Celebrities are often hard to understand. When you hear Johnny Depp state, “I pretty much try to stay in a constant state of confusion just because of the expression it leaves on my face,” you know you’re not dealing with a CEO.
Eric Thies (inset), CEO of DSI Entertainment Systems, designed this 3,000-square-foot outdoor theater at the home of the late Heath Ledger. The space features a Stewart tab-tensioned screen that comes out of the teak casing on the roofline.
But it’s more complicated than that, though, as home systems designers and integrators have discovered over the years. And in an era when celebrity has become commoditized and ubiquitous, thanks to YouTube and other Internet portals, it’s hard to swing a room analyzer and not hit someone with DYKWIA (Don’t You Know Who I Am?) stenciled in glitter on his or her forehead. Given the pervasiveness of celebrity in our culture, it makes sense to know a little more about how to deal with it successfully.
The interaction between the rich and famous and those who help assemble their trappings goes back centuries. But that relationship has become infinitely more complex in the digital age. Grant Olewiler, today president of M.D. Manufacturing, a whole-house vacuum system manufacturer, ran the company’s installation division for 15 years in the 1970s and ’80s before moving into the front office. In that time, he says, he discovered some of what differentiates celebrity clients.
“This is a group of people who can be very, very demanding, and you have to get used to that,” Olewiler warns at the outset. At heart, they may be very normal people, he said, “But they are bigger than life and they can act like it. You can literally feel the celebrity status with some of them. It takes a while to figure them out.”
Before you can figure them out, though, you’ll have to parse the lines of communication between you and the client, which in the case of celebrities will often have to run through a personal assistant or two, a PR/media relations person, a business manager or their representative and possibly various members of an entourage, collectively known as “peeps.”
“You have to find out who the decision maker is,” said Olewiler, who noted that his experience eventually convinced him always to make a beeline for the designer.
David Jasak, owner of AV Design Associates in Austin, Texas, suggests that personal assistants and other buffer personnel that surround celebrities are less a conduit of useful information than a kind of filter to determine if someone should be granted total access.
David Jasak, owner of AV Design Associates in Austin, Texas, has done theater and automation systems for four A-list celebrities in music, film and sports, and in three of those instances, he said, the peeps tended to lead things up blind alley. “In those cases, the designs had to change pretty drastically once I got to meet the actual client,” Jasak said. “There were some things that the personal assistant thought weren’t important, like automated drapes and shades in once case, so we left them out of the design. Then I met the client in person and they most definitely wanted those in the design.”
Jasak suggests that PAs and other buffer personnel that surround celebrities are less a conduit of useful information than a kind of filter to determine if someone should be granted total access. “If we pass their test, then we get to meet with the actual client, so don’t set anything in stone until you meet with them,” he said.
Celebrity clients are constantly on an emotional roller coaster. It’s up to their contractors to be the calm in the center of the storm. “We laugh about it sometimes, but it’s true that celebrities are always in an emotional storm,” said Elaine LeVasseur, vice president at Amazing Home Electronics in Santa Barbara. “Their lives are in constant flux and that creates anxiety, and we have to be careful not to amplify that. Stay calm, take notes, but don’t take anything personally.”
LeVasseure reminds that the line between personal space and professional environment is always hazy with this cohort; screening rooms and recording studios give way to living room and kitchens in their homes.
“Their professional and personal lives are always being mixed together and that creates the potential for more emotionality,” she said, adding that that anxiety can be infectious. “These kinds of [systems] projects can get ripped out by the roots a week before you think you’re done. These clients are used to having big film projects blow up at the last minute, and that happens in their home lives all the time, too. You just have to be ready for it and stay calm.”
Eric Thies, CEO of DSI Entertainment Systems in West Hollywood, whose portfolio includes a 3,000-square-foot outdoor theater at the home of the late Heath Ledger, agreed. “The actor, actress, or director client is temperamentally different from the typical CEO sort of client; they’re less pragmatic and more emotional,” he stated. “Navigating that can be tricky. In our business we’re used to dealing with logic and that usually doesn’t apply here.”
