Selling your home? There’s plenty you can do to attract buyer interest, from a fresh lick of paint to decluttering the rooms. Then again, you could simply hire a mermaid.
It might not be the first option that comes to mind but, when you work for The Oppenheim Group — Los Angeles’ most glamorous estate agency and the subject of Netflix’s smash hit reality TV show, Selling Sunset — every half-woman half-fish helps.
The show follows an insanely glamorous group of estate agents as they attempt to sell some of the most luxurious properties in LA, some on the market for as much as $75million (£58 million).
Former clients of the agency include Meryl Streep and Nicole Scherzinger and, during season three, Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown was filmed looking for a home where, this being LA, he could hold wild pool parties.
Mary Fitzgerald, one of Selling Sunset’s star agents, who views houses all day in towering Christian Louboutin heels
The series also details the private lives of the agents (invariably fraught), gives us glimpses into their homes (gorgeous but not as lavish as those of their clients) and tells us how much they make once a sale has been completed. (On one house, sold for $35.5million, the agent made $1.2million commission; that’s more than £900,000).
So with all that money floating around, hiring a mermaid to sell your home perhaps isn’t so daft after all. As Mary Fitzgerald, one of the show’s star agents, explains: ‘We had this beautiful house with a pool that stretched right down into the movie theatre, where you could watch everyone swimming above you — so Jason hired a mermaid for the viewing party. People could watch her swim while they toured the house.’
Jason Oppenheim, as aficionados of the series will know, is the pocket dynamo who, along with twin brother Brett, founded the agency in 2013 and presides over his bevy of beautiful estate agents.
Mary moved to England with her second husband but returned to the states to ‘start from scratch’ after the marriage broke down
Along with Mary, they include former soap actress Chrishell Stause, who suffered the ignominy of being dumped while the cameras were rolling by her husband Justin Hartley, star of the Amazon series This Is Us, and Christine Quinn, the show’s self-proclaimed ‘bitch’, who patrols the office in 5in heels, throwing acid looks at anyone who displeases her.
With its blend of catfights and sensational homes, the show has been dubbed the ultimate in ‘property porn’. While the first two seasons enjoyed moderate success, it surged into Netflix’s UK top five once lockdown began, as viewers, confined to their own homes, gorged themselves on other, rather more fabulous ones.
Harry and Meghan’s acquisition of a $14.65 million (£11.3million) mansion in Santa Barbara, northwest of LA, in June — small fry compared with what the Oppenheims sell — piqued viewers’ interest even further. ‘I’ve never seen Meghan and Harry’s home but Montecito [where the Duke and Duchess’s new nine-bed property resides] is charming,’ says Mary. ‘There are older people there. It’s sort of like a vacation getaway.’
The cast of Netflix hit show Selling Sunset. Left to right: Maya Vander, Christine Quinn, Chrishell Stause, Heather Rae Young and Mary Fitzgerald
On the morning of her wedding Mary sold her wedding venue to a buyer who had come to look around the property. Pictured with husband Romain Bonnet on their wedding day
I’m here at The Oppenheim Group’s offices on Sunset Strip to see how it really works, and today I’m accompanying Mary — one of the show’s most successful agents — on her afternoon viewings.
Her commitment to making a sale is such that, on the morning of her wedding, she showed a buyer around the property where she was getting married. (He did buy it.)
At 40, she is as perky in the flesh as she is on the show and, yes, she really does view houses all day in towering Christian Louboutin heels. ‘I’ve learned how to hike up a hill or walk across fields in them,’ she tells me.
As we drive to her first appointment (in her black Maserati, naturally), Mary is in buoyant mood. One of her clients has just bought the home owned by TV star Kunal Nayyar of The Big Bang Theory for $3.895 million (£3million) and, despite the pandemic (we have to wear masks and sign special Covid-19 agreements before entering the properties), business is booming. ‘It’s like a war zone right now for houses that are $3million [£2.32 million] and under,’ she says. ‘Multiple offers are coming in, people are going over the asking price and I’ve had people reach out to me because of our show. The problem is just trying to keep up with it all.’
Mary with her Selling Sunset co-stars who find properties for Hollywood’s billionaires
The show’s addictive pull comes from offering a peek into the Hollywood homes us mortals can only dream, though, having been with the company for six years, Mary is almost blasé about some of the houses’ incredible features.
