"Will it ever stop? Yo, I don't know.
Turn off the lights, and I'll glow."
It's just before 8 a.m. on a recent Friday at Mom's Kitchen, a country-style breakfast joint in Wellington, a wealthy suburb west of Palm Beach. In walks a six-foot-tall, 42-year-old man in cargo shorts, a navy-blue hoodie, and a black ball cap with the flat brim nudged ever so carefully to the side. Tattoos cover his body and hands, and his hair — once a tall, creamy-blond pompadour — is now dark, cropped short. He takes a seat next to a bearded man at the counter, his back to most of the restaurant. Regulars barely notice him. Strangers stare for a moment before recognizing him, their eyes tracing the familiar broad shoulders, the staunch jaw, the glowing white teeth. To the staff here, he's "Rob." But to most of the world, he will forever be known by one moniker: Vanilla Ice.
"'Morning, Rob," a smiling waitress says. "Know what you want today?"
He does: orange juice, coffee, eggs with extra hot sauce, and hash browns. "No meat," he reminds her. These days, Rob is a vegetarian.
Soon, three of his buddies arrive. Over breakfast, Rob tells them about getting stopped by a police officer the previous day.
"I was only going maybe ten over when he got me," he says. "He's asking me why I'm in such a rush. 'What's the emergency?' That kind of stuff. And he asks me for my license and registration. I pull it out, and he takes one look at it. He goes, 'You're Vanilla Ice!' I'm like, 'Yes, sir.' He's like, 'All right, well you drive carefully, and have a good day.'" His buddies chuckle.
On this typical busy day, Rob will star in a photo shoot, go to his mechanic's shop to check on his vintage '67 Cadillac, feed his pet wallaroo, and take his wife and daughters up to a weekly car show. But before all of that, he must jump a motorcycle over a monster truck full of people — part of a morning-radio stunt.
The group pays for breakfast (Rob pulls out a wad of cash with hundred-dollar bills poking out, but one of his friends is a second quicker and gives the waitress a credit card) and then caravans down Okeechobee Boulevard to a small, private dirt-bike track. Rob is standing in the mud behind his black Escalade, changing into his motocross suit when his wife, Laura, arrives in her Mercedes carrying their miniature poodle, Teddy.
As Rob takes a few practice jumps on the bike, a swarm of people from a local Top 40 radio station (WiLD 95.5) arrives at the track. A morning-show DJ and eight other loud young men hop up into the bed of a jacked-up truck. Most are carrying cans of Bud Light. One man is dressed as Abraham Lincoln ("Drinkin' Lincoln," he says. "Great to meet ya!")
Rob gives a thumbs-up and revs the engine until it sounds like crackling thunder. Then he guns it. He rockets up a ten-foot dirt hill and into the air. He clears the cab of the truck, sprinkling bits of mud over the screaming drunks. He twists the handlebars midair for the cameras. Then he lands hard on the top of the next hill. The impact rattles his entire body, though he plays it off. Everyone cheers.
Afterward, taking off his pads and helmet, Rob admits the last landing stung like a bitch. In many ways, the jump is a metaphor for his life: the meteoric rise, the brief time on top of the world, and the hard, awkward landing. Now, though, he's grinning.
"I'm definitely going to feel that tomorrow," he says. "But when you feel the pain, that's how you remember you had a good time."
Remember what the world was like in 1990. Before Vanilla Ice, radio airwaves were dominated by Phil Collins, Wilson Phillips, Sinéad O'Connor, New Kids on the Block, and a spattering of hair bands whose sole existence seemed to be aerosol distribution. Maybe it was the daring shiny suits, the fascinating balloon pants. Maybe it was the novelty of a white rapper. Maybe it was the hard-to-ignore swagger. Or maybe it all came down to that irresistible, unshakable, deviously catchy sound:
If there was a problem, yo, I'll solve it
Check out the hook while my DJ revolves it
Ding-ding-ding ding-a ding-ding
Ding-ding-ding ding-a ding-ding dink.
