Revealed: What happens inside a celebrity freebie lounge

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If you haven’t heard of celebrity gifting lounges before, you’re not alone.

While it’s not really “a thing” in the UK, in LA they are big business. And with the Oscars just around the corner it’s prime gifting season.

So what are they?

In a nutshell, a group of celebrities (some of them Oscar-nominated) are invited to a swanky venue jam-packed with luxury items – including holidays, clothes, jewellery and food. And then they fill their bags.

It’s a little like Supermarket Sweep, except instead of a trolley, guests bring large black canvas kitbags, plus an assistant to lug it around.

The company which runs this event – GBK Productions – has been doing it for 18 years.

Founder Gavin Keilly tells Sky News: “The way we got started was that we were doing charity events, and we’d give gifts as a thank you to celebrities who were coming.

“One day Ozzy Osbourne put a watch in his mouth, and I had a lightbulb moment. I thought ‘we could be generating revenue by doing product placement’.”

Twenty-five current Oscar nominees are due at this two-day event, and past winners are invited along too.

But why give rich, successful stars – who could well afford to purchase everything in the room – a haul of freebies?

Mr Keilly explains it’s a two-way relationship: “The celebrities come in and it’s quid pro quo.

“They receive about $50,000 (£38,300) worth of gifts and some people say, ‘oh my goodness, the rich just get richer’ – but in reality, the brands get so much more out of it than the celebrity ever could.”

He says the average brand generates around 100 million media impressions just from being here, so their return on investment is impressive.

Companies are then able to share images of a celebrity holding their product on social media, websites and share it with the press.

On the day I visit Rodeo Drive, Spike Lee is due to arrive at any moment.

Communications graduate Francisco Vargis says it is not uncommon for stars to visit several suites in one day.

It’s his job to make celebrities comfortable during their experience, and today he’s looking after the wife of a US TV actor.

Mr Vargis explains: “It’s my job is to help them with any of the gifting they get – it can range from a wine bottle to a $5,000 (£3,800) retreat to Jamaica. It varies.”

But while carrying the swag is part of his duties, the most important part of his role is “to communicate to them that the important part of today’s event is to take a photo with the product”.

He says: “It’s not something we do verbally, it’s more a social kind of thing. Sometimes we’ll ask the official photographer to get a photo, to prompt them.”

Then there’s the added complication of some celebrities not being able to be pictured with certain items.

“A child can’t take a photo with a cannabis product or wine for example. And sometimes a celebrity has a contract with Pepsi and they can’t take a photo with Coca-Cola,” he says.

Mr Vargis doesn’t get to take any gifts home himself, but does at least get paid for his day’s work.

Before I hit the stands, I get the chance for a hair touch up at a mirrored beauty station.

Assistant stylist CC Park explains why it’s an important showcase for her company, Wen, as she’s doing my hair: “We live in an age now where you can access everything through social media. Getting the products out there is important. One hit a time.”

Accordingly, once I’ve been “zhuzhed” I get a shot with CC in front of a brand board covered with Instagram perfect roses, and the snap’s swiftly tagged and shared.

It’s then time for a tour of the luxury items on show, to see exactly what the stars get to take home.

Fit Farm, a health retreat just outside of Nashville, plays host to stars and regular folk alike. Chief experience officer Kris Intress elaborates: “We welcome everyone from NFL players to 80-year-olds who want to get their energy back.”

With the only permanent obstacle course in the US and other activities including basketball, a frisbee-golf course and a fishing pond for kayaking, one pair of guests liked it so much they stayed for six months.

They offer celebrities a $7,000 (£5,400) package to get in shape before shooting their next film.

The Subtle Mind – “a meditation and conscious living co-creative space” – offers reiki healing, crystal-gridding for houses (apparently it creates a soothing atmosphere within the home) and ayurvedic healing.

Co-founder Victoria Larkins tells me that Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (up for best documentary for their climbing documentary Free Solo) are both fans, and have trained at one of their private retreats.

Stepping from harmonious vibrations to dairy products, sisters Diana and Jill Giacomini, who live one-hour north of San Francisco, run their own cheese company – Cheese Tasty.

Cheese isn’t the first thing you think of when you pick-up a goody bag, but Diana explains: “We gift certificates, then ship out the cheese later. It’s amazing to find out people – including celebrities – love our product.”

Georgie Williams is over from the UK to promote two lines of clothing – elegant evening gowns and a range of hand-painted leather jackets.

She thinks the gifting trend is likely to travel to the UK – a natural progression from our budding influencer industry. She explains: “In the US it’s more about celebrities than influencers.”

Today she’s showcasing custom made Boda Skins leather jackets for Lady Gaga, Rami Malek and Ariana Grande.

I try on Lady Gaga’s jacket (it will be sent to her after the Oscars) while Georgie shows me an Instagram video Justin Timberlake has shared showing him in his customised jacket, emblazoned with the word “Memphis”.

The footage prompted rapper Drake to ask for his own personalised coat shortly after.

She explains: “It’s a dream for us to reach a celebrity and see them wear a piece we’ve created and designed. It’s huge for us.”

From one genre of star to another, International Star Registry gift me my very own star.

Company owner Rocky Mosele, who has half a dozen of his own stars, explains: “You pick a constellation, then we pick the brightest star for you. Then it’s published in a book and it’s yours forever.”

I’m presented with a certificate of ownership and a map of co-ordinates, joining an elite club of star owners, including Elton John, Paul McCartney and most of the British royal family.

Other highlights from the suite include a personal robot for your home (he “comes alive” during video calls); hemp infused water (“it turns your receptors on to bring better balance”), a hotpot for your dog; grow-your own grass for your cat to eat and a device to stop things falling down the side of your car seat invented by two guys who won the US version of Dragon’s Den.

As I leave, “Caviar Queen” Deborah Keane – founder of the world’s first female-led caviar company – encourages me to sample some of her products.

Drew Barrymore’s a fan – calling her Siberian sturgeon “sea butter”, while Kate Hudson treated all her staff one year by buying them “caviar clutches” filled with roe.

But it’s not all about receiving, there’s also a bit of giving going on.

Charity Reach Up and Reach Out, which cares for orphans and widows in east Africa, is the official charity of the event and gives celebrities the opportunity to give something back.

Charity president Alex Jones-Moreno says the juxtaposition of the luxury items and a charity raising money for people who have nothing offers an important “counter-culture”.

While he doesn’t divulge how many of the stars actually take up the offer of donating, he diplomatically explains “everyone that comes through the door is given the chance to do their bit”.

He adds that it couldn’t be done without the generous financial support of Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis, who is a personal friend. In fact, she’ll be popping in to say hi later in the day.

GBK Productions also raises over half-a-million dollars for other charities through its events every year.

On the way out I’m encouraged to consider a break in the Chinese city of Suzhou, west of Shanghai, to sample the silk, the gardens, the canals and the cuisine.

It’s a destination keen to appeal to the North American market, and what better way to increase brand awareness than encourage the stars to holiday there.

As social media manager Gabe Medeiros tells me: “China’s not a well-known tourist destination, so we’re getting the word out.

“Gifting hotel stays to stars at events like this is important to us. We’re selling 25,000 years of history.”

And what could be more effective than merging our obsession with celebrity culture and our addiction to social media to put the message out there?

A very modern sales solution, with selfies as standard.

:: You can watch the whole of the Oscars ceremony on Sky Cinema Oscars from 10pm on Sunday 24 February starting with red carpet arrivals

:: Get Sky Cinema to watch the Oscars live ceremony and over 1,000 movies on demand. Find out more here

(c) Sky News 2019: Revealed: What happens inside a celebrity freebie lounge

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