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At 15, after a career as a decorated national rhythmic gymnast training for the Olympics, McKenzie Ryan decided it was time for a career change, even though she was still in high school.
“When I was 15, I basically retired as a gymnast. I had a really, really great career … but I loved performing. I loved competing. I loved winning. But what I loved the most was the unlimited potential [in real estate]. I could be as amazing as I wanted to be, and all of it was up to me,” Ryan told Inman.
“And so I really looked at it as a very informed decision … and anytime I’ve ever said I wanted to do something, and told my parents about it, it’s ended in incredible success. And so I said, ‘I want to learn real estate,’ and they said, ‘OK, go for it.’”
Going office to office, writing personal letters, sending out her resume, offering summer help, Ryan said she worked two internships every summer at different types of brokerages.
“I wanted to build this MBA for myself where I worked in residential, I worked in commercial, I worked in leasing, I worked in office development. So by the time I turned 18 and got my license, I had this incredible depth of knowledge of all these different types of real estate, so I can always serve my clients,” Ryan said.
“I know it’s hard for a lot of people to conceptualize a 15-year-old doing that. But you have to think about the athletes that we see on TV in the Olympics who are so driven and so focused, and that’s how I was.”
On Friday, Max viewers will get to see much of Ryan’s hard work come to fruition on Kendra Sells Hollywood‘s Season 2. (Max, formerly HBO Max, debuted on May 23, 2023, bringing together HBO and Discovery+ content, along with shows from HGTV, TLC, ID, Magnolia Network and more, from Harry Potter and Succession to 100 Day Dream Home and Christina On The Coast.)
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, Season 1 chronicles the career of Kendra Wilkinson as she launches her career with Ernie Carswell & Associates, a Douglas Elliman team that launched in the ’90s and boasts 24 agents on its website.
Wilkinson is best known from her Playboy days as Hugh Hefner’s girlfriend on the E! reality show Girls Next Door, circa 2005. But she’s done plenty of TV and some film, including VH1’s Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars, where she and former husband, Hank, tried to reconcile marital issues after his affair, alongside Jersey Shore‘s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, his wife Lauren, and other reality TV stars of the day.
After a rough divorce, Wilkinson got her real estate license in 2020 as a way to provide for her two children, son, Hank, and daughter, Alijah. As viewers see in the first season, Wilkinson has to prove herself to clients and colleagues and learn to suss out people’s actual motives while trying to get new clients. Judging by the Season 2 trailer, this time around Wilkinson’s Playboy past makes a big comeback.
Team members Spencer Daley, Michael Feld and Pia Wolfe all play somewhat advisory roles to Wilkinson as she comes up against challenge after challenge in a series of new agent firsts under the leadership of Ernie Carswell.
Joining the cast this season, McKenzie Ryan, a self-described “badass powerhouse real estate broker from New York” and “tough girl,” will bring her New York grit and street smarts out to LA. She’s also bringing a wealth of knowledge that she’s amassed through years of interning and working at various brokerages over the past 16 years.
“I had this very personal moment myself, where I’m driving to the back hills of Beverly Hills to go do this broker’s open house, and I’m this 30-year-old woman. And I worked every day of my life since I was 5. And here I am, like, arriving.” – McKenzie Ryan
Over those years, Ryan’s been named a top New York Power Broker by Forbes; appeared regularly on CNN and in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider and other publications; and garnered 65,000+ followers on Instagram.
In 2021, with a business plan titled, “Elevation and expansion at Elliman 2022,” Ryan moved to Douglas Elliman after a five-year stint at Compass. She sold nearly $28 million of real estate in 2022, according to a spokesperson. Currently, Ryan runs a team of seven in New York City and is working on getting licensed and building a team in California.
Inman sat down with Ryan on Monday to get the Real Tea on everything from her Olympic training days to her passion for the NYC skyline to what’s going down on Season 2 of Kendra Sells Hollywood. What follows is the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Inman: What’s happening in your world?
This week, I will be listing my biggest house in New York for $18 million. And I’ll also be making my debut on television on Max, which is very exciting … I’d never conceptualized it as a reality for me to be on TV in this fashion with HBO, and I think the universe just always works itself out. So here I come.
So you’ve never done TV?
Well, I spent a lot of time on TV as a kid. I was a child prodigy, athlete and star and also very adorable. [Laughing] Very sweet looking and angelic, so I spent a ton of time in front of the camera.
Also, two books were written about me from that period from Random House. So I was constantly on live TV and also performing in front of thousands of people and also competing, non-stop. So in that fashion, yes.
I blossomed my social media self in 2018, which really wasn’t so much out of my love for social media, but my longing to have a real voice in real estate, not just as a broker, but as a young woman of color.
I’m 31 now, but when I started in real estate, we have to go way back to … I started when I was 15. And so, to be a young person and then to also be a young female and then also a young female of color, I wanted to distinguish myself, be taken seriously and build a serious career … that was meaningful not just to me but helped build and trailblaze a path for others as well.
