In Hollywood, you are only as big as the house you own. Andrew Gumbel meets the estate agents making as much money as the stars. Photographs by Robert Gallagher
Elaine Young could be the epitome of that sad specimen, the faded Hollywood film star. Her slender face ravaged less by age than by the twin onslaughts of too much make-up and too much cosmetic surgery, she holds court in the modish cafes and lunchrooms of Beverly Hills reminiscing about the old days when she was chased around a room by a youthful Warren Beatty and attended extravagant parties thrown by long-forgotten Hollywood actors and entertainers.

She has been married almost as often as Elizabeth Taylor, and clings fondly to the name of the most celebrated of her otherwise unremarkable six husbands, the B-list actor Gig Young, with whom she had a daughter during a three-year union in the 1960s. Now, at 62, she flirts outrageously with men half her age, bemoans the lack of a boyfriend in her life and wonders if she shouldn't drive around in an open-top Rolls- Royce convertible again like she did in the good old days.

Celebrity has certainly been Elaine Young's stock-in-trade for the last 40 years, but for all her posturing she has basked rather more in its reflection than enjoyed its benefits herself. For Young has never appeared in a movie or been a star herself; her claim to fame, if that is the right word for it, is to be the best-known estate agent in the movie business.

By her own somewhat melodramatic account, she made her first sale to Tuesday Weld in 1957, on a house costing $20,000 at the time. Since then, her clients have included Elvis Presley, Raquel Welch, Harold Robbins, Elliott Gould, Sylvester Stallone, Elton John and Michael Douglas. Her fortunes have dipped in recent years, but still she has an unerring talent for plugging into the latest news of who is buying or selling and for keeping tabs on where a whole roster of celebrities eat, sleep, live and party. "I'm a matchmaker. I match people up with houses," she likes to say. "The odds are better. In my experience people and houses are the most durable love affairs in town."

Only in Los Angeles could a real-estate broker (as they are known in the US) lay claim to being a celebrity in her own right. Then again, only in Los Angeles can you open the property section of the local paper and find pages of entries like this one: "Fabulous estate, very private. Eight bedrooms, 12 baths, maid's quarters, guesthouses, two swimming pools, two tennis courts. $8.7m. By appointment."

In any other town, you'd have to ask yourself who could possibly want to buy something like that. In Tinseltown, the answer is obvious: a constant stream of actors, directors, producers, studio moguls, top-flight lawyers, singers, dancers, record company executives, comics and TV personalities. Even if their personal tastes don't extend to the garish attractions of LA's Golden Triangle - the secluded worlds of Beverly Hills, Bel Air and Brentwood - their lifestyles inevitably push them there anyway. Take into account the need for protection from bands of marauding fans, a sizeable domestic staff to take care of the daily chores that celebrity renders near-impossible to carry out alone, plus such amenities as a private editing suite or screening room, and there really is nowhere else for a self-respecting personality to live.

Naturally, real-estate agents fall over themselves to grab a piece of the business that celebrities generate. Glamour and prestige are only part of the motivation - although plenty of them describe themselves in their brochures as "realtors to the stars". Chiefly, it is the money that drives them. Think of a 6 per cent commission on a $10m home, and you're looking at the sort of figure that could encourage a broker to take the rest of the year off - or would, anyway, if most people in the business weren't so dogged about keeping in the game in search of more gold.

In a profound sense, real estate is a key part of the Hollywood mystique. In a city founded on dreams and illusions, it is perhaps no accident that the single largest industry is property. Not the entertainment business, nor even that other staple of the southern California economy, defence contracting, but property. In other words, house prices do not reflect local economic conditions, they far exceed them. Los Angeles is by definition a city of inflated expectations, and real-estate agents are in a prime position to make a killing.

"Anything up to five or six million dollars, you have to jump on or else it goes. It's only above that level that prices can be said to be in the exclusive category," says Richard Stearns, who buys and sells for the real-estate agent Fred Sands.

