BEVERLY HILLS— Beverly Hills is not a real place in the real world. Beverly Hills is what happens when you take the "Beverly Hills" pavilion at Epcot Center, expand it a thousandfold, and populate it with actors playing real people.
I had never been to L.A. before, avoid watching the Oscars at all costs, and am incapable of identifying celebrities on sight, and yet I went to Beverly Hills this week to write about "gifting suites," those peculiar little pre-Oscar-week institutions that exist in order to shower America's neediest celebrities with free luxury items. Companies that want to promote themselves pay PR firms for the privilege of setting up a table at the gifting suite; the PR firm wrangles celebrities to show up and collect a ton of free crap; the media covers it as an event, making the whole thing worthwhile.
I was there in search of free stuff. Foolish. In Beverly Hills, nothing is free unless you absolutely, positively don't need it.
Beverly Hills announces itself with shiny cars and shinier lawns: Tesla dealership, Porsche dealership, Ferrari dealership, Church of Latter Day Saints headquarters with a rolling lawn so pristine it must, must, must be maintained by cult members. On my walk from my hotel to the first gifting suite, at L'Ermitage hotel, I passed a storefront labeled "Gloss Army." The Beverly Hills Women's Club recruiting office, I assumed.
At L'Ermitage, the telltale thin and glamorous hordes lingered out front, oversized swag bags on their arms. There were multiple gifting suites at the hotel that day, but I was here for the "Secret Room" gifting suite, on the roof. It was a "benefit" for The Humane Society, in the sense that it allowed The Humane Society's most attractive representatives to hand out stuffed dogs to famous people.
Here is what happens at gifting suites: A whole bunch of jewelry companies and spas and fashion designers and destination resorts and liquor makers and chi-chi cake bakeries and the like pay thousands of dollars for the privilege of acting enthusiastic to speak to B- or C- or even lesser-list celebrities, while handing those celebrities free things. These celebrities, in turn, act enthusiastic about listening to a five-minute pitch for products like "Whitening Lightning" tooth whitener. Then, the celebrity poses for a picture, grabs their free shit, and moves on to the next trough. It takes about an hour for a celebrity to make a complete circuit, and when it's over, their assistant is carrying enough gift bags to build a four-man tent.
These suites are also full of press. As far as I could tell, the press attendees were of two types: 1) The Hollywood-centric web sites or TV shows that are there to celebrity-spot and spend their time eagerly ambushing each new celebrity as they make their way through, scoring interviews that consist of a TV host type with a Whitening Lightning-like smile pulling some quotes about how happy a celebrity is to be here, on this beautiful day, with all these great brands, and especially this here, ah, Universal Angel Wings jewelry accessories booth, boy, that's just great; and 2) me.
I sunburn easily.
The types of people who willingly go to Beverly Hills gift lounges are ugly in a way that only beautiful plastic people can be. As hard as I tried to pick up on the special little details, it proved impossible for my brain to avoid dumping everyone there into neat, stereotypical categories. They just fit so well.
There was the Rock ‘n Roll douchebag type, in the fedora and the just-so black jeans with a tiger print bandanna hanging out of his back pocket and too many chains on his wallet and snakeskin Chuck Taylors and mousse in his hair who smiled and posed obediently at every booth. There was the Fake Biker guy douchebag with an expensive leather jacket covered in Harley patches and a Harley t-shirt and a bright red new bandanna on his head and a too-nice haircut and too well-exfoliated skin. There was the tall, impossibly tall, bored-looking sitcom actress poured into pants with legs the size of shirt-arms and teetering around in huge chunky heels with huge chunky sunglasses and a huge empty butter soft black leather handbag, attended by an equally glam but not quite as attractive sidekick and holding a pink iPhone. There were all the impossibly attractive booth girls and PR girls and spandex skirt-wearing girls carrying ice cream cookie trays whose tight smiles concealed the fundamental question running through their minds: "What does this bitch have that I don't have?" There were the Hollywood reporter teams, with their mousy and meticulously made-up front-of-the-camera person and an equal and opposite fat slob t-shirt-wearing cameraman who did not give a fuck about much of this at all.
And then there were the vendors, those people who had paid for the privilege of being here, hoping that this B-list celebrity shine would rub off on them. Most of them sold ugly shit. I've never been accused of having "good taste," but the following vendors at the Secret Room gifting suite appeared in my notes, with the attached descriptions: "Loudmouth Clothing— gauche and horrible." "Mary Frances, slogan ‘Not Just Housewives Are Desperate for Mary Frances.' Ugly little bags with beads + shit." "Giovanna's Closet— horrible frilly tutus and shit." "Pantofola— ugly ass Italian shoes." "Tiare Hawaii— ugly ass pastel clothes."
After a couple of hours, or two full Celebrity Gift Cycles, my energy flagged. You could see the people working the booth struggling to remain alert as well. For them, this was basically retail work, but with less certain profits. I leaned against a table covered with copies of OK! Magazine for a few minutes, and people kept wandering up and asking me if they could take one. Sure, sure, I said.
On my way out, I grabbed my only item of swag: a single-serve box of O.N.E. coconut water. It was refreshing.
The next day, I wandered the streets of Beverly Hills. For a while I tried to record all the luxury cars I passed, but that quickly grew tiresome. Once you've seen three separate Bentleys being driven on errands like so many Honda Civics, or two identical gleaming white Mercedes SL's facing each other at a stoplight, or the two-tone black and yellow Bugatti with the "BIJAN" plates parked in front of the Bijan store on Rodeo Drive, making a note of the 38th Benz coupe you passed by gets boring. Let's say there were a lot.
