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Unlike the consumer goods–obsessed East Coast housewives and the other stereotypical interior designers who populate reality TV shows of late, New York transplant and latest HGTV design star Antonio Ballatore is a man's man.
The self-described "Lady Gaga of the network" won his own show on HGTV's Design Star (season 4), infusing the interior-design contest with his Lower East Side attitude and out-of-the-box thinking. A set of pink ducks as a fireplace accessory in his first room challenge was a hint to viewers and the judges that this was no ordinary home-and-garden-channel contestant. That, and maybe his Black Flag T-shirt.
He has since completed 13 episodes of the rough-and-tumble makeover series, The Antonio Treatment, which is not bad for someone who began his career as a set builder for David LaChapelle, Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger.
"I was so stoked when I started with David," Ballatore says. "There were all these drag queens fighting, stuff on fire, DJs playing, people running around like crazy — I was, like, this is insane! I went full-force into it.
"Twelve years later, as my career went on, I started to do big corporate jobs — it became all about the perfect coffee cup. I went from building 18-foot rocket ships for Pee-wee Herman and LaChapelle in Vanity Fair to 15 people telling me to get a different coffee cup. It was over."
Ballatore is a big, friendly dude, with a quick laugh, neck tattoos and a killer record collection. In his 41 years he has also played in bands (Murphy's Law and the Breeders), owned a bar in Manhattan and flipped houses in Hollywood.
But he learned pretty quickly that he didn't know anything about reality shows. "When I got the call [from HGTV], I was, like, 'Let's do it.' Then I showed up, didn't do any research, and I was, like, 'Uh-oh, what am I doing here?' Two days into it I wanted to go home. Call me a cab. It was brutal."
Lost and fighting with members of his team, Ballatore finally thought: "Aren't we artists here? Let's do something creative. Pink ducks were so crazy. Are you kidding me?"
Now that he can take creative license with his own program, he enthusiastically tricks out his crew and his projects with local talent and recognizable L.A. settings. "That's a big thing I try to do on every show," Ballatore explains. "I feel supporting artists and musicians any way I can keeps it real, keeps it cool."
As for keeping it real, on the day Ballatore was to have his photo taken for this story he is running late for a shoot at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Finally the strange cadence of mechanical clucking and beeping ripples through the security radios, along with the words, "Dog — there is a dog on premise."
Ballatore has arrived, accompanied by Chewie, his English bulldog.
Pink ducks indeed.
Shortly after, fishing for a little design advice, I ask an obvious question: "What's the biggest design mistake everyone makes?"
His answer: "Not going for it. Doing your house is like artwork. If you think it's cool, then it's cool. I get a lot of criticism, a lot of people think I'm crazy, but if I don't go for it 100 percent, then it's not worth it.
"And shabby chic."