Whatever the reason, within days of its release, "Ice Ice Baby" gripped America tightly, unleashing a wave of consumption like no song before or since. The single was spun hourly on radio stations from coast to coast. The video played at least that often. Cars with neon-lit underbellies and hydraulics blasted the tune in high school parking lots. Teenage boys danced across pep rallies, one hand behind the head, elbow out, the other hand grabbing a foot. A generation of suburbanites was captivated.
Of course, the phenomenon was short-lived. In just over a year, Ice was out of the spotlight, replaced by darker, ultraserious acts such as Nirvana. The feel-good dance-along sounds soon gave way to Tupac Shakur and gangsta rap. Vanilla Ice became America's favorite joke, mocked as a symbol of the silly extravagance and neon sensibilities of the late '80s and early '90s.
With time, though, the vitriol has worn off. These days, if "Ice Ice Baby" were to come on in a club or at a party, heads would bob, feet would tap, and 30-year-old asses would inevitably shake in every direction. Now, the name Vanilla Ice evokes the sweet charm, the unknowing innocence of another time. In a world of school shootings, mass murders, endless wars, and economic despair, we miss that time.
"These things tend to go in cycles," says Vanilla Ice's manager, Tommy Quon, "and that time in history, the period when Rob was the biggest, seems to be cycling around and getting popular again."
Imagine spending the rest of your life being famous for something you did when you were 16. Back then, did you do anything that, in retrospect, seems a little silly? Did you incur any funny nicknames? Did you, perhaps, do something regrettable with your hair?
As a teenager who grew up bouncing between divorced parents in Dallas and Miami, Rob Van Winkle had hobbies that included riding dirt bikes, break dancing, and listening to hip-hop music, which was, at the time, still relatively new. He had a lot of black friends who would tease him, dubbing him "Vanilla Ice." He hated the nickname, but the more he protested, the more they used it.
In Dallas, he lived with his mother and stepfather. "I used to tell my mom all the time that I was gonna be famous for something," Rob says. "Whether it was for racing motorcycles or rap or whatever. She told me: 'White kids don't rap.'"
But by age 16, he was trying. He spent hours with his friends, writing short rhymes. One day, while going through some of his brother's records, he sampled a riff from the David Bowie/Queen hit "Under Pressure." He recorded some simple lyrics about his rapping prowess — "flow like a harpoon, daily and nightly" — and mixed in South Florida references such as "A1A Beachfront Avenue" and "Miami's on the scene, just in case you didn't know it." He used an old African-American fraternity chant for the hook: "Ice, ice, baby!" The entire thing took only a few hours.
Over the next couple of years, he performed live in small, predominantly black clubs around Dallas and Miami. The crowds were entertained by this young white kid rhyming and dancing all over the stage. When Rob was 19, Tommy Quon, a Dallas nightclub owner, began managing him and put together an independent single, a rap cover of the Wild Cherry classic "Play That Funky Music." But when a DJ in Georgia accidentally played the B-side, that was the song people began requesting on radio stations across the South. By the time Rob was 21, in 1989, the underground single featuring "Ice Ice Baby" had sold 48,000 copies.
"I thought I had it made then," Rob recalls. "I was packing these black clubs. I was opening up for Ice-T, bro. I thought it was the coolest thing in the entire world."
Vanilla Ice debuted around the time that hip-hop acts such as Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy began getting national mainstream radio play. Corporate music companies noticed a growing number of middle- and upper-middle-class suburban kids listening to urban music. Each one of those kids represented a tree of cash that could be shaken with every birthday, bar mitzvah, Christmas, and straight-A report card. What the industry needed was a fresh, clean (read: white) face that conservative moms in Topeka, Kansas, and Peoria, Illinois, wouldn't mind bringing home to little Johnny and Jenny in the form of a new "compact disc."
Quon began getting calls about his new client, this white rapper, this "Vanilla Ice." Big music executives knew that Rob, with his smooth cheeks and million-dollar smile, represented the perfect way to sell hip-hop music to America's suburbs.
What kid could resist when executives from SBK Records — one of the biggest labels in music at the time — came knocking with millions of dollars and giant recording contracts? Who wouldn't put on the shiny clothes and sign off on the ridiculous biographies as the money piled up?