In such a speculative environment, property is inextricably bound up with status. Not only do people define themselves by where they live, they are forever moving up and down the property scale in accordance with their financial fortunes. A new movie star might splash out for a $3m home, say. But by the time he or she is earning three times that much for appearing in a single picture, the chances are that housing ambitions will have moved up in sync with the increased pay cheques. After all, a movie star has to do something with all that money, and in Los Angeles, property is always the investment of first resort.

The skewed economy explains the popularity of a place like Malibu, the upscale beach resort forever under threat from landslides, brush fires and monster floods. With land prices absurdly high, it does not ultimately matter if a lavish mansion succumbs to the elements. All the owner has to do is rebuild the house, and chances are it will still sell at a profit. Just about every Hollywood A-list actor or director has a house in Malibu, even though itis too far out of town to be practical. Steven Spielberg, for example, spent less than a week at his pad on Broadbeach Road last year.

Excess inevitably becomes the name of the game, and the price-tag is only the start. Elvis Presley famously demanded a bed large enough to sleep eight, and set aside a luxury suite for his pet chimpanzee when he rented a house in Bel Air in the early 1960s. Celebrities are capable of spending millions gutting and redoing a place, only to grow bored with it in a few years and sell up. Historic residences are no exception: Jimmy Stewart's old house in Beverly Hills is virtually unrecognisable after its makeover by the current occupant, Pia Zadora.

The market has changed considerably over the decades, as Elaine Young can explain in her inimitable style. When she was young, she says, real- estate broking was all about meeting the right people at parties, flashing a bare leg at susceptible middle-aged male stars, and gathering intelligence from indiscreet or disgruntled housemaids. "I would get up at five and drive around looking for uncut lawns, which was always a sign that the owner had died," she recounts. "Maids would tell me if a divorce was in the offing. Sometimes I would know a husband was filing for divorce before the wife did."

These days, Hollywood has become prey to corporate interests and corporate habits, and personal contact is no longer as important as the ability to negotiate savvily with business managers, agents, accountants and lawyers. "I'm closing a deal that I've been working on for 18 months," Richard Stearns said. "I've had agents, brokers, surveyors, lake designers, architects, decorators - everyone you can imagine - all demanding their piece of the action before we can close."

These days, brokers are tight-lipped with their gossipy tales for fear of breaching confidentiality agreements and rafts of other legal documents. Often it won't be the star's name that appears on the contract at all, but the business manager's; a question not only of privacy but also a reflection of the complicated legal transactions.

The sensitivities sometimes lead to absurd misunderstandings. A broker showing a house belonging to the Latin American singer Ruben Blades found himself on the receiving end of several angry phone calls after he made a lyrical speech to prospective buyers about the place's musical soul. Apparently, his remark that the walls were "full of salsa" was imagined by some parties as a ghastly reference to plasterwork mixed up with spicy south-of-the-border relish.

Along with the corporate climate has come a vogue for newspaper reporting on real estate, much like the market dispatches one might read in the financial press. Ruth Ryon's twice-weekly "Hot Property" column in the Los Angeles Times has become required reading for an industry as narcissistically fascinated by itself as it is hungry for all the promotion it can get.

The column reports only on done deals, never prints exact addresses and generally gives more information on the agency handling the property in question than it does on the star. You can learn that Kenneth Branagh has rented an apartment for the next six months, or that the television comic Jerry Seinfeld has sold up and moved back to New York now that his long-running show has ended. For gossip, you still have to turn to the entertainment pages.

The biggest talking point these days is the persistent rumour that Bill Clinton will move to Hollywood once his presidential term is up. Two years ago, a prime property on Amalfi Drive in Pacific Palisades was bought up by a consortium of prominent Hollywood figures led by Tom Hanks, fuelling speculation that Clinton had been offered a job with DreamWorks, the new studio headed by Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Recently a new rumour has sprung up - that Geffen is building Clinton a house on a vacant lot across the street from his own house on Angelo Drive in Beverly Hills. With impeachment growing less likely by the day, we will probably have to wait until January 2001 to find out if the rumours have any substance. And it will probably appear first in Ruth Ryon's column.