Olewiler is more blunt, saying the penchant for unreasonableness by those on the A-List exceeds that of less well-known celebrities. He cites one celeb that demanded that he create a completely unique wall jack for the central vacuum system in his Bel Air home, one that no one else’s hose would fit. “I was shocked,” he said. “Who would even notice the difference?” But upon reflection it revealed to him another aspect of the celebrity mind at work. “Everything they have has to be one better than the next guy’s,” he says. “It’s all about competition. They all want something that no one else has or can get. If you can understand that, you can work with them more effectively.”
Bond on the screen and Seahawks’ quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s jersey on the wall add extra celeb power to the home screening lounge of Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus, which was designed by Carl Tatz (inset).
The very wealthy aren’t necessarily celebrities, but they can have similar characteristics. Olewiler recalled a flamboyant corporate mogul, the fifth richest person in the U.S. at the time, who was having a home built in the resort town of Arrowhead. He overheard an argument between the client and the builder about which HVAC system to install in the house. The client wanted Carrier, the builder argued for another make. A day later, Olewiler recalls, the owner came back and told the contractor, “Go ahead and put the other kind in. I just found out that I own them, too.”
To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” then you can sell custom AV to celebrity clients. Those with experience tell us that how you present yourself makes a huge difference. “When I was mâitre d’ at Julian’s restaurant, the owner used to tell me that I had the ability to be myself with customers,” recalls Carl Tatz, of Carl Tatz Designs in Nashville.
Thirty years ago, Tatz was squiring diners like Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Andy Williams, the Everlys, and Wayne Newton around what was then Nashville’s equivalent of the Brown Derby. Today, he uses those same lessons when dealing with country music’s elite, including several members of Rascal Flatts, for whom he’s built recording studios and home theaters.
“Being able to be comfortable around famous people is key,” he said, adding that the way he does it is to remind himself that just being in their presence means the first hurdle has been cleared. “You’re there because someone they know and trust recommended you–they’re not getting you out of the phonebook. So in a sense, you’re pre-sold. That’s how you have to think. They need to feel that you’re the best there is. But I also remind myself that it’s a privilege to work for them and that there’s nothing more important than letting them know you’re going to deliver on your promises.”
DSI’s Eric Thies says how the company is perceptually positioned is just as crucial. “You want to appear approachable but also resourceful,” he said. “We present ourselves as a boutique with a lot of resources, where every custom job is unique but no issue is unmanageable.” He also emphasizes the need to keep the same point person on the project start to finish. “Not only someone who they can call any hour of the day or night–and they will–but also to be the face that the client associates with the company,” he explained.
Knowledge is power, but too much knowledge may not be a good thing. It always helps to have some insight into a client but celebrities are constantly under a media microscope. Referencing a well-publicized DUI or viral voicemail rant is probably not a good idea.
“In L.A. that’s one thing, but up here [in Santa Barbara] they expect us to pretend that we don’t know anything about them,” LeVasseur said. She offered that an unspoken policy has been to keep these relationships as professional as possible, politely turning down invitations to their parties or boating excursions. And, LeVasseur added, while celebrity clients are invited to her company’s events, like an office Christmas party, as a matter of course, they usually don’t show up, “For all the right reasons,” she said.
The celebrity client is a complex proposition, and not every company is temperamentally suited to engage them. But they can also offer more profitable projects and provide a lifetime’s worth of anecdotes, like the time Grant Olewiler came around the back of comedian Bob Newhart’s home where he was finishing a project. Getting no answer to his knocking, he peered into a side window and was horrified to see Newhart’s severed head staring back at him. Fortunately, it turned out to be just a lifelike mask that Don Rickles had made for his buddy Newhart as a joke. Olewiler quickly recovered his composure because, as he reminded, “You have to remember to laugh at their jokes.”
Bullet Points for Your Next Celebrity Job
★ Don’t ask for autographs. Ever.
★ Celebrities take longer for everything and change their minds frequently, so budget extra time.
★ Don’t be surprised to have to sign an NDA.
★ You’re not their friend. Keep it professional.
★ Leave the Enquirer at home.