When "Ice Ice Baby" dropped, "It was like out of nowhere, more than anyone could imagine," Rob remembers. "I sold 2 million records before we even put out the video. Before people even knew I was white. Then life completely exploded."
Quon put together about $10,000 to shoot a guerrilla-style music video in Dallas. It was a montage of Rob dancing in abandoned warehouses — grabbing his ankle and putting his hand behind his head — and driving his Mustang convertible in slow motion, with the ragtop down so his hair could blow.
The video was an instant staple on MTV. Wal-Mart stores across the nation struggled to keep his album, To the Extreme, on shelves. "Stores were getting truckloads of nothing but Vanilla Ice tapes and CDs and selling out in the same day," Rob recalls. At one point, he was literally selling 1 million records a day. It was the first album ever to go triple-platinum in its first month.
"It sounds like everybody's dream," Rob says. "But it was a nightmare. It sounds funny, but it was like a prison. All of a sudden, I'm surrounded by strangers telling me what to do. I had stylists and publicists telling me where to go all day from the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep. I had wardrobe people holding shit up and telling me: 'You're going to wear this when you do this thing and this when you're on this show.' I didn't even know these people's names.
"I was so young. I didn't know anything about the record industry. I just trusted these people knew what they were doing. For a while, it seemed like it was working. I made billions of dollars for these people."
The catapult into celebrity was surreal. He was on hundreds of magazine covers and talk shows. He went on the Arsenio Hall Show donning shaved eyebrows and a shimmering silver and green space suit with extra-wide shoulder pads. He had a celebrated cameo in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, which he considers one of the coolest experiences of his career.
Next thing he knew, Rob had attracted the most famous woman in music. "I had Madonna stalking me," he says. "She's flying me up to Indiana to the set of her movie [A League of Their Own]. She's taking my shirt off, putting me in her book. [He's featured in her coffee-table picture book, Sex.] This is Madonna. I was just some kid. It really fucks with your head." They dated for eight months. "We would go out to the movies in these wigs," he says. "We'd go to restaurants in crazy, stupid disguises, and seriously nobody would know it was us." Out of respect for his wife, he doesn't like to talk about the superstar at length.
Despite the perks, Rob felt trapped, he says. "You hate it. You feel like a puppet. But you can't just quit. You look around you and there are 400 people who are supporting their families because of you. If you quit, they can't pay for their kids' college."
Every time he refused a proposal, someone would throw money at him, he says. "They'd say, 'Look, the big new thing in rap is slow songs. LL Cool J has a slow song. We want you to write a slow song.' I'd be like, 'I'm not gonna write a fucking slow song — are you kidding me?' And they'd be like, 'Here's a check for a million dollars.' So I sat down and wrote a slow song. It was a million dollars. I'd lick my mother's asshole for a million dollars."
Quon says that, at the time, the industry didn't use words like overexposure. "All publicity was considered good publicity," he recalls.
All told, "Ice Ice Baby" sold 40 million records. It remains the highest-selling rap song of all time. For a span of about 18 months, Rob was one of the most famous people in the country.
Then, the awkward landing.
News spread that the majority of Rob's bio — and Ice by Ice, the autobiography released by his label — was fictional. He did not grow up in a gang on the streets of Miami, for instance, or have more than 1,000 motocross trophies. Rob says he was paid $850,000 to allow an "authorized" label to be slapped on the cover and that Quon wrote the book.
Then came the lawsuits. He was sued by Queen and David Bowie for using their song without permission. He defended his beat in an infamous video clip — "Theirs goes ding-ding-ding dada ding-ding, and mine goes ding-ding-ding dada ding-ding dink" — but eventually paid them $4 million.
And there was the movie. Cool as Ice was written as a modern retelling of Rebel Without a Cause. The film starred Rob riding a motorcycle, courting a woman on a horse, and using the notorious line "Drop the zero and get with the hero." The week the movie came out, October 18, 1991, it was a pathetic 14th place at the box office. (A comedy troupe in Chicago now performs Cool as Ice as a stage show, using a tricycle as the motorcycle.)
