By TONY WONG
You may not have heard of Jackie Siegel, but chances are you’ve heard about the mega-house she and her husband are building.
The Florida-based Siegel, 48, and her 78-year-old husband, David, were portrayed in the documentary The Queen of Versailles, which won an award for directing at the 2012 Sundance Festival.
Billed as the largest residence in America at 90,000 square feet, it has 30 bedrooms and 23 bathrooms.
The building of the home was stalled for three years as David’s time-share company, Westgate Resorts, floundered during the financial crisis, as the film went on to become a metaphor for the decline of the American dream.
The former beauty queen was in Toronto last week talking to Canadian producers about a potential reality show about her life. And it seems she’s back on track to building that dream home.
What made you want to build what is essentially a palace in Orlando, Florida, of all places?
We wanted to build a house together. Our family was growing and we were pregnant with our fourth child. We were on our honeymoon in France and we went to see Versailles. He was totally inspired. But we were thinking maybe 10 or 15,000 square feet. Not where we ended up. I kept saying you’re not going to build Versailles for me. He’s so money-conscious he watches every dime. He’s the type of guy who will tear up the Sunday newspaper with all the coupons and make sure the nannies use them.
I think he may have used the savings on your home.
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I think he did!
What has been the reaction for you to the documentary The Queen of Versailles?
You get all kinds of comments from, “They can take their money and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine,” or “Rot in hell.” It is hurtful, but what people don’t realize that in the past few years we donated $11 million to charity and we don’t publicize it.
My husband and I both came from humble backgrounds. We worked hard to enjoy our money.
But given the economic conditions where there is such disparity between the rich and the poor, can you understand that building such an excessive home may seem incredibly vulgar?
My husband is 78. Why are they mad because he wants to use some of his money to build and spend the rest of his life in a beautiful home?
He’s building something beautiful and he’s providing so many jobs to his thousands of employees.
I mean some guy in New York bought a Monet for I think $150 million which will likely end up in a vault. But no one is complaining about that guy. We are building a big beautiful home that is a work of art.
You had some financial difficulty during the financial crisis and stopped building for several years. But you’ve started construction again?
In the movie, it looks like we lost everything. We made some huge cutbacks. But everyone kind of did during that time.
We made our cutbacks on our level. We stopped construction. It makes it look like he lost his company, but we didn’t. We sold one property in Las Vegas for a big loss, but we still have 27 resorts, so we’re doing O.K.
Do you think you were accurately portrayed in the documentary?
It’s funny. Even before the film I would get reactions from people in my neighbourhood. They heard rumours about me, or they don’t like me because I’m richer than them. Any stories about me, they focus on the negative. But once they watched the movie they realized I was a nice person. They respected my strength and how I held our lives together through difficult times.
Also in the film it looks like my husband is really upset and stressed out. He’s not, but every time he turned around there’s a boom in his face. He thought they were doing an HGTV home makeover show or something. He had no clue.
Since you started rebuilding have you made any changes to plans for the home?
When I started building I wasn’t done having kids yet. We wanted a waterslide from Wet ’n Wild (the Orlando amusement park), a stage for kids to do their puppet shows, that sort of thing. But the children are getting older.
So instead of a playroom, it’s a teenager’s cave with a movie theatre. We actually have two movie theatres so that no one has to fight over what movie they’re watching. One of them is modelled after the Paris Opera house.
But it will all take a while. The house is being built in stages. We just bought a whole quarry in Italy to make sure we have enough marble.
You’ve described yourself as down to earth — but this isn’t exactly a down-to-earth type of house.
I’m the type of person who can sit in front of a campfire and live off the land in the wilderness. But by dinner I can have an elegant dinner with the president or with the queen of England. I’m not kidding. When I went through Hurricane Andrew I didn’t have electricity and I made it work. I peed in a bucket.
I don’t think the real Versailles had indoor toilets either so you might be in good company
You’re right! When I visited, the kings had to pee and poop behind the curtains in the staircase!
Did you learn any lessons from the economic crisis when you had to stop construction? I take it we’re not going to see you anytime soon clipping coupons on an episode of Extreme Cheapskates.
The most important lesson that can be for everyone, is live within your means. The more money you have the more money you spend. That’s always a given. Whatever your level.
We still used private airplanes, but we had to charter. But now we finally got them back.
You also learn to not become attached to material things. And you also learn who your friends are.
So tell us about your reality show.
We’re just talking right now, but it could be anything from me with my crazy friends to something about architecture and interior design for homes. It depends on where people want to go.
You grew up in upstate New York and went to school in Rochester. Any thoughts of buying real estate in Toronto?
I love Canadians, you’re all so polite. I used to come to Toronto all the time. I went camping in northern Ontario too. I’ve always felt very neighbourly here.
But I’m really not looking at any real estate now. But you never know. But I would definitely buy something if I was up here more than two weeks a year. I need my space.
What would you have done differently now that The Queen of Versailles has been out for a year?
Well, I was hardly wearing any makeup, and they were following me all over the house, in and out of the bathroom. Had I known, maybe I would have hired a makeup artist. Most of the time I was walking around barefoot around the house.
So you would have worn more makeup?