The flower-filled world of Jeff Leatham

Jeff Leatham from Flowers Uncut
Jeff Leatham is a busy man. The day we spoke, he’d recently finished doing a floral display around a line of jewelry at Tiffany’s, then scattered 7,000 roses on the streets of New York City for Fashion’s Night Out. After he spoke with me, he was scheduled to fly to Europe to confer on the floral arrangements for the first ever party to be held in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. His clientele includes the Dalai Lama, Tina Turner, Eva Longoria Parker and former President Clinton. But he wasn’t too busy to take a bit of time out to discuss his new series, Flowers Uncut, airing Wednesdays on TLC (HD), and the strange path that has led to his being the florist to the stars.

Tell me a bit about your upbringing and how your passion for flowers began?

Jeff Leatham: I was born and raised on Ogden, Utah. My father was a city boy and my mother was a country girl from a cattle ranch. I grew up in the city but spent summers on a ranch. Both of my parents are in education. My father was a biology professor and high-school principal and won Teacher of the Year in Utah. My mother was a business teacher. School was always really important for them but I was just going to school for the social aspects.

My father always had amazing, beautiful gardens. I think that’s where I got my out-of-the-box thinking. My father cut the flowerbeds into interesting shapes and installed fountains in the middle of the yard.

In Ogden, I wanted nothing to do with flowers; it was a big ordeal to get me to mow the lawn. I started working a lot in design in retail stores when I was 17 and 18. At 18, I worked in management for The Gap. I was very energetic and enthusiastic and I worked my way up the corporate ladder. I was one of their youngest store managers at the ripe age of 19. That’s what brought me to L.A. at 19. The Gap transferred me from Utah to Los Angeles to open one of their most important stores, one on Melrose Avenue.

That’s a lot of responsibility for so young a person, isn’t it?

I’m this crazy double Virgo who has to have everything perfect. Everything had to do with color and design and making the store look great.

Then I turned to modeling at 22. I started traveling back and forth to Europe for two-and-a-half years, doing print and runway shows in Milan. Then I would come back and work retail again. I worked as a men’s manager at Urban Outfitters. Then I was back in Europe and then came back and was a barista at Starbucks. That only lasted one summer because they were screaming at me that I wasn’t steaming the milk fast enough. And one day, I said, “If you can steam milk faster than me, you can do it.” Then I put down my rag and walked out. After the Starbucks incident, I went back to Italy for six months of modeling.

When I came back to L.A., I didn’t have a job. A friend told me about an opening at the flower shop in the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The day before the interview, I walked in that hotel and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve always loved art and design and for the first time I saw that with flowers you can create not just arrangements but installations of art, so to speak.

[I had] an interview with Paige Dixon. She’s this sassy redhead Australian Scorpio, and we kind of hit it off, but she knew I had no idea what I was talking about. … So she told me to come down to her office. She put a vase in front of me and said, “Here, work with these flowers.” And she left. All the girls came over and began helping me and 10 minutes later Paige came back and I had done this beautiful arrangement with the help of all these women. They were lovely, but I think [the girls] just wanted a guy there to pick on.

Paige gave me the job as a part-time employee to do little things like clean the flower shop, but as time went on, I felt like a child again at 23 or 24, because they would be making these beautiful flower arrangements. And I said, “Teach me to do that. I want to learn how to do that. Why are you using these colors?” It expanded my mind and my love affair and passion for flowers started there. I really feel like I started at the right time, because I had done so many other things.

What has it been like working with a camera crew? Has it created any problems with your clients?

There have been a couple of instances where the client has not wanted their face on camera [but] we can shoot around them, because mostly it’s about me working with the flowers and my team and making the client’s dream come true and obviously the beauty reveal of the thing.

I wanted this show to be, first of all, beautiful, and that people would learn from the show and it would be funny. I didn’t want it to be a design show where people are all serious with “this is how it has to be” because I am kind of the anti-Martha Stewart. Even though I know Martha and love her, I am the anti-Martha, because with her everything is so proper. The end result is our flowers are beautiful, but the way we get to our result is not how anyone else would do it. Everyone else would be cutting their flowers properly while we are cutting them and ripping them with our hands. That’s why my nickname is the “rock ‘n’ roll florist,” because we do everything with flowers you are not supposed to do.

I involve people in the episodes that have really helped me along my journey. I’m a true believer that no one gets where they are, especially in design, just because they’re fabulous. You get where you are because people love you and support you and help you on your journey. That’s why it’s important for me to give back to people who have helped me or people who are starting out. You only flourish as an artist if you help others and share your gift. … I love to share what I do with others and hopefully it will make their process easier and make flower arranging a fun process for them.

