Sabrina Soto kneels on the living room floor of the small Bethesda home and sprays foaming bathroom cleaner all over the black soot that’s marring the stone fireplace.
As a camera rolls, the star of HGTV’s Real Estate Intervention begins scrubbing the stone, explaining how the bathroom cleaner removes stains just as well as more expensive professional methods.
“If you have great stone like this, you might as well show it off,” she says to the camera.
Soto sprays on another coat of the cleaner, but the fumes nearly overwhelm her in the hot, close air of the small house. Stepping away from the fireplace, she plants herself in front of the portable air conditioner brought in by her crew on this blistering hot July day and takes a deep breath.
“The glamorous life of a TV star,” she says, lifting her long, highlighted brown hair off her sweaty neck.
It’s all in a day’s work for Soto, the vivacious 33-year-old designer from Los Angeles who grabbed a chance at her dream job nearly five years ago and landed in the Washington area hosting shows for HGTV, the cable network that features home and lifestyle programming.
Real Estate Intervention is the latest of several shows Soto has worked on for HGTV. She employs her interior design skills to spruce up houses—on a budget of as little as $2,500—for owners needing help selling their homes. Between filming episodes for the show, Soto also is making a name for herself as a home style expert for Target, offering design advice on the company’s website and in catalogs and TV commercials, and as a home scent designer for Procter & Gamble’s Gain laundry and dish detergents and Febreze air fresheners.
Her career leaves the petite and perky, first-generation Cuban-American with little time to relax at her rented Bethesda home—but she clearly relishes it, after a childhood spent hot-gluing arts and crafts projects and helping out in the home-decorating business her mother once owned in Los Angeles.
“It’s not something I ever thought, growing up, that I could do,” she says. “If somebody had told me I’d be on HGTV, I would never have believed them.”
Soto’s success is no surprise to her 58-year-old mother, Maria Soto, who moved from Los Angeles to serve as Soto’s shopper for Real Estate Intervention and now lives with her.
“That was her goal all her life—to be on TV and to be designing and to be creative,” Maria Soto says.
Soto’s effervescent personality and girl-next-door appeal are reminiscent of Rachael Ray, the Food Network star and talk show host who got her start doing cooking segments for a local TV station in upstate New York. Soto, who was born in Miami, may be destined for a similar trajectory as she taps into viewers’ growing interest in do-it-yourself home improvements with her HGTV shows, Target appearances and a how-to decorating book that’s being shopped to publishers now.
“We think she is a rising star,” says Terri Murray, HGTV’s director of original programming. “She’s definitely a talent that we’re looking to develop other shows around. There’s a spark she has. She just has such a connective personality, and people are really tuning in to it.”
Close friend Taniya Nayak says Soto’s energy motivates her to succeed, as well. “She’s a firecracker,” says Nayak, the 37-year-old host of HGTV’s Destination Design and Designed to Sell and owner of a design business in Boston.
“She’s one of the most ambitious and driven people I know. She’s that girl that, when she says she’s going to do something, she does it 1,000 times better than you thought it would be.”
Maria Soto has high hopes for her daughter’s career, envisioning that she might someday topple America’s long-reigning lifestyle queen. “Rachael Ray, never mind,” Maria Soto says with a dismissive nod. Think “Martha Stewart.”
Sabrina Soto, whose father was a television news producer for Today among other shows, took college courses for two years, including design studies for a year at UCLA, before deciding to pursue other interests. She landed jobs hosting series for MTV and The Learning Channel, and traveled around the country setting up couples for TLC’s A Dating Story. She also interviewed top recording artists and celebrities for a Web-based series on Yahoo!
Returning to her passion for design, Soto next became a licensed real estate agent, staging and selling homes in California for three years until she had “an itch” to get back on TV. That’s when she answered an online ad in 2006 for a casting call by Edelman Productions, which films shows for HGTV in the Washington, D.C., area. Landing the gig of staging houses for sale as host of HGTV’s Get It Sold, she relocated from Los Angeles to Dupont Circle, where she lived for three years before moving to Bethesda about two years ago.