It was supposed to be a quiet sale. At least that’s what Natalie Portman’s manager said when he phoned Terry Sciubba last spring and asked the Long Island-based broker to put the actress’ seven-room Sea Cliff beach house on the market for $2.2 million.
Sciubba, owner of the brokerage firm Sherlock Homes, didn’t think the news that Portman, an actress in several Star Wars films and a Golden Globe-award winner, was selling would interest anyone. After all, when she showed Billy Joel houses in the area a few years back, nobody even recognized him.
“I have no clue how it happened,” Sciubba said, “but within 24 hours, everybody knew about it. It got into every newspaper — it was even in People magazine. They had interior shots, and people were writing it was priced too high. It was ridiculous!”
Then the phone started ringing. About 20 to 25 people called “who just wanted to see it because it was owned by a celebrity.”
“You don’t want to insult anybody,” said Sciubba, who sold the house within two weeks in July and declined to disclose the sales price. “But you want to make it clear that you’re only going to show it to people who might buy it, not to people who want to see it just because it’s a celebrity.”
In this paparazzi-filled age, and thanks to blogs like Perez Hilton and Gawker, celebrity fascination is at a higher pitch than ever before. And celebrity real estate is no exception. Note the success of television shows like MTV’s “Cribs” and VH1’s “Fabulous Life.” For brokers who deal with high-profile clients, that can mean a whole host of new challenges, ranging from star-struck doormen, fleets of nosy photogs, a growing cast of dubious business managers and hangers-on who must be convinced before a sale — even lists of stalkers not allowed to view showings.
“The celebrity is far more wanted, looked at, revered than ever — shockingly so,” said Dolly Lenz of Prudential Douglas Elliman, a top Manhattan broker whose clients have included Mariah Carey, Donna Karan, Tommy Mottola, Barbra Streisand and Bruce Willis. “Everybody wants to know where wealthy people are dining, what they’re doing, who is going out with who. That affects us.”
“It’s definitely worse,” said Michele Kleier of Gumley Haft Kleier, who has represented John Travolta and Warren Beatty, among others. “Between New York Magazine, the New York Times, the Post and the Observer, you’ve got everybody trying to get the information out first. Sometimes I’ll get four or five calls. You want to help these people out, but you really can’t do that if you are working with a celebrity because their business manager will never let the next celebrity work with you.”
Landing the Big Kahunas
It used to be that only the biggest names caused a stir. A few years back, Kathy Sloane of Brown Harris Stevens scored the biggest celebrity clients of them all: Bill and Hillary Clinton.
An experienced celebrity broker, Sloane was able to show the Clintons 75 of the 91 houses they looked at before word leaked out. Then one day, she got stuck in traffic with the first lady on the way to a private showing, and they arrived at the property just as an open house was opening up for other brokers.
From that point on, things were “crazy.” The local media scanned listings across Westchester, called brokers and staked out properties if they had reason to believe Sloane would be there. Sometimes she would spot television vans or trailing cars in her rearview mirror and pull over at diners to wait them out. Neighbors besieged her office with calls, suggesting suitable properties on their blocks.
“I can truthfully say I have never experienced anything quite like that,” Sloane said.
Though the Clinton example is an extreme one, it’s occurring on a smaller scale on a growing percentage of sales. Part of the reason is that the very definition of celebrity has expanded, and that makes celebrity showings more common.
“Ten years ago, a celebrity was Barbra Streisand and the Beatles,” said Lenz. “Now celebrities run the gamut, from actors to big-deal financial chieftains to the guy who just pocketed $7 billion in an IPO.”
Some celebrities actually enjoy the publicity surrounding their real estate moves: Woody Allen famously enjoyed giving tours of his East 92nd Street townhouse, and Paris Hilton certainly hasn’t hidden the fact that her Hollywood Hills home has been on the market for $4.25 million since late July.
The power of the leak
But the rules are often different for new celebrities. Some worry that leaks about their personal choices could affect their stock prices or even their business. Brokers who break the confidence of big-name entertainment clients who don’t want their actions known, meanwhile, risk losing them.
