How real estate became showbiz and agents became stars

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How real estate became showbiz and agents became stars

Real Estate

Housing affordability is at a low and the dream of homeownership is more elusive for Americans than it has been in decades. This increases reality real estate programs’ allure, a sociology professor said.

Agents in markets such as Los Angeles and New York chase stardom as fervently as they chase deals. Ariana Drehsler / The New York Times

By Debra Kamin, New York Times Service

April 29, 2024 | 12:55 PM

LOS ANGELES — The crowd began gathering at 5 p.m., into the movie-perfect backyard of a 1920s Spanish-style Los Angeles estate once owned by Madonna. The air was so soft and eucalyptus-scented that you could wrap yourself in it. Glasses clinked. The pool glinted in the slinking sun. In the Santa Monica Mountains above, the Hollywood sign gleamed like a row of perfectly capped teeth.

Into that golden light stepped Mauricio Umansky, fresh off his debut the night before on “Dancing With the Stars.” He made his way to a crystal lectern and began cracking jokes for the attendees, who were there for a star-studded awards show.

Unlike the Oscars or the Golden Globes, these awards didn’t go to actors, directors or screenwriters. They went to real estate agents, crowned in categories such as “Stratospheric Sale of the Year.” (The winner of that award was Kurt Rappaport, who represented Beyoncé and Jay-Z as they closed on a $190 million Malibu pad last May.) As a real estate broker with two seasons of “Buying Beverly Hills” and 13 seasons as a real husband on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” under his belt, Umansky was the consummate emcee for the evening’s Power Broker Awards.

After the Power Broker Awards wrapped, the attendees loaded into Ubers and headed to the Hollywood Hills for an after-party at the Californication House, a $38 million custom-built James Bond-inspired mansion with a fire pit sunken inside its infinity pool. Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Celebrity has transfixed the real estate world. Agents in markets such as Los Angeles and New York chase stardom as fervently as they chase deals.

They rose to glitzy heights during the pandemic, floating into living rooms on shows such as “Million Dollar Listing,” “Million Dollar Beach House” and “Buying Beverly Hills.” Captive audiences watched agents rake in six-figure commissions and wrangle personal dramas as they listed, bought and sold some of America’s most eye-popping real estate. “Selling Sunset,” in which an ensemble cast of couture-clad agents bickers and bids in 6-inch heels, premiered in 2019 and quickly became one of Netflix’s most popular shows.

The agents now have true staying power, fueled by viewers’ insatiable desire for reality television content and the escapism of peeking at properties they could never afford to own.

Jason Oppenheim, second from right, was one of several famous faces at the after-party for the Power Broker Awards in Hollywood. Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Housing affordability in the United States is at a crushing low, with skyrocketing prices, elevated mortgage rates and a lack of inventory accessible to low- and middle-income households. The dream of homeownership is more elusive for Americans than it has been in decades. According to Danielle Lindemann, a professor of sociology at Lehigh University and the author of “True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us,” that disconnect increases the programs’ allure, expanding the daydream of Zillow surfing by packaging it as premium content.

“Paradoxically, with these shows, we as viewers forge what’s called a parasocial relationship, which is like a friendship or personal relationship with a character on TV,” Lindemann said. “We want to see this wealth. We can live vicariously through it. You get to exist in this hyperreality where you almost get to feel like you’re a part of it.”

The most recent season of “Selling Sunset” brought in about 3.2 million streaming viewers per episode, according to Nielsen Media Research; “Buying Beverly Hills” drew 1.7 million per episode in its first season and numbers for its second season, which premiered March 22, are up about 5%.

Unlike the Oscars or the Golden Globes, the Power Broker Awards don’t celebrate actors, directors or screenwriters. They celebrate real estate agents. Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

For comparison, “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (on which Umansky’s estranged wife, Kyle Richards, regularly discusses their relationship) peaked at 2.5 million views in its latest season.

