. But she says she loves being recognized — and, tellingly, so does Harding. “I married Luke because he was the guy that was my biggest fan,” she says. “He’s super proud.”
She recalls a recent and particularly surreal moment: “Luke and I went to a Cubs game last summer, and we were sitting at the bar across from the field. All of a sudden, these cops from across the street walk over and go, ‘Can we get a picture with the Kitchen Crasher?’ And Luke goes — it was so cute — ‘It’s happening.’ ”
Crash your own kitchen with these DIY tips from Victoria:
1. Install pullout drawers for your lower cabinets. “Any home improvement store carries these, or you can have custom ones made by a cabinet company. It’s a great way to de-clutter and organize.”
2. Install glass doors. “Depending on the type of cabinet profile, this can be a very simple DIY. Choose only a couple of doors and make sure they’re symmetrical when installing — for instance, glass doors on either side of the hood or on the left and right of the sink. This opens things up and displays some of your favorite accessories.”
3. Change out your cabinet hardware. “This is the easiest way to update your kitchen! Think of your cabinet hardware the same way you think about the accessories you wear. Make sure to get the same dimensions as the existing hardware.”
4. Install under-cabinet lighting. “Start off by making sure you have a light rail (small trim piece to hide the lights). Buy the LED strip lights with the sticker back from 3M and run them under the upper cabinets. Drill a hole and install the battery pack into one of the upper cabinets — it’s on a dimmer, so you can control it.”
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Stylist: Mel Muoio
Hair: Morgan Leek
Makeup: Jen Bean
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios