The real story behind what makes the rapper-turned-reality star tick

For the Los Angeles paparazzi lined up outside Beverly Hills’ landmark restaurant the Ivy, lunchtime is usually the money-shot hour — and yet, somehow, they completely fail to acknowledge the arrival of Flavor Flav. Inside, however, the flamboyant Public Enemy hype man-turned-reality TV loverboy elicits plenty of stares. One possible reason: He’s wearing a pimpalicious teal shirt-and-slacks combo, alligator shoes, eight chunky gold rings that could double as brass knuckles, and an enormous white clock on a rope around his neck. As if his appearance weren’t loud enough, he jangles a noisy cluster of at least a hundred keys and decorative keychains while following the maître d’ to a coveted corner table. ”They’re my keys to the future,” Flav says, cracking a toothy smile that reveals a flash of his signature gold fronts.

It’s certainly unusual to hear this 47-year-old grandfather — who began fighting a nearly 20-year battle with substance abuse long before many viewers of VH1’s Flavor of Love were even born — sound so optimistic about the road ahead. ”My frame of mind right now is focused on building my career,” says Flav, who in conversation comes across as a slightly more earnest version of his outrageous TV self. ”I’m fighting to keep the success moving.”

These days, he’s doing a pretty good job. The March 12 season finale of Flavor of Love, in which 20 women vie for Flav’s attention while living with him in an Encino mansion, was VH1’s highest-rated show ever, pulling in 5.9 million viewers. Season 2 of Love premieres on Aug. 6; next month, he’ll independently release his solo debut CD; he’s working on an animated series; and he’s in talks to do yet another reality show, his fourth. ”Your man Flavor Flav is living!” he says. ”I’m sitting here doing an interview at the world-famous Ivy restaurant, with a piece of lemon inside my water. Can’t nothing be better than that.”

That would have been tough for Flavor Flav to say just a few years back. In 2000, he was living in the cramped Bronx apartment of his then girlfriend, Beverly Johnson (along with her two kids from a previous relationship), in a rough area near Yankee Stadium, where he made extra cash scalping baseball tickets. ”What happened to Flav during that time?” he muses. ”I stayed home being a father. I got on drugs more. I got more stressed out. I kept getting arrested for driving with no license. And my personal appearance was not looking too cool.” After selling millions of albums with Public Enemy, even Flav had to wonder: How did this happen?

Born William Drayton Jr., Flavor Flav grew up working-class in Freeport, Long Island, where Flav says his dad, William Sr., owned a greasy spoon called the Soul Diner. He was a self-taught musical prodigy who sang in the youth choir at his church and mastered the piano, drums, and guitar at an early age. He also liked to cause trouble. ”I set our house on fire when I was a little child playing with lighters,” he says. ”Boy, did I burn the place down!” By the time he dropped out of school in the 11th grade, he was already a frequent guest of the department of corrections, bouncing in and out of jail for robbery and burglary.