JULIA ROBERTS ARRIVES at a major Hollywood do wearing a shapeless frock, no makeup and hair that looks as if she cut it herself. A wealthy socialite confides to a reporter that her husband's business has seen better days. At a recent charity dinner, celebrities eat rice while sitting on the floor. A radio disc jockey designs a line of "recession clothing for the '90s."
It is no secret that the recession, layoffs and other economic bad tidings have forced millions of Americans to scale down their lives. In Los Angeles, a city where appearances count, even if you can afford the trappings of success, it does not look good anymore to flaunt them.
The livin' large that took place during the party-till-you-drop '80s now seems like a bad dream awash in sequins and bugle beads. Malcolm Forbes' monumental Moroccan birthday bash and Donald and Ivana Trump's weekend parties at Mar-a-Lago were the kinds of over-the-top, let-them-eat-cake fetes that characterized the decade.
Hollywood can still pull out a glitzy stop when it wants to, and the standard hotel ballroom black-tie benefit is probably in no danger of extinction. But the newest parties are casual, low-cost, reality-in-your-face benefits drawing socially conscious guests who are careful not to wear furs or arrive in limos. The point here is not just to hear about people suffering, but to represent them.
Oxfam America did that with its annual celebrity-studded Hollywood Hunger Benefit. The Boston-based non-profit group, which funds development and disaster relief around the world, has been staging the dinners for 18 years; this was its second year in Los Angeles. At the dinner held last fall, 60 percent of the guests sat on the floor and ate rice, 25 percent ate rice and beans and 15 percent ate a typical, catered dinner -- the point being to dramatize inequality of world food distribution.
Stars like Cybill Shepherd, Lou Diamond Phillips, Ed Harris and Jackson Browne donned jeans and cowboy boots, arrived via van car-pools and fuel-efficient autos and did indeed eat rice with their hands.
"I think people are embarrassed by the ostentations of the Reagan era," says Phillip Martin, Oxfam's national projects director, "and they should be . . . They weren't trying to emulate the poor, they came with empathy for the poor. The most important thing was not to sit down and eat rice on the floor, but to read the letters of the people we work with overseas, people whose stories are not heard -- all of a sudden they were."
If the look of parties is changing, so is the look of the guests. Being coiffed and coutured to within an inch of one's life used to be de rigueur. At the height of the "Dynasty" rage, few women would have been caught dead without pounds of jewels and linebacker-size designer shoulder pads.
But all that has changed with the new crop of Hollywood trendsetters. Actresses like Julia Roberts, Michelle Pfeiffer, Winona Ryder, Daryl Hannah and Meg Ryan often parade in front of paparazzi at premieres and events wearing ripped jeans and T-shirts, oversize baby-doll dresses, combat boots, uncombed hair and not a spot of makeup. Even at formal events like the Academy Awards they opt for low-key chic, like a dark pantsuit or plain sheath worn without jewelry.
"It's what we call the 'ECG' syndrome," say Lance and John, a.k.a. the Hollywood Kids, those catty commentators on celebdom. "That's the 'Extreme Celebrity Guilt' syndrome. We just came out of this 'me decade' of glitz, and now we're going through a recession and faced with homelessness and crime and layoffs, and here are these girls getting their agents to get them $5 million-per-picture deals. What they're saying is, 'I'm just like you. I go work out in my Reeboks and leave in my Jeep with my Evian bottle wearing no makeup.'
"The '90s is non-glamour," they add. "By doing this, they're creating this new Hollywood look. I don't think they intentionally said, 'I'm going to go out and get a bag-lady look.' But I think when they go out they don't want people to know they're a big star, but they still want to get the best table at Morton's."