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L.A.'s secret service

Confidentiality agreements have become like prenups between Hollywood elite and household help. Those who aren't A-listers are starting to demand them too.

July 26, 2007|Audrey Davidow | Special to The Times

SPEND enough time trolling YouTube and Hollywood gossip blogs, and it's clear why so many celebrities guard their private lives almost as zealously as they hoard swag bags. After all, it's what happens off-screen, in the comfort of their swimsuit-optional Jacuzzis, that can translate into pure embarrassment -- not to mention millions of dollars' worth of tabloid fodder.

So now some celebs have gone on the offensive, and their weapon of choice? It's the nondisclosure agreement, or NDA, a contract that requires nannies and other home helpers to promise that they won't videotape, photograph or blab about anything they see or hear. Such agreements are nothing new, but these days practically everyone working in the home -- the housekeeper, the leaf blower, the bathtub installer -- may be pressed to sign strict don't-tell policies.

"It's the information age, and information is power," says Peter Dunham, an interior designer based in West Hollywood who is often privy to VIP secrets through his work for celebrities. Dunham says requests for nondisclosure agreements have become so prevalent, he's had to add a boilerplate in his contracts stating that he and his staff will keep their lips sealed on every detail, be it the celebrity's address, her budget, the kind of flowers she prefers in the foyer or the intimate details of what lies in her closets.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Singer's name: An article in the Home section Thursday about the growing number of household employees being asked to sign confidentiality agreements misspelled the name Meat Loaf as Meatloaf.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 02, 2007 Home Edition Home Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Singer's name: An article in the July 26 Home section about the growing number of household employees being asked to sign confidentiality agreements misspelled the name Meat Loaf as Meatloaf.

"I don't even want to know things about my celebrity clients for fear it will slip through my mouth accidentally," he says.

One A-list film director, whose name he can't reveal, was so concerned about privacy that Dunham wasn't even allowed to take the standard "before" pictures of the home for planning purposes. The director, whom Dunham recognized at first sight, also insisted on meeting under a pseudonym. Dunham's philosophy: "If you're going to pay me, I'll call you whatever you like."

As president of L.A.-based NorthStar Moving, whose clientele has included Angelina Jolie, Eva Longoria and Diane Keaton, Ram Katalan says he's seen a change not only in the number of people asking for confidentiality but also in the type of customers asking for it.

"A few years ago, we never had non- celeb clients asking us to sign an agreement," he says. And these says? Forget B- and C-listers. Nonlisters demand confidentiality.

"We've even had divorced couples, where one spouse doesn't want the other to know where they are moving," says Katalan's partner, Laura McHolm, who has been known to send out decoy trucks, start moves at 2 a.m. or employ other stealth tactics to protect clients from paparazzi and snoops.

After six years in business, LA Pool Guys owner Bryan Barnes signed his first nondisclosure agreement last year -- and it wasn't even for a celebrity.

"We don't even know the guy's name," Barnes says. "He just had his management company hire us, but we adhere to it so that we can keep the account."

Interior designer David Dalton's clients run the gamut from media-friendly skating commentator Scott Hamilton and singer Meatloaf to "big divas" with bodyguards and secret entrances to their homes. He too has noticed more noncelebrities asking for the kind of confidential treatment traditionally reserved for Hollywood stars.

"They're usually wealthy business people whose business is private, or whose income comes from

let's just say interesting parts of the business sector and they don't want to disclose how they make their income," he says.

More of his subcontractors are being asked to promise secrecy too. This year, Dalton is working with a first: a client who requires every delivery person at the door to sign a nondisclosure agreement.

WHY the need for all the covert operations? In Southern California, where golden gossip sells like precious metal, a juicy celebrity story can be worth more than jewelry, art, antiques or electronics. Recent stories about burglaries at celebrity estates focused on looted cash and costly belongings, but the reality is that to many in Hollywood, image and reputation are far more valuable. Bringing, say, an interior designer into a home hardly seems risky until a client asks to fix up the guesthouse for the spouse -- or perhaps install mirrors above the bed, arranged just so.

Allegations surfaced last week in the case of Broadcom co-founder and former chief executive Henry T. Nicholas III, sued by an assistant who alleged drug use and debauchery at Nicholas' Newport Beach home. Nicholas responded by saying the assistant was bound by confidentiality agreements barring the disclosure of any information about the billionaire.

Southern California -- home of the sprawling estate, full of nooks where an interloper could hide and gawk -- can make a private person downright paranoid.

"It's not like in New York, where people have a doorman and a lot of security," Dunham says. "In L.A., you don't have to be Victoria Beckham to feel somewhat vulnerable."

Then, of course, there's the technology factor.

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