Australian Power Couple Ditches High Life of Partying to Live in a Van
Geoff Barker and Bessie Bardot with daughter BlueBelle
Photo by Nanette Gonzales
It was an unbearably hot afternoon when Bessie Bardot and Geoff Barker finally broke down and placed the Craigslist ad. They'd planned to camp over the Fourth of July weekend in the Westfield Century City mall parking garage, but their cargo van was too tall to fit in the structure. They'd been circling the streets of Beverly Hills for hours.
In the five years they'd spent exploring the world in a van with daughter BlueBelle, they had never been so desperate.
Tabloid fixtures and reality television stars in their native Australia, Bardot and Barker had arrived in the United States as part of an experiment: What would happen when they gave away all of their possessions and hit the road with baby BlueBelle, two suitcases and no plans whatsoever?
"We had what they call the good life," Barker says. "But it's a honey trap."
Barker was a celebrity trainer who rose to fame in the '90s after competing on Australian television show Gladiators, then launched Bardot's career as a swimsuit model. Together, they co-authored self-help books and became CEOs of a modeling agency (they cast the Australian actors in The Matrix and Moulin Rouge); a celebrity-contact broker firm (they might hire Paris Hilton to jump out of a cake, for example); a public relations group; and a tanning and gym shop. They were seen partying at nightclubs with Richard Branson and in TV commercials for Australian adult dating site Red Hot Pie.
The honey trap is one of several metaphors — "the carrot on a pole," "the hamster on a wheel" — that Barker uses to describe the endless cycle of trying to maintain a high-profile lifestyle.
But the most urgent metaphor — a "lobster in a pot," slowly screaming as the water is brought to boil — is the one Barker uses to describe the "cosmic moment" when he realized they needed to give up everything and uproot their lives.
Barker had begun obsessing over Discovery Channel's Man vs. Wild. If Bear Grylls could make it in the wild, why couldn't he? After all, he didn't just play a commando on TV — he'd served as a Green Beret commando in the U.K. Royal Marines for four years.
Bardot at first thought Barker had had too much to drink. But after the birth of their first child together, Barker's need to escape only grew stronger.
And so three months after BlueBelle's birth, the new parents gave up their apartment overlooking the Sydney Harbor Bridge and their bundle of businesses, leaving so spontaneously that they abandoned their gym shop. (The building's owner filed a lawsuit for breaking the lease, which Bardot says has since been settled.)
They'd previously accepted an invitation to house-sit on the suburban northern coast in exchange for feeding their friends' pet chickens. Committed to their plan, over the next three months, they gave away their possessions, turning their friends' front yard into an ongoing free-for-all yard sale. That attracted the attention of Winnebago, which loaned the family a free motor home.
They moved in to the Winnebago, shooting footage for a YouTube series. The Australian press followed: "Power Couple Swap House for Van," read a headline in the Tweed Daily News. "Living's Easy for Bessie Bardot and Family Tucked in Van" the Daily Telegraph in Sydney declared. The Northern Star simply proclaimed: "Family in Pursuit of Happiness."
In six months of traveling through the Outback, they stayed at a Hare Krishna temple, a hippie commune and an abandoned jail. But the Winnebago proved too great a luxury. Even little BlueBelle, who'd been raised on the road, grew restless after spending too long in one location.
That's when Barker's estranged ex-wife called. Seemingly out of the blue, she offered plane tickets to California so Barker could see his teenage sons in Orange County. Barker and Bardot cite it as one of many examples of the type of "congruence" they've achieved simply by opening themselves up to the universe.
In the United States, Bardot, Barker and BlueBelle stayed at the top of the finest hotels in Las Vegas — in a cargo van, on the roof of its parking structures. In a Sonoran Desert squatter's village known as Slab City, they filmed interviews with Salvation Mountain artist Leonard Knight, a local legend who died earlier this year. They documented their journey through snowstorms in the Grand Canyon and downpours in Joshua Tree, bathing themselves with buckets of water in the desert and buying 24-hour gym memberships in the city.
After a trip back to Australia (kindergarten for BlueBelle, possible documentary for Bardot and Barker with an Aussie crew), the nomadic trio returned to Southern California in June. Barker had a new project: ghostwriting a tell-all book by Lady Gaga's former personal assistant.
After landing in L.A., the family immediately bought another nondescript cargo van from a charity auction in Gardena. Their trip got off to a rocky start when the van broke down and left the family stranded in Inglewood, but they soon found their way to the greener pastures of Bel-Air.
"No one knew we were there. We'd just be parked like a gardener's van, and there'd be literally multimillion-dollar houses," Barker recalls.
But security kicked them out after a few weeks. They found a new spot near a friend's house in Beverly Glen, but the noisy roads make it difficult to leave the van doors open at night, as they prefer.
"One of the things that's not easy in L.A. is trying to find places to park," Barker says. Which is why, over Fourth of July weekend, he and Bardot posted a Craigslist ad seeking a patch of dirt to park their van at night safely.
Within three hours, they got a response from a woman in Silver Lake. Rosa Max, an urban beekeeper, frequently houses traveling musicians, actors and artists, including New Zealand-born Kimbra, who recently recorded her album on the property.
The next morning, Max persuaded them to move out of their van and into the second-floor bedroom of her farmhouse. In exchange, they'd babysit her two toddlers, feed the flock of sheep and chicken that roam her hillside backyard, and bottle the honey she harvests from beehives in the mountains.
But the Craigslist barter was no honey trap: "What if this is the thing we're meant to experience here?" Bardot asks.
It's been more than two months since they arrived at the farmhouse. Max's son has taken to BlueBelle in a huge way. Bardot, 40, home-schools her daughter with daily math, science and reading lessons and, if there's time, music and dance appreciation classes. From their treehouse, so named for the tall cacti that poke through the wooden deck where BlueBelle sleeps in a child-size dollhouse under the stars, Bardot and Barker can see the Silver Lake Reservoir glimmering in the distance. They imagine it's an island by the sea.
"I sit there on my balcony and I think, this could be the South of France," Barker, 46, says. "That's the kind of thing the universe provides."
They'll stay in L.A. until Barker finishes writing the book, but they're not sure when that will be or where they'll go next. "We have to keep ourselves flexible," Bardot says.
The van, which they frequently wash to avoid the perception of vagrancy, is parked just up the road on a posh cul de sac. It's ready to carry them away at a moment's notice — so long as they can find a place to park it.
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