‘Indoor bowling alleys are common,’ she says, ‘and I’ve seen two or three fully-fitted hair salons in the past two months. Of course, lots have a full gym, steam room, sauna, hot and cold plunge pools and movie theatres with a bar.
‘Some of the home movie theatres have their own concession stands, too, with a full selection of candies and popcorn machines.
‘My favourites, though, are the temperature-controlled wine cellars with a cigar-smoking area. They’re very cool-looking.’
Of course, Hollywood’s billionaires and multi-millionaires are looking for more than a paltry movie theatre to liven up their homes. ‘I’ve shown buyers two different homes that have both had dinosaur skeletons on display,’ says Mary. They were huge dinosaurs, like T-Rexes. I don’t think they were real, they were made by an artist, but this is LA, so who knows?’
Mary with two of her costars Chrishell Stause (centre) and Heather Rae Young (left)
Broker’s opens, where properties are shown to other agents to gauge whether their clients might be interested, are also a good place for seeing all kinds of stuff.
‘We had one in the [Hollywood] Hills that we called ‘the shark house’, because it had a huge tank built into the home with a bunch of sharks inside,’ Mary recalls.
‘Though the house was worth $23million [nearly £18million], sharks included, I think that, for most people, the sharks would have been a deterrent. I mean, you’d have to maintain them and have someone come in and feed them every day.
‘But with some of these high-end homes, you’re looking for something unique, something that catches people’s attention. There are a lot of eclectic people out there with a great deal of money and these people want something that no one else has.’
One of Mary’s favourite viewings was of a $70million (£54million) Beverly Hills mansion that had an entire wall taken up by sweet dispensers containing every kind of confectionery imaginable.
Slightly less child-friendly, however, is one of her boss Jason’s current listings — the $30million (£23million) home once occupied by Prince, who turned the gym into a nightclub complete with stripper poles.
The show has undoubtedly raised the profile of all the agents. Mary (right) pictured with Chrishell Stause
‘You see some crazy stuff,’ Mary admits, ‘although whenever we have a home with stripper poles, which we see a lot, we’ll say: ‘Is that removable? Could you take it out while we’re trying to sell your house.’ You just want to make the home as appealing to as many people as possible.’
Once, she says, co-star Chrishell went to show a house to a client and walked in on the tenants who were completely naked and having sex in the living room. ‘She was mortified and was thinking: ‘Do I say sorry or do I run?’ You never know what you’re going to find.’
We arrive at Mary’s first appointment, a $1.35million (£1million) four-bedroom house in the Valley, where everyone, thankfully, is clothed. As the buyer’s agent, Mary is on site for a chimney inspection, during which she gets on all fours to take a look at it as the technician points out the water damage.
‘On the show, they never reveal the down and dirty stuff we have to do,’ she says. ‘People would probably switch off.’
Mary has been married three times and is now married to Frenchman Romain Bonnet, 27
In season three, Jason sold a $44million-listed house for $35.5million (£27.5million) — the most expensive house to have been sold in the Hollywood Hills since 2012. One of its most remarkable outdoor features was a 15ft television set that rose from the ground to nestle above the home’s 163 ft long infinity pool.
Poolside TVs that rise out of nowhere are seemingly all the rage. ‘Jason did one in his own home for more than $30,000 [£23,000],’ says Mary. ‘The one in the $44million home would have cost more, but I still think $30,000 for a TV is a lot of money.’
The owner of the $44million mansion also had the power lines moved underground in order to have an unobstructed view — ‘and that was extremely expensive to do,’ says Mary. ‘It took a long time to get the approvals and, even though it was supposed to cost around $250,000 [£194,000], I think it was closer to $1million [£773,000] by the end.
‘If you’re spending that kind of money on a house, you don’t want a potential buyer to say: ‘Well, I love the house but there’s a telephone pole right in front of my bedroom window.’ You have to focus on the details, because the buyers definitely will!’
Cutting down trees to give an uncluttered view is something we do all the time, says Mary. ‘Depending on how eager the seller is, sometimes we’ll contact the neighbour and ask if we can pay for the tree-cutting, or even pay them to get them to agree to having it done. Sometimes you have to offer them anything from $10,000 to $50,000 [£7,000 to £39,000].’
