Debbie Travis helped to invent DIY TV. Then she fashioned her dream life from an old villa in Tuscany – a place for life-changing retreats where you receive permission to just be yourself. Once there, there’s no going back.
Near the end of June, after four months of lockdown at her family home in London, Debbie Travis packed up her car and hit the road with her husband, Hans Rosenstein. The pair were en route to Villa Reniella, the 13th-century Tuscan property they bought and transformed into a premier destination where guests could rest, recharge, and rediscover themselves — and their purpose — among the rolling hills of Tuscany.
A few days before they made the journey back to their Italian home, we spoke about the journey that led her from an idyllic childhood in Rochdale, Greater Manchester to the Tuscan countryside, the paperback release of Design Your Next Chapter—the book inspired by her journey and the journeys of those she met along the way, and life during a global pandemic.
“It’s getting back to normal a little bit,” says Travis, of life in London. “But in a way, it’s a bit of a shame. It’s been nice.”
At the beginning of the year, before COVID-19 took hold in Italy, Travis was enjoying the good life at Reniella after spending the holiday season there with her family. When coronavirus cases spiked in February, she decided to head back to London for safety. That way, if the worst happened and she ended up in the hospital, it would be in an English speaking country (she’s not yet fluent in Italian).
“We’re fine here, but we do need to get back,” she says, of their return to Tuscany. “We’re allowed back in, but there aren’t many flights yet.”
So Travis and Rosenstein donned their masks, took the “Chunnel” to France, and made tracks for Italy.
From the ground up
Travis’s knack for redesigning her life started organically, and early. At 16, she left school, her mother, and three siblings behind in Rochdale to start her life in London. With nothing but a tatty suitcase and a cheese sandwich (made by her mum) in hand, she caught the bus and landed in the big city, where she started working as a model.
While Travis never felt entirely at ease in front of the camera, she was fascinated by what went on behind the scenes, particularly when it came to TV. She worked her way into London’s TV studios by sweeping floors, eventually becoming a producer and editor. Then, during a business trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, she met Hans Rosenstein, a Canadian TV distributor, on her first day there, and the rest, as they say, is history.
After a whirlwind courtship, the couple married, and Travis moved with Rosenstein to Montreal, Quebec. Due to the language barrier (British-born Travis didn’t speak French), she was unable to land a job in television. But the couple had just bought their first home, so Travis spent her time painting and designing their new space, relying heavily on Do-it-Yourself painting techniques that had recently exploded in popularity in the UK.
People Travis met started taking notice, asking if she could do their fireplace, their floors, their end tables. She started a small business decorating other’s homes. She had her babies, then decided to use her television skills to make a how-to painting video. In no time, the video was number one. It sold nearly a million copies in Canada and the US alone—which led to folks in the fledgling cable television industry taking notice, and, soon enough, her first TV show, Debbie Travis’ Painted House.
“One thing I’m good at is the light bulb moment,” says Travis. “The, ‘oh my God, I could do that.’ I’m very good at grabbing opportunity and bringing it my way, then making it work.”
“I wasn’t particularly good,” she recalls. “But I think it was the fun of it and the authenticity. And the fact that the DIY genre had just started. So everybody was doing it themselves. You didn’t have to be an artist; you didn’t have to be particularly talented. You could just have some fun.”
The show, much to Travis’s surprise, was an enormous success. Between 1995 and 2002 it aired in close to 80 countries and 25 languages on the Women’s Television Network. That first win led to others, as Travis went on to become an icon in the “Lifestyle” television industry, as host of Debbie Travis’ Facelift (2003-2005, HGTV), From The Ground Up with Debbie Travis (2006-2008, Global TV), and All For One (2010, CBC).
During the same period, Travis started working with Penguin Random House on a series of decorating books, then a memoir, and she launched a paint and housewares line with Canadian Tire, becoming something of a cottage industry in her own right.
But, by the time All For One wrapped in 2010, Travis had been one of the most prominent names in home decorating and lifestyle TV for more than 20 years. And while she loved the work she had done, she had started dreaming of her next chapter.
A few years earlier, while filming overseas, Travis fell in love with Italy. Soon she was dreaming about buying a home and moving to the country known for La Dolce Vita/ITC (the sweet life), as Frances Mayes, the renowned author (and eventually Travis’ friend), had written about in her memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun. But Travis wasn’t ready to retire to the Italian countryside just yet.
Then, in 2009, while onstage at a women’s event in Vancouver, Travis was asked by an interviewer, “What’s next?” After a long pause, Travis shared how she wanted to invite women from around the world to stay at her villa in Tuscany where they would share stories, relax, rest, and redesign their lives while indulging in the abundance and joy of Tuscany.
First, the room went silent. The silence was quickly followed by a sharp, communal intake of breath, and a flutter of hands into the air as the women in the audience called out fervently, “Take me, take me!”
Travis had set her dream free. The only problem? She didn’t have a villa in Tuscany or anywhere else. So, she and her best friend, Jacky Brown, partnered up and headed to Italy to find a suitable place to rent (which they did). And, as soon as they contacted the women who expressed interest, the 18 open beds booked up almost immediately. Just like that, her dream had become a reality: Debbie Travis’ Tuscan Getaways.
