Esther LaVonne wears many hats, and she doesn’t intend to hang up any of them soon. The Austin- and Los Angeles-based designer is equal parts design mogul, performer, philanthropist and, at heart, a role model to women.
At the age of 30, the 5-foot-10 raven-haired beauty has accomplished more than many of us will in a lifetime.
At 18, she was attending the University of Texas for pre-med. By 22, she had moved both of her sick parents to Austin. By 25, she owned her own home and business. Last year, she was the winner of a reality TV show.
LaVonne, who grew up in Santa Anna, Texas, was cooking, cleaning and learning how to pay the family bills by age 8.
During our interview, she is personable, humble and talks 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 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. “It made me want to become a doctor. All I wanted to do was help them.”
For LaVonne, a “normal” childhood was never an option. 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 8. 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.
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.
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 important doors in her life. “I learned to talk to anybody and not be scared,” she says. “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, so she formed a band. Although her stage presence and ability to draw a crowd were 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’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to own my own business,” she says. 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’ve known since I was a kid that I wanted to own my own business,” LaVonne says.
“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, Esther LaVonne Design. “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 style is a fusion of Philippe Stark, glam rock and old Hollywood glamour. Her tagline, “Classic luxury with a modern twist,” defines her approach: mixing designer chic with one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. The end result is colorfully eclectic yet dazzlingly elegant spaces.
With the money she saved from years of bartending, she purchased her first home and opened her own business. Tragically, as everything seemed to be coming together, her father passed away from complications of 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,” she says. “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.
HGTV signed her to episode 7 of the new miniseries White Room Challenge. She won the $10,000 cash prize — and shared it with a cast mate.
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. “By the third time I auditioned, I had nothing to lose,” she says.
“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, in which 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 rooms.
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 painted pop-art walls and makeshift Lucite loungers, was a hit. She was awarded the $10,000 cash prize.
Even more remarkable: 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 says. “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 was offered a spot on a yet-to-be-named design show.
“I’m not going to stop doing what I love [music] just because I’m successful in another field,” LaVonne says.
“A larger network offered me a spot on a new show,” she says. “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,” she says. “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.
“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,” she says. “If I didn’t have my aunt was there to motivate and support 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 instinct to give back that contributes to LaVonne’s success. While her goals may seem steep, they are hardly out of her reach.