One of the most remarkable real estate stories of the last five years is told in the jaw dropping documentary, The Queen of Versailles, which tells the tale of Jackie and David Siegel, who set out to build the country’s largest private residence, near Orlando, Florida. But before the filming was done, the couple was detoured from realizing their dreams by a reversal in fortune caused by the recent financial crash.
I was recently offered a one-on-one interview with Jackie, who would be in L.A. for a few days, and I jumped at the chance. You know how I am about real estate, and Versailles is one of the biggest residential real estate stories of the decade. So I met with Jackie in the lobby restaurant of a boutique hotel in Beverly Hills, over a latte for me and champagne and fried mozzarella sticks for her (Yes I tasted one. Wouldn’t you?).
Of course we had to chat about the documentary, The Queen of Versailles. Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield followed Jackie, a former beauty queen, model, and the mother of eight, and her husband David, 31 years her senior and founder of Westgate Resorts,”the largest privately owned timeshare company in the world,” as they built their lavish dream spread, a 90,000 square foot waterfront mansion not far from Disney World in Orlando.
Viewers watched in amazement as the privileged family elaborated on their plans for their new Versailles, which would include 10 kitchens, an iceskating rink and a 5,000 square foot closet for Jackie, among many other luxurious wonders. Until it was built, they were shown toughing it out in their current 26,000 square foot home, where Jackie had a disco in her closet and 14 servants, who, among other duties, cleaned up after the dogs that did not appear to be house trained.
Then the housing bubble burst. At that point, building on Versailles was halted and the unfinished estate was put up for sale, while David attempted to re-organize his business, which appeared to be coming apart at the seams, as did their marriage.
Law suits ensued, once the documentary was released and made a big splash at film festivals like Sundance. When the Siegels viewed the final project, they were dumb-founded. “We didn’t know it was going to be a movie,” said Jackie. “We thought it was going to be a short TV piece about building our dream home. There were so many parts of it that just weren’t true, and David didn’t understand why the cameras kept coming back after we stopped building.”
There was more than a little acrimony as the filmmakers distanced themselves from their subjects. The Siegels were not invited to screenings or film festivals. In fact, Jackie said that in order to see the film at Sundance, she quietly bought her own tickets and attended the screening as a rank and file filmgoer. But when the lights went on after The Queen of Versailles was shown, the audience recognized her, and security came to escort her out before the Q&A began. “I guess Lauren was worried that I’d say something she didn’t want me to,” Jackie speculated.
But she says her biggest regret about the film is not reading the fine print on the contracts she signed. She told me she accidentally signed away her life rights, and had to sue and pay in the neighborhood of a million dollars to get them back.
But that was nearly four years ago, and a lot has changed since then. Jackie is in the process of completing an even more lavish Versailles, but more importantly, she and her husband are raising awareness and funds for prescription drug addiction, via the family charity Victoria’s Voice, which the Siegels founded after their oldest daughter Victoria passed away last year from an accidental prescription drug overdose.
“We didn’t have the heart to even set foot in Versailles for about four months after what happened with Victoria, but now we’re moving forward with it, and plan to hold charitable events there to help all sorts of causes,” Jackie said.
They expect to have it finished by next May 3, for her husband’s birthday. But there’s a lot to do before then. Here’s the scoop on the house:
Q: When the documentary ended, you had put an unfinished Versailles on the market. Catch us up on its status.
JS: Well, we put it up for sale but we weren’t really selling it. To satisfy the bankers, they told us to list a bunch of our properties, but it wasn’t like we had to sell it. So now we’re finishing and keeping Versailles.
Q: So it appears that your husband’s business, Westgate Resorts, has rebounded?
JS: Yes. David’s business is doing great. He just had one of the best years ever. Last summer he bought the Las Vegas Hilton, which is a 3,000 room hotel where Elvis Presley used to perform. He bought the Orlando Predators, a football team, and then he bought the Coco Beach Pier, which I didn’t even know you could buy a pier. I didn’t know those kinds of things were for sale.
Q: When you started building it more than a dozen years ago, 90,000 square feet was going to be the largest home in America. Since then, developers have announced a couple of spec homes that will be over 100,000 square feet. Will you add another 10,000 square feet to keep Versailles at the top?
JS: The thing is, with the spec homes, they’re not one house under one roof. They’re including guest houses and all the extra buildings. Those are compounds. Ours is 90,000 all under one roof. I could throw in a bunch of guest houses too, to make ours bigger, and we probably will, but the 90,000 square feet is just in the main house, and doesn’t count the guard house, the tennis house, and all that.
Q: Are there still going to be 10 kitchens? What do you do with 10 kitchens?
JS: Everyone always asks that. So, we have a commercial kitchen for our catered events, with stainless steel refrigerators and everything. We’re going to have a kitchen with a sushi bar and a hibachi grill, which we can also use like a griddle for brunches, so it will serve two purposes. Then we’ll have a normal, family kitchen that I can cook in, and my kids can be there with me. Then all of the staff quarters have kitchens, and all of the guest suites have kitchenettes, so you don’t have to get on the elevator and walk 100 yards to get a glass of milk in the middle of the night.
Q: And is an ice skating rink still in the plans?
JS: Well, not really. We thought there would be too much maintenance on that, and we’d probably use it a couple of times then get bored with it, so I thought maybe a roller rink would be better. That way, without the sheet of ice there, we can also use it as a discotheque, and if we’re having a formal event upstairs for the grownups, the kids and teenagers can have their party downstairs. So the parents can bring their kids, and I can have staff watching them, and we can have two parties going on at once.
Q: I heard there’s going to be a giant shark tank in your office.
JS: Yes, the thing with that is that we were approached by the TV show Tanked, and they heard that I was going to put a fishtank in there, so they said they wanted us to be on their show, so we met with them and came up with the idea of building the largest shark tank in a private residence. And we’d have Sea World maintain it. And then I want a jellyfish tank too.
Q: The documentary made it appear that Versailles caused a strain on your marriage. Is that true?
JS: I actually think it was good for our marriage. I personally feel that he [David] kind of exaggerated our position in order to pull the reins in on my spending. Like most husbands, he thought I spent too much on my credit cards. But I think it made us stronger.
Q: If you were to start all over again tomorrow, what would you do differently?
JS: You know, it’s strange that when we started building this home so many years ago, my husband and I had just visited Versailles in France, and we were inspired by the French architecture. But my tastes have changed and evolved, and now I’m kind of into a more modern style. I’ve seen so much more than when I had when I was a virgin to architecture when we broke ground, so I don’t know, I might have to find a way to combine some modern with the French somehow.
Q: In addition to raising funds for Victoria’s Voice and finishing Versailles, what else is on your agenda these days?
JS: Well, I’m still very involved with the Beautiful People pageants (Jackie is the Director of Beautiful People Productions, which holds pageants hosted at Westgate Resorts) and I’m producing the Mrs. Florida Pageant. I did a reality show called The Fireball Run. And this summer, I’m taking the kids on an old fashioned, month long road trip across America. We’re going to see all the national parks, and just grow closer together as a family. I can’t wait!
For more info and photos on the Queen of Versailles, visit Realtor.com.
The Queen of Versailles Speaks; Her Subjects are Captivated
by Lisa Johnson Mandell