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“Hidden Hills…a Norman Rockwell painting behind high-security walls.”
—Mike Davis, City of Quartz
“I told y’all about goddamn takin’ them hoez to the Cheesecake Factory/Lettin’ them order strawberry lemonade and popcorn shrimp/They ain’t goin’ do nuthin’ but try to take all your motherfuckin’ cheese.”
—OutKast, “We Luv Deez Hoez”
You’re free to watch them vanish. A sneering speeding automotive parade disappears behind the walls: Teslas and Ferraris, hybrid Lexuses and Hummers, limousines and the occasional Escalade for nostalgia’s sake. Pick-up trucks tug cavernous movie star trailers and light rigs up the hill. Sulking fences cautiously swing open, offering entrance into Hidden Hills, the gated community protecting America’s most watched.
You aren’t wanted. The signs outside the private entrance leave little room for misinterpretation: “all pedestrians and bicyclists must check in at the guard house.” “No stopping.” If you park for 16 seconds, you’ll incur the wrath of the security detail picking their gums with paper clips.
The rent-a-cops boast the surliness of retired county sheriffs still irritated they never got cast on an episode of CHiPS. They’re armed minions, perfectly civil if you’re an almond-tanned, collagen-swollen, real housewife or blown-dry Cheesecake Factory executive vice president. But (6) God forbid you’re a tabloid interloper or ignorant hick who has only glimpsed a black card in Clipse videos and episodes of Newlyweds.
Welcome to Calabasas on Devil’s Night, 2015. It’s still broad daylight, and we’re idling in my car, handling reconnaissance work just outside the cultural vortex of America. I scroll through my contact list trying to figure out if I know anyone whose parents live in Hidden Hills. On cue, Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” comes on the radio.
For the purposes of self-preservation, I’ve brought my associate, Saul Santana. He’s been entrusted to tell the world my story in case my remains are mysteriously found in a Chatsworth natural reserve—limbs suspiciously arranged in “Hotline Bling” Bachata shimmy.
The deeper question is, why here? Why in all the Ambien enclaves across America did Calabasas and its even more exclusive Hidden Hills extension become the most famous residential brand since Beverly Hills 90210? Why would a Fort Knox of cultural capital opt for seclusion a solid 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles, in a place whose best civic attribute is an annual pumpkin festival? I’m trying to figure out the answer.
By the second Bieber single, we’ve decided on a course of action. Driving to the guardhouse, I lower my window and lock stares with a man with colorless eyes and a switchblade face.
“Who are you gentlemen here to see?” he smirks.
“Aubrey Graham.” I say, matter-of-factly. “His friends call him ‘The Boy’ though, so that may be what he’s listed as.”
“Who may I ask is visiting?”
I’m aware that the odds of actually gaining entrance are nil, but since, at the time of my visit, no one has seen Majid Jordan in the last 20 months, it’s my best bet. He dials the number to Drake’s house, squinting at us with mild disdain.
This is dangerous territory. You might be lulled into Merlot numbness by the Arcadian mountains, tangerine dusks, and abundant space for miniature white terriers to roam with wanton disregard. But make the wrong move, use the wrong password, park in the wrong driveway, and you could be the next contestant on that TMZ screen.
“Is Mr. Graham expecting you?”
“Not technically, but we’re on his recording label, OVO Sound,” Saul Santana interjects. “We’re hoping to discuss when our record is going to get a release date.”
“Mr. Graham is currently not on the premises. I suggest that you return later…with prior notice.”
He closes his window and makes the hand motion for us to turn around. Our erstwhile Canadian R&B duo has made no headway. So we skulk back to our original hiding spot, hoping for a celebrity cameo to snap the deadening languor of Calabasas on a Sunday.
This is the suburban dream taken to pornographic grotto-drowned extreme—the Heart of Dullness. Driven to lunacy, Kanye plays Colonel Kurtz surrounded by an all-Kardashian army, screaming “the horror” at his inability to find sufficiently exquisite textiles and the exorbitant price of children’s games.
You’ve witnessed the city-disguised-as-suburb in all 73 seasons of E! edutainment. But this 1.7-square-mile, 1,900-person Hidden Hills Erewhon also has or continues to boast the mailing addresses of Jennifer Lopez, Melissa Etheridge, Jessica Simpson, the Osbournes, Denise Richards, Britney Spears, and of course, the Drake—who infamously bragged about his safe house nights in Calabasas—which were undoubtedly very safe.
