What It's Like to Live in a Celebrity Hot Spot
Cities are a bit like people: All have their own special qualities, but a few have that certain something -- a unique allure that makes them stand out from the crowd. Whether it’s the pristine beaches of East Hampton, N.Y. or the vibrant music scene of Nashville, Tenn., it’s no surprise that celebrities flock to these exceptional cities.
Locals living in these celebrity hot spots find themselves in a unique position: While some people spend a massive amount of time and energy seeking out celebrities, for these homeowners, star sightings are just part of life. Lisa Johnson, a seven-year resident of world-class ski resort and celebrity playground Aspen, Colo., says you never know who you’ll run into in the Rocky Mountain city: Jennifer Aniston, Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Kate Hudson, Antonio Banderas and Michelle Pfeiffer are some of the usual suspects. Johnson is founder of Aspen Fashion Week, an annual event that showcases top brands in winter resort, ski and technical outerwear. 2009 was the first year of the event, and Johnson was thrilled to have legendary Italian fashion designer Valentino Garavani in attendance, who came for a screening of the documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor.
Robin McClain, a Los Angeles resident for 10 years, says living in the entertainment capital of the world certainly comes with one major perk: Whether it’s to spot celebrities or simply to enjoy the Southern California lifestyle, friends and family are always eager to visit.
But living in a celebrity hot spot can come with drawbacks as well. A long-time retreat for the wealthy, the Hamptons received an influx of both Hollywood types and second homeowners in the 1980s, says Renee Palmer, a Hamptons resident for 35 years and a member of the East Hampton Historical Society. Since then, the area has gotten clogged and home prices have soared, making day-to-day life difficult for long-time residents.
Bright lights, paparazzi and throngs of screaming fans. This might sound like a typical scene in the day of a life of a celebrity, but it’s a rare sight for locals of these cities.
“There’s not that mania you see when people arrive at airports at other countries,” McClain says. “I think the mania happens in L.A. surrounding an event, like the Oscars or a movie premiere.”
Frequent star sightings. Even outside of major events, Los Angeles and celebrities go hand-in-hand. So for McClain and other locals of the California city, running into Brad Pitt at a restaurant or Jennifer Garner at the grocery store is just a part of life. In fact, McClain is so accustomed to recognizing famous faces, she once mistook someone she knew in person for a celebrity. While standing in line at her favorite bagel place, she saw someone who looked familiar but -- assuming she was a celebrity -- thought nothing of it. The “celebrity” approached her and turned out not to be a celebrity at all, but a former co-worker from Salt Lake City.
Protective of privacy. While McClain says star sightings elicit no reaction from her, Jennifer Schwartzenberg, a born-and-raised New Yorker who moved to country music capital Nashville, Tenn. three years ago, admits she gets excited when she sees the singers and songwriters behind her favorite songs. But that doesn’t mean she’ll approach them for an autograph or a picture. (“Maybe Jimmy Buffet,” she says.) While seeing stars like Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney and Nicole Kidman is not an uncommon occurrence in the Southern city, Schwartzenberg says Nashville locals are protective and respectful of celebrities’ privacy.
“They’re just living their lives here,” Schwartzenberg says. “Yes, it’s cool and exciting, but at the end of the day they’re just regular people who happen to make a living doing something that gives them notoriety and publicity.”
Delays unlikely. Luckily, this low-key outlook means living in a celebrity hot spot doesn’t cause many hold-ups for Schwartzenberg -- even if she does end up in line behind Keith Urban at Starbucks. While living in downtown Nashville, she also saw road closures for the filming of Hannah Montana: The Movie, but even this wasn’t a major inconvenience.
“I’m so used to New York traffic that when people complain about traffic down here I’m like, 'Really? You should go sit on the Long Island Expressway for two hours,'” Schwartzenberg says.
No pictures, please. Paparazzi are generally nowhere to be found in Nashville, but McClain has seen her fair share of them in Los Angeles. It’s a funny experience, she says, to leave a restaurant where paparazzi are waiting outside for a celebrity, and to see their disappointment when they realize she’s not the one they’re waiting for.
“It’s kind of a fun observation,” she says. “It’s never impacted me in a negative way, but having observed it, there’s absolutely no desire on my part to be famous.”
OWNING A HOME
Famous neighbors. “Celebrity” is a new concept, East Hampton resident Palmer says. Jackson Pollock, one of the most famous American painters of the 20th century and a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement, lived in the East Hampton hamlet of Springs from 1945 until his death in 1956. Pollock, along with the many other artists and writers who called the Hamptons home, were never considered “celebrities,” she says -- they were just normal people who you might see at the local coffee shop. Palmer even lived next door to Willem de Kooning, another famous abstract expressionist painter who lived in East Hampton from 1963 to 1997.
Now, with tabloids and television shows devoted to following the lives of the famous, celebrities can’t pull off anonymity as easily, making it less likely for locals of these cities to have well-known neighbors. In Aspen, Johnson says celebrities typically flock to the city’s luxurious Red Mountain, West End and Starwood neighborhoods, while Aspen locals usually opt for condos downtown.
Endless options. In Los Angeles, McClain says celebrities generally live in the "West side," home to several major movie studios and A-list communities like Brentwood, Bel Air and Beverly Hills, among others. But since the City of Los Angeles spans nearly 500 square miles, locals have many options when deciding where to live.
