Anyone who watched “The Queen of Versailles,” the riches-to-rags documentary about how the 2008 recession threatened a couple’s Champagne wishes and caviar dreams, may expect the title character to be manning the fry machine at her beloved McDonald’s.
That assumption would be compounded by her participation the past few years in Amazon Prime’s “The Fireball Run,” a second-tier reality competition series in which contestants race across the country while guessing the prices of Walmart wines, wielding shotguns for skeet shooting and using real-life snakes as paintbrushes.
But as Jackie Siegel prepared for the show’s upcoming season — a jaunt across the Upper Midwest with stops in Rochester and Fort Dodge, Iowa — she looked like a million bucks. Make that a billion.
“Even though we have money, we don’t throw it in people’s faces,” said Siegel, holding court at the Atlas Grill in downtown Minneapolis this month. While sipping a pre-noon Cosmopolitan with a club-soda chaser, she flashed an oversized bumblebee ring weighing down one of her fingers. “Like, I don’t say, ‘Oh, this is my Gucci ring.’ Even though it is Gucci.”
According to the Orlando Business Journal, Jackie’s husband, David Siegel, has brought his company, Westgate Resorts, back from the near dead by taking advantage of Florida’s rapid growth in tourism with more than $61 million in expansion projects. In 2016, Forbes listed him as Orlando’s richest person, worth more than $940 million.
“They should call them the comeback kids,” said close friend Steve Schussler, the Twin Cities-based entrepreneur who created Rainforest Cafe. “The film showed them during bad times, but they’ve more than made up for that. Their business is off the charts.”
But while Jackie Siegel and her husband may be in better shape than they were at the end of the 2012 movie, life hasn’t been a trip to Disney World. They learned that there are tragedies far worse than bankruptcy.
In 2015, their 18-year-old daughter Victoria died of a drug overdose.
“I had everything I wanted,” Siegel said. “Private planes, a football team, resorts, an appearance on ‘Celebrity Wife Swap.’ And then the carpet was pulled out from under us. Nothing else mattered anymore.”
Siegel blames at least part of her daughter’s addiction on the film’s success, which caused several of her eight kids to get bullied at school.
“Victoria got in with the wrong people trying to fit in,” she said.
The Siegels have a love-hate relationship with the movie. While the Queen admits she loved the attention, she also seethes at how producers Lauren Greenfield and Danielle Renfrew Behrens limited her access to the news media as the documentary scooped up awards on the film festival circuit and earned a 94 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The couple lost a lawsuit against the Sundance Institute and filmmakers, alleging that the film’s published description was defamatory. But the courts later ruled in favor of the Siegels in a separate lawsuit contending that the directors had too much control over the rights to the couple’s story.
Victoria’s death came a year after that court victory. Siegel retreated to her bedroom to mourn and planned on dropping out of the Amazon series. But the show’s advocacy component — helping families find their missing children — convinced her to keep her commitment.
Her team, which travels in a party bus equipped with a stripper pole, tanked during its rookie season, but winning was a lot less important than getting her mind off a tragic loss. Her high energy and competitive nature clearly motivate her team, which includes “Clerks” star Brian O’Halloran.
“She bounced back from that low period in real estate and now she’s bounced back from the loss of her daughter,” said Ryan Nolen, a real estate lender who serves as the team’s driver. “That’s what I admire most about her.”
Siegel clearly feeds off the attention, passing out the show’s T-shirts around the lunch table at Atlas Grill and sporting chunky “Queen of Versailles” jewelry around her neck. She was still on a high from appearing that morning on Jason Matheson’s TV show, taped at Twin Cities Fox 9.
She seems genuinely thrilled to be starting the next edition of “The Fireball Run” in Eau Claire, Wis., where she swooned over the city’s fried chicken skins and peanut butter-and-jelly burgers (although she had abandoned the cast’s campground the previous night for a hotel so she could take a shower).
“I actually like being in the spotlight,” said the former beauty pageant winner. “Like when I was on the TV show today, how the audience applauded me. That gives me an emotional rush.
“I’m not the type of person who will just go up and try to make friends with people, but when I travel like this, people recognize me and come up and break the ice. It helps me come out of my shell.”
The No. 1 question from strangers: Is she still working on Versailles, the 90,000-square-foot project at the center of the documentary that was designed to be one of the largest single-family homes in the country?
The answer is a resounding yes.
“Nobody’s going to buy it, for one thing,” she said. “Plus, my husband’s ex-wife has a 63,000-square-foot house just down the road, so I think he wants a bigger house on the lake just to get back at her.”
Siegel hopes to throw a housewarming party in December of 2018. Don’t be shocked if the caterers serve fried chicken skins.
612-673-7431 • @nealjustin
The Queen of Versailles
Watch: Available on Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.
The Fireball Run
Watch: Previous seasons on Amazon Prime. Episodes featuring the Upper Midwest will likely air in 2018.