“Woo hoo!” says Vicki Gunvalson, owner of Coto Insurance & Financial Services and star of Bravo’s, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.”
She’s standing before a vast array of cameras and lights for a photoshoot at her Rancho Santa Margarita, California office that’s been transformed for the day, replete with a Flemish-inspired backdrop that would create envy among the Dutch Masters.
Oh, and a film crew from Bravo is here, too, shooting scenes for the 10th season of Gunvalson’s hit TV show. Their cameras and lights and crew add to the sheer tonnage of equipment and people already crammed into the tight quarters. The literal weight of the hardware is staggering. So much so that the photographers on hand were unwilling to tempt the Otis elevator and its reported 3,500-pound weight limit with just one trip.
“Woo hoo!” Gunvalson exclaims, flinging a right arm in the air for emphasis. A blitzkrieg of camera flashes captures the action.
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“Woo hoo!” Gunvalson goes off again like Old Faithful. I’m beginning to think she could do this all day if she didn’t have a $15 million-dollar annuity business to run.
“Slow down. Slow down,” the photographer says. “The camera’s too hot. We’re going to have to stop and reset.”
The camera in question is connected to a Mac PowerBook and photos have stopped feeding over to the computer. For the moment at least, the Gunvalson on-screen is frozen in time.
The real Gunvalson never stops moving. She drinks water from a plastic bottle and checks a clock. She has another client meeting in two hours.
“I need to make some calls,” she says and exits stage left.
“Shut it down,” the photographer says to his crew. The computer goes dark; even technology can’t keep up with Vicki Gunvalson. These days, it seems, nobody can.
“I was the first born but middle child,” Gunvalson says upon her return. She’s awash in light. The photographer and his two assistants stop their work. Their faces are blue as if under moonlight. They look at each other. They look at me. We all shrug our shoulders.
“Is that a riddle?” somebody asks.
Gunvalson says it again, this time enunciating each word, the way an actor reads lines. “I’m the first born but the middle child.”
The room is quiet. The camera is still.
“We give up,” I say.
“My parents were unable to get pregnant for ten years and adopted twins. Later, they had me.” She stands defiant in the light, hands on hips. “You never would have gotten it, would you?”
“Never,” we say, admitting defeat. Another small battle for Gunvalson, another victory.
A Midwest ethic
Before the bright lights, before the TV show, before, even, California, Victoria “Vicki” Gunvalson was the first born but middle child of a subcontractor father and a housewife mom in a suburb of Chicago. Her parents, like many parents in the tight-knit community, instilled strong Midwestern values in their family: Work hard; love your family and neighbor; and, on Sundays, go to church.
Vicki’s father was a well-known sub-contractor specializing in acoustical ceilings, drywall, metal studs and asbestos removal. He ran a successful construction company and often brought his five children with him to work. Whether it was scrapping jobs, or unloading materials, Vicki and her siblings all were of the mindset that working hard was the way to succeed.
Vicki helped in the construction office conducting payroll, filing reports and managing employees at a very young age. However, one day they noticed something. Their father wasn’t right and he began forgetting things. At the age of 59, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and later died at the age of 67.
“If you look at life expectancy, he should have lived to 85 or 90. He was robbed and it was hard on us emotionally and financially,” says Vicki. “My parents hadn’t planned for that. They had no long-term care insurance on him and had a very small life insurance policy.”
Gunvalson and her sister, also now an agent, talked about their parents’ retirement problems and realized that people across the country are in the same boat.
“We’re both really passionate about wanting to help people and educate them that what happened to my family could just as easily happen to them.”
A change in plans
By 2008, much had changed in Gunvalson’s life. Having launched her insurance career in 1990, she’d slowly built up her book of business and seen it hit new heights; she was a few years into a popular TV show; and, she’d earlier made the big move from Illinois to Orange County. Life was rolling along. She was the breadwinner in the family and already lived in the 6,000-square-foot mansion in Coto de Caza that she still calls home today. But she was hungry to take her practice to the next level. An opportunity arose when an insurance veteran tracked her down after watching an episode of the Housewives.
“My main focus at the time was selling Internet term life insurance. It’s where you’re talking to one person at a time.”