MTV Cribs collage
Collage by Cathryn Virginia; Images via MTV
Life

The Unshakable Allure of the Celebrity House Tour

From ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ to ‘Cribs’ to ‘Open Door,’ what’s behind closed gates never loses its appeal.
March 3, 2021, 12:00pm
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A series that explores the endless appeal of the physical footprint of celebrity.

This is part of a special series, The Future of Fame Is the Fan, which dissects how celebrity became so slippery. It’s also in the latest VICE magazine. Subscribe here.

The hood of Missy Elliott’s custom king-size Ferrari car-bed rises, revealing a flat-screen television mounted to its underside. It stops and hovers, above a gray comforter, at the perfect angle for the bed’s occupant to watch while drifting to sleep. Just beyond the now open hood, on the far wall of Elliott’s palatial white bedroom, is a large projection screen, on which a video plays faintly—almost imperceptibly—thanks to the bedroom’s most desirable feature: windows that flood it with blinding Florida light. This all means that Elliott, back when she lived in the Aventura, Florida, condo featured in the 2002 episode of MTV Cribs in which I first saw this scene, could watch an episode of E.R. on the TV in the hood of her king-size Ferrari car-bed as the Ocean’s Eleven DVD menu played on a loop on the large screen behind it. 

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It’s not surprising that I remember this, one of my favorite moments from a show I watched regularly as a teenager. Scenes like this cemented Cribs as a cultural touchstone for the millennial generation and acted as our formal introduction to a genre pioneered by Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: the celebrity home tour. For nearly 40 years, it’s been a crucial category of celebrity media—be it journalism or pure entertainment—and one that shows no signs of going away, even in a world where class divides and materialism are more publicly scrutinized than ever before.

“We like to think we’ve pioneered a new form in television,” Robin Leach wrote in the introduction to Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a coffee-table book released as a tie-in to his TV series of the same name two years after its 1984 premiere. “Before we came along, the rewards of hard work and good fortune were seen and appreciated by only a precious few. Now we’ve brought them out—gloriously—into the open and everyone can share a taste of what this richly endowed planet has to offer and what dreams money can buy.”

Everything about that flowery raison d’être is dripping with the sort of capital-hungry mythologizing that was emblematic of the 1980s. Yes, this story begins in the heart of the Reagan years, when dominant messages in American culture included “You, too, can be the envy of your neighbors! You, too, can luck into a fortune! You, too, can discover that money can buy happiness!” Films like Wall Street, Trading Places, Brewster’s Millions, and even the sci-fi satire Robocop may have critiqued the culture by offering cynical examinations of capitalism’s failings in the booming (for some) 80s, but shows like Lifestyles shamelessly gave their subjects a judgment-free space in which to flaunt their wealth without so much as a raised eyebrow—and despite critical pans, audiences loved every second of it. Aspirational soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty were mere fantasies. Lifestyles was the real deal.

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By proving that audiences loved seeing inside celebrity homes, it launched a whole genre—from MTV Cribs to short-form web series like Vogue’s 73 Questions and Architectural Digest’s Open Door—that changed the course of 21st-century television. Don’t believe me? Upon entering the home of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne for the first time when filming their episode of Cribs, in 2000, the show’s creator, Nina L. Diaz, told the now-famous matriarch that her home wasn’t just an episode of this show—it was a show in itself. Sharon was confused, but Diaz pitched her an idea. “Just put cameras here,” Diaz told her. “Everything that you guys exchange, like right now, is fascinating.” Less than two years later, The Osbournes premiered on MTV, introducing television viewers to what VH1 would later call “celebreality.” We all know where that led.

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Robin Leach filming in Dallas. Photo courtesy Leeellen Patchen

But let’s go back to where it all began. In late 1983, 29-year-old Leellen Patchen’s personal life was in shambles. She’d just had a baby and discovered her husband was cheating on her with another woman. One afternoon, when the crushing weight of her young life was simply too much to handle, she walked into her office, sat down on the sofa, and wept. “It sounds so corny,” she told me on the phone last December, laughing at the memory. “I said a prayer that God would point me in the right direction about what to do about all of this, and then I fell asleep.” 

A ringing phone woke her up, and when she answered, the piercing English voice of Robin Leach began blabbering on the other end. “I just sort of went, ‘Oh.’” In no time, and without explaining how he got her number, Leach offered Patchen—then a camerawoman for PM Magazine and the local ABC affiliate WFAA-TV—a job producing a pair of segments for the pilot of his new television series. One would be about the Dallas-based luxury department store Neiman Marcus, and the other would cover the Cattle Baron's Ball, the American Cancer Society’s largest yearly fundraiser, also in Dallas. Leach, who worked as a reporter for Entertainment Tonight at the time, didn’t fax Patchen a one-sheet or even deliver an elevator pitch for the show; all he gave her was a name: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. “I don’t know that he ever described what the concept was,” Patchen recalled. “I just got it from the title.”

“It’s almost as though they were tuning in on the show to take notes on how they would take their money and spend it.”

