Looking back to early pandemic times, it was probably Architectural Digest’s video tour of Dakota Johnson’s Hollywood home that nudged me down the YouTube hole of celebrity house tours.
Like many millennials my Instagram feed is at any given moment peppered with aspirational content from sites like The Design Files and a stream of homogenous pastel-hued influencers. But sitting housebound with my partner and cat in our rented, single bedroom flat, the Fifty Shades of Grey star’s whimsical tour of her tastefully-decorated mid century Hollywood home and kitchen stocked with unreasonable quantities of limes (“I love limes, they’re great and I like to present them like this in my house,” she explained) offered a welcome hit of late night escapism from the more foreboding stuff unfolding across the internet in March 2020.
A YouTube-era successor to MTV’s Cribs, Architectural Digest’s Open Door series and a smattering of similar channels all seek to imbue the concept’s car crash voyeurism with the lofty pretence of caring about design. But of course, much of the appeal lies in gawking. It’s a denim-clad Lenny Kravitz on horseback cantering into view to welcome you to his sprawling Brazilian farm and villa. It’s the menagerie of exotic taxidermy in Dita Von Teese’s Tudor house-turned goth burlesque museum.
We watch with bewilderment as Cara Delevingne shows off the “vagina tunnel” that connects two rooms in her wildly incongruent “adult playhouse”. In the trophy room adjoining Serena Williams’ in-house art gallery the tennis champion casually sifts through Grand Slam dishes and cups like mismatched silverware. A YouTuber who has since been accused of endangering his friends for content waves a flamethrower in his living room, while a house producer I had never heard of points out the indoor tree that his entire $16m LA compound was built around. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “it is dying”.
At other times, there’s an endearing tension between all the excess on display, and the more universal qualities of domestic life. On a tour of Robert Downey Jr and his wife Susan’s Hamptons summer house – a converted windmill that’s somehow simultaneously bland and gaudy – we learn that even Iron Man’s home life is ruled by the behaviour of his cats, with laminated homemade warnings of “Don’t let the cats out!!” posted to every door. Hilary Duff points out the cabinets where she’s stashed all her kids’ junk ahead of AD’s visit, while Mark Ronson admits to shoving his self-help books “down where no one can see them”.
In my personal favourite, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard affectionately thrust their ginger rescue cat at the camera (“it’s really the only way to get a pet”) and earnestly speculate how many people their giant sofa would shelter in an emergency. A less charitable follow-up question might be: how many people might have lived in a four-storey Brooklyn brownstone in the less gentrified past?
Fortunately, Liv Tyler provides an answer as she floats ethereally through her West Village home: “Each bedroom was like a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment,” she whispers, before crawling into her attic to dig out an Elven sword from her cache of unopened Tolkien merchandise.
But as YouTube’s algorithm keeps serving up mansions, villas and warehouse conversions, a hypnotic uniformity emerges. Celebrity after celebrity proudly points out the exposed wooden beams that first made them fall in love with the house. The identical kitchens with forest green cabinetry and vast marble countertops blur into one, as do the subway-tiled steam showers, bedrooms converted into sneaker closets, and giant crystal collections (“People tend to give crystals as gifts in LA,” Johnson adds helpfully in her episode).
Just as every sharehouse I visited in my 20s had the same Ikea bookshelf, every famous young person today seems to have independently decided a neon sign with a quirky message is the perfect expression of their personality – to the extent that even the pink Tracey Emin artwork mounted in Kendall Jenner’s bedroom begins to resemble the millennial equivalent of a “Live, Laugh, Love” wall hanging.
It becomes evident that many celebrities – or their teams of designers – are swimming in the same aesthetic feedback loop of curated white, beige and terracotta inspo as the magazine’s readers. “I have been waiting for this day my entire life,” Troye Sivan says as opens the gate to his immaculately Insta-ready Melbourne home. “I spend a lot of time on Pinterest … and a lot of Arch Digest pins,” Jessica Alba admits in her $10m mansion.
Perhaps this is why Dakota Johnson’s episode represents the pinnacle of the genre, and has inspired a wave of memes and TikTok parodies to boot. Johnson conveys a knowing bemusement at the artifice and unreality of it all, reaffirmed in January when she admitted to Jimmy Fallon that the limes were all a lie, styled by the magazine to complement her twist on the green kitchen: “I actually didn’t even know they were in there,” she said, “it was set dressing – I’m actually allergic to limes”.
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