She has a hot TV home-improvement show and her own crew, but that doesn't mean Nicole Curtis is immune from typical homeowner headaches.

During the holidays, the star of "Rehab Addict" got hit with a very Minnesota problem: frozen pipes after the furnace failed in her century-old Uptown Minneapolis home.

Curtis, per usual, was a woman of swift action and words, ripping out her plumbing and sharing the saga with her legion of Facebook followers. "I basically just gutted my whole house," she said.

Long before "Lean In" encouraged women to go bold, Curtis was living it, throwing herself into rehab projects, building her own business in a male-dominated industry — and ruffling a few feathers along the way, whether butting heads with bureaucrats over condemned houses or pushing back against stubborn contractors.

Now 37, she's been rescuing old houses — buying, rehabbing and selling them — for almost two decades. "I believe old houses hold memories and soul," she said.

Salvage is in Curtis' blood. Growing up near Detroit, her family ran "a garbage business," she said. "We'd drive around neighborhoods, picking up stuff people didn't want." She started acquiring DIY skills as a child. "My dad would say, 'We're stripping furniture today.' You just did it."

Curtis first aspired to become an attorney. But after working three jobs to buy her first house, in Florida, when she was 18, she chose a different path. "I got a taste for being on my own and having money," she said. "It was important for me to establish myself."

She was already established as a real estate agent, rehabber and interior designer — buying, overhauling and selling houses — when she was first approached about doing a show. "It was hard to convince her," said Steven Lerner, senior VP of original programming and development for DIY Network and HGTV. "We had to ask, 'Can we follow you and not disrupt your life too much?' "

"I wasn't sold on it," Curtis admitted. She didn't want to do a typical home-transformation show — "Look! Twenty-two minutes later, here's a kitchen!" Instead, she wanted to show the nitty-gritty details of rehabbing old houses — mouse droppings and all. "I wanted to keep it raw and real."

"Rehab Addict," which premiered on DIY Network in 2010, is now in its fourth season and one of the network's highest-rated shows, Lerner said. HGTV recently added "Rehab" to its prime-time lineup, bringing Curtis to a wider audience, and is now using her in network promotions. There also are plans to feature her as a guest judge on a competition show that's in development.

'Getting dirty'

Curtis' fierce passion for old houses, combined with her hands-on skill with power tools, gives her credibility with viewers, Lerner said. "She's actually getting dirty and doing the work." And although she relies on a crew, she's clearly the one in charge. "She's a real person, in ripped jeans, glasses and a ponytail," Lerner said. "If we prettied her up with makeup and curlers, I don't think people would take her as seriously."

But the petite blonde with the flowing mane and telegenic smile can also bring the eye candy, getting in touch with her inner glamour girl when she takes off her construction gloves. "She dresses up when she's finished a house and is showing it," Lerner said. "Then she's blooming."

Her latest projects are two just-rehabbed houses in north Minneapolis, one a 1929 bungalow boasting its original built-in buffet, and the other a former duplex, built in 1883, that was boarded up, its windows shot out, when she took it on and converted it back into a single-family home. (Both houses' transformations are currently being featured on her show, and both are for sale; for information, visit

"This is our first time on the North Side," Curtis said. People warned her against investing there, she said, but that only made her more determined. "I always want to be where people tell me not to go. This is where the housing stock is in the most danger. North Minneapolis has the highest demolition rate in the city. We're trying to build this community back up. It's been easy pickings for slumlords."

Curtis' zeal to save blighted houses from the wrecking ball made news last spring when she stood inside a condemned house on Minneapolis' Park Avenue to protest its city-ordered demolition, even as a claw took bites out of it. Close-ups of Curtis' tear-filled eyes were captured by cameras and seen on local TV and, leading some to wonder if her appearance was a media stunt, filmed to create dramatic footage for her show.

That was Chris Hannon's impression. Hannon, who lives on the block and owns two condos there, was relieved to see the rundown house demolished after years of watching it become a magnet for criminal activity. "We'd been working on this way before she [Curtis] appeared with a bunch of cameras, crying," Hannon said. "She wanted to rehab it and get a nice family in there, but the bottom line is, this is a rough corner. A family with children is a stretch. It's not as simple as 'Let's fix it up.' "

Curtis had the demolition filmed but not for "Rehab Addict," she said. "We won't use that footage on the show. I wanted to document that there used to be a house. I got a call from a girlfriend [that demolition was going to start], got out of bed and went down there. I thought we were buying another day. When they started demolishing it, I was scared. I didn't think they'd do it with me in it. I wouldn't show up if I knew they were going to tear it down. I don't watch houses go down — it's like watching someone get tortured. I spent five hours in the cold, bawling."

'Almost ashamed'

The well-publicized demolition became "a pivotal moment in my life," Curtis said. "People started assuming I only cared about old houses, that I was a crazy woman. I was almost ashamed of myself for putting that much energy into a house, like my priorities were bad. I shut myself away for a bit."

She went back to Detroit, and decided to use her Facebook page to mobilize people around a host of issues, from preservation to fundraising for a friend battling cancer to finding homes for rescue dogs. "I have all these followers," she said. "What else can I rally them to do?"

Curtis has become skilled at mobilizing people, said her friend Beth Rutledge, education coordinator for the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. "Passion without direction is pointless, and she's able to get things done. She's resourceful as hell."

Rutledge first met Curtis at one of her open houses, started chatting and knew she'd found a fellow old-house geek. Curtis is "a lot busier now" that she has the TV show, but other than that, she hasn't changed, according to Rutledge. Asked to pick three adjectives that best describe her friend, Rutledge chose "fearless, smart and big-hearted."

After the Park Avenue demolition, "People said she was standing in front for publicity, that she likes being on TV, but I know she could take it or leave it," Rutledge said. "She cares about working on houses. She'd be doing this if the cameras were rolling or not, because this is what she was doing before. Her being on TV is an amazing boon for preservation. She's saving these houses that would end up in the landfill, saving our history."

Along the way, she's demonstrating that decrepit old houses can be made beautiful — and that you don't have to be a guy to do hard-core DIY, said Rutledge. "I think she really inspires people — especially girls and women."

Curtis loves hearing that little girls dressed up like her for Halloween, that a teen became inspired to study preservation after watching her show. She's optimistic about the next generation. "These kids are all about preserving history," she said. "Old is better. We've started a movement."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784