The Real-Estate Stars of Hollywood

In the nation’s hottest luxury-home market, a corps of young brokers hold the keys to L.A.’s best addresses.

Even though viewing hours are over, Jonah Wilson, a 35-year-old real-estate agent for Prudential, confidently strides up to a gigantic modern mansion in Beverly Hills. The home is so enormous it has three different addresses, and it’s on the market for $5.6 million. It’s a Tuesday afternoon, but to the town’s Realtors, who cover houses from Venice to East Hollywood, it’s “Caravan Day,“ when agents descend on all the new houses on the market and examine them for their clients. Wilson’s current list includes a talent manager who wants a traditional home in Westwood for under $2.5 million and an actor couple dreaming of something big in Los Feliz. This offering fits neither bill, not least because the seller happens to be named Andrew Dice Clay and the house’s decor is goombah chic—shag carpeting, satiny bedspreads, mirrors galore. Not that such eyesores particularly matter, especially in the chummed shark tank that is the Hollywood housing market.

“This,“ says Wilson, taking in the domed ceiling, “is valuable property.“ He knows he could get a phone call in a week from someone fantasizing about a place like this. He also knows that a week will be far too late (and indeed, Dice Clay Manor is snatched up for nearly its asking price the next day). But that’s okay, because if that prospective buyer is smart enough to call Wilson in the first place, he already demonstrates a keen understanding of the L.A. real-estate scene.

In the ongoing nationwide realty explosion, Los Angeles is the luxury-home WMD. Last year the city topped the country with a median sales price of $1.63 million for high-end housing, and in general luxury-home prices have leaped 63 percent since 2000. All this has magically transformed the lowly broker, who used to have all the social juice of a Starbucks barista, into a bona fide star—the guy everyone in the most image-conscious city in the universe wants to know. In a sure sign of their newfound prominence, brokers are the subject of a slew of TV shows currently in development.

“Real-estate agents are celebrities unto themselves right now,“ says Andrew Plotkin, a co-producer of one such program, an ABC pilot tentatively called Westside. “You end up knowing all their names.“ Of course, he doesn’t exactly mean all their names; the sad truth is that the brokers who phone Jack Nicholson with the news that a Rudolph Schindler in newly hot Trousdale has come on the market are not the same shlubs who get stuck giving condo tours in Manhattan Beach.

“The successful real-estate agents now are suave, hip go-getters,“ says Gail Hershowitz, an L.A. escrow officer for over 20 years. “There are so many agents out there that if you’re going to be successful, you really have to have that extra bit of charisma.“

A celebrity pedigree doesn’t hurt either: Wilson is the son of the late Beach Boy Carl Wilson, and being a scion of rock royalty gave him his start. He earned his real-estate license after a brief stint in 1989 as the tour manager for Wilson Phillips, the band his cousins Wendy and Carnie formed with Chynna Phillips. His first three sales were the houses that “Hold On“ paid for—one for each band member.

Wilson’s roster has significantly expanded since then, and now includes Courteney Cox and David Arquette, Stephen Dorff, Anthony Kiedis, Adam Duritz, and Jonathan Davis of Korn, among many others. The agent’s specific charm rests in a teddy-bear cuddliness more often associated with kindergarten teachers than salesmen.

“I’m a pretty mellow person for this career,“ Wilson admits. “A lot of agents are hustlers and movers and shakers. I can turn that on when I need to, but my nature isn’t like that.“ Wilson sold roughly 30 houses last year, totaling approximately $45 million.

“Some real-estate brokers are very cocky, but Jonah’s someone I want to spend time with past the signing on the dotted line,“ says Courteney Cox, who has done five deals through him. “He’s patient, he’s fun to hang out with, and he’s got fantastic taste: He can just pinpoint what people want.“

Wilson’s style is far more casual than that of one of L.A.’s other celebrity brokers, Brett Lawyer. The two actually came up together, first at Prudential and then at the boutique agency Nourmand & Associates. But where Wilson is the go-to guy for the Grammy set, Lawyer, 43, has cornered the market on hipster Young Hollywood: His clients include Leo, Tobey, Keanu, Cameron, Ben, J. Lo, and many other pretty young millionaires, as well as Barry Manilow, Mel Gibson, Ricki Lake, and Al Pacino.

