"Look, there’s Angelyne." Our tour guide to the stars pointed to a woman in the lane next to us riding a hot pink Corvette. She looked pale and ageless, like hummus that had been moulded into the shape of a sad Dolly Parton. Her cloud of yellow hair was puffed out like a big candyfloss, her thin arms rattled with matching pink bangles and golfball-sized beads, and a pink chihuahua sat by her side glowering out of the windshield. Angelyne was very, very pink. “Hey Angelyne! How are you doing today?”
The dog shot us a disapproving glance, but Angelyne gripped the steering wheel and looked dead ahead. We were above her, in our giant black SUV, but in every other way that matters we were beneath her. “Angelyne isn’t in a talkative mood today folks,” our celebrity spotter apologised as we pulled away from the lights. “Now this corner here is where Halle Berry hit a guy with her car and just kept on driving. Did you know she called her agent before she called the police?”
Nobody knows where Angelyne came from. Inexplicably, her face began appearing on billboards across Hollywood some time in the early 80s, above a phone number and the word “Angelyne!” in seven-foot tall, cursive pink font. Respected pop culture historians believe she’s the first celebrity to be famous simply for being famous, with rumours that her then suitor, a local weatherman, fronted the cash to erect signage all over Los Angeles to kickstart an acting and singing career that never materialised. Angelyne was undeterred, rocketing to quasi-stardom anyway.
Nothing feels right here. In this town you’re only ever moments away from either seeing a rich person or being crushed to death by their gate.
She is Los Angeles incarnate. Hollywood is a place so haunted by the famous that every day a new notable person will seep, fully formed and unbidden, from between the cracks in the pavement. The fame molecules in the air mingle with particulates of dread, too. Everybody’s driveway has the same warning sign showing a careless stickman being crushed to death by an automatic gate – a modern day sigil warding off the contemporary dark magic of personal injury lawsuits. House after house, you see this little man dying, his arms outstretched in confusion and horror. The image creeps into your thinking after a while.
Nothing feels right here. In this town you’re only ever moments away from either seeing a rich person or being crushed to death by their gate. In the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel – a giant pink castle in the West Hollywood hills where they let me spend the night – people I recognised from the television screen walked around as if they were normal humans, no longer inches tall but now fully sized. Charlie Sheen was there. So was Joan Collins, and countless “whats her names” from “that film with the guy”. The barman told me I’d just missed Leo, which is what everybody in Hollywood calls Leonardo di Caprio.
I would later stroll right up to di Caprio’s mansion in Bel Air under the pretence of introducing myself to a dog that was being walked nearby, only to be shooed away by his security team. And earlier, by parking the SUV in just the right spot at the top of a secluded cul-de-sac, we could see into Taylor Swift’s house.
“Literally anyone could look in there,” said the tour guide as we all squinted in unison, trying to make anything out through the second storey window. “I wonder why she doesn’t just build a wall.”
I liked the Beverly Hills Hotel and its Polo Lounge. They do decent eggs of a morning, and it’s the rawest exposure you can have to the warped unreality of the celebrity scene. Tour de Jour is the name of the sanctioned celebrity surveillance safari we went with, but it’s here in this legendary lounge that stars come when they want to be seen. The less attention-peckish will retreat to the far classier and more discreet Hotel Bel Air. There they have Toto toilets – the ones that can sense when you’re approaching and open up their lids like hungry pelicans – though that’s surely only part of the reason why the mega-famous prefer it.
Both the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel Air are the very definition of flattering five-star service. Porters you’ve never met will cheerily address you by name, as if they’ve been studiously passing your mugshot around in the staff room in preparation for your arrival. A bellboy at Bel Air dug out the hotel’s only packet of menthol cigarettes from a strange old tin he found in the store room, as if we’d both momentarily slipped into a Wes Anderson film. Upon returning to my hotel room there was an ashtray set up and waiting.
The staff move around like helpful ghosts, pre-empting your needs, appearing out of cupboards with whiskey cocktails and tending to your faintest whims. It’s tough not to feel like a capricious prince after a while, swanning around in the softest dressing gown you’ve ever worn, dining at the unfathomably glamorous Wolfgang Puck like you’re deserving of any kind of respect from anybody at all.
But swanning is the only way to truly appreciate Los Angeles. You have to own the slightly vacant vibe and roll with the drought-stricken decadence. This is a city that lives in the moment. No building is more than six months old. At any one moment a Gucci store is being simultaneously demolished and reconstructed, like the retail equivalent of the paintjob on the Golden Gate Bridge.
And after a while it’s honestly a fine place to be. Eventually some pockets of culture and history make themselves known amid the boutique jewellers and eight-lane, pedestrian-averse boulevards.
The Getty is a welcome injection of piping hot culture for anyone feeling washed-out and brain-numbed by the Hollywood scene.
Up in the mountains you’ll find the Getty Center, a chalk-white acropolis first constructed to house the contents of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and now a mesmerising collection of beautifully interconnected pavilions and museum spaces built from uniformly sized slabs of cut travertine. Designed by abstract artist and architect Richard Meier, each of the tiles that make up the museum's floors and facades sit neatly on grid lines that align with the subtle topography of the city below.
There’s no corner or ceiling, inside or out, where these immaculate slabs don’t meet at perfect angles. It’s a piece of architecture so breathtaking it distracts from the art held within, and it’s a welcome injection of piping hot culture for anyone feeling washed-out and brain-numbed by the Hollywood scene.
Had Angelyne ever been to the Getty? I wondered. Had she also admired its chessboard-like construction, and how the walls are angled to reverberate the white noise of the fountains all around the museum gardens? I could never know. Angelyne is a mystery, a complex character who deserves more than to be reduced to a two-dimensional billboard. Like the city she’s made her home, she almost certainly has hidden depths beneath her gaudy pink exterior, just waiting to be discovered. But like this city, she knows how to live up to her superstar reputation.