As Sidney Torres IV — sheathed in black, sunglasses on, hair slicked into a tidy man-bun — strode along Royal Street on a recent sunny afternoon, the driver of a passing mule-drawn carriage spotted him.
“There goes our next mayor,” the driver announced to his load of bewildered tourists.
Torres didn’t break stride. Such shout-outs are not uncommon.
A self-described “serial entrepreneur” and scion of a powerful St. Bernard Parish family, Torres made millions redeveloping houses and hotels and hauling trash. He also made headlines launching an app and a private patrol to combat crime in the French Quarter.
Along the way, he’s promoted himself and his dashing, derring-do attitude as aggressively as his various enterprises. His next campaign aims to replicate his local notoriety nationwide.
At 9 p.m. Wednesday, cable network CNBC will premiere “The Deed,” a real-estate reality show co-starring Torres as the investor/guru. In each of the series' first four, one-hour episodes, he’ll swoop in to save a house-flipper in financial peril.
A Chicago-based real estate mogul, Sean Conlon, is the focus of the second four episodes.
CNBC has invested heavily in promoting “The Deed” in general, and Torres specifically. A 70-foot-tall image of him — modeled after an iconic black-and-white photograph of actor James Dean — adorns a building near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden in New York. His face is featured in similarly high-profile locales in Los Angeles, Miami and, as local drivers can attest, New Orleans.
However, his deal with CNBC allows him to get out of his contract if he elects to embark on a different campaign this year: running for mayor of New Orleans.
Either way, Sidney Torres IV is ready for his close-up.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s a great honor to have a show and billboards everywhere,” he said. “It’s a cool feeling. I had that kind of press on a statewide level when I had the garbage company.
“At the end of the day, you learn that that’s not what it’s about. Some people let that get to their head, and it changes who they are. Not me.”
'All kinds of bad stuff'
A few days before Mardi Gras, Torres arrived for a lunchtime interview at Café Amelie, a favorite spot not far from his French Quarter abode. “I like to walk everywhere,” he said. "I stay within my circle."
Home is a sumptuous, meticulously renovated Esplanade Avenue mansion. During a brief tour of the grounds, which bisect an entire block, he noted one distinct advantage: “There’s no bar with live music over here.”
His previous residence abutted Buffa’s Lounge, which he sued in 2014, claiming it was violating the city’s noise ordinance. Buffa’s eventually agreed to install noise barriers and end the live music earlier.
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“I hated that whole situation and the way it was spun,” said Torres, who claims to have first visited Buffa’s as a kid with his father, prominent attorney Sidney D. Torres III. “I’m a huge music fan. I love music. I have second-line bands at every party.”
At age 41, he's been engaged once but never married, and he has a 19-year-old son and a 4-month-old daughter. The infant lives with her mother, a model, in Los Angeles. Despite the distance, he intends to be a presence in his daughter’s life. “I’m a big believer in being there for your children,” he said.
His own parents’ divorce, he believes, factored into his misguided youth. “I got involved in all kinds of bad stuff,” he said. “I’m very open about the struggles I’ve had.
“I wouldn’t change anything — it’s made me who I am today. I know, just from the issues I had, that we have a lack of programming here for kids who are hooked on drugs, on heroin and opiates and crack.”
A drug-fueled flame-out would have run counter to his family’s history. Of Isleño descent, his fraternal grandfather, Sidney Torres Jr., was the St. Bernard Parish clerk of court for decades. His grandmother, Lena Torres, took over the job following her husband’s death in 1988. Not without controversy, she held it until 2011.
As a teenager, Sidney IV was sent to the Marvelwood School, a boarding school in Connecticut. He briefly attended LSU but didn’t like college, in part because of his dyslexia. He worked the graveyard shift as a deejay at a Baton Rouge radio station. He sold clothes.
Sidney Torres IV is back in the French Quarter crime-fighting game, though it cost him anoth…
A mutual friend introduced him to Lenny Kravitz. The rock star, then at the height of his fame, had recently bought a house in the French Quarter. Torres, in need of a new direction, signed on to be Kravitz’s assistant.
The gig was not glamorous. “It was, ‘Go get my toothbrush. Go get my luggage,’ ” Torres recalled. “I was never an administrative assistant. I was the pick-up-the-mess assistant.
“But it made me appreciate every level of someone’s work. That’s why I connected with and became really close to my guys at the garbage company. I understand what it’s like to start from the bottom and work your way up.”
Unfortunately, Torres mistook rock star proximity for privilege and adopted the lifestyle as his own. “I got involved in staying up late, partying all the time, not being responsible. I wasn’t waking Lenny up — he was waking me up.”
After a year or so, Kravitz fired him. Torres slunk back to New Orleans to “sulk in the misery of losing my job.”
He started over in construction, cleaning finished homes before they were turned over to the buyer. He became a supervisor and got his general contractor's license.
After work, he and his old soccer coach drove around neighborhoods near Tulane and Loyola universities, looking for a fixer-upper. In 1997, Lena Torres co-signed a loan for Torres to purchase his first property, in the 7600 block of Burthe Street. That led to more, and bigger, renovations, including hotels.
