Taped to the side of Nelson Miguel’s smartphone accessory stall at The Commons, an upscale outdoor mall in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, is a collage of celebrity snaps.
There’s a picture of Nelson with Kylie Jenner, and another with her sister, Kendall. One of Nelson with Willow Smith, and one with her brother, Jaden. There’s Nelson with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and with former Playboy model Kendra Wilkinson. And finally, there’s the money shot: Nelson with Justin Bieber.
Nelson, 32, has spent four years working as a vendor on the stall, which sits on the pavement just outside the Jenner sisters’ favourite branch of Starbucks. He says he sees celebrities doing their shopping about once a day, and is on first-name terms with at least one of the paparazzi who regularly prowl the Commons car-park in search of prey.
“There are always photographers hanging around, waiting to take pictures,” he says. “The Jenner girls come here maybe twice a week. They’re cool. Some of the store employees here call the paparazzi when they see somebody famous, because they know they’ll get money for the tip.”
Calabasas, a bland but wealthy ‘burb of about 23,000 people in the San Fernando Valley, 30 miles north-west of LA, is fast joining Beverly Hills and Malibu among the ranks of neighbourhoods whose names resonate around the world. It’s where Jessica Simpson shot her first reality show, Newlyweds. It’s where the Kardashians shoot Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s where Wilkinson shoots Kendra on Top. It is the 90210 of the reality-TV celebrity.
The town is home, too, to some more traditional stars, such as Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Will Smith and Richie Sambora, as well as several members of Michael Jackson’s family, and dozens of noted entertainment executives. The Commons is their de facto town square, catering to every celebrity need, from gourmet cupcakes to designer yoga-wear. A cosmetic dermatology practice is conveniently located just across the street, in case the locals want some last-minute laser hair-removal, or emergency botox. They can set their watches by the Commons clock tower, which is said to boast the world’s biggest Rolex timepiece.
It’s generally agreed that the paparazzi began paying attention to Calabasas in 2007, when Britney Spears broke up with her husband, Kevin Federline. Not long after that, she shaved her head at Esther’s Hair Salon in nearby Tarzana, acquired two tattoos, and attacked a photographer’s SUV with an umbrella. The tabloid throng descended on Spears and her neighbours, and have never left.
The neighbourhood gained further notoriety in late 2009, when a group of local teenagers were arrested for burgling and vandalising several celebrities’ homes. In a little under a year, they had managed to steal belongings worth more than $3m from the Hollywood Hills homes of their victims, including Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. The story of the so-called “Bling Ring” has now been made into a film, directed by Sofia Coppola and starring Emma Watson, which hit UK cinemas this weekend.
The teenagers were led by Calabasas resident Rachel Lee, who was reportedly obsessed with the celebrity lifestyle and its material accoutrements. Lee was released from prison in March, having served a year and four months for burglary. Her fellow “Bling Ring” burglar and school friend Alexis Neiers was signed up for her own reality TV show, Pretty Wild, before she was convicted for stealing from Orlando Bloom’s home. The teenagers’ crimes were fuelled and facilitated by gossip websites, which reported exactly where celebrities’ homes are – and helpfully indicated when they were likely to be at home.
Now, Calabasas is increasingly where such websites, and the paparazzi that feed them, find their subjects. Lurk among the mall’s carefully tended flowerbeds on any given day and you might run into Jenner-Kardashian patriarch Bruce Jenner picking up groceries at Ralph’s supermarket, or his step-daughter Kourtney buying nappies at Babies R Us. You could come across Stevie Wonder tucking into tagliatelle at Toscanova, or Jaden Smith scarfing spring rolls at Pick Up Stix. If you’re really lucky, you might even spot Bieber roaring into the car-park in his white Ferrari 458 Italia.
“It’s a very nice community,” Nelson says. “And the rich people who live round here don’t care that much about celebrity, they’re not interested. So the celebrities come here to feel normal.”
Unlike more recognised celebrity neighbourhoods, Calabasas is far from the tourist trail, with few, if any, of the star-spotting bus tours that proliferate around Hollywood. It may have the highest house prices in the Valley, but as local estate agent Shelly Slovin explains, “You can get a lot more bang for your buck here than in Beverly Hills or Malibu. Many people move to Calabasas because the school district, Las Virgenes, is terrific. If you have children, that’s a very big draw.”
Close to half the homes in Calabasas are in gated communities, and its famous residents typically live away from prying eyes in one of two such enclaves in the rural canyons ringed by the Santa Monica Mountains: The Oaks and Hidden Hills. The Oaks is home to Kourtney Kardashian and the Jackson children, among others. In March 2012, Bieber bought a $6.5m house in a cluster of 50 properties called The Estates at The Oaks, cosseted behind yet another set of gates, which can only be opened with a car-mounted transponder.
The rest of the Jenner-Kardashian clan lives in Hidden Hills, which lies just across the 101 freeway from Calabasas. Ozzy Osbourne recently sold his house there – to Jessica Simpson. It’s an older community than The Oaks, with large housing plots and space for horses. “It’s a rural, 1950s place,” Slovin says. “But of course now there are gigantic mansions there.”
Not all celebrities in the area have endeared themselves to the locals. In May last year, Bieber allegedly attacked a paparazzo in the Commons’ car-park after taking his then-girlfriend, Selena Gomez, to see Men in Black 3. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times suggested the teenage megastar’s antics have disrupted the mellow atmosphere of The Oaks, where he reportedly drives his notorious Ferrari at indecent speeds, races motorbikes with his friends and hosts wild parties late into the night. When another resident confronted him about his behaviour, Bieber is alleged to have spat at the man and threatened to kill him.
None of which bodes at all well for the town’s brand image. Calabasas councilwoman and former mayor Mary Sue Maurer told the Times: “The pop-culture celebrities have not helped this city’s reputation… The coverage is of young misbehaving celebrities, and it’s a culture that certainly doesn’t represent our city.”