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Celebrities get tons of free stuff during awards season. Why?

Brands pay thousands of dollars to give away thousands of dollars in gifting lounges, where celebrities pose with their products.

A gifting lounge at the 2019 Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Jerod Harris/Getty Images for the Recording Academy

Rafi Anteby makes jewelry out of old bullets. Some are encrusted with diamonds and other precious gems, while some are in their natural form. His Bullets 4 Peace pieces have ended up on the necks of celebrities like Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Jamie Foxx. While his jewelry found its way to these illustrious names via different channels, he estimates that he’s participated in about 50 Hollywood “gifting suites” and given away “way, way, over” $100,000 worth of blingy bullets to celebrities at all levels of fame.

As such, Anteby now fancies himself a pro in this very specific type of celebrity marketing offering free merchandise. He started his own gifting suite company that debuted during Oscars weekend in 2018, and he’s since organized five others that ran adjacent to awards ceremonies. This year, the “Rafi Gift Lounge” will be held at the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills the Friday before the 2019 Oscars ceremony. It joins what he estimates will be at least 10 other gifting suites vying to attract celebrities that weekend.

Rafi Anteby with Rihanna at the 2010 American Music Awards.
Rafi Anteby

There are detractors who are skeptical about this concept. One is Robin Tolkan-Doyle, the founder of Charmed PR, an LA-based agency that represents mostly indie beauty brands. In 2015, she wrote on an industry site that she discourages her clients from taking part in these suites. She still stands by this.

“You’ll start to see the same names over and over again. It kind of makes [celebrities] look a little petty. They get so much stuff. They have rooms piled up.”

What exactly is a gifting suite?

The Hollywood gifting suite is the thirstier relative of the awards show gift bag. The latter, a bag full of free swag valued in the five-figure range and up, is a time-honored tradition during awards season and at film festivals like Sundance. Basically, celebrities are given a big bag of stuff in the hopes that they will like it and talk about it.

With a gift bag, the whole thing is rather passive; it’s handed or delivered to celebrities. But in a gifting suite or lounge, a celebrity usually needs to make a conscious choice to show up and take the free items. It is understood that they will take pictures with the items they’re being gifted and/or with the founders of the brands. Sometimes they are at the same venue as other events, but often they’re on different days at off-site locations.

Like the gift bags (as Vox explained in its 2017 story on the tradition), most gift suites are not associated with the awards shows that bring all those potentially lucrative celebrities into town at the same time, though there are exceptions that are officially sanctioned. Anteby ran the 2018 BET Awards official gifting suite, but he is careful to say that his Oscars weekend lounge has nothing to do with the Oscars or its organizing body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which does not sponsor any gifting suites.

Karen Wood, the founder of Backstage Creations, takes credit for the gift lounge concept, launching backstage gifting suites and experiences at awards shows and galas in 1994. Backstage Creations calls them, somewhat euphemistically, “retreats.” There are a number of other established companies that stage them now, too, like GBK Productions, which also organizes weddings and assists in companies’ marketing and public relations efforts. In a recent podcast, founder Gavin Keilly said, “There are a lot of bad lounges out there,” noting that some really don’t give away much of value.

How much do gifting suites cost, and who goes to these?

Like with all things in Hollywood, there are tiers of lounges. While not explicit, the relative desirability of the lounge can be understood through some combination of the brands on offer, the price of the “gifts,” and the celebrities that attend. Anteby is inviting about 200 notables, which include celebrities, social media influencers, and about 20 press outlets, like Extra TV.

A month prior to the suite (which is apparently too soon to finalize everyone’s attendance), he has confirmation that an actor from A Star Is Born — Andrew Dice Clay, not, alas, Lady Gaga or Bradley Cooper — will attend, as well as some of “the cast of Westworld.” Though at the time he didn’t yet know who, a recent Instagram post suggests that includes Leonardo Nam.

Anteby also has confirmed singer Estelle and actors Gerard Butler, Steven Bauer, and Michael Irby. His team is talking to, but has no commitment yet from, social media influencer Andrew Bachelor, aka @KingBach, who has 17.5 million followers and was once the most followed person on Vine. He has since taken on more traditional acting roles. Chris Noth, a.k.a. Mr. Big, frequently swings by Anteby’s events as well.

