OC Celebrity 101
From John Wayne to Lauren Conrad, who are Orange County's most famous faces, and what does that say about us?
In recent decades many stars and superstars have come from Orange County – Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Costner, Steve Martin, Will Ferrell, Gwen Stefani, and Diane Keaton, to name a few. For most, their county of birth or beginnings is but an aside in magazine profiles and biographical sketches. Some like Pfeiffer seem to rarely return, while others like Keaton and Ferrell maintain ties – and seemingly affection – for their former home.
For Costner, Stefani and Martin, the early OC days are part of their origin myth: Costner the Cal State Fullerton baseball star, Martin the Disneyland magician and Stefani the ska music scene queen, whose breakout album Tragic Kingdom had obvious Orange County subtext.
And many celebrities of an earlier era have made Orange County their home (or at least one of many places they lived), including Anaheim pioneer and stage superstar Helen Modjeska, who was followed in later decades by Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Mamie Van Doren (who lives here still) Humphrey Bogart, Joey Bishop and John Wayne. Johnny Mercer and Ray Milland had columns in Orange County Illustrated magazine, and the publication chronicled the comings, goings and carousings of the L.A. set, much of it centered around the Balboa Bay Club, where you can sense old Hollywood in the air (and if you can’t, the evidence is on the walls in black and white photos). John Wayne once held court here, and the resort’s bar is called Duke’s Place in his honor.
Newport Harbor is where Bogie wooed a teenaged Lauren Bacall aboard his yacht, Santana, a sleek schooner-turned-yawl he bought from Dick Powell, raced successfully and moored near the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, where he was a member.
Every current harbor tour points out the property where John Wayne once lived, and the estate next door that was in Nicolas Cage’s real estate portfolio for a while. Cage bought it for $25 million in 2005, and sold it for $35 million two years later (spooked by a drunk kid intruding). It’s currently for sale again at $28.5 million. Writers and real estate folks still get mileage out of the fact that Cage lived here, if only briefly. Well-known former residents like Bette Midler, Warren Buffett and Dennis Rodman are trotted out whenever a list of famous homeowners is created, even if most haven’t been here for years.
Other signs of visits by stars still celebrated years later include the towering twin palms in front of Studio, the superb restaurant at Montage, which are named Lucy and Desi in honor of the duo who made an early picture (The Long, Long Trailer) there. The beach below (and the former trailer park) is called Treasure Island, named for the movie of the same name filmed there in 1934.
Montage, Pelican Hill, The Ritz-Carlton, St. Regis, and other luxury resorts draw celebs today, looking for a getaway from the publicity and paparazzi pressures in L.A. There’s even a sign in a Newport Coast pizza place requesting everyone to “Please respect the privacy of our celebrity customers.”
We get it. There have been hundreds of films made here in the past, many stars have made their homes here or visited our beaches and resorts. But who are “our” celebrities? Who can we claim as our own?
So what is an Orange County celebrity, exactly, and who are our most celebrated people? There is a difference between celebrity, fame, status, and success, of course. H.L. Mencken wrote that, “A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know.”
The poet Lord Byron defined fame similarly: “What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little." Byron is generally considered one of the first modern celebrities, owing much of his fame to a merging of talent and media interest, while Alexander the Great is often named as the world’s first celebrity.
But for these purposes let’s define the major categories of OC celebrities:
1. Those highly accomplished individuals who were born here and developed the skills or talent that made them well-known while living here, and had significant early success while still a resident;
2. People who lived here during significant stretches of their best fame-making years, though not born or raised in the county and their main claim to fame occurred elsewhere;
3. People who helped define something significant about Orange County by living or working here, even if their main claim to fame occurred elsewhere. Under this method of analysis, stars like Kevin Costner, Steve Martin and Diane Keaton would not make the top OC celebrity list. Based on our criteria, the most important celebrities in the history of Orange County in each of the above categories are: Tiger Woods (category 1); Richard Nixon (category 1); Kobe Bryant (category 2); John Wayne (category 2 and 3) and Walt Disney (category 3).
