You could smell the onions from the driveway. Audrey Bernstein, standing in the kitchen of her cozy 1920s house in Silver Lake, was preparing for a French-themed soiree, and the menu included onion tarts, French onion soup and brioche pockets stuffed with asparagus, goat cheese and more onions. There was a lot of chopping to be done, and no time to cry. Unlike Martha Stewart, who surely could offer some obscure tip to turn onions tear-free, Audrey, dressed in a white apron, embroidered peasant top and red chef's clogs, took the practical route: She put on ski goggles.
Chic with a kooky streak that has shades of both Barbra Streisand and Lucille Ball, Audrey has been a star on L.A.'s social scene since she moved here in 2000 and hosted the exclusive Cachet parties at Les Deux in Hollywood, then founded the Bluebird Bakery in Culver City, catering to fashion as well as film studio crowds and anticipating the L.A. cupcake craze by at least a year.
Now she has launched the lifestyle website www.oh-audrey.com. As when she took on her first wedding cake commission without knowing how long to bake a 14-inch cake, this venture into the world of online media has been a similar leap of faith.
Although she may not know her Java script from her cafe au lait, Audrey has identified a need that isn't being filled by the "flat, staged" cooking shows churned out on cable TV, which she compares to Cosmo or People magazines. In this era of YouTube and MySpace, she also knew she didn't have to wait for a TV deal. With a reputation and a Rolodex that precede her, the 41-year-old's announcement that she was extending her flair for entertaining to a website with a weekly cooking, crafts and lifestyle show and daily advice from experts such as party planner Bryan Rabin and life coach T.C. Conroy was met with offers of help. Without any backing she was able to assemble a team that believed enough in her vision to work for free until sponsors and advertisers start coming onboard.
More Dwell than Swell (the retro-kitsch line of books and housewares once sold at Target), www.oh-audrey.com's boho-glam aesthetic reflects its namesake's lifestyle: a little bit Old Hollywood exotic, a little bit Rose Bowl flea market, a splash of the art world and a dash of modern design--although she jokes, in a haughty "Ab Fab" accent, that "clean lines make me very nervous." Audrey's logo, designed by her graphic designer boyfriend Andrew Neuhues, is a leafy white tree against a burnt-orange background, taken from a painting that hangs in his house. "I wanted a tree to represent life," she explained, "and this just seemed earthy, timeless and charming." Plus, she noted, it would make a great T-shirt.
In Audrey's world, "charming" is a much greater compliment than "cool." Charming applies equally to a handwritten thank-you note; a Christian Louboutin patent leather pump with a button closure; the singer Blossom Dearie; and the way Julia Child would flip her omelet in a pan and then say "whoops!" when it didn't quite land properly.
Audrey puts it a little differently. "I screwed up!" the hostess admitted to the camera in episode two, when she realized that her peanut-butter balls had twice as much peanut butter as the recipe called for. "But that's OK," she shrugged. "We can fix it. Things aren't perfect, and that's what 'Oh Audrey' is all about."
Shot at a Hollywood Hills home on loan from her friend Suzanne Costas, the founder of Earl jeans, the five-minute show's raw ingredients are all there: elegant surroundings "Audrey-fied" with vintage tea tins and botanical prints; a stylish designer wardrobe; and cute, simple ideas such as cooking a pizza or sewing a lavender pillow or making an organic toy for your dog. What "Oh Audrey" hasn't quite figured out is whether it wants to be a webcast or a television show when it grows up.
Clearly, someone like producer Taylor Lawrence, who directed the first three episodes, isn't comping his services for web page hits. He sees in Audrey a woman who makes things happen. "In three weeks [the show] went from being a silly idea to something that was gonna be broadcast on the Internet," he said.
After a literary agent at ICM in New York approached her, Audrey also began developing a book idea about dinner parties (the first of many books, she hopes) that will involve glamorous friends such as Liz Goldwyn, but she says she prefers to let things unfold organically. "When I push too hard, which is at least half the time, it doesn't work out as well as when I let it happen." But make no mistake: "I work my ass off. It's not just, oh, I'm waiting for the organic pasture to roll in. . . . I can't try to force step 20 before I've taken step two."
Audrey often refers to her "path." "Have you ever read 'The Alchemist'?" she asked, speaking of Paulo Coelho's book about following your dreams. "I give it to all my friends for their birthday. I try to remember it and believe in it and know that if you stay true to your goals, even when something's really bad it's not bad. It's just your path."
Growing up in Frederick, Md., where the popular girls were cheerleaders with feathered hair, to be Jewish and curly-haired was to be a "freak," so Audrey became the funny girl, trying to make her father laugh and dreaming of being an actress and a singer. "But," she said, "I didn't have the guts." At 19 she moved to New York and connected with downtown rock luminaries such as Lydia Lunch and photographer Richard Kern. "It was the first time people told me I was pretty," she remembered. Sonic Youth put her on the cover of its 1987 album "Sister." It all sounds very glamorous until you learn that Audrey became a heroin addict. "I have been lower than low," she said over dinner at Blair's in Silver Lake. "Not the lowest, but near the lowest."
