Times Staff Writer

HIGH in the Hollywood Hills in an airy glass-walled home with spectacular views, the feeding frenzy known as the Emmy swag suite was in full swing. A fleet of black Audis whisked gift seekers up a steep hill on Blue Jay Way, delivering them to the private residence, which had been commandeered by a publicity and "celebrity outreach" firm for two days.

Vendors -- some of whom admitted paying $10,000 to give away their goods and services -- were spread out over three floors, foisting everything they possibly could on TV stars such as Adrian Grenier, the actor who plays an actor who lives in the Hollywood Hills (even better looking in person), and Fran Drescher, ageless and elegantly attired in a T-shirt that said, "I caught you looking at my ta-tas."

The hills, and the flats, for that matter, were alive this week with the sound of synergy: free stuff to people who already have more than enough just because their very possession of an item gives its makers cred. (So much cheaper than advertising too.) It's so American, this habit of thrusting expensive merchandise into the hands of people who can easily buy it. But this year it comes with a catch, courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.

Now that the IRS has decided that swag is income, vendors who threw expensive goodies at stars this week were also giving out tax forms. But that potential buzz kill put nary a dent in the enthusiasm that was palpable at the dozen or so swag suites all over town this week.

"I am feeling guiltily gluttonous," said "The O.C.'s" new dean of discipline, Tia Carrere, at the John Frieda swag suite in the penthouse of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, eyeing racks of clothes from Searle, a New York specialty store. "The big question on everybody's mind is, are we going to pay taxes? I probably shouldn't say this, it sounds whiny, but we pay so much already, why should we pay more?"

On the other hand, why not pay more? said Pauli Orchon, who was putting the finishing touches on Showtime's swag event, which she'd organized in an elegant brick home in Hancock Park owned by nightclub impresario David Cooley (and once owned by Vivian Vance of "I Love Lucy" fame). "I'm passing out IRS forms and a whole packet. Nobody is going to bitch about paying a little tax on a $15,000 trip to Cabo. If they do, there's something screwy."

No one was talking about taxes at the Sofitel Hotel, where the entire 10th floor had been transformed into a series of intimate spaces by Gavin Keilly of GBK Productions. Kathy Griffin, Jeri Ryan, Zorianna Kit, Alexis Cruz and Allison Janney had already picked up $2,400 24-karat gold-plated Buzzirk mobile phones. Paula Abdul was singing the praises of her friend, the hair products guru Philip Berkowitz, in whose kitchen she sat 12 years ago helping him fill shampoo bottles for his very expensive Philip B line ($50 white truffle shampoo, anyone?).

At the John Frieda suite, as a fleet of high-end hairstylists, colorists and makeup artists were primping assorted guests, Sally Hershberger -- the pixie-ish celebrity hairstylist who charges her old customers $600 a cut, and her new customers $800 -- was sitting cross-legged on a couch in baggy jeans, reflecting on the emptiness of the era's celebrity obsession.

"It's the demise of our culture," she said. "No one is original anymore. When I was young, during the punk era and disco ... you had to be interesting to be famous. Now the bigger idiot you are, the more famous you get. It's sad."

A few miles away, at Le Meridien Hotel, where the young publicist Melanie Segal had organized a swag fest -- she called it a "Platinum Luxury Suite" -- her invitees, in color-coded wristbands, were choosing expensive Chip and Pepper jeans ("the same jeans that caused Naomi Campbell to allegedly throw her BlackBerry at her housekeeper," according to Segal -- talk about cachet!), MP3 players, Paris Hilton fragrances and spa treatments that included a rest in a casket-shaped hyperbaric oxygen chamber.

The hot-ticket item was, surprisingly, a $50 Dirt Devil Kone, a sleek little cordless vacuum created by the industrial designer Karim Rashid.

"I got the Dirt Devil because she'll use it to clean her room," said Ellie Litwack, a poet who was chaperoning her 20-year-old daughter, Kat Dennings, who played Catherine Keener's daughter in "The 40 Year-Old Virgin."

"These things are kind of exhausting," said Dennings, as she vamped for photographers. "But I love getting free stuff."

Former United Talent Agency agent David Weintraub, 27, did not seem interested in all the freebies.

What he did want to talk about was the new reality project for A&E;, "Sons of Hollywood," that he has just completed with his pals Randy Spelling, son of Aaron, and Sean Stewart, son of Rod. "Everyone is calling it 'reality "Entourage," ' " said Weintraub, who has known Spelling since their days at Montclair Prep in Van Nuys.

"Because of my last name there are so many misconceptions about me," explained Spelling. "People think I'm a spoiled brat, and I wanted to give people insight into my life, so they can see what I'm really like."

At that moment, Jason Davis, grandson of oil mogul Marvin Davis, brother of Brandon, walked by grinning. "I wouldn't be caught dead in their show," said Davis. Not to worry, explained Weintraub. He's not in it.

David Canter of Hollywood International Placements Inc., a movie and TV product placement firm, also works with companies who want their products in award show gift baskets and swag suites.

Not all of his clients have a great experience with the Hollywood freebie festival. Everyone wants their products in the hands of celebrities, he said, but sometimes the suite organizers promise more than they can deliver -- in terms of names and media coverage. And the costs can be considerable. Besides handing out expensive merchandise like it's penny candy, they also pay hefty sums to be included in the first place. Levels of sponsorship, he said, can range from $20,000 to $50,000.

The best-case scenario for his clients, he said, is to be included in the gift baskets that are sent directly to the homes of A-listers from official entities such as the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and nonofficial players such as Entertainment Weekly, which sends outrageously expensive baskets to the homes of about 40 top names.

For the actors and others who aren't considered A-list, the opportunity to suite hop -- from private homes to penthouses all over town -- is slightly strange, but after a moment, pretty cool.

Randy Wayne, a 25-year-old actor who moved to California from Oklahoma a few years ago, reflected on the strangeness of it all, even as he was being offered his pick of Coby electronic toys at Melanie Segal's suite. "I feel awkward taking things -- like, my God, I can have a gift?" said Wayne, who will play a young Luke Duke in "Dukes of Hazzard 2." But they want you to have it and they want you to talk about it. It's funny, because when you can finally afford it, it's free."

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