The face. The hair. The voice. Why does that real estate agent seem so familiar?
Because, in that only-in-L.A. kind of way, there’s a good chance the agent is also an actor, reality show personality or has had some other brush with fame.
The last decade’s real estate bubble and bust spawned more than 20 reality cable television shows devoted to home buying, selling and flipping, so the odds are that some of those agents will end up at an open house near you. Broaden the spotlight to music and acting, and the recognition factor climbs even higher.
“There’s been an explosion of celebrities,” said Stuart Fischoff, a professor emeritus of media psychology at Cal State Los Angeles. “There are so many different venues for people to become celebrities.”
At age 17, Sharona Alperin was the inspiration for the song “My Sharona,” a No. 1 hit by Los Angeles band the Knack. Today, Alperin sells high-end real estate in West Los Angeles working for Sotheby’s International Realty, Sunset Boulevard. Although she had been selling real estate for more than 20 years, Alperin’s website doesn’t shy away from her connection with the energetic rock anthem, blasting it on the home page.
A recent addition to the ranks of real estate licensees is Stuart Damon, who played Dr. Alan Quartermaine on “General Hospital.” Stuart Damon, who ended his role of 31 years on the soap opera in 2008, teamed up with his son Christopher Damon six months ago to establish Damon Group within Joyce Rey’s Coldwell Banker office in Beverly Hills.
An actor for five decades, he keeps a foot in both worlds having made several appearances on “Days of Our Lives” this year while laying the groundwork for his real estate business. If strangers give him a puzzled glance, he just volunteers who he is. It’s an ice-breaker.
“Even when I’m at Coldwell Banker, sitting at the office meetings, I’ll be getting these strange looks: ‘Who are you? Do I know you? Haven’t I seen you before?’ And we’ll strike up a conversation,” Damon said. “There’s just a general feeling of friendship and a kind of closeness because they know who I am, even though I was playing a character.”
This feeling of a personal intimacy where none exists is called a parasocial relationship, according to Fischoff, who has studied the celebrity phenomenon. “You feel you know them but all you know is the persona. It’s illusory.”
But that desire to chat with Dr. Quartermaine, rather than Stuart Damon, doesn’t sell houses. Damon’s standard operating procedure for sorting out the fan phone calls from serious inquiries: “I will ask them what price range they are looking in and what area. Just ask those two questions and you’ll know whether the person is for real.”
Damon, 73, is realistic about the limits of celebrity to move real estate. “People are very smart. It may be an opening of a door, but they are interested in selling the house or buying the property. It’s who is going to do the best job.”
So the agent team, which is focusing on the luxury market in Beverly Hills and Bel-Air, attached themselves to veteran agent Rey. Perhaps it sounds a bit strange coming from a Daytime Emmy winner, but “carrying her name” has cachet, Damon said.
His son Christopher, 34, who also comes from the entertainment industry, rode the rise in reality television to success working behind the scenes on such series as “Survivor,” “The Real World” and “Big Brother.”
“Reality TV incentivizes real estate people to get a night gig as a celeb,” said Fischoff, senior editor for the Journal of Media Psychology. “They think, ‘Then my day job will just blossom.’ ”
In the case of Hilton & Hyland agent Chad Rogers, that’s not far from what happened. He was approached by a production company to audition for the docudrama “Million Dollar Listing.”
“And I got the role of Chad Rogers. So it’s a good thing I knew how to play that character,” he said. “I’m exactly who I am. It’s like an advertisement for my business as opposed to when you are a celebrity playing a role.”
The “Million Dollar Listing” gig has resulted in clients. When Texan Michael Jen came to town looking for a house, he contacted Rogers’ office. Jen’s wife had watched the show.
Another time, Rogers and a client were standing in front of a $7-million house in the Trousdale Estates area of Beverly Hills, discussing the property. A Starline Tours bus drove by, stopped and then backed up.
“We look at each other like ‘What’s going on?’” Rogers said. “Then the driver picks up his microphone. ‘We have a celebrity agent doing what he does best: selling houses. Take your pictures now.’”
Being on television also has helped Rogers, 33, attract show business clients. He has worked with Kristin Cavallari of “The Hills,” actress Paris Hilton and radio personality Jonathon Brandmeier, among others.
A desire for stardom by association leads some people to seek out celebrity agents, Fischoff said. “They want to buy into the celebrity class. It has a bragging rights connection.”
But sellers shouldn’t let being star-struck keep them from negotiating an agent’s fee down or asking for other reductions or concessions. Nor should they be too trustworthy without a basis for it, Fischoff added. “There’s a halo-effect” to celebrity that may cloud judgment, he explained.
“Especially in L.A. — where the figures are so high — the mundane reality of actually buying a house becomes a little bit more surreal,” Fischoff said. “Add to that the celebrity factor and you’ve moved into a ‘Twilight Zone’ type of situation.”
Actress Cindy Ambuehl, who dabbled in real estate for 20 years while working on TV but has been selling houses full time for the last three years, has found herself in that zone more than once.
Other agents and clients often recognize her from parts she played on sitcoms including “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” as well as her three-year stint on “JAG.” It was her memorable “Seinfeld” role as Jerry’s girlfriend Sophie, who thought she had contracted a social disease from a tractor, that caused a stir at a house tour she held for 75.
“I was pouring wine and a buyer came in and just kept staring at me,” Ambuehl said. “Finally she said: ‘I’m so sorry. Are you the gonorrhea girl?’”
Ambuehl found herself backpedaling to explain the situation to the brokers in attendance. “No, no. I don’t have gonorrhea. The character I played did.”
The Pacific Palisades-based agent recently sold two houses, has two listings and is working with 12 buyers.
“Acting prepared me for this,” said Ambuehl, 45. “In acting you never know where the next job is. You can’t freak out if you’re between acting jobs or in a slow spot in real estate.”
And she particularly credits her love of comedy. “Thank God I have a great sense of humor, with this real estate market.”