$500 And A Dream: Celebrity Home Interior Designer Nikki Chu On How She Got Her Big Break

Celebrity home interior designer Nikki Chu believes you can have it all and it all starts with the pursuit of your purpose.


There are many of us who are on the search for purpose.

Some people overlook it, choosing to take “safer" routes in hopes of having stability or because the idea of dreams becoming a reality can sometimes feel overwhelming. Others dive deeper into their seemingly foolish fantasies, and find that the very thing they've been commissioned to do was rooted inside of them since birth. Take celebrity home interior designer Nikki Chu, for instance, who, during the cold winters in Toronto, would retreat to her mother's craft room filled with everything from fabrics to glue guns to create her own unique works of art.

It was a place where her imagination could run wild and where her confidence in her art was developed as she spent hours cutting, sewing, and pasting together clothing and topiaries, and drew award winning designs that placed in her school art shows and county fairs. They were small confirmations that, even at a young age, told her that she had something special—something exceptional.

“If you talk to somebody who's a singer they would say I was born to sing; I know I was born to design," says Chu. “Every childhood picture I have scissors and crayons in my hand and it was all that I did all of my life."

In an industry where brown faces are few and far between, celebrity home interior designer Nikki Chu is challenging the norm. The lifestyle and design connoisseur has graced the television screens from HGTV to E!, dishing out her top notch expertise on transforming spaces from drab to fab, and has become a go-to designer for Hollywood's elite. And while it was certainly an innate eye for design that helped her climb her way to the top, Chu likes to credit education to being the catalyst to her career.

At George Brown College in Toronto she studied graphic design where she dived into courses on color theory, patterns, and illustration while simultaneously being trained on design programs such as Photoshop and InDesign. “It honed in my design skill abilities. It gave me a focus. And it taught me how to do it on the computer, and all of the programs that now I use every single day of my life," says Chu.

It also gave her an edge up on her competition when instead of turning in paper portfolios she would submit them digitally through e-mail or send them on a disk. By graduation she had turned down four other job offers to pursue a career in advertising at Miami-based agency Tinsley Advertising. She excelled in her role as Creative Director, earning two of the industry's coveted ADDY Awards during her five-year stint while picking up skills in brand building, which would later come in handy when launching her own luxury lifestyle brand.

Looking to expand her expertise, Chu began developing an idea for an art-based magazine at the age of 23, and was introduced to two investors that she hoped would become solid business partners. But after convincing her to move out to California just three years later, the deal went sour, leaving Chu with two options—go back to corporate or bet on herself by creating her own opportunities.

“I didn't really want to work in the corporate setting anymore. It was a great experience, but when I moved to California I realized it wasn't for me."

Tapping into her love for all things vintage and design, she began repurposing old décor items and selling them, as well as working as a freelance designer. Around the same time she met Tisha Campbell through her then fiancé, and upon returning from a trip to Miami the actress requested Chu to design her dressing room on the set of My Wife and Kids to reflect the décor of the then popular South Bleach nightclub, B.E.D.

“All of a sudden Damon Wayans came in and all of these celebs came in and they were like who the hell did this? And she's like Nikki Chu," recalls Chu, who soon attracted other notable clientele including Gabrielle Union and Tyra Banks. After premiering on the makeover segments of The Tyra Show, the television opportunities came pouring in.

“I didn't really see that happening," she says. “I knew I was really good at it but I didn't realize that would the direction and it happened simultaneously."

Despite not having an interior design background, Chu soon became the go-to person for upgrading homes, though she admits that starting out there was a lot of pro bono work and discounted rates in order to build her portfolio, not to mention having a strong work ethic helped her become a staple in the industry.

“Showing up on time, not overspending someone's budget, looking professional, being reliable…this type of career boils down to character on top of talent, so it's not just being a great designer, somebody's paying you to put up for your crap. There are too many talented people. Just like if you're a singer and you don't show up and do studio time and you have a bad attitude they'll go get the next singer. That is the difference in the people who work a lot and get recommended a lot versus people who are talented and really don't get the job all the time."

“They knew how much effort and work that I put in in the middle of the night when everybody else was at home sleeping."

It's also about sacrifice, because let's be real, there's no reward without putting in the work. There are days when Chu works beyond her 14-hour television show schedule just to make sure that her work is top notch. She recalls having to sleep in her trailer while filming for Lifetime show Girlfriend Intervention, to ensure that her makeover reveals were perfect. “They knew how much effort and work that I put in in the middle of the night when everybody else was at home sleeping. But my reveals on the show were phenomenal. People were crying; my takeaway from my reel with all of the makeovers were exceptional. I was proud of the work. You've go to do what it takes and a lot of people just don't have that."

While Chu is becoming a staple name in the industry—even picking up licensing deals for her home décor line, Nikki Chu Home—there's still and underwhelming number of women of color pursuing interior design as a career.

The Nikki Chu Home collection.

“What I do for a living is not mainstream, it's very dominated by middle-aged white women and gay, white men. Most black minority people, they don't know how to get into it because it's not a common career that you would typically see people in."

Though Chu has a large minority fan base on her Instagram page, she says that many of her followers don't quite know where to start. “A lot of people look at what I'm doing and they go holy cow, but what they don't realize is going to school learning graphics, working in advertising and understanding branding, working in television and understanding poise and professionalism, working with celebrities and having to be accountable and professional and having my business be word of mouth, all of those things lead up to where I am now and why I am at the level success that I have."

She also says that although having a niche is good, being able to design with a bunch of different styles will take you further. But before anyone considers interior design as a career path, they have to be honest with themselves about what they're willing to forgo to build a name big enough to attract brands such as NIKE, Disney and major television networks. The glitzy side includes trips to Paris for design shows, but the not so glamorous aspect means that sometimes personal takes a backseat to the professional.

"You can have it all. I just think there's a time and a place and you have to space it out accordingly."

“I think you can have it all. I just think there's a time and a place and you have to space it out accordingly," says Chu. “I love my life. What was required of me to get to a place of where I am now I probably couldn't have done it if I had a kid because you're spread a little thinner. I was able to pour everything into what I do. I have friends that I went to college with and they all came out of design school and had two or three kids and none of them are designers on the level that I am. And I'm not saying you can't be with kids, but it just takes even more effort and more support."

Does she have any regrets for pressing pause on marriage and motherhood? Hardly. She's living the life that she started creating years ago as a little girl playing in her mother's craft room in Canada. Seeing that come to fruition and being a pioneer for women of color in an often times elitist profession, well, that's the ultimate reward for Nikki Chu.

For more of Nikki Chu, follow her on Instagram.

Originally published January 23, 2017.

You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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