Robin Leach's Sin City caviar dreams

Times Staff Writer

A scrum of tourists waited haplessly for a table at Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace when Robin Leach came strolling up.

He was wearing tan slacks and loafers, rumpled Tommy Bahama jacket and sunglasses, and his easy walk indicated an A table was in his immediate future. Once seated, Leach removed his sunglasses and ordered a bottle of the Nautilus Sauvignon Blanc. Several staffers came over to pay homage, like a choreographed scene out of Scorsese. The last to arrive was David Robbins, Spago's head chef. Leach apologized that he couldn't stay for a proper dinner; he was due to join friends at Bradley Ogden, a newer, and thus trendier, bistro in the casino. Robbins returned with some starters -- a salmon pizza, a porcini mushroom risotto. There would also be berries and sorbet but no check.

Two decades removed from "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous," the syndicated TV series on which he breathlessly itemized the toys of conspicuous consumption, Leach, 62, is being Robin Leach these days in Las Vegas, where it is always the go-go 1980s, and his tastes -- wine, women, food -- are a continuous, movable feast.

Since coming here in 1999 to wrangle star chefs for the newly opening Venetian Hotel, Leach has set his "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" image in motion, becoming part of the Strip celebrity circus as surely as Celine Dion (maybe more surely).

Having fallen into the kind of obscurity that involves selling your image to home shopping channels, Leach is back scaling the mountain of bigger and better things. Granted, Vegas isn't Hollywood, but it is a place where he can legitimately compete with other resident celebrities and share in the largess that comes their way. You have to have a sense of irony to mingle well here, and Leach, to be sure, has always had a canny understanding of his image. . Beneath the public Leach is another one -- rumpled, dry-witted, a self-made hustler in on the wink. Leach grew up in a London suburb, lower-middle class, the son of a vacuum cleaner sales executive. He came to New York in 1963 and sold shoes before throwing himself into a career covering the showbiz world, as a newspaperman. Then came TV and you know the rest.

Now here he is, all these years after hobnobbing with Joan Collins, trolling the Strip in a Lincoln Town Car, its ashtray well-stocked with cigars. Leach and the Strip are similarly themed: glitz-promoting and appetite-fixated, but also innately transient. Leach, by all appearances, is enjoying the good life here. He says he's still a millionaire "several times over" and owns a Moroccan-themed home in a walled-off community miles from the Strip. But it is also a life that involves many nights in which he is essentially eating great food with strangers, being "Robin Leach" one more time, in a city that doesn't want you to know the day or the hour.

Leach says he doesn't gamble; Vegas, for him, is rather a new and strangely perfect stage on which to engineer new opportunities.

"Las Vegas has gone from being a gaming city to the world's No. 1 resort city," he said. Maybe it's the British accent, but you believe him. "My business is resorts, my business is food, my business is TV. The thing that I love about Vegas is, you are within 45 minutes of Hollywood without having to deal with the 405 and state taxes and [automobile] fees."

It is no coincidence that Leach has blossomed in a city staging its own renaissance, moving away from family tourism to high-end excess. It's a guy's world of cigars and airplane-hangar-sized gentlemen's clubs and $40 steaks.

Leach works this world in various capacities, all of which tie neatly back to the image he minted on "Lifestyles."

Much of what he does involves being seen, out and about, as Robin Leach. He hosts charity auctions. He is a hotel and restaurant "consultant" (though he says "competitive reasons" preclude him from specifying which hotels employ him). He is a fledgling TV producer. He is an entertainment reporter for the local Fox TV 5, serving the greater Henderson-Las Vegas area. Where one Leach ends and another begins is hard to tell.

Thanks to a tip from his pal Gavin Maloof, whose sports-franchise-owning family also owns the trendy Palms Hotel, he was the only reporter at the hotel's pool, Skin, when Britney Spears performed an impromptu concert recently.

