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Stuff rich people get for free

Swag permeates the Oscars

By Todd Leopold
CNN

story.swag3.jpg
Jewelry designer Mia Koniver, left, and Kim Waite, Stila Cosmetics' PR director, show off their items.

WHAT'S IN THE BAG?

Contributors to this year's Oscar gift bag:

  • The Art of Shaving (grooming gear)
  • Krups (espresso machine)
  • Honolulu's Halekulani Hotel (four-night stay)
  • Vonage (phone system)
  • Rosewood Hotels & Resorts (two-night stay at New York's Carlyle)
  • Frette (travel blanket)
  • Morton's steak house (private party)
  • Cadillac (two-week test drive)
  • Netflix (one-year membership)
  • Joe Frazier (a day with the former champ)

    Sources: Chicago Sun-Times, swagtime.com, press releases
  • SPECIAL REPORT

    LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Once upon a time -- like about, oh, 1988 -- stars didn't receive anything for presenting and participating in the Oscars. It was an honor just to be asked.

    Now the question is what they don't receive. Jewelry. Trips. Lingerie. Grooming products and cosmetics. Coupons for Lasik eye surgery.

    And companies vie to add to the gift basket, open Oscar suites and somehow draw the attention of an A-lister, a term that has become as flexible as a 19th-century midway contortionist. (Watch Christmas in March for Oscar presenters -- 3:07)

    Of course, there's a reason for giving free stuff to already wealthy individuals. In a celebrity-driven culture, it's simply good marketing.

    "Our industry has been fueled by pop culture magazines," Lash Fary, owner of Distinctive Assets -- a company that assembles gift bags -- told Reuters. "They need celebrity content."

    And companies will pay dearly for the privilege. Fary charges up to $20,000 for firms to be included in his gift bags, according to The New York Times. The bags' items are provided to participants in a number of awards shows, including the Oscars.

    The contents of the official Oscar gift basket are kept secret by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until after the broadcast, but according to press releases and news sources, this year's contributors include the Art of Shaving, which is offering a silver-tipped shaving brush and a gift certificate for a "Royal Shave and Hair Cut"; linen-maker Frette, which is supplying a cashmere travel blanket; and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, which is providing two nights at New York's Carlyle Hotel.

    Each item must be worth at least $500; according to the Chicago Sun-Times' Bill Zwecker, the total value of the 2006 bag is estimated at more than $100,000.

    Connecting with the stars

    Sometimes a bit of free stuff is simply a draw to attract celebrities to "Oscar suites," where the stars can try on makeup, sample fashions and perhaps get a spa-style treatment.

    Revlon, which sponsored what it called "the ultimate luxury suite" in a Beverly Hills hotel, offered makeup artist Kristofer Buckle, along with Henri Barguirdjian, president of the Graff jewelry firm -- who was displaying many-carat gems worth "a lot of zeroes" -- and Gilles Mendel, designer for J. Mendel fashion house.

    "It's a terrific way to connect with celebrities," said Ellen Maguire, Revlon's vice president of public relations. As an extra incentive, Revlon sent each best actress and best supporting actress nominee a collection of good luck notes from colleagues and co-stars, accompanied by a Le Croc crocodile clutch.

    For the engaging and slightly nervous Mendel, making his first trip to Los Angeles for the Oscars, the challenge is ensuring a celebrity wears your creation.

    "You never know until the end," he said. But he says it's worth the risk: The red carpet "is the most important event for any fashion designer."

    Stars and firms a little wary

    Smaller firms must be more selective with their Oscar gifts. Mia & Kompany, a four-employee Los Angeles jewelry design firm that includes Demi Moore, Madonna and Courteney Cox among its clients, teamed with Stila Cosmetics to send the 10 actress nominees diamond right-hand rings.

    A bigger prize -- an $80,000 diamond ring in the shape of a large star set in 18-karat white gold -- is, as of Thursday, in negotiations for a taker. The day after the Oscars, that ring is intended to go up for auction to benefit the celebrity's charity.

    "We can't afford to do [what large companies do], so we pick and choose projects carefully," said Mia Koniver, the head of Mia & Kompany.

    It's an exciting time, she added, but also wearying. Celebrities may say they'll wear her designs but don't, and some clients make crazy purchase demands as they prepare for the show. One "needed 30 necklaces in 12 hours, and we did it. I don't know how we did it, but we did," Koniver said.

    It's all part of the awards-season frenzy: "We're Los Angeles-based, and this is what we do," she said.

    Whether the items actually impress celebrities is an open question. Some stars have been known practically to shovel freebies into shopping bags; others ignore attempts to curry favor and give items to friends, family and assistants.

    "Will & Grace's" Eric McCormack, who was visiting Beverly Hills' Sonya Dakar salon with his wife, Janet, on Monday evening, stopped by because he actually purchases and enjoys the products. But the Emmy-winning actor casts a wary eye on swag.

    "We don't like having a lot of stuff, so we give some away," he said.

    However, he added, sometimes the stuff is "amazing" -- and sometimes surprisingly appropriate. For the Golden Globes one year, McCormack's bag included a trip to Yellowknife, the capital of Canada's Northwest Territories. That destination probably isn't at the top of most celebrities' lists, but for McCormack, it was perfect.

    "My wife grew up there," he said.

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