An unincorporated L.A. county parcel until 1991, Calabasas has hosted everyone from Travis Barker to Tyga, Tori Spelling to David Hasselhoff, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett, and their woke scion, albino Batman. It’s home to the gated community where residents Jerry Heller, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre once hosted the “Wet N’ Wild Party.”
Outside our car window, wealthy Calabasites keep cascading past. A caravan of blacked-out Mercedes. So many Lexuses you’d expect a Trackmasters soundtrack. Porsches on Porsches. Suddenly, a silver Mercedes G-Wagon streaks out from the walled citadel.
“It’s Kylie Jenner,” blurts Saul Santana.
“How do you know?” I say.
“That’s her car—the one that Tyga bought for her.”
Without time to interrogate Santana about that dubious fact, I slam the gas pedal in frantic pursuit. Kylie’s going 55 in a 35 zone, hand out the window, E-cigarette dangling.
She turns right onto an arterial road. A Prius wrapped in white carbon fiber cuts me off, and I swerve around, cutting him off in turn. He unleashes a psychotic blitz of horns, but this is fight or flight. As she soars onto the freeway, the adrenaline stabs and a bead of sweat breaks across my forehead. We try to peer through the back window, but they’re limo-tinted.
Abruptly, the silver G-Wagon pulls off the Interstate. Calabasas is an endless cul-de-sac, meaning you basically have to take the freeway just to go to the corner store. The car slowly tilts into the downtown area, rolling to a stop on Calabasas Road.
The door flings open, legs stretch out, Uggs plop on the pavement, and we realize that it isn’t Kylie Jenner at all. We’ve risked our lives following a Hidden Hills housewife in her late 40s, who looks vaguely like Vanna White. Her trail disappears into Banzai Sushi. It’s unclear if Tyga was there.
This trip was my last resort. I tried e-mailing various actors and musicians to see if they’d explain their decision to live in Calabasas. Not a single publicist even replied. Maybe it’s obvious why someone famous would want to live out here. You’re close enough to work in L.A. but remote enough to pretend like you’re in the country. This is the land of a thousand gated communities, 100,000 swimming pools, and the corporate headquarters of Cheesecake Factory. Wild deer skitter across sagebrush hills directly atop big box stores. This is opulent emptiness at its most escapist.
Real estate is expensive ($1 million-plus median home value in Calabasas; $3 million-plus in Hidden Hills), but building permits are easily procured. The schools are good, but Nori won’t attend Bay Laurel public elementary anytime soon. There’s a deeper psychic dragnet corralling them to chaparral chic country. And if no one will talk to me, the only recourse is to talk to the neighbors.
“Forty-three percent of our land is dedicated to open space. It’s permanent, unbuildable, can’t be touched. Yet it’s very close to everything you want or everything you’ll ever need so that’s why I think celebrities come here and live,” says the Calabasas mayor, James R. Bozajian.
This is Bozajian’s 19th year on the city council and fifth stint as mayor. An amateur local historian, he recently authored the introduction to the book Images of America: Calabasas. If anyone’s qualified to explain the city’s celebrity appeal, it’s him.
“No one really puts down roots here and stays a long time,” Bozajian continues, wearing Dockers and a polo shirt. “Sometimes we get actors who try to have a normal everyday existence. They'll buy a home in a gated community, send their children to the local schools, and try to really integrate within the local community that way. Most tend to be very aloof, and they don't participate in city government activities, or they won’t come to the Calabasas Pumpkin Fest.”
Bozajian cites Sean Astin as a notable exception, which is exactly what you’d expect from the star of Rudy. We talk extensively about Calabasas history—essentially a more glamorous version of the Blaine musical from Waiting for Guffman. There are no UFO sightings or stool booms, but there are Chumash Indians and 19th century Basque immigrant settlers.
By the 1920s, Calabasas built the Park Moderne artist colony, one of the first Southern California sub-divisions. Shortly thereafter, it became Hollywood’s preferred stand-in for the Wild West or antebellum Georgia. The perennially green hills that you saw on Newlyweds are the same ones that doubled as Virginia City and Dodge City in old films shot on what was once Warner Ranch. It’s where they shot Tarzan, National Velvet, Stagecoach, and most famously, Gone With the Wind—which explains why Drake re-wrote the latter with Scarlett O’Hara played by Courtney from the Hooters on Peachtree.
Calabasas long existed on the periphery of Porn Valley, bordering Chatsworth and Woodland Hills, where most adult films were shot until recently. If you grew up in Los Angeles, you inevitably knew someone whose backyard swimming pool was paid for by porn. My little league baseball coach (RIP) pioneered the Screw My Wife, Please series. It might be the nicest part of the Valley, but this is still unmistakably “The Valley.”