"He's one of these guys that came to Las Vegas and revived a career," said Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer newsletter. "Everyone equates Robin Leach with wealthy and powerful, and that's what everyone comes to Las Vegas to do, to be wealthy and powerful and get girls. I think the guy's brilliant. He's accessible, he talks to people. He pushes his brand. He's the quintessential branded human being."

Curtis and others say that Leach truly became a figure of interest here shortly after he arrived, the night he hosted a dinner at Emeril Lagasse's restaurant Delmonico, at the Venetian. That night, according to the gossip item that subsequently made the rounds, several women in Leach's party removed their tops and engaged in what the Clark County department of business licenses called "lewd conduct."

Leach, for his part, referred to the incident drolly as "a harmless, fun, whipped-cream fight that lasted less than two minutes when dessert was served."

"It brought him a form of notoriety that led to many things," Curtis said. "Robin Leach was around this town for a little while before that. But it made the papers and became a huge thing. At that point, I swear, he never looked back."

OUT AND ABOUT

We were in the Lincoln Town Car. This was after Spago and Bradley Ogden but before RumJungle, a nightclub/restaurant at Mandalay Bay, where Leach wanted to check out a party. On the way over, I asked Leach about a rumor I'd heard that among his girlfriends in Vegas is Joan Severance, the B-movie actress and Playboy model.

"It's not a rumor," Leach said, with quiet equanimity. I suddenly felt gauche for having used the word. He went on to explain that he'd known Severance more than 20 years, since she was a young model trying to make it in New York.

The party at RumJungle turned out to be something of a dud. Leach's friend David Copperfield had come and gone, between shows at the MGM Grand. The catering had no nibblers. Leach stood at the bar, drinking white wine and smoking his cigar. He was being Robin Leach, but no one was around to see it.

It is tempting to see this latest period in Leach's life as part of a familiar Vegas story: the ex-celebrity in repose (Tony Curtis, Charo), come to spend the autumn years of life and career in a place where his name still means something, where state income taxes don't exist and you can keep yourself amused, watching the hotels on the Strip trying to top each other.

What is perhaps different about Leach is that he sees Vegas not just as a "world-class" tourist mecca but as an unrealized media center, a place that can export its peculiar brand of glitz if only the right showman were to come along.

That showman, naturally, is him.

One night might find Leach treating guests to a fine dining experience at N9NE at the Palms or Postrio at the Venetian, the next night hosting a charity auction or interviewing a member of REO Speedwagon for his "Breakfast With the Stars" segments on Fox.

Even at a Vegas press event that has the air of a scene out of "Broadway Danny Rose," Leach is of a piece with everyone else who shows up: the octogenarian lounge act Sonny King; one of the Andrews Sisters; Carrot Top. All of these people were at the 50th anniversary celebration of the Stardust Hotel. Leach was there, too, in rumpled khaki jacket and an untucked shirt, interviewing the tuxedo-clad figure that was Wayne Newton.

SERIES UPDATE

"Everything is a rip-off of 'Lifestyles,' " Leach said, another night in his car. We were double-parked outside the Rio. He sounded almost forlorn.

This TV season, ABC will broadcast the special "Life of Luxury." Hosted by Leach, it is essentially an updating of "Lifestyles," featuring the interview Leach did on the British Virgin Islands with Richard Branson, the billionaire CEO of Virgin Atlantic Airways. If the special does well, more such episodes will air, the network says.

And the mascot of the rich will be back. "There's nothing wrong with being rich," said Leach. "Capitalism can do what governments can't."

For all the cartoon glitz his name evokes, there is a rough-hewn part of Leach, too; you can see in him the dogged getter of interviews and scoops who worked for the New York Daily News and People in the days before publicists ruled over access.

Leach is indeed a kind of pioneer in the now-flourishing genre of celebrity puffery, from MTV's "Cribs" to an entire cable network, E! Entertainment Television, devoted to the cheap and profitable recycling of celebrity sound bites into hours of programming.

Way back in 1980, Leach was a personality on a CNN show called "People Tonight." Leach also appeared in the pilot of "Entertainment Tonight," and says he wrote the show bible. "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" debuted in 1983. The syndicated show ran for 15 years and led to two spin-offs, "Runaway With the Rich and Famous" and "Fame, Fortune and Romance."