Originally from southern Ohio, Lawyer came out to L.A. one summer to be an actor. Despite a run on the eighties soap Capitol, he soon realized that a lifestyle charted on Entertainment Tonight wasn’t in his future, and he signed on to become photographer Greg Gorman’s assistant. When he made the jump to real estate, famous referrals from Gorman, like Raquel Welch, put Lawyer on the money train. But despite long-running relationships with his clients—he and Welch have done seven deals together—Lawyer, who now works at Sotheby’s International Realty, mostly keeps his personal and professional lives separate.

“I think part of the key to my success is that I’m not that close to my clients, and have no desire to be,“ he says, gazing out at the city from the pool deck of a $7 million Hollywood Hills house he’s listing. “I’m not out there working the scene.“

The discretion that Lawyer practices on behalf of his clients is one reason that he sold 26 homes, worth nearly $80 million, last year. Real estate is a spectator sport in Hollywood, and transactions serve as tea leaves in which to read the rise and fall of personal fortunes. Consider also that buying or selling a home frequently accompanies a sensitive life transition like a divorce, and you can see how a trustworthy broker moves to the top of your wish list, even before a Bird Street address or an infinity pool. For Lawyer, this means carefully tailoring his approach to each client, right down to his physical appearance. “Younger people don’t necessarily relate to a suit,“ he says, “but I’ll turn up the volume for their business managers and attorneys.“

But you don’t have to go Prada-to-Prada with clients to succeed in real estate, as Chris Cortazzo can attest. A 39-year-old former model now known as the King of Malibu, Cortazzo confesses within five minutes that he’s often told he looks like Richard Gere—who just happens to have been his first client. Cortazzo (who more closely resembles a rugged Dean Cain) plasters his picture around town in ads—spending $15,000 a month in newspapers and magazines—and generally enjoys la vida Hollywood. Oscar weekend found him first at agent Ed Limato’s ultra-exclusive annual Friday-night party and later at Elton John’s post-show party, where he mingled with Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, and the Desperate Housewives.

“The only celebrity I haven’t met is Princess Diana,“ he says. Then, perhaps realizing this might sound offensive, he adds, “But I’m not star-struck—I look at people’s spirit.“

The payoff for all this spiritually motivated schmoozing is a high-rolling client roster—including Barry Diller, Cindy Crawford, Jon Bon Jovi, Kelsey Grammer, and Ron Meyer—and big numbers to match: In 2004, Cortazzo sold more than 40 homes, worth a whopping $216 million (the average Realtor commission nationally is 5 percent).

“When it comes to real estate, I have no ego,“ he says. “I sold a mobile home last year for $500,000, but I also have a $65 million listing right now.“ With Malibu houses regularly doubling in value each year, there has never been a better time to specialize in this beachfront town. “When you look at magazines, everyone used to be photographed in St. Tropez,“ Cortazzo observes. “Now they’re all being shot in Malibu.“

So far, of all the telegenic brokers to base their shows on, the producers’ favorite template for character development has been Richard Ehrlich, a 35-year-old former club doorman who has been in the house-hawking business for only five years. Ehrlich is well-known for his gift of glad-handing, on display almost daily at the Fountain Coffee Shop in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he likes to breakfast on turkey burgers. Last year, Ehrlich sold homes worth more than $50 million to buyers such as the Olsen twins, Sandra Bullock, Benny Medina, and reality-show producer Ben Silverman.

“I started off with just my friends as clients,“ Ehrlich says. “They referred other people and the snowball kept growing.“ Indeed, having Ehrlich as your broker is a status symbol in Hollywood akin to having a CL500 Mercedes, regular tables at Il Sole and Mr. Chow, and a fashion-designer girlfriend—all of which the broker himself has in hand.

In other cities, real-estate agents are seen as a necessary evil—motor-mouthed hucksters who push you to close so they can cash their commission. But in Hollywood, they have made the unlikely leap to equal footing with the famous names they serve.

Ehrlich’s best friend is Jason Bateman, who sees his buddy as nothing less than a modern Hollywood paragon. “Richard floats in the crowd that ends up setting the trends in this town,“ says the Arrested Development star. “He organizes the parties that people want to go to, wears the clothes that everybody wants to wear, and lives in the houses that everybody wants to live in.“ Jonah Wilson has black-and-white photos on his office wall taken by his close friend Stephen Dorff. Lawyer makes a cameo in a spoofy behind-the-cameras video Mel Gibson threw together. The layers of fame and reflected fame pile up so quickly you wonder if a mere television show could ever do them justice. What narrative conflict could possibly be concocted that would dramatize so ideal an existence? “The tagline for our show,“ says one of Westside’s producers, Steve Pearlman, “is, ‘Can you sell the American dream without selling your soul?’“

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