Hurricane Katrina created a different opportunity: garbage. He founded SDT Waste & Debris Services and won contracts to clean the French Quarter. The company's signature black trucks with the bull logo famously sprayed a “lemony fresh scent.”
Torres, soon dubbed “Trashanova,” managed to make trash collection glamorous. Kravitz and another buddy, Kid Rock, appeared in SDT commercials. Torres, with typical intensity, was not averse to getting his hands dirty.
In 2009, he shot a pilot for “Trashmen,” a proposed show about his SDT team's exploits. It aired in early 2010 on TLC, but the network opted not to proceed with a full series.
He really cleaned up when he sold SDT, in 2011, and his local hotel properties. He bought a run-down resort called the Cove in the Bahamas, remade it as a chic luxury destination, and flipped it, too. He founded a private investment firm, IV Capital.
But the TV temptation lingered. One day, a guy staying at the Cove introduced himself as Marcus Lemonis, star of the CNBC business reality show “The Profit.” Jim Ackerman, CNBC’s executive vice president of prime-time alternative programming, oversaw “The Profit.” Torres had previously met with Ackerman about starring in a show that never got off the ground.
After his encounter with Lemonis, Torres got a call from Ackerman. Ackerman was developing what became "The Deed" for CNBC, and he wanted to cast Torres.
“It was an opportunity that you don’t always get,” Torres said. “That they wanted to do something with me on a national stage could be really good for me, and for New Orleans. And I can help people by getting them through their messed-up projects.”
Cineflix Productions, the company behind HGTV’s popular “Property Brothers” and many other shows, produces “The Deed” for CNBC. The company contacted banks and real-estate agents to find amateur developers in New Orleans who were in a jam.
That’s when, over many months, the cameras rolled, and Torres saved the day with his money and advice.
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“I use my experience to guide rookie homebuilders and developers on what to do and not do, and what sells. These individuals want my money, but when it comes time to take my advice, they want to do it their way. They get aggravated with me and want to argue, which makes for good TV.”
The first episode follows a local woman who bought an old bakery in the Irish Channel and tore it down to subdivide the plot for new houses. Torres’ mother, Earline Torres, makes a cameo.
The four Torres episodes of “The Deed” typically end with a “payoff similar to ‘Property Brothers’ or ‘Flip or Flop,’ ” he said. “But the difference is that I’m investing my own funds. When I lend my money, I’m not only involved emotionally and physically, but financially. I take the property as collateral.”
Promotional images for “The Profit” show Lemonis sitting on stacks of cash. Torres helped curate a sexier ad campaign for “The Deed.” “I wanted something different, cool, younger,” he said. “I’m very involved. CNBC has never really done anything that way.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how the show does. The focus groups think it’s going to do well.”
'The polls are really strong'
Those critiquing “The Deed” are not the only focus groups Torres follows these days. He has publicly flirted for months with the possibility of running for mayor.
“Honestly, I will not decide until probably 10 minutes before qualifying closes,” he said last week. Meanwhile, he has “put together a great team of people” to lay out “what I think needs to happen with the city as far as education, crime, roads.
“It’s not cheap," he said. "If I don’t run, I’m serious about being heavily involved with somebody who will carry out the ideas and thoughts that I have. My preference is really to find someone that I could work with. But there’s nobody out there.”
That said, he’ll stick to reality TV if the political polls aren’t favorable.
“It’s got to make sense. I want to know the real numbers. I want to know what are my chances, based on the polls, citywide. Right now, the polls are really strong.”
In a sure sign that he has arrived — or at least achieved a certain level of local notoriety — Le Krewe d’Etat spoofed Torres in its parade Friday night. A float titled “101 Chalmations” cast him as a scruffy Dalmatian in shrimp boots lifting a leg toward a fire hydrant.
The depiction wasn’t particularly flattering, but neither was it as vicious as Krewe d’Etat’s takedowns of scandal-plagued Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni and jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield’s controversial dealings with the New Orleans Public Library Foundation.
Meanwhile, a digital billboard advertising Torres and “The Deed” has stood on one side of the Pontchartrain Expressway opposite a billboard that spells out “LaToya,” as in potential mayoral candidate city Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell.
As the 2016 presidential race demonstrated, a real-estate developer turned reality TV star is entirely capable of upending the established political order as an “outsider” candidate.
“I’m sure the other side will want to run with that because Trump didn’t do well here,” Torres said, already anticipating angles of attack against his hypothetical campaign. “But for me, it’s not about party. It’s about action.
“I don’t have to raise money. If I decide (to run), I’m going to put $4 million or $5 million of my own cash in a bank account and focus on what I’m going to do to fix this city. Would I raise money after I get in office? Maybe I would — I’m not ruling that out. But that’s not a priority for me.”
Healing what ails New Orleans is “a big monster. It’s definitely something that I know I could fix because I’m task-oriented. I know that once I jump into something, I can do it. I like taking troubled assets, troubled people. …"
“Troubled cities, perhaps. Taking them on, turning them around and passing them off. I like the challenge of that.
“I’m not a guy who can stay in the same thing for a very long time. I’m usually four years, five years, and then I’m ready to do something different.”
Four years just happens to be the length of a mayoral term.
“I know, right?” Torres said, smiling. “How do you like that? It falls right into what I like.”