For the next 11 years, Patchen would have a hand in writing, producing, and directing segments on each of the show’s 68 episodes, bringing cameras into the homes, offices, and social circles of celebrities like Mickey Mantle, Frank Sinatra, Edward John DeBartolo Jr., Warren Buffet, and even Lady Bird Johnson. While there was no exact precedent for this kind of voyeuristic, feather-light celebrity journalism, Patchen made it perfectly clear why getting the rich and famous to agree was rarely a tough sell. 

“I would explain that we were not doing an exposé for VICE,” she said with a hearty laugh. “This wasn't 60 Minutes. [I would assure them that] we only did positive stories, that we did not tell negative stories. This wasn't news. It was entertainment.”

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Once the first episodes had aired, convincing celebrities to jump aboard was even easier. They could see how it worked, and they wanted a piece of this positive press machine. As for audiences, Leach explained the show’s charm quite succinctly to the New York Times in 1985. “Our ratings numbers are very solid in the 25- to 41-year-old age group,” he said of the show’s appeal to yuppies, who’d spent the decade aspiring to amass as much money as they possibly could. “It’s almost as though they were tuning in on the show to take notes on how they would take their money and spend it.”

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Leach interviewing financiar T. Boone Pickens. Photo courtesy of Leeellen Patchen

When the show was canceled in 1995—a decision Patchen described to me in detail by listing off media figures and rival conglomerates who allow popular shows to fail when it suits their own power-hungry motives—the whole TV genre seemed to die with it. Roughly six years later, a longtime fan of Lifestyles, Nina L. Diaz, brought it back to vibrant, pulsating life. After quickly working her way up the ranks and becoming a producer at MTV News, she began noticing how dull and promotional music journalism had become. Artists only wanted to talk about their albums, and interviews seemed more structured around what reporters couldn’t ask than what they could. So she had an idea: What if, using Lifestyles as her guiding light, she snuck the interview into a piece of opulent, materialistic self-promotion? The magic of Cribs was that the show was a sort of Trojan horse, something the celebrities invited inside to show off their bright and shiny things, not realizing they themselves were the brightest, shiniest things of all.

Diaz is now the president of content and chief creative officer at MTV Entertainment Group, and recalled her time creating and then producing Cribs with sheer delight. One of the keys to the format’s success, she said, was that by shooting celebrities in their homes, the producers were able to avoid “the entourage and all of the handlers” that are usually joined at a celebrity’s hip. “I’d ring the bell, and it literally would be the celebrity answering the door. There they were: They had let their hair down. They were home. They were in their most comfortable place. There was a casualness and an unguardedness and an authenticity [gained] by them doing the tour themselves,” she said, likening the vibe to a normal person wanting to make a guest feel at home. (Stars are just like us, after all.)

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When I brought up the minor controversies surrounding celebrities who showed off cribs that were not, in fact, their actual cribs—like the Robbie Williams episode shot in Jane Seymour’s rented mansion, or when JoJo passed off her aunt and uncle’s vacation house as her own—Diaz was as dismissive as I believe she ought to be. To her, the house is “just a backdrop” for an entertaining interview. “I was at the Robbie Williams’s one and, as you know, it was thoroughly entertaining,” she said. “I’d never seen that side of him, so we felt a huge sense of accomplishment and pride. We knew he was just staying there to record an album, but what we captured was so fun and interesting and revealing.”

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Nelly "where the magic happens" in 2002 on 'Cribs'

While it’s thrilling to see Missy Elliott press a button and make a TV rise out of her actual car-bed, or to watch Mariah Carey drink Champagne in her actual bathtub, most Cribs episodes turned the Lifestyles format on its head, focusing more on the celebrities than the homes. It wasn’t a show about real estate. And with an audience of teens without Lil’ Romeo’s means to buy expensive property, why would it want to be? Those teens were too focused on the novelty of Xboxes mounted inside cars they weren’t old enough to drive to think about how impractical such a thing actually was. And on the fact that “normal” adulthood—or at least the version lived by their parents and neighbors and teachers, marked by tedium and exhaustion and bills and monotony—was dumb.

What Cribs presented was a completely different kind of growing up, an exciting and more aspirational version that centered on indulging childhood fantasies and surrounding yourself with excess. And while praise for Elliott’s car-bed, Carey’s pillow room, or Richard Branson’s entire island would likely be marred by think pieces about income disparity and the pitfalls of capitalism if aired in 2021, those conversations were still happening below the surface in the early aughts, back when MTV staffers looked down from their tower at 1515 Broadway at the throngs of children dying to get inside the building when they should’ve been at school on the other side of the Hudson River.

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Though Cribs had the benefit of using Lifestyles as a precedent when pitching the show to potential celebrity subjects, it became a much easier sell once the first season wrapped. Diaz relied on hip-hop stars in those first episodes, citing the genre’s “ethos” of extravagance as the reason artists like Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg, Big Boi, and Sisqó were willing to sign on. And once on camera, they weren’t just willing but eager to share glimpses of their realest selves with the world.