Once the chimney inspection has been completed, we head to Mary’s second appointment in the seaside resort of Marina del Rey. Throughout the drive, she is on the phone to clients, arranging inspections and generally doing all the boring work stuff that gets edited out of the show.
Mary gets paid by commission only, meaning she only makes money when she sells a house — horrible when you’ve spent months working with a client and they then change their minds but great when you make a huge sale.
One house Mary and Brett sold on the show for $8.67million (£6.6million) earned a commission of $260,00 (£201,000).
‘People watch the show and think it’s just about the glamour,’ Mary says, ‘but there’s a lot of hustle and scrambling and juggling different things for multiple properties. I end up working till almost 1.30am every night.’
Mary has a 23-year-old son, Austin, whom she had at 16 and who walked her down the aisle at her third wedding
Still, you’d never realise it from watching the show. Much of it focuses on the high-octane drama between the agents, with Christine usually around when it kicks off.
Famously, Christine threw a ‘Burgers and Botox’ party, with free beauty treatments, to create a buzz about one property she was trying to sell, and responded to the arrival of new girl Chrishell by announcing: ‘She can sit on the floor until she’s proved herself.’
Surely she can’t really be like that? ‘Oh, she is!’ Mary laughs. ‘I do love her and we’re back on better terms now. [Once best friends, they started to fall out after Mary’s growing friendship with newcomer Chrishell.]
‘She’s just … I don’t know what’s wrong with her sometimes. She just says and does things and I’m like: Why? Either it’s a lie or just so rude and below the belt.’
The ratio of work to gossiping has led to suggestions the show is scripted and the glamorous agents fake. Former model Chrissy Teigen tweeted: ‘I look at L.A. real estate a lot and have never seen any of these people.’
And although none of the other agents on the show (Christine, Chrishell, Maya Vander, Heather Young, Amanza Smith and Davina Potratz) are in the office when I arrive, there are numerous other female agents, all of whom look like they’ve just stepped out of a designer catalogue.
‘I laugh when people say we’re fake,’ says Mary, ‘and I feel like saying: ‘Do some research!’ I’ve had my licence since 2008 and there’s a record of our deals. There’s no way for us to fake that. We’d get sued by the DRE [the California Department of Real Estate].’
We arrive at a property in Marina del Rey, a four-storey house which overlooks the canal and is just a minute’s walk from the beach. It’s listed with another agent, but Mary is hoping the owner will put the house up for sale with her. And judging by the reaction of the owner’s son, who asks for a selfie with Mary, so does he.
‘They had it at $7.9million [£6million],’ she explains. ‘And while it’s gorgeous, it’s not right on the beach. I think it should come in at $6.999million [£5.4million].’
She admits the house needs ‘staging’, where The Oppenheim Group’s concierge service prepares the property for a speedier sale by adding temporary furniture, artwork and lighting to make it more appealling to buyers. ‘It looks a bit Nineties,’ says Mary. ‘It’s in good condition but that’s not what’s going to help it sell.’
While the rewards of Mary’s job are evident, it wasn’t long ago, she says, that she had nothing. Her first husband died, and although she moved to London nine years ago with her second husband, a Brit, and briefly worked for property tycoon Nick Candy, she left England after a year.
‘My relationship with my ex-husband was not healthy. I came back to the States with terrible credit, all my money gone. I had to start from scratch.’
She has a 23-year-old son, Austin, whom she had at 16 and who walked her down the aisle when she married her third husband, Romain Bonnet, 27. A strapping Frenchman who regularly appears on the show, Romain is a former pastry chef who is now a project manager with the group.
The show has undoubtedly raised the profile of all the agents, with Chrishell appearing on U.S. show Dancing With The Stars and Christine rumoured to be lined-up for this year’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here.
‘Not having five-star everything is going to bother Christine,’ says Mary. ‘She’s either going to totally kill it, or be the biggest prissy.’
So, can Mary see herself doing a reality show? ‘I’d love to do a home remodelling show with Romain. It would follow our lives, but also show the real estate and construction aspects and some of the things that could go wrong.’
It all sounds very grounded. Mermaids, one imagines, need not apply.