Now, having triangulated his celebrity on the Vegas Strip, he has plans that involve selling Vegas as an untapped resource. He shot a pilot -- with his own money, he says -- of a late-night talk show called "Penthouse Vegas," which premiered recently on the Des Moines, Iowa-based Meredith Broadcasting, which owns 11 stations in the U.S., including the Fox affiliate in Vegas.

More ambitiously, Leach wants to get backing for a TV studio, called TV City, which would be located in a casino property on the Strip. And he has an idea for a restaurant, called One, that would feature "the 52 best chefs in the world," a different one each week.

Leach knows a lot of chefs. He's known Wolfgang Puck since Puck was in the kitchen at Ma Maison. The two have remained friends and sometime business associates. Leach says he invested $100,000 in Puck's failed Westside microbrewery, Eureka. He says he also helped the Venetian get Postrio, one of four Puck restaurants on the Strip.

When the music in RumJungle grew too loud to keep talking, Leach suggested going across the way, to another Puck place, Trattoria Del Lupo.

At the bar, Leach ordered a potato pizza for two. I had three meals with Leach over two nights, and I never saw a check. Later, when I asked him about this, he said the circumstances dictate which Robin Leach is out to dinner: the one who pays or the one who doesn't because it's "a legitimate business expense." Both tip generously.

TRUFFLE AUCTION

The next night, on the way to a wine-tasting dinner, a brief, violent thunderstorm hit. The storm knocked out traffic lights and threatened to flood the streets.

In the womb of the Lincoln, Leach was oblivious. We were headed to a Marriott out in Summerlin, a burgeoning Vegas suburb. Alexander Julian, the clothing designer, was in the backseat. An old friend of Leach's, Julian was in town to attend a men's apparel convention.

The talk in the car was of truffles. To be specific: "The World's Largest Truffle." A charity auction was to be held Oct. 26 at the Venetian, with Leach once again master of ceremonies. Last year's prize fungus, a 2.2-pound white truffle, had sold for $35,000.

"Last year we did it in New York, on closed-circuit TV," he said. "I had Ivana Trump model the truffle."

The Marriott turned out to be a huge casino resort cooked up in the vein of a Mediterranean villa. The dinner was in its gourmet restaurant, Ceres. Leach knew the chef, Peter Sherlock (later, Leach said he had an idea for a TV show involving Sherlock).

The chef had prepared a four-course menu. La Crema, a vineyard on the Sonoma coast, was presenting the wine. Leach took a seat at a long banquet table full of strangers -- well-heeled locals, he figured, here to be wined and dined so that they would spread the word to others.

Tonight Leach's meal consisted of chilled "tomato water" with diver sea scallops, apple-wood-smoked quail salad ver jus, pan-seared filet mignon covered with Hudson Valley foie gras (though Leach doesn't eat red meat and asked for chicken) and a souffle for dessert.

A different La Crema wine was announced with each course. Leach made a joke about how this beat Yorkshire pudding. For everything else that he is, Leach is a wry dinner guest. As the wine was poured and the plates came and the table got progressively lubricated, Leach grew expansive.

"It is my belief that the hospitality industry is social intercourse, and it took off after the looseness of sexual intercourse," he said.

Was he saying that fine dining had become the group sex of the new millennium? Something like that, anyway. At the end of the meal, a three-liter bottle of La Crema merlot was raffled off. It went to a tan, middle-aged woman in a backless number. She circulated, pouring everyone a glass. When she got to Leach, she leaned over him, cooing with the celebrity.

"That fox," Leach murmured after she'd gone, "wants to be hunted."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday November 16, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction Head chef and Britney Spears -- In an article in Sunday Calendar on Oct. 26 about Robin Leach, head chef David Robins' last name was misspelled as Robbins. In the same article, it was incorrectly reported that Britney Spears performed at Skin at the Palms Hotel; she actually performed at the nightclub Rain in the Desert.
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