And so that’s a very long-winded way of saying, no, I haven’t been on other major streaming platforms before, but I’ve spent a really good amount of my time not just in public, but really kind of in the spotlight.
Real estate in high school — at 15. How does that happen?
It originates in my longing to win gold medals and go to the Olympics. So when you’re on that type of path as a young person, it doesn’t just go away. It’s not like you one day are like, Alright, I’m content. So I have all these medals. I have books. I was on TV all the time ….
In fact, it actually grows to a point where you really want to find your lifelong path and fulfill your destiny. It’s not so much about winning medals anymore or being named No. 1. It’s about having an impactful role in this world and helping change people’s lives for the better through real estate.
“When I was 15, I basically retired as a gymnast, and I had a really, really great career … but I loved performing. I loved competing. I loved winning. But what I loved the most was the unlimited potential. I could be as amazing as I wanted to be, and all of it was up to me.” — McKenzie Ryan
And so, around that time I’d taken a New York City history class in school, and I really fell in love with New York’s architecture, its history, its incredible landscape … In New York, it’s such a tough, competitive city, which excites me.
Now, with shooting, you’re going back and forth between LA and New York City. How do you figure out your time?
I use my 24 hours in a day really wisely. And I’m very diligent about my time. I spend the majority of my time in New York, but I spend a lot of my physical time here.
I spend a lot of time in terms of networking, in terms of strategic building and business development on the West Coast, and building out partnerships and networking in a very thoughtful and different manner that doesn’t necessarily require me to physically be there but allows me to conduct business there. So I have agents who are in California anytime we need to do showings or get houses ready and things like that.
You’re under the Douglas Elliman umbrella, and so is Kendra Wilkinson. How do you fit in on the show?
Well, I haven’t seen it yet. It’s so funny, I’m excited to see it with the rest of the world … what develops throughout the show the most is these incredible storylines of how we’ve all gotten into real estate and have all come from these completely different places.
[There’s] my athletic background and Kendra’s background as a former Playmate, and how we’re all existing in this one space together and trying to work alongside each other to best serve our clients and sell lots of amazing real estate.
In terms of how I fit into the show … [I’ll be] this kind of New York presence, but I think also bringing incredible diversity and background to the show and — not just LA and Beverly Hills — but to the real estate industry, period.
I’m one of maybe three luxury agents of color who sells in Manhattan, and who is ranked top 3 percent nationwide … I think my role really transcends just the real estate world. I think what I am here doing is showing people that anyone can make it no matter where you’re from.
And I think Kendra also, interestingly enough, with her background shows people that you can make it, even with all sorts of storylines.
I have followed her career since the Girls Next Door days. How’s she doing?
She’s a hard worker and so much of this business is showing up, caring and doing what we do for the right reasons. And I think you have to have a lot of integrity, and I think you have to have a really incredible amount of determination and strength.
When you have those things and mental toughness and fortitude, it makes this very often down, challenging, rigorous business a lot more stable and balanced. And the longer you’re in it, the more stable you are.
Absolutely. So the season comes out Friday. What can viewers expect?
It’s going to be a really interesting cast of personalities and backgrounds and stories and getting to see the real side of real estate, to be honest, which isn’t always just multimillion-dollar homes and deals and commissions. You’re really seeing the true side of what it takes to be a real estate agent.
And not just getting a first listing or selling your first place — like, what it emotionally and mentally takes to keep standing up and getting back up after you’ve been knocked down or told “no” or passed over or rejected or had things that you worked on forever fall through.
It almost breaks it down, the day-to-day emotional and mental journey of being a real estate broker. And it’s being delivered through these incredible characters who are from all sorts of backgrounds and have all sorts of stories and are interacting with each other in this very real space.
You’re going to see my real side; you’re going to see things that I’ve worked through — and I’m still challenged by. I’m not just this perfect sleek, can-do-anything, gold-medal-wearing real estate broker. I’m a real person who’s been through all sorts of setbacks, and I think it’s a really beautiful look at the real side of what is required to be a great real estate broker — and also a good person.
In the scene in Season 1 where Kendra goes on her first real estate meeting … she pulls up to a gorgeous home, takes out her teeth straighteners (presumably) and changes her tennis shoes to heels. She’s just so relatable; it’s very compelling as a viewer.
Yeah, I think about that moment … and I had this very personal moment myself, where I’m driving to the back hills of Beverly Hills to go to this broker’s open house, and I’m this 30-year-old woman. And I worked every day of my life since I was 5.
And here I am like arriving — and not just physically arriving there, but almost this kind of out-of-body and very emotional sense of like, Wow, I need to stop and take it in because I’ve made it to the Mount Olympus that I’ve always had in my head. And it’s real!
It’s a very real thing to make your dreams come true. And then to have it be on camera and validate everything that goes along with that — it was a really fascinating experience for me because it’s happening all in real-time.
“I’m not just like this perfect sleek, can-do-anything, gold-medal-wearing real estate broker. I’m a real person who’s been through all sorts of setbacks, and I think it’s a really beautiful look at the real side of what is required to be a great real estate broker — and also a good person.” — McKenzie Ryan
Do you have a pit, meaning a low point, of your career?
