After years of visiting Malibu as a journalist, I knew the coastal California town projected the image of a celebrity utopia—because I helped project it. For various magazines, I had documented Jon Hamm driving the Pacific Coast Highway in a Mercedes gull wing to the idyllic oceanside cottage he was renting at the time, and handing passersby beers from his cooler. Pierce Brosnan showed me his paintings and explained that his years of living in Malibu had brought out his inner Matisse. Even in my free time here, I would have surreal brushes with celebrities. Returning from a hike in Zuma Canyon one afternoon, I took a detour but was stopped by the sound of chanting. “This must be Shangri-La,” I said to myself—not the mythical Himalayan redoubt but the legendary spot where Clapton and Dylan laid down tracks in the 1970s and now the studio of music producer Rick Rubin. Soon the chants were joined by ethereal acoustic guitars and a soaring, operatic female voice. It was just a Malibu local—Lady Gaga—singing in a neighbor’s yard.
Many times, these moments made clear that parts of the Malibu fantasy were impossible to achieve (looking like Rob Lowe in a wet suit at 55 or any other age) or highly improbable (housing an array of 16 pets at my mansion, as Miley Cyrus did before it was lost to wildfires).
But when last year’s Woolsey fire scorched the area—destroying homes, scarring hillsides—the beach was a staging area not just for celebrities but for every type of person in Malibu: ranchers, farmers, hippies, and surfers. They came with whatever belongings they could rescue, while yacht owners and surfers alike sailed in with supplies. I realized that Malibu was much more than this gated celebrity community; it was also this tight-knit beach town.
The shift from surf capital and counterculture hub is just the latest extension of an evolution that began when Hollywood stars first built cottages in the Malibu Movie Colony in the late 1920s. In 1933, novelist James M. Cain declared in the pages of Vanity Fair: “Whatever else may be said of Malibu, the place where the movie queens grow their sunburn, there is one thing that you have to hand it: It is probably the finest beach ever created by God.” That’s no less true today. Like Malibu’s 21 miles of coastline, the contours of the place shift slightly with each set of waves, but that underlying appeal endures: a rare combination of otherworldly natural beauty—picturesque canyons, majestic bluffs, secluded coves that provide a faraway feel—and relatively few people with whom to share it.
“It really is a small town,” says Rande Gerber, the nightlife impresario turned hotelier turned spirits magnate who moved to Malibu 20 years ago with his wife, Cindy Crawford. “It’s a lowkey beach town that just happens to have some high-profile people living there. I think sometimes the perception is, ‘Malibu, it’s like St. Tropez.’ You’re looking for the megayachts and the beach clubs. We don’t have that.”
While it may lack the oligarchic trappings, it’s hard to miss the wealth that lies in much of Malibu. The southern border has been unofficially marked by the Getty Villa, which has been a museum since 1974. More recently, Malibu’s most affluent have been concentrated on Carbon Beach, a mile-long stretch lined with the oceanfront homes of David Geffen (who famously said: “Move to California. Malibu is paradise.”), Eli Broad, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Larry Ellison, who once owned ten properties there, among others. It’s also where a chance meeting on the sand between hip-hop producer Dr. Dre and record exec Jimmy Iovine led to their launch of Beats, which they later sold to Apple for $3 billion.
Farther up the coast, at the seafood shack and biker bar Neptune’s Net, I spoke with a deeply tanned forty-something local–he preferred to be known simply as Mike—who worked as a bartender and carpenter to support his surfing habit. Speaking between bites of fried scallops, he couldn’t disguise his disdain for Carbon Beach’s nickname, Billionaire Beach. “They call it that, but the beach belongs to everyone,” he says. “So you know what? We’re all rich. We’re all chillionaires here.”
Indeed, everyone in Malibu is rich in the currency of relaxation and afforded the sort of barefoot luxury—before the term existed—that can level out the socioeconomic ladder.
“The great thing about Malibu is you do have an eclectic mix of people,” says Gerber, whose Café Habana plays host to them nightly. “You have your Larry Ellison and your actors or musicians sitting next to your local surfer who’s living in his van. Nobody cares who anyone is. Everybody’s treated the same.”
Strictly speaking, that isn’t true. Some esteemed locals get a honk and a wave from passersby, like Coqui, a longtime fixture at the Country Mart shopping center. Others get their tabs picked up, like Skylar Peak, who grew up in town and worked as a lifeguard and surf instructor before taking over the family electrical-contracting business. He counts Mike Diamond— aka Mike D of the Beastie Boys—as a close friend, and was the youngest person ever elected to the Malibu City Council when he ran on an antidevelopment platform. He became a local hero a decade ago thanks to an incident in which he stopped a paparazzo attempting to photograph Matthew McConaughey on Peak’s home beach, Point Dume. Peak was charged with battery. “I wish it never happened,” says Peak, whose case resulted in a hung jury, but, he adds, “I will always fight for privacy.”
These days, Peak, a passionate surfer, says locals are content to let the ocean police itself and welcome those who respect the sport. This wasn’t always so. For years, surf lineups along the Malibu coast operated with a hard territorial edge that often carried over onto shore.
In that sense, the Malibu of today is less real and far more genial and genteel. It’s not markedly bigger. Development restrictions, if not housing costs, have kept the population from exploding and mean that most reinvention happens in the same footprint—refacing, repurposing, combining, and upscaling. Though fewer in number, there remain gloriously unkempt shacks and gleaming Airstreams that carry as much cachet as any architecturally significant domicile. Other institutions endure, like Geoffrey’s restaurant, originally known as Holiday House