In an unassuming home in Hollywood, cardboard boxes and black suitcases wait in the front hall. “Congratulations, Benedict Cumberbatch” reads a laminated card on top of a suitcase. A similar one for Judi Dench sits atop a box, ready for shipping to the UK. All around the house, luxury products – moisturisers, sunglasses – are cluttered on tables. The place has the feel of Santa’s grotto on Christmas Eve.
This is the home of the fabulously named Lash Fary, the Father Christmas behind the annual unofficial Oscars gift bag, which is officially the biggest gift bag the nominees receive. gift bagsactually: there are enough items to fill a large suitcase and carrier bag, and they get sent to what Fary describes as “the top nominees” – : best actor, best actress, best director, best supportings.
The bags are so heavy that some nominees who live outside America ask for them to be shipped home. But that privilege is only granted to the elite of the elite: “So Olivia Colman and Judi Dench, really,” says Fary. This year’s bag is worth $140,000 and items include $10,000 worth of Botox (“I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have Botox,” says Fary, and I believe him), a $15,000 holiday at a Californian spa and $25,000 worth of home construction. “People here are always doing renovations on their fifth house,” Fary says. There is also a $50,000 three-night stay in a Scottish castle, which Fary included for the British nominees because he thought it would be more convenient than “a trip to the Galapagos or whatever”.
The Oscars are ostensibly about movies; but they are also about product placement. For fashion designers, this means getting celebrities to wear their clothes on the red carpet. For other luxury companies, it means getting the celebrities to use their products in the hope they’ll be photographed with them or post them on social media. This can happen through one of two ways: gift bags or gift lounges, and both are operating at fever pitch this year to ensure some of the most privileged people in the world are washed with further privileges.
The gift bags are sent directly to the celebrities. The gift lounges, which have been a feature of the big award events since the 90s, are rooms filled with products where the nominees can do a supermarket sweep. At GBK lounge, which this year teamed up with eBay, nominees can pick up Tag Heuer watches and Saint Laurent bags. At the Secret Room events lounge, celebrities can get some Botox and claim a trip to Tahiti. In a hotel off Sunset Boulevard, the so-called “queen of the gift lounge” Nathalie Dubois is setting up a pop-up spa alongside the seven other suites she has filled with products, ranging from handbags to trips to Bali and Kenya. “These are not things they will give to their maids, I assure you,” she says.
There is some friction between those overseeing the gift bags and the gift lounges: “I would bet my life Nicole Kidman would not go to a gift suite,” sniffs Fary. Dubois is equally dismissive: “I’m against gift bags because you don’t know if the celebrity uses them. Here, we see them and they photograph themselves with the products, which is so important.”
This is the real point. “The products are free but strings are attached: the brands hope the celebrities will Instagram or tweet about them, and the celebrities know that,” says Fary. One year, Amy Adams was photographed in a T-shirt from Fary’s gift bag. Sharon Stone has been photographed wearing jewelery she picked up from Dubois. But why give so much to people who already have so much? “It’s the same reason as Jennifer Lawrence gets paid $20m for a movie: their names have value and they can transform the landscape of a brand,” says Fary.
Not all celebrities are keen on free stuff. This year Denzel Washington declined the gift bag so Fary sent it to Sian Heder, the director of Coda, who he thought should have been nominated. In the past Glenn Close donated her to a women’s charity.
“People say, ‘Why not donate the money spent on the gift bags to Ukraine?’ But I haven’t spent any money. The products are donated,” says Fary.
As for Dubois, half of one of her suites is decorated with the Ukraine flag. Here, celebrities can record messages for the Ukrainian people and make charitable donations.
“I was doing a gift suite at the Caesars when the invasion happened and I thought, ‘I can’t do a bling-bling suite when there are refugees.’ It just felt wrong. But I couldn’t cancel, because I have customers. So this is what I did,” she says. And then rushes off to prepare the spa.