Each time the LIFE+DOG crew sets out to find unique dog lovers to share their story of Modern Living with Man’s Best Friend we find ourselves becoming more and more inspired by the people we are fortunate enough to meet. The positive energy and heartwarming stories we hear motivate us to do all we can to celebrate the relationship between humans and our canine companions, while striving to promote and educate about the importance of spay/neuter and adoption. On one of our most recent adventures, we had the opportunity to spend the day with someone whose positive energy and charm, coupled with her sincere kindness and compassion for animals left us all energized—television personality Dina Manzo. Though many know her as a real housewife from New Jersey or as host of her successful HGTV show, Dina’s Party, there is much more to Dina Manzo than the beautiful parties and classic cat-fights seen on these shows. In fact, the true “reality” of Dina Manzo is such a contrast from shows like Housewives, that it is easy to see why she chose to leave the show in just the second season to focus on her family and her design and event planning career. Since then, she has been busy designing fantastic parties on Dina’s Party, being a devoted mother and wife, a passionate philanthropist for her charity Project Ladybug, and caretaker to her cats and her two-legged Chihuahua Gracie.
Dina grew up in a large Italian family in New Jersey. The youngest of 11 kids, Dina was always ambitious. She began working as a makeup artist in high school, which eventually led her to open her own salon, the first of her many successful business endeavors. It was while she was on bed rest during her pregnancy with her daughter Lexi that she began to explore her love of design, and as soon as she was able she began working and training as a professional designer. After her divorce from her first husband, Dina worked two jobs as a single-mom while continuing to instill many notable teachings in Lexi, such as to always believe in yourself, keep family close to your heart and give to others as much as you can. After designing some of the tri-state area’s most prestigious homes for more than 15 years, Dina turned her love of design and attention to detail to the party planning scene in 2005, and her company Designer Affair was born. Her passion for all things beautiful, her eye for color and scale, plus her uncanny sense of style, has continued to propel Dina in the field of event planning. So much so that the popular network, HGTV, chose to create her newest endeavor, Dina’s Party, that follows her and the Designer Affair staff as they create magnificent events in their clients’ homes. From a posh baby shower, to an over-the-top fantasy wedding or a grand graduation party, Dina transforms any space into something breathtakingly beautiful and unique, making every occasion a perfect celebration for the important moments in a family’s life.
While building her design empire, Dina also helped to create a foundation, Project Ladybug, that is dedicated to easing the struggles of childhood cancer. Dina started Project Ladybug in 2007 with a wish to bring financial and emotional hope to families whose children are undergoing rigorous medical treatments. Dina’s dream to establish her own organization stemmed from her father’s similar ambitions, and with the support of her own little ladybug, daughter Lexi, Dina launched her first fund at St. Joseph’s Regional Hospital in Paterson, NJ. In 2010 Project Ladybug reached the high accredited hospital, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, in the form of Julien’s Project Ladybug Fund. Dina’s most recent extension, Atia’s Project Ladybug Fund, launched just in time for Christmas at Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago. With three funds, now 501c3 certified, across the country and more to open in the next few years, Dina’s influence as a mother seems to not only resonate with her daughter, but with the many “manbugs” and “ladybugs” she has adopted in her heart.
Another area Dina is making an impact is on the lives of countless animals in need. Dina is extremely passionate about animal rescue and educating the public about the importance of spay/neuter programs to save lives. This passion stems from her lifelong love of animals, which she has also instilled in her daughter. Dina is actively involved with Last Chance Animal Rescue out of East Hampton, New York where she serves as an honorary board member and a dedicated volunteer. Each summer she and Lexi take on the task of fostering a puppy in need and she has even gone as far as to jump out of a plane to raise funds and awareness as part of Last Chance’s Skydive to Save Lives event. She also has an affinity for helping animals with special needs, like her little pup Gracie. Born missing her two front legs, the tiny chihuahua was inbred and was one of four puppies in the litter, all born without any front legs. All of the puppies died except for Gracie, who was not given much of a chance for survival. Dina agreed to help the group Faith’s Hope by fostering Gracie and she instantly fell in love and adopted the pup that she calls her “ray of sunshine!” Gracie, along with feline siblings Ladybug, Botox, and the famous Grandma Wrinkles, help keep the busy mom grounded and laughing when life gets stressful, as it often does when working on a weekly television show.