The people demonstrated a fast-paced impatience that I found at odds with the fact that most probably did not have a real job. I counted 27 people in line at Starbucks on Wilshire and Santa Monica Boulevard at 8:15 on a Thursday morning, and only the high school kids looked like they had somewhere more important to go to. Women bustled through the downtown shopping district of Beverly Hills, from spa to luxury handbag store to lunch to boutique, all the while consulting their iPhones with a furrowed brow, as if any deviation from their schedule might have some real world consequence. (Is "being at all times ensconced in a bubble of servitude" a real job? I'm not prepared to say.) The Beverly Hills police force's motto, printed on their squad car doors, is "Police and Community Together." That differs from the larger LAPD's motto, "Get On Your Knees."
Here, anything that is necessary is, by definition, low class. The real marker of too much wealth is a silent arms race of collecting unnecessary things. The women of Beverly Hills must only leave the house in boots, though the chance of encountering a loose rock or mud pit on Brighton Way is low. And those boots must be slouchy and soft, robbed of any pretense of usefulness by their very design. Sunglasses, heels, men's watches, and SUVs must be unnecessarily large. Sports cars must be unnecessarily fast. Public spaces must be bedecked with unnecessary topiary. Sensible building materials must be replaced with unnecessarily luxurious ones. Most flat surfaces should be marble.
In Beverly Hills, even the most militant socialist can start pining for the days of John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. At least old money was discreet. New money is middle-aged men in sport coats and jeans and no ties lunching at outdoor cafes in order to not be forced to remove their sunglasses.
Remove your sunglasses, rich assholes. They make you look like rich assholes.
I had my eyes out for a hint of reality—a homeless person, say. The dirtier the better. I'd give him a few bucks and say "Hey, by the way, what's it like being homeless out here? Are these rich people very generous? Do they always offer you ample food, clothing, and shelter, since they're so rich?" And he'd say "no"—with some prompting, if necessary— and I'd have my dramatic humanitarian outrage scene. Want in a sea of plenty, etc. But the only one who came close was a young woman playing her violin for tips on Beverly Drive. She didn't fit the bill. Or maybe she did.
On Friday morning I drove through the residential part of Beverly Hills and up to Hollywood for the next gifting lounge. I passed huge, opulent mansions with curving driveways littered with expensive sports cars. (Beverly Hills makes Hollywood look like the slums of Mumbai.) At the W hotel, I walked up a mirrored, curving staircase and past the PR guy with a clipboard and the PR girl with a clipboard and the security guy holding the velvet rope. Now, this, my friends, was a gifting suite: The GBK gift lounge, a grand black-and-gold hallway with a half dozen side rooms full of lots of free, random shit.
The first gifting lounge hadn't had any qualms about gifting media, but they also hadn't tried to force anything on me, and I'd been too ashamed to ask for anything. But here at GBK, they handed me a tote bag along with my press credential, and the PR girl inside walked right up and handed me an elegantly wrapped box ("This is great, you'll love it"), and various vendors in the less-trafficked rooms aggressively approached me, the only dork there trying to take notes, and handed me their samples along with their sales pitch.
The fundamental sense of shameful whoredom was mitigated, somewhat, when I saw that the actual celebrities in attendance were each accompanied by assistants toting multiple cadaver-sized black duffel bags full, full of this crap, a literal haul. Kevin Nealon was wandering around, acting interested in the sales pitch from Milena's Boutique, then holding his fist up and posing in a provocative "boxer pose" while holding a bag of Glymed Plus™. For B-list celebrities, this is just another job, and the swag is their payment. Still. Kevin Nealon is a whore for scented candles. Disappointing.
The rich think of themselves as good people. All of this wicked excess must therefore be balanced out somehow. Gifting lounges do it by inviting some charities to set up tables for free, where they can try to talk famous people into supporting their causes. Holly Robinson's foundation gave me a free children's book. In one room, amid the organic snack products and the Lumeria Maui retreat space, Worldteam Foundation had set up a table with a large sign reading, "LET'S TEAM UP TO ABOLISH SLAVERY." Rather ambitious goal for the gifting lounge crowd, but worth a shot.
Even the regular products often had a charity angle. Celebrities can afford to buy expensive things, and buying expensive things that have some alleged redemptive value can go a long way towards soothing the soul of the sin of overindulgence. Charity angles on luxury goods are the 21st-century version of buying indulgences from the Catholic Church. One woman from a company called Chickboss explained to me how she was working to pay fair wages to impoverished Guatemalans to make jewelry and such for sale, in order to raise their standard of living. It was an unambiguously noble business plan. The fact that she had to leave Guatemala and come to Hollywood to stand in the GBK gifting lounge and hand free necklaces to Frankie Muniz and Penelope Ann Miller says something very strange about the way modern capitalism works. For vendors, the price for tables at GBK's one-day event ranged from $5,000 to $40,000.
I attended one more event, at the "Alive! Expo Green Pavilion," a green-themed gifting lounge held on the roof of the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard. It had a majestic view of the Hollywood hills, but seemed downright shabby compared to GBK's, which is not a knock, per se. There were lots of tweens running around. The roof was home to both "Body Ecology: the leader in fermented food and nutrition" and "Status Vodka," the vodka for—well,for people with status, obviously.
I took a single piece of bruschetta and left.
I walked a couple of miles down Wilshire, all the way back to Beverly Hills, watching the ambient level of opulence rise along the way. Back on little Santa Monica Boulevard, amid the Benz coupes, I spotted a small, square black sticker plastered about eight feet up on a light pole, reading: "We Are The 99%."
No you're not.
Image by Jim Cooke.