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By Lisa Bannon Steinmetz
"You are way, way too blond," says hair guru José Eber, running his hands through the wispy locks of a distraught customer. "You need to go red."
It's Saturday afternoon inside Eber's Beverly Hills beauty atelier, a vast series of mirrors, lights, and softly whirring blow-dryers that resembles a futuristic spaceship. Eber charges $175 for this 15-minute opinion. If he actually cuts your hair, it costs another $300.
"But I'm tired of orange and red," the woman pouts. "I used to be red, then I went blond. No one can do blond." Eber doesn't budge: "I see you red. And your lipstick is all wrong. Are you ready for a major change?"
Eber, who fled the "stifling" style of his native France more than 20 years ago, is wearing a diamond tennis bracelet, a feathered cowboy hat, and a long chestnut ponytail. His first move after arriving here was to borrow the money for a brand-new Rolls-Royce. "It was the best thing I ever did," explains Eber. "In Beverly Hills, if people believe you are doing well, then you are doing well."
Within this southern California enclave, perception truly is reality.
A colorful cocktail of entertainment stars, new money, and year-round sunshine, zip code 90210 gleefully celebrates ostentation. It may not be the absolute richest place in the world, but wealth is probably not displayed with as much sheer exuberance anywhere else. The local Gucci boutique is completely sold out of $750 Lucite dog bowls. Even the Beverly Hills Police Department is in on the act. It's won awards four times since 1989 for its fashionable uniforms. The concern for appearance has kept out the ugliness of modern life; there are no smokestacks, no billboards, no McDonald's.
Most of Beverly Hills is in 90210, and all 90210 mail bears a Beverly Hills address. Locals are thus shielded from the reality that the zip code, possibly the most recognized in the world, lies largely in Los Angeles.
In the north the residential area gently slopes up into the Santa Monica Mountains, where home prices seem to rise with elevation, from 600,000 dollars to 30 million. Here the mansions of the ultrarich are in a constant state of makeover, perpetually evolving into newer, grander expressions of their owners' net worth.
The flatter, palm-lined corner of the zip code in the south is a shimmering mecca of materialism: 300 luxury boutiques, 23 certified plastic surgeons, two salons specializing in eyebrows. "Everything revolves around shopping," says actress Shannon Tweed, a resident, "whether it's for new shoes or a new face."
Since it's a 15-minute drive to Hollywood, the entertainment industry has long dominated the town.
Today Beverly Hills is home to an eclectic blend of sports stars, business moguls, movie and television celebrities, lawyers, and doctors. Nearly everyone comes from somewhere else.
Frank Ryan, a plastic surgeon, packed up his bags in Toledo, Ohio, after watching an MTV video of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A." Shannon Tweed came 20 years ago from Toronto, Canada, answering a calling to become Playboy Playmate of the Year. Vicki Walters came from Columbia, Missouri, after a protracted shopping trip here. "Back in Missouri there was no Neiman's, nowhere to shop, and our idea of exotic was Taco Bell," says Mrs. Walters, whose husband hit the jackpot in real estate. The Walterses bought Cher's old mansion, adding a moat, a horse ring, and a Moroccan bar.
"In Missouri I cooked every meal—that's normal there," says Walters, a striking 54-year-old redhead with the skin of a teen. "Now I have eight gardeners, two maids, and a Moroccan chef. That's normal here."
Enveloped by Los Angeles, Beverly Hills has long battled to ensure its exclusivity. In 1929 Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., even proposed erecting a wall around the city to safeguard residents from the encroaching hordes—a motion narrowly defeated by frantic local merchants.
Yet 70 years later the spirit of Fairbanks's dream is becoming reality. In the northernmost reaches of 90210 builder Brian Adler is driving through a secluded private community, North Beverly Park, where a starter home is eight million dollars. Access is forbidden to the public, and Adler must be waved through a stone gate by a 24-hour security guard. In this cloistered 200-acre sanctuary Adler has constructed 25,000-square-foot Tuscan villas, Venetian palaces, and neoclassical French mansions with a Beverly Hills twist: Many have ten-car garages, several kitchens, and 4,000-square-foot bedroom suites, twice the size of the average American house.
What's happening, Adler explains, is that Beverly Hills has become such an attraction that some of the more affluent residents have grown uncomfortable. Fourteen million tourists come every year, encouraged by city government and the merchants. "All of a sudden tour buses are everywhere, like you're in a Disneyland atmosphere," Adler says.
Now that 80 percent of its revenue comes from businesses, the city is increasingly willing to accommodate tourism, luring national chains such as Banana Republic to crowd in with Tiffany. Nightclubs have opened, even a drive-through pharmacy. Mayor Vicki Reynolds advocates new housing options. "I don't want to say affordable housing," she says carefully, "but more accessible to young professionals."
So more and more of the privileged are retreating behind gates. Vicki Walters, for one, has decided to do most of her entertaining at home. For New Year's Eve she threw an understated, impromptu party: some ham and potato salad, a few select guests, and, at midnight, 500 helium balloons released through the retractable roof of her house.