We were excited to be invited to Dina’s house where we could meet her beloved animals and devoted daughter, and to hear about her LIFE and her history with DOGs. Pulling up to the house you are immediately drawn into Dina’s world and once inside you know you are in a place that is very special to her. Her home is warm and inviting and a true expression of who she is as a person and a designer. Ornamental ladybugs and peaceful Buddhas are prominently displayed in every room, along with personal treasures she has collected throughout her career and journeys. She even invited us to take a look at her favorite space, her custom built closet that is larger than most boutiques and serves as her personal sanctuary, even including an office/sitting area where she escapes to unwind and reflect. As we sat down to chat, on what was also her 40th birthday, we got to know what makes this busy businesswoman, mother, and wife tick. We were also fortunate enough to have Lexi join in on some of the fun and were so impressed with her maturity and sincerity. A recently converted vegetarian, Lexi shares her mother’s love of animals and has become passionate about sharing her motivation to going meat-free. We sat down with Dina and Lexi after a day full of photos with Dina, Gracie, and our special guest, former bait dog turned therapy dog—Gremlin, and dove right into conversation about life, dogs, and all the things in between.
LIFE+DOG: Lexi, we know that you can only stay for a few minutes but we just wanted to get a chance to talk about how much animals mean to you, including your recent decision to become a vegetarian. What do you feel was your main motivation for making the change?
Lexi Manzo: I think we were just driving home one day and I was really thinking about it and I say I love animals so much, but it’s kind of hypocritical of me to be eating them. So the thought kind of freaked me out a little. I thought…I can’t do this anymore, and I haven’t eaten meat since. Of course, you also hear about all of the inhumane practices and harmful hormones that face the animals that end up on your plate and it just makes me feel more pleased with my decision.
Dina Manzo: When she first told me she was becoming vegetarian I actually thought she was kidding! She said, “Mom, I’m not going to eat meat anymore.” I said “Okay” and then made her a salami sandwich the next day. Needless to say, she didn’t touch it.
DM: Well that same week I went to dinner with my husband and I ordered my favorite dish—steak—and when they put it in front of me I started to feel so guilty after what Lexi was doing that I couldn’t eat it. I haven’t eaten steak, chicken, or anything since. I call myself a ‘prosciutto-tarian’ because for some reason I can’t stop eating prosciutto! And on occasion I will eat my mother’s meatballs. But I can’t cut into a piece of meat.
L+D: Have you inspired anyone else to become a vegetarian?
LM: I’ve had several friends attempt, but they weren’t able to stay dedicated. I try and talk to people about it a lot, though. I wrote a blog about it and why I made that choice, and when my mom tweeted it out, it went kind of crazy! I still get a ton of feedback from that from people who were inspired to follow in my footsteps.
DM: I’m really proud of her for getting the bigger picture and thinking so far beyond her years.
L+D: So what grade are you in now, Lexi?
LM: I am a sophomore.
L+D: And how has dealing with all of the TV exposure and press in the last several years been for you?
LM: Well I’m not really one for TV and photo shoots. I think it’s awesome what my mom does, but it’s not something that I would want to do. I love that she does it though, because she is designing and that is what she loves to do! And, it’s still pretty cool to say my mom is on TV.
L+D: What is your favorite type of animal?
LM: Right now, I am obsessed with sloths. I wanted a Pot Bellied Pig for a while, but the climate here kind of ruined that for me! And of course, I love dogs. We actually foster a dog every summer and it’s a huge part of my summer. My friends and I get to take care of it and help find it a wonderful home. The whole process makes incredible memories for all of us because there is such a huge reward at the end.
L+D: Do you keep up with the dogs afterward?
LM: We get pictures and e-mails.
DM: We’ve had several fosters who came to us literally skin and bones. Taking a dog like that and bringing them back to life so-to-say is incredibly rewarding. The summer ones that we take in are typically puppies who were about to be euthanized and they don’t know anything. How to walk on a leash, how to eat from a bowl, or how to go to the bathroom. You have to teach them everything.
LM: It’s such great preparation for me for later in life when I can have a dog of my own. But, to tell the truth, it’s the best solution for us because the way our home life is, we can’t accommodate more than Gracie and the cats! And a lot of people don’t know how to or really want to take the first step with a puppy—it can be a lot of work. So we help to get that out of the way, and their new parents just get to enjoy them. And there’s a healthy dose of responsibility that I get out of it, too. If the dog goes to the bathroom, I have to pick it up!
L+D: What are these dogs like?
LM: They’re scared. Sometimes they don’t know what it’s like to be touched, but you can tell they just want to be loved. Your heart breaks for them right away and you want to do so many things for them, but we are also preparing them for their future homes. So we help them get used to a crate and all those necessary things and try not to spoil them TOO much so they can adapt to their new homes well. The not spoiling thing gets tough!