Similarly, Schwartzenberg says up-and-coming musicians might live in downtown Nashville near Music Row, while some celebrities might opt for space and privacy in Franklin or Hendersonville, both located about 20 miles outside of downtown. But throughout the city, there’s so much variety offered in housing and neighborhoods, anyone can find a fit for their budget. Schwartzenberg and her husband lived in a condo in downtown Nashville for two years, but recently bought a larger home with an in-ground swimming pool in the backyard.
“In New York or Los Angeles, this house would be over $1 million, and that’s certainly not what we paid for it here,” she says. “We laugh about it all the time because we’re both born-and-raised New Yorkers; we can’t believe we live in this beautiful house, because we wouldn’t be living in this house if it were somewhere else.”
No matter who you are, these cities are appealing for a reason, whether it’s beautiful beaches, rich cultural activities or world-class skiing. In Aspen, locals and celebrities alike share a mutual love of the mountains and the winter lifestyle, so a typical day for either looks about the same: a long, luxurious lunch at Ajax Tavern or Il Mulino -- two popular base-of-the-mountain restaurants -- a day of skiing and a delicious dinner at the Caribou Club or one of Aspen’s other top-notch restaurants.
“Celebrities are sort of in the mix -- in the restaurants, going to the bars, on the gondola and doing the same things that we do,” Johnson says.
Aspen Fashion Week is also an attraction for both celebrities and non-celebrities. While other fashion weeks are more industry- and trade-oriented, Aspen Fashion Week is more like a festival, with musical performances, in-store events, and of course, runway shows.
“We wanted it to be more friendly for second homeowners and residents to attend events as well as visitors planning their trips around attending,” she says.
Culture everywhere. Schwartzenberg says she was drawn to Nashville because of its manageability and wide offering of arts and cultural activities, and she thinks celebrities see the same appeal. It’s a place where they can maintain a level of normalcy when they’re not on tour or on location, yet they can still find plenty of opportunities for fun. Schwartzenberg runs NowPlayingNashville.com, an arts and entertainment guide for Middle Tennessee, so she attends many events throughout the area. From art shows to hockey games, she’s spotted celebrities everywhere.
“Vince Gill will play the Grand Ole Opry a couple of times a year at least, and you’ll see him at the Country Music Hall of Fame for things,” she says. “But then, he’s a season ticket holder for the Nashville Predators, so you’ll see him there in his jersey cheering on the team. So it’s kind of cool to see what their interests are.”
Perks for locals. These cities may offer a low-key lifestyle for celebrities, but for locals, they bring exciting opportunities. A concert scene for Country Strong, a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a struggling country singer and Tim McGraw as her husband and manager, was filmed at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium. The producers needed extras to serve as the audience of the concert, so they opened the doors to the first 2,500 Nashvillians to arrive. The extras were able to enjoy a free concert featuring Paltrow, Gossip Girl’s Leighton Meester, Friday Night Lights,’ Garrett Hedlund and McGraw’s tour openers, The Lost Trailers. (McGraw did not perform, but he did welcome the crowd.)
“It’s kind of cool that they thought, 'Let’s incorporate Nashville, and the people who live here and our fans,'” Schwartzenberg says. “There are a lot of really cool opportunities like that.”
Conducive to creativity. Schwartzenberg says one of her favorite things about living in Nashville is the proximity to the amazing local songwriting community.
“I go to the Bluebird Cafe a lot, where it’s just these songwriters -- the people behind these hit songs,” she says. “Those are the people that I get excited about. I love that they all live here, work here, collaborate here, and their creative juices are flowing here in Nashville. That’s exciting.”
TALLYING THE COST OF LIVING
One downside of living in a place frequented by celebrities: The high demand for these areas can make them quite pricey. According to a 2006 study based on data collected by the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association and the city of Aspen, the cost of living in Aspen is more than 300 percent higher than the national average. But Aspen is not a place you end up by accident, Johnson says, and the people who want to live there are willing to make concessions to do so. She says it’s not uncommon for well-educated, accomplished people to make extra money by bartending or waiting tables on the side.
“It’s one of the things that make Aspen so special: If you want to be here, you make the sacrifices in order to be here,” Johnson says.
Money-saving secrets. Thrifty local tricks also make living in Aspen more affordable. Take, for instance, dining out. The cost of eating at Aspen’s world-class restaurants can add up quickly, but there’s an economical solution: the bar menu. Aspen locals know that ordering off the bar menu is a great way to have a five-star meal at a reasonable price. The only drawback is you don’t get to eat in the dining room, but Johnson says she and her friends are more than willing to eat at the bar to get great food for less.
McClain says one of the biggest perks of living in Los Angeles is that many of the city’s best activities are very affordable.
“I love walking at the beach, and that’s free,” she says. “And I love going to new breakfast places on the weekends, and that tends to be very reasonably priced. Eggs and coffee can only cost so much.”
Soaring costs. In other places frequented by high-profile people, the cost of living can be a major pain for long-time residents. In the '60s and '70s, Palmer says the Hamptons were a relatively affordable place for young people just out of school looking for a beach lifestyle. With plenty of pools to service, houses to clean and gardens to maintain, many of these newcomers were able to make a comfortable living in the service industry. But since housing prices have exploded in the area, many long-time residents are selling their homes and moving to more affordable areas.
“Services have become expensive because we have to import a grass cutter from 40 miles away,” she says. “The local kid who used to do it is gone -- he couldn't afford to live here.”
However, not all celebrity hot spots come with huge price tags. Schwartzenberg says Nashville has a lot to offer for a very moderate cost of living.
“You can have a beautiful home and the taxes aren’t that much, there’s a lot of space that you can’t necessarily get in other cities,” she says.