Welcome,” our tour guide yelled into her headset, “to the TMZ celebrity tour!”
The 25 of us in the tour bus cheered politely. The windows of the bus were open, but the couple outside on the sidewalk paid no attention to us as they took a selfie with a floral arrangement at Burt Reynolds’ star along Hollywood Boulevard. Somewhere nearby, a Christian minister screamed about repenting for our sins.
“I’m Melanie, and I’ll be your tour guide!” she continued. “Where are you all from?”
We were from Orange County; we were from New York; one of us was from New Zealand. Eleven of us were an extended family from Seattle.
“Who do you want to see?”
Ellen, Drake, Jennifer Lawrence, people offered. Two-year-old Daniel wanted to see Pound Puppies.
“This isn’t just a tour of celebrity homes,” Melanie explained. “We don’t show you the walls around houses; we show you the places they really go. It’s a celebrity safari! If you see any celebrities, shout at me. I’ll get off the bus, try to interview them, see if I can get them back on the bus.”
“Do you ever see celebrities?” someone asked.
“Sure!” she said brightly, “I’ve seen Debra Messing, Mark Wahlberg. I’d say about half the tours, I see a celebrity.”
Over the past few years, TMZ has become the nation’s leading purveyor of celebrity gossip, and the Los Angeles bus tours are an important piece of its media empire, each day carting hundreds of tourists around places that might (or might not) have housed the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Having paid my $51.50, I got to share my armrest with a native of Auckland for the two-hour tour.
We passed by an empty storefront.
“That,” Melanie said, “used to be an El Pollo Loco — and you know who used to work there?”
Guesses were thrown out. “Brad Pitt!” Melanie said. “He used to wear a chicken suit there! He also drove a limo. He’d bring hookers to parties in the hills.”
We considered that.
“This particular portion of Melrose is known as Rocker Row because of all the guitar stores,” Melanie said. Actually, we were still on Sunset, but Melanie was on a roll. “And that,” she said, pointing between two buildings, “see that there? The white building? That’s where Michael Jackson went to elementary school when he was seven. And then he came back at 37, and you know why?”
There was some chuckling.
“He donated money to the new auditorium!” Melanie said.
“What?” asked a member of the Seattle family.
“Michael Jackson went to school there,” said another.
“Where? The Thai restaurant?”
We rolled on.
A woman waved to us from her car. Someone thought she might possibly be Anne Hathaway. There was a brief flurry from that side of the bus before Melanie determined it was just a random brunette.
“It’s 2018,” Melanie announced. “Everyone wants to be famous.”
We passed the Viper Room. “This is where River Phoenix died.” In case anyone was unclear as to how to feel, she added, “Sad.” She waited a respectful two seconds and revealed, “Johnny Depp owned it. Ooh, and this is the Rainbow Room. Ozzy Osbourne holds AA meetings there.”
We drove past a restaurant where “famous people eat all the time.” We continued on Sunset into Beverly Hills, going past houses dating back to the 1920s, to the first age of Hollywood wealth and depravity. Oh, the stories attached to those houses.
“You know why Kim Kardashian is famous?” Melanie quizzed us.
Like students in an AP Pop Culture class, we chorused, “Her sex tape!”
“No!” Melanie countered, “She is famous because in 2006, we were outside a restaurant and Paris Hilton walked in with a friend and we were all, ‘Who is that?’ And we started researching her and we found out she was Robert Kardashian’s daughter and we started making sure to get pictures of her, and well …” And that’s how history is made.
In the shopping district of Beverly Hills, we passed a restaurant.
“Does anyone watch ‘Vanderpump Rules’?”
All but one hand in the bus went up.
“That’s her flagship restaurant!”
A few people waved to us from the outdoor seating.
Two teenagers walked past us. Spotting the TMZ logo on the bus, one of them screamed, “My friend is famous!” Melanie perked up and said, “You know how you know someone is famous? They don’t mention it.”
Another pop quiz: Who had the highest-grossing sex tape of all time? Many passengers weighed in.
“That’s right, Paris Hilton!” Melanie exclaimed. “Parts of it were shot here, at the Four Seasons.”
“And now,” Melanie said as we turned and headed back toward the hills, “the real star of Hollywood — the sign. If you want to get closer, there’s a three-mile and a seven-mile hike up to the sign.” Not true — it’s illegal to hike there directly, though it’s possible to trek to a view from well behind the sign. The passengers on the bus didn’t seem the hiking type anyway.
Melanie continued her spiel.
“Last week, just around here, this woman ran onto the bus and said ‘You should talk to me, I’m a Real Housewife.’ I said ‘What are you on?’ and she said ‘You mean chemically?’”
Ten minutes later, we arrived back at the TMZ stop on Hollywood Boulevard. There was a woman lying on Burt Reynolds’ star, taking a picture of herself. The minister with the megaphone had been replaced by a man screaming, “You are all living in my head!”
Melanie thanked us for choosing TMZ tours and reminded us that she accepted tips.