Nothing is what it seems on Rodeo Drive. On a spring day with a crisp breeze and a blue sky and clouds so perfectly fluffy they seem Photoshopped, the famous British royal walking down the street isn't famous, or British, or royal. The beautiful girl on his arm isn't his lover. And the people begging for autographs aren't devoted fans. Everybody in this scenario, except the duped passers-by and the architect of the illusion — a sly young man named Adam Swart — is part of a crowd for hire.
Swart, creator of the service Crowds on Demand, will "organize any group small or large within a week's time" for a few thousand bucks. "Have you ever dreamed of having an adoring crowd cheering your name, proclaiming you a champion and singing your praises through the streets?" he asks on the company's website. "For most of us, this is only a fantasy. ... The experience once reserved for presidents and A-listers is now for sale."
Today Swart is demonstrating the fantasy's machinations for a handful of journalists. In a neat charcoal blazer, blue shirt and sunglasses, Swart appears to be 35, but he's only 21. At a nearby park, he gives his crew instructions. "Jack will be our famous person," he tells actors Jack Minor and Julie Le. "Julie, why don't you be with Jack? People will speculate as to who you are. People will be taking pictures of our 'celebrity.' They will ask who you are. Feel free to tell them whatever you want."
Swart has brought along three hired actors to play the crowd, and a photographer and videographer to portray paparazzi. "I don't know what my position is. Maybe I'm, like, a hanger-on," Swart says. "Jack, can you do a British accent? You'll be browsing the stores with your girlfriend. Or is it a love interest? I don't know."
As the group takes off down the street, Swart encourages his actors to ad lib. "Jack! What are you doing here?" one actress calls out, cast in the role of obsessed fan. "Can I have dinner with you? Where are you going clubbing tonight?"
People stare. Others pause to take pictures of him, with him. A tour bus slows for passengers to get a better look.
"Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd," Swart says, happily. "There weren't that many people deployed. There were only seven of our people, but this is morphing at times into 20."
The charade works well. Too well for some of the assembled reporters' tastes. "Is he scamming us?" one journalist asks. "These poor, poor people. We are so stupid."
Outside the Chanel store, two older women demand an explanation. Swart decides Minor is the "Duke of Lancaster." By the Cartier store, he has become Scottish royalty. By Van Cleef & Arpels, Minor is a movie star. The crowd has swept up another 16 people.
When three men in a truck pull up to ask, "Who is this?" Swart counters: "Who do you think it is?" He then tells them, "It's a very important guy," before walking on.
"Sometimes when I feel bad about that," he explains, "I just say, 'He's a very important guy.' "
When a security guard offers that Minor "looks like a soccer player," Swart grins. "I love hearing people speculate. Plus, real entourages don't tell people who the celebrity is."
In real life, Jack Minor is a struggling actor, not a famous one. It is his third time playing a celebrity. Previously, Swart cast him in the role of Guy Getting Into a Bugatti: "The car happened to be on the street," Minor says. "It's all smoke and mirrors."
Minor's own car ran out of gas this morning, and he lacked the funds to refuel it. Swart spotted him $1.50 to take the bus out to Beverly Hills. "I had a great time," Minor says. "I've had much harder jobs in my life. I got to hang out on Rodeo Drive and pretend to be shopping for dresses."
"Pretend?" Le says, laughing. "I'm still waiting for that $13,000 Armani dress."
"You could only do this in L.A.," Minor concludes.
Well, not quite. Swart has rented out crowds in New York, Las Vegas, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. The idea for a service of this sort came to him while disembarking a plane from Russia to Estonia, where he observed a celebrity being mobbed at the airport by paparazzi. Why can't I have that experience, he thought. Why can't everybody?
Everybody, that is, with $3,000 to $10,000 to burn. The price tag varies with the size of the crowd and the extent of the trappings. Today's celebrity shopping experience, for instance, priced at $4,999, ordinarily includes Champagne, limo transport, a personal assistant and security detail, but it can be customized to suit most whims.
While Swart's services are not inexpensive, his typical client isn't exactly on a budget. Lately, the rental crowds have been popular with tourists from Shanghai. Inevitably they will make purchases at stores: "These are wealthy clients and they don't window-shop," he says.
The son of a banker mom and Silicon Valley computer scientist dad, Swart funded Crowds on Demand sans venture capital (parental or otherwise), using proceeds from a savvy Halliburton investment he made when he was 12.
When not satisfying regular people's desire to be worshipped, Swart studies at UCLA, where he's majoring in political science. This, however, is a pursuit he would rather not mention in conjunction with Crowds on Demand.
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He prefers to talk about television. Everything he knows about the behavior of crowds and paparazzi, he learned from watching TV. His fake photographers and fans have met clients at airport baggage claims, at bachelor parties and outside office buildings after work. He's picked people up in Rolls-Royces. He's staged corporate rallies with 100 paid actors. Hollywood agents have rented his crowds to increase the hype for their lesser-known talents.
"I saw a niche that wasn't being filled," he says, then shrugs and smiles, the cat who ate the canary. Though he claims "no request is too extreme," the rules are fluid. One client requested a riot.
"Sorry," Swart told him. "We don't do riots."