Tiger is a product of Orange County and he developed his skills while growing up here. Plus, the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim is a vital nonprofit for Orange County kids.
Nixon was the only president of the United States born in Orange County. Love him or loathe him, that’s enough to make the all-time list.
Kobe’s fame is derived from the basketball prowess he displays primarily in Los Angeles, in other NBA cities and on the global Olympic stage, but he has long made his home in Orange County. Choosing this place to live most of your life and raise your children, even when your career is elsewhere, shows a commitment to the place that must be recognized (not to mention a tolerance for commuting that must be admired), even if aspects of his past personal life are less endearing. Plus, he and his wife add to the local economy by shopping, early and often.
The Duke, who launched his film career after injuring himself body surfing in Newport Beach, helped define Orange County’s image in the middle of the last century as a bastion of conservative patriotism simply by living here. He's buried here, and we named our airport in his honor.
Walt Disney put Orange County and Anaheim on the map. His Magic Kingdom has long anchored Orange County culture and tourism, perhaps only exceeded in importance by the Pacific Ocean itself.
So, let the arguments about those we left off our list (and those we included) commence! Gwen Stefani might qualify under category one, though we’d leave music critics and historians to determine how much of her fame has Orange County roots, and her pop cultural significance doesn’t seem to yet measure up to our top four. Or perhaps it’s a clear case of sexism. And Olympians like Janet Evans and Misty May-Treanor, football stars like Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley and creatives like McG would be on a lengthier list.
Of course we’re missing two very important categories of celebrity, on wildly divergent sides of the accomplishment scale:
4. Intra-OC celebs that are well-known because of their position and success, people like Loretta Sanchez, Wylie Aitken and Wing Lam who serve as community leaders and important members of local society regularly featured in this and other media. They are household names and faces to most of us, though they may not always be recognized beyond the county’s borders. The preeminent citizen in this realm is Henry Segerstrom, the most important visionary of modern Orange County.
5. Finally, those who are “known, watched, talked about, with little appreciation of genuine achievement,” as writer Jeff Randall puts it. “It's simply the perceived status of appearing on screen.” In this category we include reality stars and others who most likely would not have been famous but for appearing in shows set in Orange County, as well as international media sensations best known for one-hit-wonder Internet songs (Rebecca Black) or giving birth to multiples (Nadya Suleman).
Though cultural critics, bloggers and columnists have spent millions of words and hours of video slamming Orange County-based reality shows and their stars, the past decade has seen those shows create billions of dollars worth of brand building for the county. Whether that increased visibility and fame is a good or bad thing likely depends on which side of the travel and tourism industry one sits: someone who makes a living from it, or someone who suffers the impacts of increased crowds and traffic congestion, more development and other indignities.
The OC global branding began with a movie, Orange County, which debuted in theaters in 2002, and a scripted television show "The OC" in the 2003-2004 season.
The plotline of Orange County focused on a teenager's desire to get out of OC and off to Stanford by any means possible. The movie was not a critical or commercial success, but the fact it was followed quickly by "The OC," which made the county seem desirable and trendy and was a popular success, seemed to say something about the zeitgeist: This was the time, and Orange County was the place.
Before these shows, few people in the world who didn’t live, work or vacation in or near Orange County could tell one much about the place. Residents from that earlier era recall explaining to airplane seat mates and out-of-town business colleagues that OC isn’t a suburb of Los Angeles and that not everyone here is white, conservative and wealthy. It didn’t help matters that Disney World was in a different Orange County, and that the most famous Newport was still in Rhode Island.
If national foreign press knew anything about us at all beyond Disneyland and Bob Dornan, it was often skewed toward sensationalism and rarely positive. Writer Andrew Gumbel described Orange County in a British tabloid newspaper thusly: “From the time it sprung its first suburban roots, south of the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, all the way through to the end of the Cold War, the county was a synonym for white suburban blandness, full of corpulent, middle-aged aerospace engineers and their quietly dysfunctional families.
