Lisa Vanderpump is on her way to downtown Los Angeles in pursuit of the perfect tablescape. “I’m such a control freak,” the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star says, explaining that she prefers to choose the flower arrangements for her four L.A. restaurants and lounges herself. “I’m very ambience-driven. You see this with Villa Rosa,” which is her 8,800-square-foot Beverly Hills home. Though “controlled” is not exactly how she’d describe her shopping habits. “I’ve been frivolous — I’ve spent way too much on a dress, on a handbag. I’m guilty of all of the above. I’m sure people see my wardrobe.” It’s generally topped off with glinting jewels and accompanied by a small, fluffy dog in one hand and a designer bag in the other. “I love things.”

That may be the first thing that’s apparent about Vanderpump — her imperial put-together-ness that teeters between camp and earnest extravagance. Her cheeky wit is the second. “I’m always rather inappropriate,” she says, telling me about the “mutterings of naughtiness” she slipped into a recent speech. This could explain why she’s a fan favorite Housewife (if a pariah among her cast), and reportedly the highest paid. Vanderpump, 58, has embraced the role of reality-TV star, but by the time she became one in 2010, she was already a successful businesswoman. Growing up in London, she waitressed for a while (“I wasn’t that good”), began acting as a tween, and says she bought her first home at 19 with “not one penny from a man or my parents.” At 21, she married restaurateur Ken Todd, and they began building their nightlife empire.

If Housewives launched her, Vanderpump Rules is her zazzy mid-air flip. The spinoff casts her as a mentor and matriarch to the waitstaff at her West Hollywood restaurant SUR (eye-openingly, an acronym for Sexy Unique Restaurant), whose debaucherous dating antics and booze-fueled catfights make for high drama. It also places Vanderpump’s business center stage.

“I will take full credit for that,” says Vanderpump. After Season 1 of Housewives, “I was offered another job, and Bravo said, ‘No, we want you to stay with us.’” They wooed her with the promise of her own pilot, and Vanderpump had just the thing. Her young, attractive waitstaff at SUR and Villa Blanca, another Vanderpump establishment, had formed a convoluted and volatile social-sexual web. “It wasn’t three degrees of separation — it was one degree of separation, and the temperature got really hot between those relationships,” she says. It was easily greenlit.

Vanderpump’s sweet, functional marriage to Ken is a foil to the casual hookups and screaming matches that take place in the restaurant alley. “I’ve been married since I’m 21 so my knickers were not on automatic release when I was their age,” she jabs. She recently partnered with the two starring Toms (Schwartz and Sandoval) on Tom Tom, a venue she describes as “industrial romantic.”

The VPR origin story is momentarily interrupted by the sound of L.A. traffic. “Sorry — Puffy, one of my rescue dogs, has terrible gas, and I had to open the window,” Vanderpump says. She has six more at home (in addition to eight swans and two miniature ponies), and ever since an Internet rabbit hole led her to the gruesome discovery of China’s Yulin Dog Meat Festival, she and Ken have become devoted activists, lobbying Congress to pass a resolution condemning dog slaughter, funding a documentary, and opening the Vanderpump Dog Center in L.A.

This is something of a passion project for Vanderpump who says she “had a very tough year emotionally, [with] the tragedy that transpired in our family,” referring to the death of her brother, which she opened up about on both of her shows. She is mourning, but moving forward. She recently introduced a rosé brand. VPR Season 7 premiered on Monday. And next year, she’ll appear on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills Season 9 (which may be her last, according to reports), while opening a new cocktail bar in Vegas. Eventually, she’d like to collaborate with her daughter, Pandora, on a kitchen line.

Vanderpump recons she’ll probably work, in some capacity, forever. But she has a pretty clear vision of retirement: “I could easily have a chateau in a vineyard in France and a place in L.A., obviously have all my dogs and horses around, and maybe be banging George Clooney every night.” Scroll down to read why she doesn’t own a credit card, but does own a $20,000 dress.

On her most regrettable purchase… “I bought a ridiculous ball gown from Valentino, and it was a fortune. You could buy a nice car for this dress. It was a black, lace wedding dress. I thought I’d be wearing it and wearing it and wearing it — and I’ve worn it twice. So I think I’ve paid basically $10,000 every time I’ve worn it.”

On her parents’ frugality… “My parents never lavished gifts and money on us. God, I hope they don’t read this. They were a bit stingy. I would get nice Christmas and birthday presents, but they were frugal. So I worked every school holiday.”

On how Housewives changed her life… “Oh my god, I can pick up the phone and get anybody I’d like. I could probably get the President of the United States on the phone. I’ve worked with him on Miss Universe. I’ve managed to tell him off for a couple of things, that’s for sure. You have access. I’ve spoken at United Nations. We have Congress’s ear. And it’s been good for our business.”

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On turning down Housewives “Bravo asked me a couple of times, and I refused. I said it’s so not me — I’m useless at arguing and fighting. It was Jennifer Stallone who said to me, ‘Come on, you should go.’ And then Robert Kovacik, the news anchor, one of my best friends, drove me to be interviewed. I had to start thinking, ‘Well, it’ll be fun.’”

On one thing that’s missing from her wallet… “You’re not gonna believe it, I don’t even have a credit card. I have a debit card, and it comes out of my account. Because if I had a credit card, I would never pay the bills. I just wouldn’t remember. Pandora says, ‘With the amount of money you spend, you should have a credit card so you can get points.’ But I like to know where I stand.”

On her favorite products to ‘hoard’… “I do spend a ridiculous amount of money on entertaining pieces, things that make the table look good. Because you keep those forever. Ken says, ‘You’re hoarder.’ We’ve just done our kitchen again, and I love rummaging through the flea markets and finding unique pieces, and having a tea party, and finding a little second-hand teapot that you fill with roses, that kind of thing.”

On molding her Vanderpump Rules proteges… “They still work at SUR because they love being part of a family and want to be on the show, but they’ve obviously benefited from being reality stars, doing things on the side, and I encourage that. I’ve always seen a lot of myself in Stassi, except she’s more petulant than I am. But she’s got the smarts. Brittany, I adore. There’s not a better person on the planet. I love Jax Taylor. Jax Taylor is a complicated human being. He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I love them all. Well, Kristen does create a distraction. But when the chips are down, they support me. So many of the Vanderpump Rules kids put up their hands, bidding at our gala. So I can’t be pissed off with her for too long.”

On supporting her own kids… “I’ve always kept some money and invested in property, and I encourage my kids to do the same. I helped Pandora [and her husband] out with the deposit, they have their own mortgage, and already they’re moving up in the property market. Same with Max. It’s very difficult now for young people to get started in a place like Los Angeles. That was something I could help them with, but they have the responsibility of their bills and their mortgage, and I think that’s an important part of growing up.”

On the importance of financial independence… “Money is freedom. It gives you the power as a woman to say that you come and go when you want to. And, you know, ‘Let me pick up this dinner bill.’”

On working with her husband… “For the most part we agree. We’ve been married 36 years. All men are a pain in your ass — they just are — but he’s also my best friend. Everybody knows that you’ve got to pick your battles. He is incredibly kind, philanthropic, hard-working, he’s been a great father, and I just have a lot of respect for him. And he loves dogs as much as I do. Any man that loves the dog rescue and lets me live with dogs is worth marrying.”

On who looks at her bills… “I have total autonomy over my own money. That would drive me crazy. If Ken saw, he’d be saying, ‘What’s this? What’s that.’ But actually, I’m more conservative than he is.”