In the early aughts, the only people who had ever heard of the southern California suburb of Calabasas were the people who lived in or near it.
But in 2007, a reality TV empire was born—starting with Kim Kardashian and growing to include the whole Kardashian-Jenner clan—and everything changed. Today, if you were to judge by the pixels and pages of celebrity content mills like TMZ, the Daily Mail, and People Magazine, the roughly 30-square-mile Los Angeles suburb (along with the neighboring Hidden Hills) are among the world’s most elite and desirable neighborhoods.
In addition to its original celebrity residents and their ceaselessly-growing brood, the rapper Drake has a house there (he wrote a song about it), as does Justin Bieber, The Weekend, Laker basketball players, and a slew of other famous people. Last year, Kanye West took it one step further and named a sportswear line after it. (In a video for Vice, Ninja of the South African hip hop group Die Antwoord hilariously recounts the surreality of playing basketball with Drake and Kanye in this splendid suburban seclusion.)
Considering these celebrity bona fides, it probably made sense for the fashion website Refinery29 to investigate how this affluent and blindingly white suburb became a hotbed of urban street style. In a video, a handful of privileged teenagers, several of them the children of celebrities, talk about how the sidewalk-less and parking lot-full Calabasas has become “an epicenter of style” and the “epitome of cool.”
While Refinery29 may have a point that Calabasas looks pretty cool from outside of Calabasas, the video relies on a common misunderstanding of celebrity culture in southern California. Most celebrities don’t flock to Hollywood-adjacent enclaves like Calabasas because there is something going on there. On the contrary, they move there because they are deeply boring.
I grew up 20 miles from Calabasas, in Malibu, another Los Angeles-adjacent enclave and long-storied tabloid town. While Malibu’s natural beauty is a compelling enough reason to live there, its lack of a nightlife and social scene leaves most visitors a little confused. Every service industry job I had in high school and university had me regularly fielding questions from tourists and visitors asking some version of: “Where is everything?” When my British relatives come to visit, they are always perplexed by the utter lack of street life, the paucity of places open past 10pm, and the overall sleepy vibe of such an internationally-known place.
But ask any local who lives there and they’ll tell you Malibu’s famous residents don’t seek to change this small town status quo. They embrace it.
Calabasas and Hidden Hills are similar. Defined by spread-out houses in gated communities, nearly everyone drives an SUV and very few walk or use public transportation. While it does have a movie-related history as home to the 2,800-acre Warner Bros. Ranch, today its main selling points are arguably its good school district and the quiet, equestrian-oriented areas to go riding and hiking in. As well as plenty of strip malls.
For famous people like Kanye and Drake and Bieber, the appeal of a place like Calabasas is not that it’s at the center of the hype, but that it’s an insulated, secluded, and plush crash pad that’s a million figurative miles from the hustle of city life. That our culture’s most envied figures have gone from living in eclectic lofts in Soho to generic mansions in commuter towns says something out our re-adoption of suburbs as a way of life—especially for millennials under economic pressure. But let’s be clear: It doesn’t make the suburbs cool.
For celebrities, the sprawling, car-dependent nature of southern California ‘burbs allows them to be there, but not actually be seen there. (Ever notice how the Kardashians spend an inordinate amount of time eating takeout salads and sipping plastic cups of iced tea in their chefs kitchens? It’s because they don’t go out.) Whenever they need a bit more glitz, they can hop in an SUV and drive 30 miles on the 101 freeway to LA, or on a private jet to Paris or New York.
Undoubtedly, Calabasas or Malibu—or other similar enclaves such as Brentwood or the Pacific Palisades—are lovely places to live and raise families. By global standards, they are a peaceful dream. But our cultural fixation on the imagined glamour of fame has us believe that the mundane lives of celebrities can elevate a boring suburb to something that’s the envy of hypebeasts.
They don’t. And even the privileged kids of Calabasas disprove Refinery29’s assertion that the town is the “epitome of cool” in the video. The young women, seated at a local Mexican restaurant that’s a regular Kardashian haunt, say they can’t wait to leave. “The second I graduate high school,” one girl says “I wanna move.”