Snowboarding, she said, saved her. Audrey went to Vermont to get clean with a friend, and discovered quite by chance that she could carve circles around other snowboarders. Encouraged by her lift-operator buddies, she kept entering--and winning--competitions, training in Europe and ultimately being ranked seventh in the world.
She returned to New York in the mid-'90s with the title "ex-pro snowboarder." She found a job with a caterer, Susan Simon, now a cookbook author whom she still calls with questions. One Monday night Audrey held a birthday bash at a downtown Manhattan club called E&O;, and the owners asked her to do it again. "They said, we've never had such a diverse crowd in here; can you do this every week?" The rock 'n' roll dance party, called Mothra, was credited by Paper magazine as the first to feature guest celebrity DJs (Elliott Smith, Cibo Matto, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), now a nightclub staple.
A weekly karaoke party followed at the Elbow Room, where Michael Stipe could often be found belting out "Rhinestone Cowboy," and Moby couldn't seem to keep his clothes on. David Lee Roth came once and sang his own song, "Just a Gigolo." Russell Steinberg was her emcee, and through him Audrey met Tatiana von Furstenberg; she calls the couple and their daughter her L.A. "family," and lives in Tatiana's old house.
Cachet, which brought the Monday night tradition to L.A., had a legendary three-year run--Mick Jagger himself attended the one-year anniversary party--until Les Deux suddenly closed its doors. This time Audrey turned to "The Artist's Way," Julia Cameron's popular creativity enhancement program, summoning the courage to form a jazz band with Eric Eisner and ultimately coming up with the idea for the Bluebird Bakery.
That summer in 2004, when she started the bakery out of her home, stands as the best summer of her life. "And I was in the best shape of my life," she grinned, "because all I ate was cupcakes and salad."
With two partners she opened the Bluebird Bakery, scouring flea markets for tchotchkes and perfecting her frosting flowers in the back. She received a slew of press and hosted a high-profile editor's supper during Fashion Week, envisioning an "Alice Waters-type" children's garden and baked goods made with only the finest ingredients. Her partners, though, had other ideas; the three had a falling out, and in 2005 Audrey lost the business that she had built.
The experience, she said, was "absolutely devastating, but also a relief. The last couple of months I was literally on my kitchen floor, crying." Thanks to her solid network of friends, Audrey connected with Spider club owner Steve Adelman, who hired her as the creative director of his new nightclub and restaurant in the historic Hillview apartments, scheduled to open this year. The British pharmacy chain Boots asked her to be their West Coast face, and threw her a birthday fete last year at the Chateau Marmont. Not bad for a day's work.
"My mom calls me the phoenix, because I always rise out of the ashes," Audrey said. Then, in a vampy drawl, she added, "I hope I never have to do that again."
There's no reason things shouldn't go her way, but this online venture does present a few obstacles. Audrey has a bit of camera-shyness, and she is so uncomfortable negotiating business deals that she uses a psychological trick, pretending she's not the nervous Audrey Bernstein but the suave and sophisticated hotelier Andre Balazs. Before meetings, her associate director and producer Alia Raza repeats the mantra, "You're Andre Balazs, you're Andre Balazs, you're Andre Balazs."
"And then I say," Audrey continued, "And you're Uma!" She burst into a fit of giggles.
With every last brioche and tart pulled from the oven, Audrey perched on a blanket on her lawn, her black vintage minidress set off by tomato-red tights, crystal cocktail rings on almost every finger. She surveyed the turned-out party-goers who laughed, drank wine and devoured her onion-y delicacies.
"My favorite thing is to look around and see--I call it a sparkly time. People are talking and candles are flickering. I'm addicted to this sparkly feeling!"
Among the crowd were fashion designers, artists, writers, musicians and her closest friends, such as David Erikson, whom she jokes is her "business and legal and wine advisor"; Amy Hall Browne, a former Vogue editor who styles her wardrobe on the show; and stylist Patrik Milani, who shares his pizza-making skills on episode one of "Oh Audrey." (Never mind that he burned a few in the practice tapings.) Velvet, Audrey's white rabbit, hopped around in the shadows.
"I have sweaters!" she announced for anyone who might be cold. "And furs!" As the umpteenth guest complimented her tights and ran their hands up her legs, she turned to me with an exaggerated wink. "I'm never taking these off!"
At the end of the evening Audrey sat by the fire in her living room sipping Lillet, the last bottle left in the fridge, ignoring her friend Magda Berliner's admonishment that the aperitif was "only for afternoon, by the pool." Jazz on the stereo, glass in hand, she did a little soft-shoe dance.
"This is the real me," she smiled. "I'm not all Andre Balazs yet."
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4 Kitchen Essentials
"JOY OF COOKING" - "You can find everything from chocolate pudding to answers to how long a rare steak should cook."
SOEHNLE DIGITAL SCALE - When she started the Bluebird Bakery, Audrey converted all her recipes into grams, which is "more accurate. "
PLUGRA - This butter ("always unsalted!") is the key ingredient in Audrey's butter cream frosting. "I buy six at a time," she says.
GRANDMA'S SILVER - Audrey uses her grandmother's Art Deco sterling. "I don't believe in saving it for three times a year. What's the point?"
For more photos of Audrey's soiree and of her previous life, go to www.latimes.com/audrey