Iterations of Cribs have come and gone since the show stopped airing in its traditional format a decade ago, but the closest equivalent we have today is a sort of hybrid between it and Lifestyles, with a soupçon of real estate marketing sprinkled in for good measure. I’m talking about Open Door, the hyper-glossy, short-form web series produced by Condé Nast Entertainment and Architectural Digest. Yes, it’s relentlessly positive; yes, it can be quietly revealing; and yes, it’s often a sign that the featured celebrity has one foot out the very door they just opened for the cameras. 

The series is little more than celebrity real estate marketing framed as entertainment. After cross-referencing the publication dates of 45 episodes released over the past four years with public records, I found that roughly one-third of Open Door episodes either coincide with or predate the home’s active listing on the real estate market. (The folks at CNE denied requests for an interview about Open Door’s production.) When I watched Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard show off their Park Slope brownstone—the perfect setting for a one-act play about gentrification—it was already on the market. Three months after Liv Tyler squeezed into her West Village crawlspace and behaved in a way that would have made her Empire Records character cower in shame, she sold it to the highest bidder. And if you watched Vanessa Carlton drift through her SoHo loft and thought, Huh why is this place so empty? it’s probably because she was trying to find someone to rent it for $17,500 a month.

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This isn’t surprising, exactly, nor is it even all that sneaky or deceptive, but it does help explain the show’s high production values, not to mention its A-list subjects. An appearance on Open Door increases visibility for a property and arguably makes it more desirable. And though the average viewer has no chance of securing the deed for themselves, they can at least have a blast listening to Dakota Johnson talk about her love of limes—an assertion she has since recanted, once again using her platform to point out the ugly (not to mention obvious and hysterical) truth that high-profile celebrity journalism is often built on a foundation of lies.

“You cover the rich and famous for so long and you forget you’re not one of them.”

I’m far from the only Open Door fan who thinks picking the show apart only adds to its appeal—not to mention its rewatchability. For 34-year-old Jessica Aniol, it’s the history of the interior design industry that keeps her watching, regardless of whether she’s familiar with the celebrity opening the door. Now a project manager based in Chicago, Aniol was once a sales design associate at a Restoration Hardware store in Denver, and she told me how much she enjoys hearing a celebrity credit their decorator or acknowledge the scores of designers who helped turn their house into a home. When discussing David Harbour’s episode, she complimented his casual vibe and his repeated acknowledgment of his decorator, Kyle O’Donnell.

But all that glitters is not gold, and Aniol told me that even as a huge fan of the series who has seen every episode, she is sometimes frustrated by the show’s explicit efforts to market things inside the homes. She called out Hilary Duff’s Samsung Frame smart television and a recent episode in which Andrew Rea, the creator of the ultra-popular YouTube cooking channel Babish With Babish, repeatedly hawked his cookbook and line of pots. She knew little about him before his episode, and now she knows all there is to know about his home.

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“This is no longer about the house and the designer,” she said. Audiences are smart enough to know about and even expect marketing ploys, she said, but shows like Open Door are more successful as pieces of entertainment when those ploys don’t smack you over the head.

In any case, it’s likely that the continued success of Open Door—its last video, a tour of Serena Williams’ house uploaded in late February, has amassed over 1.5 million views on YouTube—played a role in the green-lighting of the upcoming Cribs revival, which Diaz described as an opportunity for celebrities “to share and discuss how they’re making their home and their families a tighter unit.” Tying the reboot explicitly to the pandemic, she went on to say that because “artists aren’t moving around as much all of the time, ‘home is where the heart is’ is more true today—now—than ever before.” It’s hard to hear a pitch like that from a TV executive and not roll your eyes at least a little, but there’s a nugget of truth there, and I’m sure people will tune in.

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Laura Prepon with her horse in 2003 on 'Cribs'

Not all attempts to reboot legacy properties in the genre have been successful. Back in 2014, NBC received enough press for their planned Lifestyles reboot to fill a 12-car garage. It would feature “tech billionaires”! It would focus on their philanthropy! It would be hosted by Nick Cannon! Patchen was hired to work on the reboot. This new version was intended to be a so-called sensitive showcase of extreme wealth, one that never turned a blind eye to the ever-expanding income and class disparity in the world. A fine goal on paper, even Patchen understood that, but she saw the whole production as something of a paradox, describing one segment as a “cheap imitation” of the sort of thing they would have shot for the original series. In one story meeting, she finally spoke up and said, “Well, I tell you what, do you think that for the last two stories we’re gonna shoot that maybe we could get someone who is rich or famous?” When asked if the show ever aired, she told me, dryly, “Oh, God no.”

“You cover the rich and famous for so long and you forget you’re not one of them,” Patchen said, her voice taking a wistful turn. And that’s the appeal, isn’t it? Whether spending a decade in the universe as Patchen did, half an hour as a viewer of Cribs, or even 14 minutes watching an episode of Open Door while eating half a box of Annie’s mac and cheese at your desk, you get to pretend. And in 2021, when owning a home seems more impossible (and even less desirable) than ever before for so many Americans, it’s funny to look back on the toast that started it all—and ended every episode of Lifestyles: “champagne wishes and caviar dreams.” After 40 years, our wishes and dreams may have changed quite a bit, but our appetite for celebrity voyeurism remains insatiable.

Follow Bobby Finger on Twitter.