DM: I really think that a rescue dog learns incredibly quickly. I believe they know that you have saved their life. They have this desire to please and fit in right away because they’re so grateful to have a home. You can easily see the difference between a rescue dog and a pampered pooch. But it’s such relief to know that they are going to a great home. It’s so rewarding to be a part of finding them the perfect home for their needs. Some of the dogs we foster in the Hamptons we can’t have at our home that doesn’t have a fence and is on a main street. A dog like Gracie is perfect for us, but some of our fosters are not. We’re doing a lot of things all the time, and I can easily take Gracie with me everywhere, but that’s not possible with all dogs.
L+D: What is your favorite thing to do in your down time?
DM: I like to take drives. I am a big lover of water and sunsets particularly. On the weekends Lexi and I will just get in the car and drive and end up somewhere. We both love nature and keeping things very low-key and there’s just something about sunsets. I love to read a good book. New age and spirituality books, Ekhart Tolle, especially. I love to venture into anything spiritual. At the end of the day, every religion and culture has the same message. It’s very fascinating to me. My religion is to be kind and be a good person and pull from multiple faiths.
But also, my home is so important to me because it is my sanctuary. It’s the first thing you see when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you see when you go to bed at night, so it should be a nurturing atmosphere where you draw your energy from. I take things that I love, that inspire me, and I find a spot for them in my home. It keeps me relaxed and inspired throughout my day.
L+D: Who inspires you?
DM: Believe it or not, I think animals and children do. Of course I look up to people like Martha and Oprah and all kinds of people, but for me the innocence and the purity and pure love that an animal has when it looks at the world is incredible. Not expecting anything—except maybe food!—and wanting to love and nurture is a beautiful thing. I think that’s why I gravitate towards animals that are needy, like Gracie, because I love to nurture. I would have this house filled with babies and animals if I didn’t work full time.
L+D: What does family mean to you?
DM: Well I come from a huge family that live all over the country, and I adore my parents. For me, though, it’s also about the family who isn’t blood too, like the people who work for me and my friends. To me, they’re family…Family is about people who want to lift you up and help you and you want to help them, that goes way beyond just blood relatives. Our family is huge and we have our ups and downs but if any one of them ever needed me, I would be there in a heartbeat. Just because we don’t see each other every day doesn’t mean I don’t keep each one of them close to my heart.
L+D: What is your favorite place to visit?
DM: Sag Harbor is my number one. I just went to Italy and fell in love. I have a lot of traveling left to do. I’ve been working since I was thirteen and then wanted to remain dedicated to Lexi. But now that I’ve turned 40, I think I have some things I want to see around the world to cross off my bucket list! I’m really inspired by architecture and natural beauty, so I am really looking forward to spending some more time in Europe.
L+D: How long have you been doing design?
DM: For over 20 years. I started as a makeup artist and worked for Lancome and had a salon. I was on bed rest with Lexi, and while I was down I spent a lot of time studying design work and as soon as she was born I went out and started working. I finally received some of the technical education that I needed but in this business you either have it or you don’t. It’s great to have that technical background and education for the logistics, but if you don’t have a natural eye for color and scale, you are not going to be very successful. I knew I had that from a very young age and learned so much from my mother.
L+D: Do you have a favorite design style?
DM: For me personally, I think it’s important to find something that speaks to you, and then find a place for it. That’s the way I design my own space, so that’s my personal favorite. I love the clean Hamptons style, but I could never have it for myself. I’ll be out and about and whether it’s a pillow or painting, I’ll come across something and really feel deep down that I need it. And there’s a reason why—whether a past life, or a connection to my childhood—and I get it. It makes me happy. There’s nothing better than to sit in your own space at night with a cup of tea, and look around and smile. It’s important to pass that on to my clients as well. Sometimes you can feel a little shallow trying to make things look ‘pretty,’ so I always try and put meaning into it wherever I can. Whether it’s a party you’re throwing for no reason, or it’s a wedding, I want it to have more meaning than being pretty on the surface.
L+D: How has it been joining the HGTV team?
DM: It has been an incredible experience and such a great family. From the moment I signed on to do Dina’s Party, I felt welcomed. Everyone from the top level on down knows your name and really does treat you like family. They’re wonderful people who really care about you and know how hard you are working. That’s really great because a ton of work does go into making each show, from vendors, to locations, to production, I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Of course I get incredible satisfaction from the process, but it’s so nice to feel appreciated as well.