However, keeping the identity of people a secret is harder than ever with today’s celebrity fascination at a peak. That means vigilance at all times.
“We’re very careful in the office to never mention the name of the people we’re taking to see certain properties,” said Sloane.
Most secretaries and employees in your average real estate firm know they might lose their job if they spread the word. But for the brokers doing the selling, a well-placed leak that a celebrity is interested in a property can actually create buzz and business. Indeed, some developers will even offer celebrities significant discounts to move into their buildings in the hopes of drawing other clients. The Post’s Page Six recently questioned whether celebs were getting free apartments at the Atelier, the 46-story condo tower at 627 West 42nd Street, after a photo of Orlando Bloom clutching a folder labeled “Atelier” landed in Us Weekly.
As a result, some celebrities will ask brokers to sign nondisclosure agreements, legally binding documents that call for broker silence. However, such agreements are more common for celebrities selling their properties — and rarely work anyway. Most brokers interviewed say they do not use legally binding nondisclosure agreements when they are representing a celebrity buyer. Instead, they rely on threats to invoke fear to keep people quiet.
Usually, Sloane will tell the selling broker that “we have an individual who is prepared to buy a very large apartment here, but we’ll withdraw if there is even a word in print about it,” she said. Even so, “once you’ve signed the contract, it’s very tough.”
Kleier said, “I’m always very suspicious; when I see a picture of a person looking at an apartment, I think the broker has slipped out and called [the press].
“You can only hope at a co-op that a housekeeper is home because she may not recognize that person,” she said. “But if you’re doing new construction, it’s good for the new construction to say, ‘Nicole Kidman looked here, Meryl Streep looked here.’ And I think sometimes people leak it when it’s not even true.”
That’s just one possible pitfall. Celebrity representatives must also worry about building staff, random passers-by — even the star-struck homeowners themselves. Lenz recalls showing Richard Gere an apartment once, and the doorman “was all over him, wanted his autograph.”
“I took him aside and said in Spanish, ‘Listen, I don’t think this is appropriate, I don’t think he would appreciate me having to call the head of the board,'” Lenz said. “He fell into line real quick. Celebrities do not want attention in that way; they do not want to be approached.”
Still, she added, “The brokers that deal with the high-end properties generally understand that if they want to sell the property, they shouldn’t say anything until the deal is done. Because you could wind up killing the deal.”
On another job, Lenz took Barbra Streisand for a second look at a beautiful penthouse owned by a local meatpacking mogul. When Streisand entered the house, he fell to his knees and began singing “People Who Need People.”
“I can only tell you that she did not buy that apartment,” said Lenz. “It was not a good idea.”
Sometimes, celebrity notoriety can have the opposite effect. New York City co-op boards are famously dubious of celebrity applicants, due in part to the disruptions they can cause, but also because of the inconsistent income of the high-flying life.
But all of those are age-old challenges, albeit amplified dramatically. A newer challenge is the size of celebrity entourages — they seem to be growing.
“There’s so many people involved now: the financial people, the attorneys, the managing agent,” said Lenz. “It’s no longer just the voice of the celebrity; it has to be a unified voice, and you have to convince five people that this is the right property and this is the right price. Everybody is saying, ‘You know what? I’ve got a better place to put $20 million.'”
High maintenance is the rule
Today’s celebrities also have high expectations. They expect to be taken out, wined and dined. And they show up on their own schedules.
“Movie stars and entertainers, you really have to be at their beck and call, and you have to make appointments from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and they might not show up until 1 p.m.,” Lenz said. “And so how do you deal with that and not get angry at them? It can be very challenging.”
For those able to break in, however, there are definite benefits to the job. “I have people who I work with who do concerts and are very difficult to get tickets to see … a year later when I call for tickets, they get me house seats,” Kleier said.
Celebrities tend to be a self-perpetuating referral group, a tight-knit community that will reward brokers who are discreet. Celebrities tend to move more than others, meaning repeat customers and more commissions. But glamour may be the best perk — in today’s star-struck world, showing an A-list star around a penthouse is a very effective advertisement for a New York real estate broker.