When you walk around Beverly Hills, you’ll notice that everything is layered like ogres and onions. “Peel me and I’ll watch you weep,” said the waitress at a Mediterranean restaurant the other night, when prodded about her ambitions. An aspiring actress with a graduate degree in theater, she said her line originated as an extension of Shrek’s.
Did you know that the Los Angeles Times Sunday edition has a section called Image? Not Style, not Fashion, nor some such synonym, but Image. Do you have any doubts that the surface layer is most important in this town? Image will pulverize them unambiguously. Walk around Beverly Hills and you’ll instantly notice how image is groomed, managed, improved, pulled together, presented, even branded. This effort doesn’t stop with people. Places too are pruned, refreshed and tease out an aura for themselves. Part of it is landscaping, and since it’s a mercantile area, another part is window dressing. Sometimes the whole neighborhood nurtures a certain countenance, a look, a guise.
Every weekday, on my way to the gym, I drive by what must be among the world’s most famous corners: that of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive. Invariably, and regardless of time of day or weather there’s a whole gaggle of visitors standing around that corner and immortalizing it with photographs. Some pose dramatically, with one arm upraised and back arched, thrusting their chest out and letting their hair fly, while others are shy or awkward. The corner itself seems to be borrowed from a Hollywood film studio. How ingenious to have created a mild hill which then slopes back down and leads to steps and a fountain. Given the location, this evokes such parallels with the lines and tradition of set design that it wouldn’t be surprising if indeed set designers were involved with its execution.
A purely commercial mecca with no other claim to historical fame than the height of shopping has attained an image of European distinction, effectively inviting pedestrians to stroll and linger longer under hanging flower baskets, in the process creating a natural magnet for photography. Nowadays it seems everyone has a smartphone and every smartphone comes with a camera. Outstretched arms holding it aloft at eye level are a telltale sign of the attempt to preserve the moment and even validate it with a self made memento which is then shared on some social networking site, to be “liked” and thus sanctioned further. This corner of Rodeo Drive is so famous and shot so often that I didn’t have to take pictures of it myself. That it was gloomy and overcast most days was less of an incentive too. The photos within this post were found online: simulacra that bolster the image of this place in an infinite feedback loop. Meanwhile, some of the shops that line the streets have To Lease or Just Leased signs that speak of imminent or recent turnovers. Peel them and watch the shopkeepers weep…
The next intersection on Wilshire is where Equinox, the gym is. More layers are at play here than anywhere else in my daily routine. For starters, the people who work here are all more than they seem to be: Peel a layer off and you’ll find out that the greeter at the entrance is also a DJ. Peel another and the towel maintenance guy is a rap artist, the spin instructor is the vocalist in a soul band, and the Pilates teacher is a professional dancer. Most of the Pilates students are dancers too. Lithe, lean and long-legged dancers whose flexibility, grace and power are as intimidating as they are appealing.
It can be very difficult to maintain a healthy body image of oneself surrounded by so much flagrant beauty. The people in the streets and as a microcosm in the gym are full of sparkle. They look glamorous even when full-on sweaty. They’re young and younger, true to nature or variously enhanced. This is Beverly Hills and it draws to its materialistic bosom the best of the best, the tallest, leggiest, the most handsome, the magnificent and exotically alluring. With so much physical elegance, one may expect a “beauté oblige” bearing to present itself. Sadly, a salient layer is that of rudeness. Being driven and self-centered is probably a necessity in this ruthless realm, where success is fleeting and fades away much too soon, much before a person has a chance to age gracefully. And unabashed self-promotion has to be as natural a state as that of breathing for these cutthroat competitors of the enabler’s attention. All that effort of maintaining layer upon layer of one’s image could be taking its toll. Maybe that’s what should be blamed for the insolent behavior of some. Either way, it’s disturbing to see how these Hollywood glitterati can be so ethereally beautiful on the surface, yet so unsympathetic to anyone, specially those they consider their inferiors, such as instructors, trainers, and let’s not even talk about the maintenance personnel or anyone else who doesn’t look like they belong on covers of magazines or in movies. The most common facial expression is a variation of an affected pout of disdain, the self-entitlement is grandiose, and common decency illusive. That’s when they’re young. And when they age, Botoxed to the hilt, youth itself frozen on their faces, their eyes silently bore into yours.
Three of these imperceptibly older women are having a post-lunch conversation at the corner Thai restaurant. Two appear blonde and the third is dark haired. One of the blondes does most of the talking and she’s too loud to ignore: “We’re trying to be real careful with expenses. You know. Living off of principal. Aren’t we all? He finally went into rehab but he keeps barking at me. He can’t help it.” With a flat, prolonged nasal “a” in the can’t, spoken with compelling resignation. “Oh, I’ll be well provided for,” she trails off. “And you certainly deserve it, dearie, you’ve been putting up with him all this time,” says the other blonde. “You better be careful. Keep an eye on that principal. They can spend it too fast.” “Well, isn’t jewelry the answer? I want no other gifts. Really. Nothing else makes me feel safer,” the first blonde replies.
The conversation delves deeper into gems and jewelers. A few are mentioned but one is particularly recommended. Not only for expertise, but far more importantly for discretion. If you wanted to convert something say. The gems they mention evoke a kaleidoscope of colors. Colors that these middle aged and by Hollywood standards archaic women crave. Maybe it’s an attempt to infuse themselves with vibrant hues of youth again. Deeply orange carnelian, pinkish green tourmaline, and brightly chartreuse peridot are followed by the description of a black and white diamond necklace. Very modern. “It’s very you. Because you’re edgy. Not like me. Wilted English rose,” says the blonde to the dark haired woman. A well-maintained one and well-provided for, to be sure. Then chocolate colored opals are touted as a better alternative to dark chocolate. “No chance of gaining any weight,” she cries amid peals of laughter.
Later, in a boutique, another conversation is loud enough for anyone to hear. Two young women are talking, the words coming out fast and clipped. Neither looks over twenty-five.
– “So Jason hates his boss who invited him to this charity event…”
-“How can you hate your boss when he invites you to a charity event? Like, what is that all about?”
-“His boss is super neurotic though. He used to be an investment banker so he’d be able to hedge his own risk. Now he’s producing this movie so there’s none of that. So he’s really neurotic. Which is why Jason may have to go work for his dad again. And you know how cranky that makes him.”
-“You know my cousin Seth, right? He’s been having such a hard time with his friends, right? Because now that they’re in that show, you know, they’re famous. So they don’t want to drive with him anywhere. They’re like too famous for that now. They don’t even just hang with him…”
Fame, even in transience, peels away what’s only a patina of friendship to start with. You’re somebody that I used to know. Oh, you’re as tasty as caramelized onions. No wait, you’re as heroic as an ogre named Shrek. In this town, though, you’re somebody that I used to know. Just remember, memory itself is mostly overplayed here.