All of them can take home items from the approximately 25 vendors that will pay $10,000 to $50,000 for the privilege of being there, not counting the cost of the items they give away for free, according to Anteby.

In the podcast, GBK’s Keilly says the fee is usually $5,000 to $7,500, though event sponsors, who get their name on the step-and-repeat and otherwise prominently displayed, can pay up to $50,000. Anteby says some companies will allow brands to participate in multiple gifting suites throughout the year, but says this is not ideal, at least in his experience as a brand owner, because then celebrities see the same brands over and over, diluting the value of the experience.

Anteby estimates that the worth of all the freebies in his suites are usually between $25,000 and $45,000. Some of the 25 vendors that are participating in his Oscars lounge include resorts giving away trips to Bali, Uganda on safari, and Costa Rica. The most expensive is one of the trips for two, which rings in at $14,000. There are also services like interior design, personal chefs, a doctor who does facials with stem cells, and spas. Then there are more traditional items like liquor (Cava de Oro), energy shots (JumpStart), clothing brands (none you’ve likely heard of), and supplement/vitamin brands (Source Naturals).

“Some brands, even though they want to be involved, can’t because if it’s something that [attendees] can find in 7-Eleven, I’m not going to bring it to them, no matter how much they pay me. It has to be special,” Anteby says. (Perhaps he was throwing shade at GBK, which once had Tic Tac giving away its candies alongside a charitable donation at a gifting event.)

Anteby says he pays between $60,000 and $100,000 to put on his events. He claims there is some smoke and mirrors involved in the process. Often the location of the suite isn’t announced until shortly beforehand — he says suites claim that this is because “they don’t want anyone to know where they’re at.” But in fact “they’re trying to save money and see which hotels didn’t book anything. ... It’s cheaper for them. I take the most expensive hotel that everybody’s going to flock into because everybody’s already there, then I spend on sushi and I spend on organic food. This event is costing $60,000 before I even started. It’s expensive.”

In addition to the room and food, he says he is also donating $100 per each attendee to purchase school supplies for a group of orphans in Myanmar. The money isn’t disbursed through a specific, sanctioned charity, but he goes to the country yearly to teach kung fu classes. Tacking on a charitable component presumably might help assuage some guilt for the swag-seeking attendees.

There will also be entertainment, including the gospel duo Mary Mary; a one-time Temptations lead singer, Louis Price; and a one-time Platters lead singer, Sonny Turner.

“Most probably I won’t make money. And you know what? It’s okay. I’m happy. Of course it’s a business formula, and I believe it’s going to grow more and more,” Anteby says. “If I break even and I throw a good event and I help a cause, I’m good.”

Again, why are rich celebs being given free expensive stuff?

As lore has it, Paris Hilton once walked out of a Sundance gifting suite in 2009 with 30 bags of stuff.

Paris Hilton collecting swag at the Kari Feinstein Sundance Style Lounge in 2009 in Park City, Utah.
Barry Brecheisen/WireImage

People think they are freeloaders, but they’re not. They come, and they really have fun and relax,” Anteby says.

He is adamant about this next point. “It’s not free. Their name and the likeness and their look is what they pay with. It’s a fair exchange between brands and artists, that’s how I see it. It’s almost like beautiful bartering. I’m the living proof. One hundred percent, without celebrities my brand would go nowhere.”

The pictures the brands get to take with the celebrities are crucial at gifting suites. Companies can share them on social media, and reporters who attend circulate these moments.

“To get a celeb wearing your product, it’s good but it’s not enough if it doesn’t propagate through the social media systems,” Anteby says. “It’s like having a Ferrari in the showroom and nobody comes to see it.”

Publicist Tolkan-Doyle does not believe it’s ultimately worth it. “[Gifting suites] are very expensive, they don’t guarantee anything, and when you look at the celebrities that they’re actually talking about, they’re not the people you necessarily want to be representing your brand,” she says, noting that they’re “not A-list.”

“I don’t want to bash these companies,” she adds, “but I’m pretty protective of the brands I work with, and I don’t ever advise my clients to go and spend reckless amounts of money on these things.”

But Anteby has high aspirations, saying he wants his suites to be “just like [how] Clive Davis or Elton John have their events once a year during the Oscars — I want to be the one that everyone knows, that everyone comes to. It’s a party!”

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