‘Growing My Name’

“Every agent today is trying to get their own show,” said Alexander Ali, founder of the Society Group, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm that exclusively markets celebrity agents and their properties. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find an agent who doesn’t have social media and a PR strategy.”

His company represents agents who have worked with the Kardashians, Ariana Grande and Justin Timberlake — Ali calls it “the CAA of real estate,” referring to the Hollywood talent agency. Three years ago, he decided to create the Power Broker Awards.

The Hollywood Reporter, which since 2017 has invested heavily in its real estate coverage, has been a co-sponsor of the awards since their inception. The magazine publishes an annual list of the top agents in Los Angeles and New York based on their sales volume, homes sold to Hollywood clients, and visibility in the media.

Three times a year, in Los Angeles, Miami and New York, Ali partners with The Wall Street Journal for an event called “Upfronts,” a sneak preview of real estate listings that top agents plan to put on the market later in the year. It is held in a film screening room and modeled after the annual presentations that television networks make to entice advertisers to their upcoming shows.

Many luxury agents now say that in a market that’s more crowded than ever, appearing on television is one of the most effective ways to stay ahead of the pack. The days when agents’ options for luring clients were limited to splashing their faces on bus-stop benches and taking out ads in the back page of the Pennysaver are long gone.

In the real estate brokerage industry, as in the housing market — where median home prices are now six times the median American income and a majority of American renters are spending more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities — there is a chasm between the haves and have-nots. The average agent earns $46,014 a year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Umansky’s net worth is $100 million, according to reports.

“When I decided to go on television, I said, if I’m going to do this, it’s going to be for the sake of the business and the sake of growing my name,” Umansky, 53, said in an interview.

He got his start in real estate at the firm Hilton & Hyland, which is owned by his brother-in-law Richard Hilton (of the Hilton hotel dynasty). Umansky first appeared on “Real Housewives” in 2010 and then capitalized on the exposure to launch his own real estate company, the Agency, in 2011. “Buying Beverly Hills” premiered in 2022. The Agency earned $12.4 billion in sales that year — over $1 billion more than in 2021.

Some younger agents who joined television shows say they see celebrity as one of the quickest ways to build their brands. Mia Calabrese, a New York-based agent with Nest Seekers International, had only been a real estate agent for two years when she joined the Discovery+ series “Selling the Hamptons” in 2021.

“It was an opportunity to catapult my real estate career,” said Calabrese, 32. “Having the platform of being on television allows you to be exposed to so many different clients and so many different markets. It’s a selling point for my sellers. My listings are going to get more eyes than a listing with someone who’s not on television.”

How It Started

At the after-party for the Power Broker Awards, guests mingled, networked and, of course, took selfies.Credit Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Luxury real estate voyeurism has been a fixture on television since “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” That show, which ran from 1984 to 1995, made its host, Robin Leach, a household name — and a household voice. But TV real estate agents didn’t truly step into the spotlight until 2012, when “Million Dollar Listing,” already a fixture in Los Angeles, hit New York as well.

At first, that spotlight was limited. Home-renovation shows, which took off in the same period, offered a faster track to fame for their leading figures, such as Chip and Joanna Gaines and Drew and Jonathan Scott (aka the Property Brothers), who showed Americans how to flip average properties in a matter of weeks (often with questionable off-camera results).

John Gomes and Fredrik Eklund, who lead a 90-person superteam at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, were already successful brokers when Eklund joined the first season of “Million Dollar Listing New York.”

Becoming a television star was “very intentional,” Eklund said.

When he arrived in New York in the early 2000s, Eklund was already well known in his native Sweden. This was partly because of his previous career as an adult film star with the nom de porn Tag Eriksson. But it was also because he understood the invisible, influential currency that fame can deliver: He grew up in a prominent family with links to prime ministers and film director Ingmar Bergman.

Eklund believed that his off-screen business as a real estate agent would benefit if he built the right kind of on-screen persona.

