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Yes, I Look Fabulous, but Inside I’m Saving

In a place where appearance is almost everything, and where studio back lots are filled with fancy veneers concealing plywood and chicken wire, hard times are summoning a distinctly Hollywood response: maintaining a fabulous facade on the cheap while paring expenses behind the scenes.

Hollywood Sign
Gary Minnaert
Hollywood Sign

Locals joke that the only slimming down this town knows is liposuction, but the higher-end shopping districts quickly disprove that theory. Robertson Boulevard, home to the celebrated Ivy restaurant, has 12 storefronts empty or emptying on just a five-block stretch. On Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, about 30 boutiques are either closed, about to close or vacant, according to the merchants’ association.

“The trendonistas still flock to Barneys, but it’s just to eat lunch and buy a lipstick,” said Leslie Wright, a fashion-forward executive at Bonhams & Butterfields, the art auctioneer. “That way,” she continued, “they can still drop into conversation that they spent all afternoon someplace chic.”

As for Ms. Wright? She’s not going on a fancy summer vacation this year, but she did just buy a brand-new Audi A5.

See-and-be-seen nightclubs are jammed, even as people cut back by eating at home, making many restaurants deadly quiet. (MyHouse, a new 700-person club designed like the interior of a Hollywood Hills mansion, is selling out four nights a week. On a recent night you could shoot a cannon though Ketchup, a fashionable eatery on Sunset Boulevard.) Carwashes are still busy, though car sales have plummeted. Tanning salons? You better have an appointment.

And don’t mess with the hair. At Chris McMillan Salon, best known as home base for Jennifer Aniston’s locks, the scissors are flying faster than ever after a bumpy adjustment period when clients — men in particular — started coming in every six weeks instead of every four.

“People whine about not being able to afford that new Aston Martin, but I’ve been slammed lately,” said Jason Schneidman, a stylist at the salon. He added, however, that he was selling some of his “personal luxury items,” like a motorcycle, to put a bid on a bigger house by the beach.

Some people categorize image upkeep as little indulgences during difficult times. Others, of course, feel guilty about splurging, as unemployment hits double digits. California’s jobless rate of 11.2 percent is the fourth-highest in the nation.

“Opulence doesn’t seem appropriate right now,” said Virginia Fout, whose V Productions plans affairs like Elton John’s annual Oscar party.

Even so, Ms. Fout said, “you have a certain style you want to keep.” That can mean spinning cheap as chic. “Look at it as a creative challenge to update for summer at H&M instead of Balenciaga,” she said.

Chuck Garric, who plays bass for Alice Cooper and Billy Bob Thornton, has a challenge of his own: relearning how to parallel park after years of tossing his keys to a valet. He’s still springing for meals at trendy eateries like Katsuya, where sushi rolls cost as much as $18 each. But $10 for valet parking, plus tip?

“Nobody notices if you valet or if you park on the street,” he said. (Not that he’s particularly happy about self parking. “The amount of circling you have to do is incredible,” he observed.)

Time-honored Hollywood traditions are shifting in this environment, perhaps none as much as the make-up gift. Hard-knuckle negotiations, a moviedom staple, are often followed by delivery of an expensive bottle of booze. The hot-headed are keeping the practice alive, but these days there’s more Johnny Walker Black than Laphroaig, and the bottle is dropped off by an assistant instead of a messenger.

“These gifts are still going out, but people are spending less,” said Jon Stevenson, general manager of Wally’s Wine & Spirits. “I know this because our volume isn’t off nearly as much as our sales.”

The bipolar way Hollywood is adapting to the downturn in many respects mirrors the movie business. The box office is on fire: ticket sales are up 16 percent, and attendance 13 percent, according to Hollywood.com, a box office tracking service. But studio bottom lines are barely benefiting because DVD sales have plummeted. The big studios have laid off thousands of employees.

The simultaneous feast and famine have the industry needing to push while pulling back. Paramount Pictures, for instance, had a splashy premiere for “Star Trek” at Grauman’s Chinese Theater two weeks ago, building a giant replica of the Starfleet emblem and rolling out thousands of yards of themed carpet for stars to traverse.

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But when the television cameras were turned off, and it was time for the after party, Paramount turned down the glamour. Aside from a 27-beam light show at the party’s entrance, decorations were sparse, and the food consisted of salad and hummus, causing blog chatter that it came from Whole Foods.

Paramount said no grocery store was involved. The original catering company got the date wrong, a Paramount spokeswoman said, and a stand-in had to be hired at the last minute.

Spinning straw into gold has always been crucial to Hollywood, and now is no exception. The scaled-down Vanity Fair Oscar party was “more intimate,” not cheaper. Nate’n Al, a no-frills deli frequented for breakfast by Larry King and his cronies, is now a “classic lunch spot.” The rarefied Grill on the Alley, long the lunch haunt of choice for power agents? Empty booths.

On a recent Friday, Robertson Boulevard sat starkly empty at lunchtime. The Ivy’s patio, usually a frenzy of preeners nibbling on $25 hamburgers, was sedate: not a single paparazzo lurked on the sidewalk; a parking valet kicked at the curb in boredom.

No matter. “So your company’s expense policy no longer includes grossly overpriced restaurants,” said Jessica Morgan, fashion blogger and co-author of “The Fug Awards,” a book about starlet attire. “If you act like a star in Los Angeles, people will treat you like one.”

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