DM: The hours. Design is hard enough, so many logistics and you can wait three months for a sofa and it shows up the wrong color. In this realm, we’re trying to marry everything with production. It’s so fast paced and I am running out of my car. It’s a lot of hard work and a lot of time, but thankfully I love what I do.
L+D: So what is your favorite part of your job?
DM: Definitely the creative process. I love the challenge of trying to come up with something new and fresh for each episode and finding that unexpected and meaningful thing to infuse that no one would ever really think about. It opens up people’s minds and hearts to looking at parties and design differently.
L+D: So what is your favorite show on the air right now?
DM: I don’t really watch TV too much, and will catch it mostly at 2 or 3 in the morning when I am doing e-mails. But I do have some guilty pleasures—like Mob Wives. I just think it is hilarious. I love HGTV, though, because it’s happy TV. And I love Oprah’s new network, OWN. It’s a great network building on a great foundation. There’s something I have taken from each show I have seen there, and that’s pretty amazing.
L+D: Tell us how you met Gracie.
DM: I was doing a lot of fostering at the time, and I fell in love with a paralyzed Yorkie that I was supposed to adopt that unfortunately didn’t work out. My sister Fran is really huge in animal rescue, and she and my friends started sending me all kinds of notices of handicapped dogs they thought I should take in. It turned out that a friend of mine that works with handicapped dogs reached out to my sister and me needing help getting Gracie into a new home. She was inbred (they bred the father with a daughter) and was one of four puppies and the entire litter was born without any front legs. All of them died except for her and they didn’t think Gracie would be able to survive. So the woman who runs Faith’s Hope took Gracie and asked me if I could foster her. At first sight, I knew I had to keep her. You just know when you see them and there is that instant connection. She is such a ray of sunshine and is so inspiring. She was the perfect fit for our home and goes everywhere with me. I take her on set all the time.
L+D: What is your favorite thing to do with your cats and Gracie each day?
DM: Well my cats are my little Buddhas to me. Their faces are so wise and they remind me what life is all about. There’s nothing better than to just sit with a pile of animals on the couch every night and I couldn’t be happier. I’m not one to go out often and this is where I want to be.
DM: I was never a partier. I married young, had Lexi young, and I didn’t date much after my divorce. I was always kind of a homebody and my parents were so strict that I never really wanted to have that whole clubbing thing. And I love that Lexi is just like me on that. We love to just be together and with the animals.
L+D: What have your animals taught you in life?
DM: No one is perfect and we learn that through life, but they are a perfect example of loving someone purely.
L+D: Did you always have dogs growing up?
DM: We always had dogs growing up. But they were mostly outdoor dogs and didn’t sleep in our beds and go everywhere with us. I had my first dog that was my best friend around 17 years old, and I knew immediately I would have to be around dogs my entire life. I always had cats and would foster dogs all the time because I was working so hard. Even when you are a huge dog lover you have to know that there is a time in life where it may not be the best time to have a dog in your home, but you can still help. There is something so great about being available on a moment’s notice to take in a dog that really needs you right then, and being full on space would not let that happen. Gracie still keeps us open to that when we’re needed now because of her size and handicap. If she needs to be in her pen she is content!
L+D: What has been your favorite foster experience so far?
DM: Well my sister Fran goes to the local pound every week and pulls all kinds of dogs that are just about to be euthanized. She pulled this one terrier that we took, he was skin and bones and no hair and the progression of him while here was so incredible. It was hard to let him go, because he was so healthy and playful and became so trained, but the journey was so rewarding.
L+D: What is your favorite animal welfare organization?
DM: Faith’s Hope is where I got Gracie. She is an amazing one-woman show that works with a lot of handicapped dogs.
Last Chance Animal Rescue, an organization that I work with out of the Hamptons is another favorite group of mine. They had a fundraiser where they had a donor who would pay money each time someone jumped out of a plane and I said, “what the Hell.” It’s something I would never do, and won’t do it again, but I did it for a great cause. After meeting Gremlin today, I am also excited to learn more and see how I can help her dad’s group Rowdy To The Rescue. Gremlin—with all her courage, strength and kindness after all she has been through—is such an inspiration! These animals don’t have voices of their own, so we need to speak for them.
We couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much to Dina and her family for welcoming us into their home to share their LIFE+DOG story. Look for Dina’s Party, airing on HGTV. To keep up with Dina and all of her daily doings, follow her at @dinamanzo on Twitter or find her on Facebook.
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Ryan Rice.
To read more from Ryan, visit his blog on our site.