“Its affluent hilltop homes were the very definition of anonymity, with one house after another following the same floor plan, the same look, and sporting the same two-car garage. The orange groves that once gave the county its name were torn up as property developers delivered one great jackhammer gash after another, leaving the landscape littered with residential subdivisions, six-lane roads and shopping malls. The only compelling reason for tourists to come was Disneyland, which was by its own definition a fantasy environment designed to make visitors forget they were anywhere at all.”
Ouch! – for starters. Not to mention wildly inaccurate – or at least woefully incomplete. But let’s admit it, that’s how a lot of people saw us in past decades (and how some unfortunate few see us still).
An exception to that perception was found in "Travels into America's Future,” an August 1998 cover story by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Unlike most journalists who parachute into town, look around and leave to write something silly and superficial, Kaplan got a lot correct, thanks in part to guides like the Orange County Business Journal’s Rick Reiff, an OC celeb in his own right.
“Orange County is America's most fully evolved urban pod, in which alliances are based on technology rather than geography and classic definitions of city and suburb no longer apply,” Kaplan wrote.
“The county comprises 28 separate municipalities, many with their own centers. The term 'suburb' does not properly describe this advanced, polycentric urban pod. Because these centers do not resemble traditional downtowns, they are overlooked by people whose eyes have yet to adjust to the post-industrial age.”
Still, while the story did much to set OC in the minds of readers of The Atlantic, Orange County as a brand didn’t register as much more than a blip on the world’s pop culture radar until the television shows debuted.
“It's nothing like where you live,” went the teaser for "The OC." “And nothing like what you imagine." And if that’s not the perfect line to inflame the interest of inland teens everywhere, then what is?
Much was made about the fact that "The OC" wasn’t filmed in Orange County. Marina del Rey and Manhattan Beach served as stand-ins. Among the few times the entire cast was in Orange County was to accept the keys to the city of Newport Beach in a surreal ceremony by the Pavilion on the Balboa Peninsula. Show star Mischa Barton appeared at an in-store event at South Coast Plaza but spent most of the time sequestered with her L.A. friends.
Star Melinda Clarke was much more accessible. Having grown up in Dana Point where her parents lived, she could be seen in OC regularly, dining at Montage Laguna Beach and hanging out with her family on the beaches and in the shops.
The local complaint that Hollywood was treating Orange County as a fictional setting and not really depicting the place as it is was turned on its head with two new shows that debuted just as "The OC" lost it’s pop cultural cult following: "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" and "The Real Housewives of Orange County."
The first was an MTV reality show that followed the drama of high school kids living in “the bubble” of Laguna Beach. While the couplings and drunken revelry of the attractive beach kids caused much consternation locally, the real star of the show was the city, shown to great effect in between the scenes featuring the teens.
Quick cuts of surfers, the boardwalk, the coves and the coast showed the “reality” of Orange County’s beauty and affluence that is often missing in the daily drama of young people’s banal existence, whether they live by the beach or in downtown Detroit or bucolic Boise.
If "Laguna Beach" was (at least in retrospect) a tourism bonanza for the city, there is a cadre of concerned citizens who mark the show as a tipping point in the transformation of the town from a quaint and still slightly Bohemian beach town into a luxury enclave that draws jet-setters and billionaires with big ideas and attitudes that threaten the village’s plein air perfection.
Like the star of the film Orange County, Lauren Conrad and most of the other "Laguna Beach" kids couldn’t wait to leave the county after graduating high school, with Conrad moving on to her next show "The Hills." The cast of that MTV hit included another local girl, Audrina Partridge. And in later seasons Conrad’s vixenish hometown rival Kristin Cavallari joined the show.
Magazine covers, celebrity boyfriends, blogs, fashion lines, and literary fame have followed for all three – OK, the last bit is a stretch, but young adult novels in the L.A. Candy series have appeared under Conrad’s byline, as well as a book on her personal style suggestions. And she has sold enough of the books to justify adding New York Times #1 bestselling author to her CV, as painful as that may be to the local literati.
For a television show about women who stay put in Orange County, or move here later in life, one need look no further than the local franchise of "The Real Housewives." But that bit of nasty business (it’s the only one of the Orange County shows we've grown to really sort of despise) will have to wait for future installments of OC's celebrity story.