Paparazzi and gawkers may disgust celebrities, but they just might be a dreamy fantasy for everyone else.
Ellen Yuen smiled and waved for the cameras. She was strolling past luxury stores on Rodeo Drive when a crowd of paparazzi quizzed her about her next film.
“Ellen, why did you only get a supporting role? What’s up with that?” a photographer yelled.
Tour buses stopped in the street. Shoppers whipped out their iPhones, eager to brag about seeing the latest celebrity.
But Yuen isn’t a star. She’s only pretending to be one. And that’s the experience an L.A. startup company, called Crowds on Demand, wants to bring to the masses.
In particular, the firm is marketing itself toward tourists from Shanghai, who the company believes are willing to pay thousands of dollars to get the star treatment in Hollywood.
CEO Adam Swart said his business could summon a gathering of 10 to a crowd of 100. For a celebrity experience like Ellen’s – which would also include a ride in a Rolls Royce, VIP treatment with champagne at stores, a crowd of fans and souvenir photos – would cost more than $5,000.
“Whether it’s for tourism, for business or for political rallies, we provide the ability to get a lot of people in one place,” Swart said.
Swart is only 21 years old and is studying political science at UCLA. He came up with the idea when he got off a plane in Estonia last year.
“It was a foreign country. Never been there before,” Swart said. “I was thinking: Wouldn’t it be great to be met with a large crowd of people here cheering my name? Where I could just wave, and everybody’s cheering: 'Adam! Adam! Adam!'”
Crowds on Demand launched in October and became profitable a month later. The company employs three part-time workers. Swart declined to reveal how much the company makes in sales.
“We’ll see whether it’s a fad or not,” Swart said. “I think it has staying power, solely because it’s so unique.”
On Rodeo Drive, shoppers fell for the ruse of Yuen as the star. Yuen, an aspiring actress, was one of 10 people hired by Swart that day, and they were training for jobs with the company.
Throughout the afternoon, Yuen traded the role of superstar with the other hired hands. The workers posed near an expensive sports car, pretending it was the star’s. Once the role of fake celebrity given to one of Swart’s male contractors, Swart told a passerby that the star was a Los Angeles Clippers basketball player.
But a business based on deceiving the public with people taking on the identities of specific celebrities or saying they play for the Clippers when they don’t, brought criticism from Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an associate professor at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy.
“If it’s a lie, that’s really not a good thing for the company,” she said.
But Swart counters no one is getting hurt by someone saying they play with the Los Angeles Clippers. If anything, it might help the team because it lets people feel a connection to them, he adds.
“Is it misleading? Yes,” Swart said about his company’s concept. “That’s the idea.”
Hiring crowds on demand, however, can be a boon to businesses seeking to make a splash.
They staged a tongue-in-cheek rally against website banner ads, which they called an ineffective advertising tool. The goal was to promote the company’s alternative ad strategy for the web.
The publicity stunt worked. Virurl’s sales skyrocketed 500 percent, said CEO Francisco Diaz-Mitoma.
“We got a ton of press around it,” Diaz-Mitoma said. “For the cost, you can’t match what we received in terms of press and follow up stories because of it.”
Back at Rodeo Drive, Ellen Yuen said she loved the experience of being a fake mega-celebrity for a day. Yuen, made a shift from being a toy company executive to becoming an aspiring actress, but her roles are small and her characters unnamed. Among them: a zombie in the movie “Infected,” coming out in March.
“I’m not a name actress, obviously,” Yuen said. “Otherwise you would know my name.”