When the show started, TLC bought two pilots, and we were so excited. We went to Korea then did an episode from Victoria’s Secret for their store on Lexington. So I said to a couple of people from the network, “Why don’t you come on set and see what goes on?” We have such a good time when we work and we involve everyone. And the people left the set thinking, “This guy is out-of-control fun,” and we went right to series.

What do you look for in your staff?

I like having a couple of talented people around now and then, but I love hiring people that have no experience with flowers at all. You’ll find different employees in every episode because I love giving people who love flowers a chance to touch and work with flowers in a different way and it actually works quite well.

Did spending that time as a model in Paris influence you?

Definitely. I remember just looking at these gardens and I think that influenced me a lot because if you look at my work, it’s very architectural, with very clean strong lines. So I was definitely influenced by the architecture in the buildings and in the gardens. … And I would not be where I am today if I had not had that experience at the Four Seasons in Paris (note: he is now the artistic director for the Four Seasons chain, based in the George V hotel in Paris). I’ve been with the Four Seasons for 16 years; it’s one of the longest relationships of my life. It works because we’re honest with each other. I support them and they support me.

What has been your most stressful event to date as well as your favorite ones?

The episode in the Waldorf Astoria was pretty stressful because there were literally five different parties going on at the same time. I had to hire a crew of 35, and we had over 25,000 stems of flowers coming in. … One room was on the sixth floor, one was on the second floor. [The camera crew] got their exercise that day.

Every time I have these huge events, I always say, “I picked the wrong profession. I’m retiring.” And then I’m the first one to show up for a meeting for the next job because I just love the whole process and challenge. You can be as relaxed as you want, but there is always that last 45 minutes before an event where it literally goes through my head, “We are never going to finish on time, it is going to be catastrophic.” But in the end, we always pull it off. That’s why it makes for good TV. Plus the personalities on the show are so funny, and I don’t edit what comes out of my mouth, so it is a circus of my tongue at the same time. I think that’s why it airs after 10pm.

How stressful was it to do Eva Longoria Parker’s wedding?

I met with Eva and we started planning it about eight months prior. I knew it was going to be a well-covered event, press-wise, but I had no idea that [we] would be chased by paparazzi. And we came out of the church all sweaty and panting and there were 400 photographers and we couldn’t get our van through and we were in a rush to get to the castle an hour-and-a-half away.

What will people take home for watching “Flowers Uncut”?

I didn’t want this show to be all centered on the celebrities. The last thing I wanted to do is call my celebrity friends and say, “Hi! Want to do a tea party and be on my show?” I really want people to watch the show, not because we have their favorite pop star arranging flowers, but to watch because, first of all, they can learn new things. Second, they are seeing something they have never seen before and, third, because they think it’s fun to watch. … It really is a show about living your life with flowers and designing with flowers and having fun. … Hopefully people will start to learn that they can do flowers on their own and don’t have to pay thousands of dollars for someone to do it for them.

I’m also really happy that it’s a 30-minute show instead of an hour, because on those hourlong design shows, you start to think, “It’s enough already, let’s get to the reveal.”

When decorating on a budget, what sort of flowers should people choose for their own homes?

You should always make friends with your hometown florist, because you can always make deals. Every florist will have older flowers, and if you ask what kind of deals you can get from florists you can get them to use as petals. That’s the perfect accent for me. You don’t always need a huge arrangement on a table. If there’s a hint of flowers, fine.

I’m an advocate that before you send thousands of dollars on flowers you should spend thousand of dollars, or hundreds of dollars or twenty dollars on vases. The vase is the most important aspect because it creates the structure of the floral design.

Since your series is premiering in November, a lot of people will have Thanksgiving on their minds. What sort of floral hostess gifts would you recommend for the season?

You are putting me on the spot, I love this! A floral hostess gift is hard during the Thanksgiving season because that is a tough time of the year for flowers. A lot of people bring roses, but it’s always nice to bring a mixed arrangement or just some branches or maybe bring a vase instead of a bouquet, because you help someone start their vase collection.

I can’t tell you how many times people have brought flowers to my home and I say “you shouldn’t have.” That’s because flowers are such a personal thing. … I don’t know how many times I’ve received bouquets and the last person who leaves the house leaves with that bouquet.

If the flowers were to suddenly vanish and you could save only four types, what would they be?

Hydrangea, calla lilies, roses and orchids — those are actually my top four flowers.

And when do you take time to smell the roses?

Usually in the morning I have a 45-minute period where I try to sit down and have a cup of coffee and take it all in before 25 people knock on my door. Flowers are my family and now my crew is my family and I have a new family at TLC and that’s OK.