Calabasas wrestles with the Bieber effect
Tucked on the Ventura County border a good 23 miles from Hollywood and Vine, Calabasas is far beyond the reach of any celebrity tour bus and unplotted by most star maps.
The city of 23,000 is built for privacy. About 40% of the homes are hidden behind guarded gates, and the priciest homes are protected behind a second set of gates accessible only by car-mounted transponder.
Drawn by the seclusion and high-performing schools, actors, athletes and other A-listers have flocked to Calabasas and surrounding communities such as Hidden Hills over the years.
It’s a place where children may be late to soccer practice because a Kardashian sister is filming her wedding, or diverted at the grocery store by paparazzi searching for Britney Spears. Some locals still remember being delayed by the Secret Service on the way home because First Lady Michelle Obama was visiting Will Smith’s compound.
Residents and celebrities, for the most part, have coexisted in peace — that is, until Justin Bieber came to town last year.
The 19-year-old pop singer purportedly drives his white Ferrari 458 Italia at sometimes twice the posted speed limit. His loud parties wake his neighbors, and his frequent antics bring swarms of paparazzi and news helicopters to the neighborhood.
City leaders find the attention unflattering. Councilwoman Mary Sue Maurer cannot help but wince at the mere mention of Bieber’s name.
“The pop culture celebrities have not helped this city’s reputation,” Maurer said. “The coverage is of young misbehaving celebrities, and it’s a culture that certainly doesn’t represent our city.”
Bieber’s $6.5-million French-style mansion is in the Estates of the Oaks of Calabasas, the inner gated sanctum of another gated community, the Oaks of Calabasas. Residents say Bieber ignores posted speed limits, homeowners association laws, and pretty much all the rules of life in a gated community. Gardeners in the Oaks have come to know Bieber’s car as a white blur, and neighbors say he and a fraternity of twentysomething friends race motorbikes and throw raucous parties.
Bieber “drives his car like a bat out of hell. It wakes the whole neighborhood up,” said Galia Pistotnik, 47, who lives in the Oaks of Calabasas.
Most recently it was the pro football star vs. the teen idol, when former NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson confronted Bieber after the singer’s Ferrari was seen speeding on a road where Johnson’s young daughter was playing in a toy car.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is investigating another incident in which Bieber is alleged to have spit on a neighbor after a profanity-laced exchange outside their homes.
Last May, Bieber got into a tussle with a photographer at a Calabasas shopping center. Bieber’s camp has denied he has done anything wrong and says he is trying to be a good neighbor.
This is not the image Calabasas officials want to put forward.
“People come for peace, quiet and normalcy in their lives,” Mayor Fred Gaines said. “It’s out of the limelight.”
Calabasas doesn’t have Hollywood’s buzz or the opulence of Beverly Hills. Night life is practically nonexistent. Even a 9:30 p.m. dinner is a tricky proposition — few restaurants are open that late. But the small town has its fair share of amenities.
A nearby Rick Caruso-developed shopping center, the Commons at Calabasas, boasts what is supposedly the world’s largest Rolex timepiece. Old Town Calabasas has sushi, a farmers market and upscale bicycle-themed dining. Strip malls offer gourmet cupcakes, spas and luxury tanning services.
The community has surprising pockets of diversity. Nearly 20% of the residents are foreign born, with a good number from Iran. The median household income in $126,000, well above the countywide average of $56,000.
Residents count as neighbors reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian, actors Sean Astin and “The Hangover’s” Ken Jeong, several members of Michael Jackson’s family and members of Motley Crue and Def Leppard. Even more — including Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Drake — live just outside the city.
“It’s Hollywood or Beverly Hills comes to the suburbs,” said John Loesing, longtime managing editor of the Acorn Newspapers, which cover much of the western San Fernando Valley.
The city’s reputation as a star-studded enclave began to grow more than decade ago when celebrity-based reality television grew in popularity, Loesing said.
Jessica Simpson filmed “Newlyweds,” a 2002 reality show about her marriage to Nick Lachey, from a Calabasas home. The city has also been the backdrop for “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “The Biggest Loser.” The new film “Bling Ring,” about the celebrity-obsessed group of Calabasas-area teens who burglarized homes of the rich and famous, also filmed scenes in the city.
The reality-TV shoots typically took place inside homes and bothered few residents. But the increased attention on celebrities created a new nuisance — the paparazzi.
A few years ago, after Britney Spears made headlines for attacking a vehicle with an umbrella, photographers swarmed Calabasas. They quickly discovered that the best spot to snap a picture was a road off Parkway Calabasas, which also served as a pickup zone for Bay Laurel Elementary School, said Stephanie Williams, a mother of two boys.
The road was overrun by “sweaty, lurking guys with huge SUVs and giant cameras,” said Williams, who heads the school’s parent organization.
The school worked with the city to create parking restrictions. The changes kept the paparazzi away, but peace came at a price.
“Now we’ll have grandparents who try to come see the kids in a play or music show and can’t find a place to park,” Williams said.
Parking headaches aside, many residents secretly enjoy the cachet that comes with their A-list neighbors, and it can be a selling point for real estate agents trying to close deals, said Pamela Evans of nearby Dilbeck Real Estate.
“When you’re going through Hidden Hills and the Oaks, yes, it does help. But you never point out their house because it’s a privacy issue,” Evans said.
Celebrities also add welcome muscle to city functions and school fundraisers.
The Bay Laurel Elementary Parent Faculty Assn. has an annual operating budget that averages $400,000. A large chunk of that money is raised at an annual celebrity-studded fundraiser hosted by Chris Harrison of ABC’s “The Bachelor.” The red carpet event features musical entertainment from a band made up of network television actors, including Greg Grunberg, the telepathic police officer from “Heroes.”
At the 2010 event, with the help of comedian Wayne Brady and actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, the association raised $400,000 in a few hours.
Resident Katie Krauss, who lives in a gated home near Will Smith’s 100-acre complex, agrees. Property values are rising as celebrity buyers raise housing prices. The city’s finances are rock solid. Any time a school needs supplies, they are anonymously donated. For that, helicopter noise and gossipy headlines are a small price to pay, Krauss said.
The noise “is an everyday occurrence,” Krauss said. “But, you know, whatever. It’s not the end of the world.”
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton contributed to this report.
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