The Power Broker Awards after-party doubled as an open house for the Californication House, which was built by a real estate power couple. Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

“I realized very quickly the more vulnerable and truthful and open I am with the audience, with the camera, the more of a brand in real estate I will become,” he said.

Gomes and Eklund sold more than $3.7 billion worth of real estate in 2023 and count Gigi Hadid, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Lopez and Daniel Craig among their clients.

Many agents who work with megastars say the key to their success is furiously safeguarding their clients’ privacy and stepping beyond the traditional role of salesperson to become more of a confidante.

Tomer Fridman, the exclusive agent of the Kardashian clan, is tight-lipped about the celebrities he works with. But he admits that his role in their lives goes far beyond real estate. At a time when Hollywood’s ultrarich are increasingly looking to become real estate moguls, Fridman acts as a financial adviser.

“You need to be a trendsetter for these clients,” he said. “You have to see the market trends and where they should be investing.”

Shana Tavangarian, center, and her twin sister, Emila Tavangarian, right, were among the guests at the after-party. The sisters are part of the Tavangarian Team, a luxury real estate group in Los Angeles. Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Fridman, a real estate agent with the Jones Fridman Group at Compass, resisted going on television for more than a decade, despite his A-list clientele. But he, too, is now shopping around a pilot for a yet-untitled reality television show.

After the Power Broker Awards wrapped, the attendees loaded into Ubers and headed to the Hollywood Hills for an after-party at the Californication House, a $38 million custom-built James Bond-inspired mansion with a fire pit sunken inside its infinity pool. The house was built on spec — that is, without a particular buyer in mind — by Branden and Rayni Williams, a real estate power couple whose client list reads like a string of TMZ news alerts: Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Willis and Jane Fonda, to name a few.

The Williamses designed the 13,000-square-foot house and oversaw its construction and design, including a secret nightclub tucked on its lower level and a $40,000 custom rotating round bed. The after-party — attended by a who’s who of Los Angeles real estate — doubled as an open house for the property.

Among the guests was “Selling Sunset” star Jason Oppenheim, who runs the luxury brokerage the Oppenheim Group alongside his twin brother, Brett, and whose romantic life is regular featured on the show. Standing on one of the Californication House’s many glass-enclosed balconies as Los Angeles glittered below, Oppenheim said he hoped his fame was helping average Americans see real estate as a path toward growing their own incomes.

“To the extent that I’ve helped attract people to real estate, I’m proud,” he said. “For me, real estate is the most exciting thing in the world and it’s great for generating wealth for people.”

Out of the Spotlight

The Power Broker Awards were held in the backyard of a Hollywood Hills estate once owned by Madonna. Ariana Drehsler for The New York Times

Some agents who have been on television say that the bright lights came with an uncomfortable glare.

Aaron Kirman was a regular on CNBC’s “Secret Lives of the Super Rich” when the network offered him his own program, “Listing Impossible.” The show aired in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, but was not renewed after its first season.

Kirman, CEO of Christie’s International Real Estate California, said he loved being the star of his own series, but from a financial perspective, it wasn’t worth it.

“I really wanted TV, and I fought to get on TV,” he said. “But it took time away from my business, and I lost millions of dollars in listings as a result.”

Kirman said he was open to appearing on another program in the future, but wasn’t chasing the idea. He is focused on his listings, which include an eight-bed, 20-bath estate in Beverly Hills listed for $126 million.

Josh Altman has been appearing on “Million Dollar Listing” since 2011, often alongside his brother, Matthew. He said he considers the time he spends filming to be a savvy investment in his career.

“We keep doing the show because it’s another advertising tool for us, the same way you would pay to be in certain magazines,” he said. “It opened a lot of doors for us.”

But he doesn’t credit his success to being on TV. If anything, he says, the opposite is true. Altman says that the Altman Brothers — the siblings’ real estate group at Douglas Elliman Real Estate — sells more than $1 billion in real estate each year.

“The show didn’t make us,” he said. “We made the show.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.