Looking for a special place to unwind with friends recently, Joy Evans chose to rent a private villa in Acapulco, Mexico. But it wasn't just the stunning view of the bay or the opulent decor that lured her. It was the home's owner: singer Julio Iglesias.
"It's the celebrity treatment you're buying," says Evans, a marketing director from Chappaqua, N.Y., who chose the home because she assumed the staff would be top-notch. The highlights: a bartender who manned a thatched-roof bar in the middle of the pool and a team of masseuses who came daily.
Forget the White House's Lincoln Bedroom. These days, more celebrities than ever rent their homes to strangers. Upscale-vacation planners say there has been about a 50 percent jump in this part of their business in the past two years. Virgin Group Ltd. chairman Richard Branson's private island, for example, is booked more than a year in advance, as are Mick Jagger's and Princess Margaret's homes on the Caribbean island of Mustique. After all, nothing confers bragging rights like sleeping in a movie star's bed or romping in a rock star's Jacuzzi -- even if the owner is nowhere in sight.
Paying the price
None of this comes cheap. Jagger commands $15,000 a week for his six-bedroom villa. Actress Jane Seymour gets $21,000 for seven days in her 14th-century castle near Bath, England. Even Elvis Presley, nearly a quarter century after his death, fetches $6,000 a week for the Palm Springs home where he proposed to Priscilla. And that doesn't even include security deposits, which run as high as 20 percent of the rent.
With the economy roaring, "celebrities have the money to buy extra homes," says Michael McLean, owner of an eponymously named rental company in Palm Springs, adding, "and regular people have the money to rent whole homes."
But why are celebrities -- many of them increasingly protective of their privacy -- so quick to open their doors to anyone who can meet their asking price? Some are discreetly trying to sell their homes by offering the buyer real estate's equivalent of a test drive. Others are trying to raise money for a pet charity, bring in some extra cash or keep their staffs occupied and well-tipped.
"The Duke of Devonshire can't walk all 60-plus rooms of his manor every day," says Gregory Patrick, owner of Tours of Enchantment in Houston. "So although he doesn't need the money, it helps to have the toilets flushed."
The leasing of celebrity homes almost always is handled by management companies, so guests rarely have contact with their famed landlords. Tenants who try to initiate communication -- say by leaving behind a demo tape or a phone number -- are usually foiled when housekeepers throw them away.
Take Arnold Chiet of Bethesda, Md. He spent a week at the Mustique home of Lord Litchfield, Queen Elizabeth's cousin, and was tickled to find a telephone directory that included numbers for David Bowie, Tommy Hilfiger and Princess Margaret. Although he says he "never dreamed of dialing any of the numbers," he did talk the staff into giving him a tour of Princess Margaret's house next door, which was empty at the time.
"It's fun," says Chiet, a retired vice president and general tax counsel for Lockheed Martin. "You think, 'Gee, she could have been queen of England, and I'm standing in her bathroom,'" he adds.
Others simply revel in the chance to live like a celebrity, with amenities such as security guards, butlers, chauffeurs, chefs and masseuses. Tom Blumberg spent $100,000 to take his family to Necker, Branson's private island in the Caribbean. The price included a staff of 31, three villas and two beaches complete with electric coolers stocked with champagne.
Today, the guests at these homes aren't just aristocrats. They are doctors, lawyers, business types and, recently, many dot commers. "We'll rent to anyone with money, except the media," says Jeannette Cadet, who oversees house rentals for the Mustique Co.
Of course, that kind of open-door policy can lead to problems. Travel agent Patrick says a guest who rented country-and-western singer Randy Travis' home on the Hawaiian island of Maui asked the female chef to work naked. She quit on the spot.
Famous owners aren't always flawless hosts. For example, some travel agents say some celebrities string clients along for months before telling them exactly which week they will allow them to book. "Celebrities can be just a little more, shall we say, starlike," says Wendy Wachtel, a vacation planner in Sag Harbor, N.Y.
This can lead to perhaps the ultimate thrill of renting a celebrity home: outclassing the stars. Explains Chiet, who leased a house on Barbados where the rock star Sting had stayed: "The butler said he'd rather work for me."
Renting from the stars
Below are some celebrity retreats that are available for use by the rest of us.
Who: Ian Fleming, author of James Bond novels
What: 17-acre retreat with five private villas
Cost: $5,000/night (will increase to $6,000 after Dec. 14)
Contact: Island Outpost at (800) OUTPOST or http://www.islandoutpost.com
The King's Hideaway
Who: Elvis Presley
What: Three-bedroom, mountainside estate
Where: Palm Springs
Cost: $4,000 to $6,000/week
Contact: McLean Company Rentals at (800) 777-4606 or http://www.ps4rent.com
Who: Julio Iglesias
What: Cliffside estate with bay view
Where: Acapulco, Mexico
Contact: Tours of Enchantment at (800) 949-DREA(M)
Who: Mick Jagger
What: Six-bedroom villa with
Where: Mustique Island, in the Caribbean
Contact: Mustique Co. at (784) 458-4621 or http://www.mustique-island.com
St. Catherine's Court
Who: Jane Seymour
What: Castle on 14 acres with stables and church
Where: Outside Bath, England
Contact: Overseas Connection at
(888) 72-VILLA or http://www.overseasvillas.com
-- Elizabeth Bernstein; THE WALL STREET JOURNAL