There were other legendary tales of fame's shackles, including one that might have changed the course of music history. An associate of hip-hop mogul and felon Suge Knight claimed he was shorted a producing credit on "Ice Ice Baby." For weeks, Rob says, Knight and his bodyguards would eerily show up wherever Rob went. "They wouldn't say anything. They'd just stand there staring. This happened again and again at restaurants and clubs all over L.A." He says the whole thing culminated one day when Knight and his bodyguards confronted Rob in a hotel room in Hollywood, California. Knight asked Rob to step out on the balcony.
"There wasn't anybody dangling over the side, but they were definitely strong-arming me," he says. "But I signed it over, and that's how Suge Knight got the money to start Death Row records. In a way, there might not have been a Snoop or a Dr. Dre or a Tupac if not for that, so the whole thing is weird."
The entire rise and fall was over in no time. After To the Extreme sold 13 million copies in 1991, the follow-up album, Mind Blowin', released in 1994, sold fewer than 45,000 copies. America had turned the lights off on Vanilla Ice.
"I had a lot of anger at that time, resentment that this had been done to me," he says. "I made a lot of mistakes, but I was young. Honestly, there's no way I could have foreseen these things. Nobody could have."
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.
Their lifestyle is a comfortable one. Laura says she likes Louis Vuitton purses in particular because the tiny LVs are also her initials. Their daughters — Dusti Rain, 12, and Keelee Breeze, 10 — attend private school. The girls especially like playing with the old Vanilla Ice dolls when they have sleepovers. Every so often, someone even pops in an old VHS tape of Cool as Ice and the whole family sits down to watch.
"The girls love it," Laura says. "They're really into horses."
Dusti is already hinting she'd like to be a singer one day. "She's good," Laura says. "She could be a Hannah Montana type, I'm sure, if we went that route — "
"No," Rob says, almost instinctually. "That's not happening. Not for many years. Kids need to be kids."
Rob says that being a family man is his "true purpose." Over the years, though, the Van Winkles have had a few domestic disturbances. In 2004, Rob was arrested for assaulting his wife, pleaded guilty to charges of disorderly conduct, and was sentenced to probation and family therapy. In 2008, he was arrested for domestic battery after Laura called 911 saying he hit and kicked her. She later claimed he only pushed her, and the case was dropped.
"He's really smart, and it makes him really hard to argue with sometimes," Laura says. Any family drama seems muted now, and the couple seems fully devoted to each other. "He's very protective, and a protective father," she says. "Like a bear."
One thing you won't find along the walls and bookcases in the Van Winkle house: any reference to Rob's past life. But a small office near the garage has a handwritten sign taped on the door that says, PLEASE DO NOT ENTER. Rob opens the door.
Inside, stacked in boxes and leaning against walls are all sorts of Vanilla Ice paraphernalia. The walls are covered with platinum records, People's Choice Awards, and photos of Rob with MC Hammer and Wilson Phillips. A tiny Vanilla Ice doll stares out from its original packaging next to a one-of-a-kind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles skateboard. There is a special-edition Vanilla Ice Nike shoe, designed in the same colors as the blue and red silk shirt he wore on the To the Extreme cover. "It even has the same three stars," he says with a smile, a hint of pride. Inside the heel is an image of a tall, coifed, blond pompadour.
Rob says it's taken two decades of turbulence and "thousands of dollars of therapy" to come to peace with this past. "I had a weekend that lasted a few years," he says. For a second, the trademark meter in his voice stops and the wall of confidence cracks slightly. "Ya know, I was really lonely. For a really long time."
Of all the advice he's received over the years, he says the words he repeats to himself most often came from, of all people, Tammy Faye. "She told me: 'We are who we are because of who we were.' I wouldn't wish my past on my worst enemy. But I also wouldn't change lives with anyone in the world. I know it sounds weird, but that's what it's like to be me."
Recently, there's been something of an international Vanilla Ice resurgence. He just filmed a beer commercial in South Africa that has him lip-synching "Ice Ice Baby" and dancing around a sedate office party in a resplendent silver and blue jumpsuit, sequins galore. And not long ago, he recorded an Australian Virgin Mobile commercial in which he takes to the streets with a bullhorn and apologizes for "the hairdos, the baggy pants, the scandals, the lies... and the music."
