The house on Doheny Road in Beverly Hills is barely visible from the street. But beyond the high wooden gates and the even higher, immaculately manicured hedge, you can catch a glimpse of pink walls topped by a Spanish-tiled roof. Somewhere in the distance a sprinkler is spraying water on the grass. The Mediterranean-style mansion seems to glow in the midday sun, or at least I imagine it does. This is Christina Aguilera’s house. It was built by Mark Hughes, the movie-star-tan founder of Herbalife, a weight-loss company, and later owned by Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, who made it famous as the set of their reality-TV show. They sold it to Aguilera in 2007. The estate isn’t to my taste, exactly, but it has an undeniable aura of impenetrable mystery that, in the curious alchemy of stardom, transcends the mundane physicality of the house itself.
How is it, exactly, that star homes seem as charismatic as their owners? And why are we uncelebrated civilians so fascinated with celebrity real estate? Back in the glory days of Hollywood, of course, movie studios did their best to keep stars at a remove—unknowable and mysterious, larger than life. Their grand houses, seen from a distance, were as close to Elizabeth Taylor or Cary Grant as the public was ever going to get. Today, on the other hand, celebrities seem less mysterious than ever. They’re on Facebook, they show up in ever-sillier reality-TV shows, they are obsessed over on TMZ and in the tabloids. Charlie Sheen had 4,436,382 followers on Twitter last time I checked.
And yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Hollywood’s glamour is alive and well, despite the sins committed in its name. Its mystery has been reimagined, too. Just like those meltdowns and the celebrity homes that contain them, it’s all right in your face yet simultaneously unfathomable. And so we try to peer past the hedges, seeking a glimpse of the otherworldly.
“She’s home,” stage-whispers George, the guide behind the wheel of the Starline Movie Stars Homes Tour van parked outside Aguilera’s house, pointing out the white Range Rover barely visible in the driveway. A few blocks away, past the mansion where Michael Jackson died, we stop at another gated driveway on the corner of Calle Vista Drive. “If you want to get arrested, try to pull in,” George jokes about the heavily secured house, which belongs to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, frequent targets of aggressive paparazzi.
Last year, I was researching my book Unreal Estate, the story of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, and Bel Air, told through their greatest estates and the people who’ve owned them. Each time I went to L.A. to do research and conduct interviews, I’d also spend a few hours looking at houses. I bought a star map and began taking tours on my own, tooling around in a rented Mustang convertible, pulling off to the side of the road every so often to gaze at a grand house and contemplate its past and present. A star map itself is a thing of beauty—they’ve been around as long as stars have had homes. I got mine on a Sunset Strip street corner from a woman who sells a third-generation map that descends directly from one her grandfather first made in 1936. Once sold for 50 cents, the maps now go for $20. The prices of the houses have gone up, too.
The real estate the star-map stars owned has since changed hands many times. On Greenacres Place, Harold Lloyd’s estate is a shadow of its former self, most of the land and lavish gardens gone, subdivided away. But current owner Ron Burkle, the supermarket billionaire, is doing what he can to keep the place’s history alive, and is restoring its original entrance with the addition of a neighboring lot.
You can’t even see 141 South Carolwood Drive from the road, which was closed and gated a decade ago, when it and two adjoining properties were combined into a single estate. Past residents of those three houses included Rudy Vallée; Joe Schenk, a producer who “kept” Marilyn Monroe in a guest house; Jayne Mansfield; Tony Curtis; Sonny and Cher; David Geffen; and Gregg Allman. Only Geffen and Mansfield’s names appears on my star map, even though her famous “Pink Palace” is long gone. But somehow, the magic, the romance, and the ineffable glamour attached to the plot of land she and her fellow stars once occupied endures. That’s what has made this part of Los Angeles the ultimate trophy real estate. And that’s why a tour of star homes remains a local attraction. Even in our hyper-exhibitionist world, voyeurism has its rewards.