Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2006

By James Verini

ON a recent Friday at about 1 a.m., as I stood in a Hollywood Hills mansion rented out by Flaunt magazine, sipping a Patron cocktail near a mannequin outfitted in Hugo Boss, thinking about the untouched Jaguar sitting behind velvet ropes in the driveway, I asked myself whether that most venerable of Los Angeles civic institutions, the extravagant mansion party, had lost its soul.

But then I saw Luis Barajas, Flaunt’s jovial publisher and editor, greeting grateful-looking guests whom he’d never met, ushering them into a house the likes of which they’d probably never seen and laughing his loud, hoarse Venezuelan laugh, and it occurred to me that, in some sense, this privatization trend in mansion parties could be a positive development for the average partygoers of L.A.

I had what you might call a Republican Nightlife Moment.

First some over-sentimentalized history.

Extravagant mansion parties in L.A. used to mean something very specific. There were Louis B. Mayer’s romps at his Hollywood Hills estate; the all-night jazz jams at Artie Shaw’s house in Coldwater Canyon (so beloved an address he wrote a song about it, “Summit Ridge Drive”); the Playboy Mansion, of course.

More recently David Geffen has had some legendary do’s, and Robert Evans’ Beverly Hills hideaway has become a proverbial den of iniquity.

What made these places and parties good, aside from dented bumpers and nude lawn sprints, was their organic quality. These were Bacchanalia presided over by self-invented Bacchuses, in stately pleasure domes of their own decree; tableaux, if you will, of the city itself. Egos abounded, but no one was trying to sell anything, except perhaps some Bolivian marching powder in the bathroom.

Lately, however, Hollywood power has grown more corporate, more cautious. The mansion-party-throwing class has fallen prey to the Fifth Estate, viz. the publicists. There are still the sought after fetes like Brian Lourd’s and Patrick Whitesell’s Oscar parties (even the latter was put on by Brent Bolthouse), but mansion parties tend more and more to be Mansion McParties.

Remember the days when you drove for an hour trying to find 34253 1/3 Chita Rivera Lane, guided only by the sound of the canyon-rattling bass, and then had to talk your way past a vigilant houseboy, all to share a bottle of warm champagne with Robert Downey Jr.? Now that’s a party, people! These days it’s all about shuttle vans, designer T-shirt swag bags, celebrity DJs and scrums at the bar for the newest hideous boutique vodka concoction.

But let’s not fool ourselves. I mean, we are still boozing gratis in a, um, o7mansionf7!, partying for at least a night as a rock star with a lot of other people who will never be invited to David Geffen’s house (and a few who will) or drink champagne with RoBoDJ (especially now).

And let’s face it: Who wants to go to the Playboy Mansion anymore, with its noisome grotto? As the Postal Service once put it, it’s not a party if it happens every night.

The House of Flaunt party was a case study in the Mansion McParty. Awash in sponsorship, it had that appealing democratic feel of the new form. There were a sufficient number of hipsters and wannabe fabulistas, but you wouldn’t have been surprised to see that guy who was next to you yesterday on the elliptical machine in the gym walk through the door either.

“I didn’t want a swag house,” Barajas said, maybe referring obliquely to his main competitors for Oscar week, the Soho House mansion, an ultra-exclusive place where celebrities could pick up free pants and this year situated on Mount Olympus, and the W Magazine spa retreat in Beverly Hills. “I wanted a house that people could embrace and enjoy…. We also had the help of Jaguar and Hugo Boss and Lucky Jeans, of course.”

Of course.

It was a colossal undertaking, lasting from Tuesday to Sunday morning before the Oscars. During the days, chefs from good-enough restaurants such as Grace and Il Grano cooked free lunches for whatever auditionless actress or curiosity-seekers showed up, while in the house’s spa area they were offering to VIPs — the parameters for this caste were wide — facials, eyebrow waxings and eye-lash extensions (seriously), all courtesy of some salon or cosmetics brand Barajas had enlisted, and massages with personal-trainer-to-the-stars Andrew Moskowitz. By night heir-actor Balthazar Getty’s band played, as did Eddie Ruscha Jr., the DJ son of the artist.

There was a “champagne ballroom” and the “Jaguar carport” and a “gentleman’s nook,” where I was reclining on a Landon Cole-furnished chaise longue — the house had been cleared of anything actually belonging to its absent owner, a bachelor who recently bought it — musing on the state of things while carrying on a one-sided staring contest with a doe-eyed ingenue in fishnet stockings, a red bustier and a feathered headdress. She was on break from the bodog.com-sponsored casino floor downstairs, you see.

“I have to get back to the roulette table,” was her only answer to my request to search her headgear for robins’ eggs.

BARAJAS, a big, gregarious man who moved to L.A. in 1990 from Caracas, where he sold suits for a living, has built a reputation as one of L.A.’s more interesting party throwers and devoted decadents. The parties at his mansion, a Spanish Colonial in Beachwood Canyon, are well known. They are also, like the mansion parties of old, hard to get invited to. So as Flaunt, which he started in 1997, has gained a following — in no small part due to the parties — Barajas has had to outsource.

“As you grow your business you’re going to associate more and more with people you work with,” Barajas, who speaks as a social o7macherf7 should, with devilish laughter and profane asides, said of the corporate presence. “But I hate logos and throwing it in people’s face.”

Thinking about this for a moment, he added, “At Oscar time you have to, of course.”

Of course.

He found the Flaunt house, a Palladian knockoff on a hilltop near Mulholland Drive, through Sunset Locations, a film and TV locations firm that has broken into the booming Mansion McParty rental market. They also handled the Soho House and W houses. Sunset would not say how much the Flaunt house cost, but they did say it was at the high end of their property “library,” which ranges from $5,000 to $35,000 per day.

Incidentally, Barajas is already busy with Flaunt’s Fourth of July party, to take place on the Paramount lot. He intends to fill the famous ocean set with water and do a beach party.

Some celebrities did show up at the Flaunt house, but the appearance that caused the most excitement was put in by Shaun White, the skateboarder and snowboarder, fresh off his gold medal performance in Turin.

It was a deeply heartening sight, a testament to the egalitarian values of the Mansion McParty. Had he not spent his youth in the noble pursuit of, like, totally gnarly halfpipes, it’s likely that White, a gawky 19-year-old with freckles and long red hair, would have a hard time getting into a Chuck E. Cheese.

At the Flaunt house, he was leading around a buxom woman in a miniskirt and trailing photographers.

“I was like, ‘Dude, can I wear your medal?’ ” said an Orange County woman beside herself with joy after White had produced his gold medal from his jacket pocket and allowed her to try it on. “And he was like, ‘Totally!’ “