It’s not so much any specific moment, but it’s the times in my life when I don’t stand up for myself when I should that bother me the most. I think it’s because a lot of my life has been shaped as being an outsider.
I am the youngest of three kids. So, I’m biracial, my dad’s African American, my mom is white and Jewish and my siblings are white. And so in my own world, [people questioned whether I fit in with my own family]. Was I adopted? Was I their friend? Who is this random person?
All of the schools I went to, I didn’t fit in. And I think a lot of my life had been shaped by just trying to get along with people and wanting to fit in and having to take criticism from people who may not have known what my race was or may not have known my background, whether it was, you know, being hated because I’m African American, or then on the other side, people not realizing I’m African American, or people not realizing I’m white.
And so just a constant barrage of taking stuff and letting it go because you can’t get too caught up.
So much of my experience has been keeping a smile on and trying to get by, and it’s good in many senses. But there are other moments where you really do need to stand up for yourself and be tough and my biggest mistakes in my career have been when I haven’t done that during times when I really needed to, and it’s lived with me and haunted me.
I think there are times in this show when I should take a stronger stand, and there are times in my career when I should have taken a stronger stand, but either for the sake of not being combative or not starting a fight, I didn’t. And that stuff bothers me a lot. So, those are my biggest mistakes. My lowest moments.
It’s tough when you just want to fit in and you want to get by because … I take a lot that I probably shouldn’t. But then again, I don’t get caught up in a lot of things, either.
“It’s so important, especially in this day and age, that we just consider what each person may be going through in their own lives and just have humanity for everything that we see, experience and encounter out there … We all want to feel a sense of belonging and care and love in this world.” — McKenzie Ryan
What was your top moment, your ‘peak’ of the season?
It’s actually an interview that I get emotional talking about. What it’s been like to be an outsider in my life and an outsider in the world … that has created so much strength and yet so much pain at the same time that I’ve used in so many different ways to sharpen my edges or to be able to empathize and relate with people … That was a very freeing moment for me to just be real about what it’s like to not be accepted and to not really be wanted, and how that’s been a major driver in my career and my success.
Speaking of being an insider, didn’t Fredrik Eklund do the same thing? (He was an NYC agent and then became bi-coastal in LA, and he wasn’t received very well by the other agents, specifically on MDLLA.) How is that going for you?
I don’t think about too often because, to focus on other people means giving away my own mental capacity, bandwidth, time, care — all these things that I really need for myself and my clients and for the work that I do.
It’s tough when you’re blatantly seen not as a human being, but as a professional you just have to limit your emotional exposure to a lot of it because, candidly speaking, people are caught up in their own melodramas, their own obsessions and their own craziness. So I just try to focus and stay in my own lane. And I’m not big into the soap operas that people create.
You’ve accomplished so much, but the thing about real estate folks is that when they meet one goal, they’re on to the next one. So what’s the next goal?
My next goal is to continue trailblazing in real estate and to actually start to pursue my great love, which is history and architecture. That’s the type of real estate I sell. So I love selling historic homes, and I like writing about them.
[My next goal is] breaking into the publishing world and starting to publish some of the books and manuscripts that I’ve written and published as New York City history books to help people feel New York’s incredible historic background and all the amazing buildings that build our skyline and that drive us and create this wonderful landscape. Really exploring my own passions and bringing those into real life — through TV through books and literature, through podcasts, through fashion. So [I’m excited about] finally having the platform that I’ve been building for so long to actually display all of my incredible talents.
Also, you’re working on a book about the Astors and Vanderbilts. Tell me more.
History and architecture are really what brought me into real estate and then it was powered by my athletic background. But the Astors and Vanderbilts are such central figures in building New York’s landscape, but more importantly, building a skyline.
And so I wrote this, actually, it’s my college thesis, about how the Astor and Vanderbilt real estate empires are responsible for today’s skyline. And [I’m] breaking that up into a couple of books that really detail New York City’s real estate history, specifically.
So how did we get started? We were paving streets down on Stone Street and putting landfill in the river to give ourselves more real estate space. At that point, John Jacob Astor comes to New York and is this incredible businessman in the beaver world and starts buying up real estate as fast as he can, eventually creating these physical manifestations of society and building opera houses and hotels and mansions.
We didn’t have any social media; there were no Forbes 100 lists at the time. The way you really communicated your wealth and status was through your real estate, and who your kids married — and having a home that you were able to entertain in was so central to all of that.
I’m really excited to be able to bring a more casual, connected, relatable voice to this history so that when people are walking around New York, you can look at a street, or you can look at a building, or you can look at an existing mansion and be able to really touch it and feel it in a way that is … tangible and meaningful. I just love history. I’m a nerd.
Agents on reality TV get dragged often (even by other agents, who are also on reality TV) for not being experienced or being actors who are in it to get famous. Perhaps Ryan will be the breath of fresh air we’ve all been waiting for. We’ll be watching. Stay tuned for more Real Tea on Inman.
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