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Rob fell into all the clichéd VH1 Behind the Music trappings of fame. He descended into a fog of inebriants. "My drug of choice was always X," he says. "More than heroin and blow. I could just pop a pill and instantly feel better about all the shit in life. Of course, the problems didn't go away. The next morning, things were even worse than the day before."
For months at a time, he refused to go out in public. He couldn't take being America's punch line, a Saturday Night Live parody. "I wanted to completely disappear," he says. "I wouldn't go to the grocery store. I wouldn't go to the gas station. If I ordered pizza, I'd have somebody else answer the door just so nobody would ever see me."
Rock bottom, he says, came in 1994, when he tried to kill himself with a drug overdose. He took every bit of every drug he could find and laid on the floor, waiting to die. "Somehow, I lived," he says. "I woke up to my buddies dumping buckets of water on my face. It was right then I decided I needed to start living for me. I kicked everybody out of my house. I wanted to start everything over."
He began racing Jet Skis competitively in Florida. He met his wife at a Fourth of July party on the water. He resurfaced publicly in the late '90s, post Limp Bizkit, with a radically new image (lots of tattoos) and a rap-metal sound. When MTV viewers voted "Ice Ice Baby" the worst video of all time in 1999, Rob was invited to a studio set with Jon Stewart and Janeane Garofalo to smash the tape with a baseball bat. Although the stint was supposed to demonstrate that Rob was a good sport, he launched into a rage, destroying the tape, the soundstage, and nearly Jon Stewart.
The next time America saw Rob was a few years later, in 2004, this time on reality TV. On the second season of the VH1 show The Surreal Life, he shared a house with late televangelist Tammy Faye, porn star Ron Jeremy, and Erik Estrada, who'd starred as sexy state trooper Ponch Poncherello on the '70s TV cop show ChiPs.
Rob had a few outrageous tantrums, and for the first time, viewers got to see the psychological consequences of life as Vanilla Ice. It was here, Rob says, that he was first able to come to terms with his role in the world. "That show helped me get to a point where I could laugh at that image I hated for so long," he says. "For a long time, I blamed that image for almost killing me." Estrada and Jeremy served as unlikely mentors, urging Rob to be grateful for the experiences he'd had and use his fame to his advantage. "Those people helped me learn to let go of a lot of the anger I had," Rob remembers. "At one point, Erik sat me down and was like, 'Dude, wipe your ass with those people, the ones who don't get what you're all about.'"
Still, when he was voted off the show, he threw a drum set over Ron Jeremy's head.
Living as Vanilla Ice has taken its toll on Robert Van Winkle's soul. He hides it well, but there are signs: the shifting, suspicious eyes whenever he's in public; the guarded language in conversation; sitting in the back of restaurants so people won't interrupt dinner with photo requests and questions like Do you have any words to our mothers?
No matter what he does for the rest of his life, Rob knows he'll never escape the image — the history — of Vanilla Ice. He'll never get away from that song, those lyrics, the legacy of so many shiny clothes. Any attempt to do so would be Sisyphean. Today, nearly 20 years after the height of his fame, he has learned to accept the life he once hated.
After all, that brief window of superstardom set him up comfortably for life. Rob lives in a posh, gated subdivision populated with doctors, lawyers, and retired pilots. The county appraiser values the two-story Van Winkle home, which includes an expansive pool and covered hot tub, around $1 million. "I made some good investments," he says. "I didn't go Hammer with my money or anything."
Still sore the afternoon of the motorcycle jump, Rob opens his home to offer a tour (guests are asked to remove their shoes at the door) and share his excitement about recent and upcoming projects.
He has a grand piano and modern art, and for his birthday in October, his wife bought him a telescope that can transform a living room into a planetarium. Among his handful of Cadillacs is the '67 convertible Eddie Murphy drove in 48 Hours.
Nearby are Bucky, his pet wallaroo (a cross between a kangaroo and a wallaby), and Pancho, the family goat. Rob got Bucky — full name: Bucky Buckaroo Van Winkle — at an auction in West Palm Beach for $2,000. The pets made the news in 2004 when Pancho nudged a gate open and the duo wandered around town for five days. Rob had to pay $3,000 in fines and cover the damage done to a scratched car in the neighborhood.