He has also begun filming a new reality show he's hoping to sell by next year. It will offer an inside peek at his life and family mixed with footage of him performing crazy stunts with his friends. For one episode, Rob bought an old Cadillac. He wants to douse it with gasoline, light it on fire, and then drive the flaming vehicle off a giant ramp and into a lake.
Back in the living room, Laura sighs. "We worry about him very, very much when he does things like this," she says. "But if there's one thing I've learned in 13 years of being married to Rob, he's going to do what he's going to do. We just hope for the best."
And there's still music. He just returned from South Africa, in fact, where he played several sold-out arenas. "I've been playing all around the globe," he says, his voice fixed with a trademark cadence. "I was just in Australia. I did some dates in Vegas. I played in Russia and Estonia and all the Baltic places out from under the Iron Claw. They don't even speak English most of the time, but they know every single word to 'Ice Ice Baby.' After all these years, it's really an amazing thing."
On December 5, Rob will host and headline the fourth annual "Vanilla Ice's Holiday Block Party," a public concert on Clematis Street benefiting Toys for Tots. Erik Estrada will make a special guest appearance. Last year, Rob collected more than 68,000 toys for the charity and delivered some of them in person Christmas Eve. He hopes to top 100,000 this year.
The album he's working on is called Yesterday Is History, Tomorrow Is a Mystery. You might never again see him play a concert in sparkling pants and pompadour, but he's game for doing a few shows with Hammer. This year, they played a date in, of all places, Orem, Utah. In March, they're slotted to play Wembley Stadium in London.
Being prone to adrenaline-inducing behavior — he's reached 150 miles per hour in "many, many different cars" — it's only natural for Rob to ponder what he might want done with his remains when he dies. Though it makes for rather macabre conversation at a recent dinner. There are arguments in favor of cremation. Then for burial. "Blasted into space" comes up. Then, of course, there's cryogenics.
"He's always talking about what he wants done with his body when he dies," Laura says. "Now it's getting frozen."
"The Iceman sealed in a block of ice forever," Rob says, tilting his head in thought. "I don't know, there's just something that sounds right about that."
A few weeks before the big block party, Rob is headlining a throwback show at the James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami. Other names on the ticket include Big Daddy Kane and the Sugarhill Gang. Rob is slotted to play for about 20 minutes to close the show. This is the first time he has played this stage in 16 years.
Preshow, Laura and the girls join Rob at the Ritz-Carlton near the Knight Center. Around showtime, backstage in his dressing room, Dusti and Keelee discuss the potential set list with their father.
"We're going on soon," he says to the girls. "So what should we play?"
Their favorite is "Ninja Rap," the song he did for Secret of the Ooze.
Someone taps at the curtain covering the doorway to the dressing room. The guys from the Sugarhill Gang just closed their set with an inspired version of "Rapper's Delight," the song that music critics cite as having launched the hip-hop movement. For 30 years, the trio has been swaying in front of microphones, reciting, "a hip hop the hippie the hippie to the hip hip hop, a you don't stop the rock it to the bang bang boogie." They want a photo with Rob.
"Oh yeah, definitely," Rob says, smoothing out his T-shirt in the mirror.
It's a little after 12:30 a.m., and fans have been chanting his name between sets all night. Laura and the girls sit in the fifth row. Rob busts onto the stage through an inflatable grim reaper. A friend is jumping around in a Santa Claus outfit and a clown mask. Confetti rains down on the crowd. The girls stand on chairs for a good view of their dad.
After two songs that aren't "Ice Ice Baby," the audience begins to wonder: Will he play it? After a third song they don't recognize: Maybe he won't, they think. Maybe he doesn't do it anymore. Then Rob strolls to the front of the stage.
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"Does anyone want to take it back to the old school?" he says into the microphone.
The crowd returns a frenzied roar. The anticipation is palpable. What's happening here is not irony or mockery. These people are here for their moment in another time. For a few seconds, when he turns just so and the spotlight hits him in just the right way, it looks like Rob actually glows.
He sneaks a quick wave and a wink to his girls.
As the volume of the crowd crests, Rob holds up the mike and lets fly the words he has said thousands of times: "All right, stop!" he begins. "Collaborate and listen! Ice is back with my brand-new invention!"