Initially, Travis ran one Tuscan Girls Getaway each year at a rented Italian property. Eventually, though, she found what she was looking for when they stumbled upon the shell of Reniella, a 13-century watchtower, turned 100-acre farm, that she, Hans, and a skilled team spent three and a half years painstakingly renovating.
Today Villa Reniella hosts 8-10 retreats a year, including the original Girls Getaways, a gourmet gathering, a classic car rally, and their mind and body and celebrity chef retreats. They even offer private villa rental and an exclusive B&B experience to folks travelling through Tuscany, plus they produce premium olive oil from the fruits harvested from Reniella’s olive groves.
According to Travis, sharing Reniella has changed everything.
“It’s changed my life. First of all, I’ve realized we’re all the same,” she says, of the impact of opening up her home to strangers, especially the women who come to share her Tuscany—many who have become friends.
“Once you plug women in, they just don’t stop [talking],” she says. “It’s really lovely to see that. And I think it’s made me appreciative. And even more curious. And curiosity is what keeps you alive.”
Travis thinks of the women of her mother’s generation, most of whom were “old” by the time they were 40. “You know, being 50, 60 is not old anymore,” she says. “We’re not our mothers, so we’re not going to sit in a rocking chair.”
In her own life, Travis makes sure she’s taking care of herself, too. When her kids were younger, she’d carve out time for wine with neighbours, meal-prep, getting outside, and a once-a-year solo retreat. These days her focus is on a healthy diet and daily Qigong, an ancient Chinese practice of elegantly coordinated movement, breathing, and meditation.
“I’m feverishly adamant about women looking after themselves because my mother died very young,” she says. “I always thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to try and do it all, but look after myself too’.”
Travis believes happiness is the answer to ageing gracefully. If you’re happy, if you have a partner that adores you and a family that’s working out, there’s really nothing better.
“You know the wrinkles come, but sometimes you don’t really care about them so much. For me, the most beautiful thing about any person is a smile. That’s what makes people beautiful,” she says. “So, you don’t need the facelift, you get it [the lift] out of being kind.”
You can do this
Gaye McDonald spent her career pioneering Canadian broadcasting at the forefront of the sports marketing and sponsorship industries. From working at IMG (a global sports management company) to leading content marketing departments at CanWest and CBC, McDonald even helped launch Swiffer and Febreze via branded content integration with CBC’s primetime soap, Riverdale, before such integration was even a thing.
It was through that work that McDonald first met Travis, and learned about her Tuscan retreats. And, a few years after Travis started hosting her getaways, McDonald made her first journey to Tuscany.
“It was life-changing,” says McDonald, of her first of five separate journeys (two as a guest and three as part of the Reniella team).
“Debbie has found the thing that she loves, and she shares it with you,” says McDonald. “And every time it’s with the same freshness, enthusiasm, and excitement. It’s contagious. The best part of experiencing Italy with Debbie is Italy, with Debbie. She is Italy’s best-kept secret.”
As for Reniella itself, McDonald can’t say enough about the destination Travis created.
“The minute I got there I said, I get it now,” says McDonald. “You can’t capture it in a photo; you have to experience it, the undulations of these beautiful fields. And you look to your left, and there’s the medieval town of Montepulciano, which lights up at night when the sun sets behind you. It lights up like 1,000 candles flickering in the distance, but it’s the sun going down in the windows. It’s magnificent. You feel like you’ve stepped into a painting. “
For McDonald, the most significant impact of her Reniella stays was learning to permit herself to think differently. This change ultimately led to her stepping back from her full-time career into a consultancy role that allows her more time for herself and her family.
“Everything she does, she’s giving you permission,” McDonald says. “Giving you permission to create your own life. She knows what it’s like to aspire to something, and she’s there to say, ‘You can do this.'”
Near the end of our conversation, I ask Travis again, “What’s next?”
“I want to grow Tuscany into different ventures,” she says, adding she just finished writing her next book. “But for me, what’s important is to be authentic. Loyalty, trust, and being authentic are really what keep me going.”
Travis also believes that travel in a post-COVID world is going to change and adapt to life in a global pandemic.
“I think it’s gonna keep coming back,” says Travis of the virus. “I think it’s going to be a bit of a way of life. It’s interesting, it’s disruptive, and everybody’s in the same boat. You just have to get through it.”
She does expect that her sons (the oldest a humanitarian, her youngest a photographer) will one day get married at Reniella. And she knows how lucky she is to have that to offer.
“I know I’m really lucky,” she says. “But I think I’ve kind of orchestrated it too, kind of made it happen. But I am very grateful, and what gratitude does, is it puts things in perspective. You do the best you can. And if I lost it all tomorrow, I just want to keep everybody alive and healthy. But for me, it’s been quite remarkable and life-changing to see what can be done. And to change people’s lives a little bit, just like I did with a can of paint.”
More Inspiration: Check out Robyn’s interview here with Canadian actress Karine Vannase of CTV’s hit show, Cardinal.
Author: Robyn McNeil is a writer, editor, and bartender based out of Halifax, NS. She’s all about her kid, her cat, her people, good stories, strong tea, yoga, hammocks, and hoppy beer.