We’re merely a dozen miles from Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family alternated between orgies and murder plots. This is where Jesse James Hollywood of Alpha Dog attended high school. Even though Lyle and Erik Menendez infamously killed their parents in Beverly Hills, the latter played tennis for the Calabasas High Coyotes.
The mayor would understandably rather stress Calabasas’ municipal normalcy. He cites the city’s track record in early smoking bans, a notable pet cemetery filled with dead celebrity fauna, and its diversity. Though the latter claim doesn’t quite hold up to statistical scrutiny.
Yes, there is a “trailer park,” but when we visit the park later that day, it’s tucked away in a bucolic forest—complete with a community pool, Jacuzzi, and tennis courts. What Calabasas calls a trailer park is what most call the American dream. Six-point-six percent of the city’s residents live below the federal poverty line, but Drake’s Hidden Hills neighborhood is the whitest in L.A. County (92.3 percent according to the 2010 census). Calabasas is scarcely different: 84 percent white, with a median household income of nearly $125,000.
In the interest of trying to understand Calabasas history, Santana and I head to the Leonis Adobe—the oldest building in town. Built in 1844, it’s conveniently located on Calabasas Road, the main drag, where our Kylie Jenner wild goose chase stranded us.
A half-century ago, in a fitting near-miss, the city’s most famous structure was nearly bulldozed for a mall. But now the Monterey colonial is the sole bastion of civic history—the place where local schoolchildren come to learn about the early years of California statehood, the Spanish and Native American past, and to gawk at the goats, sheep, and African guinea fowl out back. Stevie Wonder once came here with his child and was the only person allowed to play the antique piano.
The original Kardashian of the West Valley was a Native American woman named Espiritu, who married a prosperous Basque robber baron with shaky balance named Miguel Leonis. While attempting to cross the Cahuenga Pass to enter Hollywood, Leonis fell off his covered wagon and got crushed to death. Primary sources blamed it on “too free an indulgence in sour wine.” It was 1889.
Despite the couple having lived together for nearly 30 years, Leonis’ will falsely claimed that Espiritu was his housekeeper. With their one biological child having died several years earlier, Leonis left his wife just $10,000. His entire estate and the remainder of his fortune went to his siblings.
Espiritu sued for her inheritance, causing the first major public scandal in this swath of greater Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times reported a “sensational disclosure” that she’d lived out of wedlock with two men before Leonis. Nonetheless, she won the case after the dead child’s gravesite identified Leonis as the father. Maury before Maury.
The property got tied up in litigation until shortly before her death in 1906. She wound up being the prey of con men and swindlers trying to cheat her out of her fortune. Not long before her demise, the 65-year-old Espiritu married an 18-year-old man. The Los Angeles Times crowed that he was “barely out of pinafores” and that her “frisky affections appear to have been bubbling at a lively rate, in spite of her well-worn widow's weeds.”
A century later, it’s said that the adobe is haunted, which raises the specter of whether or not the Kardashian curse is real. It’s possible that it’s merely misplaced paranormal energy coming from the adobe practically next door. Maybe the ghost of Espiritu imbued Kris Kardashian with the foresight and vision to create a reality show, fragrance, and app empire. Maybe Kanye is really possessed by the spirit of a sour-wine-loving Frenchman.
When I ask these questions to the kindly docent giving me a tour of the Adobe, she shrugs her shoulders and tells me that she’s uninterested in celebrities.
“Some of them are a bit much, but it’s OK,” she says. “To be honest, they all look like Steven Tyler to me.”
“to actually inhabit Calabasas requires a certain type of Xanaxed detachment.”
I haven’t been this bored since high school. Maybe that’s the point of this place. Spend enough time in Calabasas and you start to feel like you’re under constant surveillance. A camera in every corner, a security guard strapped at every checkpoint, a Desperate Housewife with lips like an overstuffed futon clucking her disapproval at your car. You understand the Goodie Mobb question: “Was the gate put up to keep crime out or keep my ass in?”
These celebrities wall themselves off in private fiefdoms because your estate has to be self-sustaining. Drake reportedly has a 28-person movie theater, spa, wine cellar, horse stables and equestrian ring, volleyball court, game room, and a Playboy Mansion grotto set-up. The only fun thing to do is throw a house party. Just don’t invite too many guests or you might get grounded.
As Molly Lambert wrote at Grantland: “Calabasas draws a certain type of American star, for whom excess itself is a performance. Drake, Bieber, and the Kardashians—and, let’s face it, Kanye—enjoy making a show of their wealth. What better way to display your spending than to live in the modern-day equivalent of a castle, protected by a moat of security guards?.... Rather than pretend they lust after a minimalist mid-century modern house in the L.A. hills, they’re just being honest about what image they really want to project: an ostentatious display of wealth.”
But to actually inhabit Calabasas requires a certain type of Xanaxed detachment. Santana and I exhaust most of the afternoon and evening popping into local retail outlets and restaurants. It’s mostly strip malls bloated with chains and car dealerships. No independent bookstores or movie theaters. If you want to buy a vinyl record, you have to go to the Barnes & Noble. In case you were wondering, they do have Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols in stock.
Outside the Hidden Hills gates, we make conversation at a local tree nursery. None of the workers have any clue what to make of the celebrities hiding a block away, but one of them tells me that this is where Katt Williams comes to buy houseplants. He adds, “Caitlyn Jenner once came and bought a Christmas tree here when she was Bruce Jenner.”
We visit the strip mall that used to house the original Dash, the boutique owned by the Kardashians. It’s now an empty storefront, still advertising the previous tenant, Tempt. Its tagline: “For all the things you can’t resist.” People eating $100 sushi dinners eye us warily.
We drive by the Oaks, the gated community where Bieber suffered his foibles so we could flourish. Of course, entrance is impossible. The exterior is so predictable that it feels ridiculous telling you: a fountain with shooting water and a deer statue with comically oversized antlers. All happy gated communities are alike; each unhappy gated community is unhappy in its own way. In this one, it’s when Justin Bieber drag races Lil Za.
Because Calabasas essentially replicates the existential doldrums that plagued you in adolescence, the only thing left to do is go to the mall. And there’s only one mall in Calabasas—the Commons, the prototype for L.A.’s famed the Grove. Built by the same developer, Rick Caruso, the Calabasas Commons approximates Disneyland, re-envisioned by the architect of the Caesar’s Palace mall in Las Vegas.
Its principal failing is that there isn’t a Cheesecake Factory. But it’s here in spirit (and three miles away in neighboring Woodland Hills). Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the Cheesecake Factory. The popcorn shrimp and strawberry lemonade are delicious. It’s just that Calabasas orders the city as Cheesecake Factory: marble floors, chintzy rococo design, oversized portions, gluttony as the highest good, the tacky glamour of faux-antiquity. A renaissance on the verge of decline.
I speak with a couple people at the Commons, but no one’s particularly interested in a long conversation. Everyone’s had unpleasant encounters with thirsty tabloid reporters. One man at a restaurant tells me about the flash mob that “Kelsey Kardashian” drew on a casual trip to the Barnes & Noble. A bartender tells me that Jessica Simpson used to come in all the time.
“In general, most of the people here are OK,” he says. “But the richest are always the worst. They want everything for free.”
It’s 8 p.m. on a Sunday night, and this could be any noveau riche suburb across the United States. The Starbucks, Edwards Cinema, and Johnny Rockets are swarmed. The frozen yogurt emporium is pandemonium. This isn’t where you go to drink. This is where you benignly drift. We drive home.
Several days later, I call up Jensen Karp, the podcast host, gallery owner, and author of the forthcoming memoir Kanye West Owes Me $300. Under the name Hot Karl, Karp is the only rapper to originally hail from Calabasas (even though he technically grew up in more middle-class Woodland Hills and only attended Calabasas High).
He mentions a conversation that he had with Drake at the ESPYs, where Karp was one of the writers.
“I told him, ‘you live in my hometown,’ and it was like I’d told him that I’d grown up in the jungles or South Central,” Karp adds. “He couldn’t compute that people actually grew up around there. It’s just become the preferred suburbia that people move to when they get rich.”
If Beverly Hills was the previous benchmark, Calabasas has replaced it in the national myth. It’s younger, free from the baggage of conventional decorum and class restraint. It’s where Hollywood can pretend to be Main Street, where reality bends to the whim of the narrative, where the cameras never turn off and the security detail works 24-7. This is America at its most anesthetized, reveling in its anxieties and excess, welcoming only if you’re invited and can afford it.
“Calabasas has a cool façade, but underneath, there’s this surreal, gossipy, Stepford Wife vibe. It’s fucking weird,” Karp says. “It’s Norman Rockwell behind high-security walls, but as soon as you examine it closer, you start to realize it’s paint-by-numbers and counterfeit.”