“I wanted to go deeper,” Diaz said. “I wanted to know who they were when they were off-campus, if you will.”
A self-described TV junkie who grew up watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” and other ur-reality programs, Diaz had an idea: What if you could follow your favorite celebrity home? What if you could see how they really lived: what snacks they stashed in their pantry, how messy their bedrooms were, what photos were on the walls? What if, in their most intimate places, they felt looser and at ease and revealed more of their true selves?
Diaz pitched this vision to her bosses at MTV: “Cribs” would be a remix of a classic, lifting the basic DNA of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” but with one crucial twist. While “Lifestyles” was narrated by Robin Leach, on “Cribs,” the celebrities would narrate the episodes themselves. “I was clear that I didn’t want a host,” she said. “I wanted it to be first-person. I wanted that unfiltered, raw, real, let-your-hair-down version of these artists and celebrities.” Diaz got the green light, and the series premiered on Sept. 12, 2000.
“Oh my God, I was obsessed with the show. Obsessed!” said Sharon Osbourne, whose family home was featured in the series premiere and who would soon be an early reality-TV star herself when “The Osbournes” premiered on MTV in 2002. “ ‘Cribs’ was the first time, really, that kids could watch their idols at home and see how they lived,” she said. “Which everybody just loves to do, that looky-loo. It’s the best thing ever.”
Twenty years since its debut, “Cribs” is back in a plot twist no writers room could have scripted. Covid-19 and the stay-at-home orders that followed have kept most of the country isolated, or something close to it, for months, which means we’ve all found ourselves relying on video chat more than ever before, exposing our living spaces to everyone we see. Every time we post on social media, attend a Zoom meeting, or go on a FaceTime date, our rooms are getting rated, our bookshelves dissected, all our interior design scrutinized.
“Anybody who is on camera has now accidentally been forced to be in an episode of ‘Cribs,’ ” said Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School.
But this 2020 edition comes with a late-capitalism bent: As covid-19’s toll exacerbates the deep, growing inequality in this country, the ostentatious splendor in which celebrities (and wealthy civilians) get to ride out the pandemic may be more likely to inspire class rage than early-aughts glee.
“I think in 2000, there was a strong appetite and no real problem,” Thompson said. “But somebody’s opulent house has all kinds of conflicted meaning today that I think is more powerful and more dangerous than it had in 2000.”
Getting MTV to shoot a “Cribs” pilot, as Diaz recalls, was pretty easy. Getting celebrities to sign on? Not so much. “All of the record labels and many of the people told us it was impossible,” she said. “We got the flat-out: You’re crazy. This will never happen. No one is ever letting you into their house. We’re talking pre-‘Housewives,’ pre-Instagram and social media, all of this.”
Reality television was still in its toddlerhood, and the idea that a person would open up their home to a production crew and broadcast their everyday existence to the world was still so novel as to seem absurd (or dystopian, as with “Big Brother”). A handful of young exhibitionists might be down to move into a swanky house and allow their lives to be taped for “The Real World.” But would real-deal celebrities open their doors to the masses?
Though it is quaint to consider this now, our access to boldfaced names was relatively limited then. The only images we saw of their lives were the shots provided by media outlets and paparazzi; the only communication we heard from them was through interviews, often chaperoned by a PR flack.
“You weren’t supposed to have the peek behind the gates. You did not have access, as a fan, to that level of information about your favorite artist,” Diaz said. “Celebrities had a high level of privacy. Outside of those promotional venues, they didn’t need to let you that deep inside their world, and they had an image that they needed to maintain.”
It took a lot of banging on doors, but finally she secured some yeses. The first season managed to draw in an impressive roster, including OutKast, the Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg. In the fourth episode, Beyoncé-before-she-was-Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child bandmates ate Popeye’s chicken at the Knowles’ kitchen counter.
For Diaz, the best early get was rapper-producer Jermaine Dupri. “That was huge,” Diaz said. “Jermaine Dupri embraced it because that’s the aesthetic of hip-hop: the braggadocio, the status.”
Dupri was living in a 5,000-square-foot Atlanta mansion so new it was almost empty. “I don’t even think it was furnished,” he says now. But he was a natural, revealing the hybrid of absurdity and mundanity that is a rich, famous person’s existence. In what would become tropes of the series, he had a stockpile of expensive champagne, a garage full of luxury cars — “You know what the big B is for right there?” he said, Vanna White-ing at his Bentley. “They tell me every big dog has got to have this car” — and a barely stocked fridge, save for Tombstone pizza and a shelf full of beer.
With celebrities talking straight to the camera, the distance between the fans and the stars all but evaporated. Absent any on-screen interloper and shot with the frenetic energy of a music video, the segments had the candid, casual feel that at the time was totally new but would eventually become commonplace, first on YouTube and, later, on Instagram Live and TikTok.
Though Diaz expected to have to wrangle overprotective entourages while they filmed, “Nine times out of 10, there wouldn’t be a publicist, a rep, or a manager there. The celebrities were just so at home, literally. They were so relaxed about the whole thing.”
Before long, everybody who was anybody was throwing open their front doors to the world and saying, “Welcome to my crib.” You could turn on MTV, and there was Ludacris, taking you into “the chilling area” of his palatial Atlanta home, nuzzling a lush throw on his couch: “This is called Russian sable. It’s more priceless than mink.”
Or maybe you’d see Usher, draped in a floor-length fur coat, admitting that, inside his 10,430-square foot Atlanta mansion, he keeps over 2,000 pairs of shoes and names all of his plants. (“This is Big Poppa right here. Tupac is on the other side of the room. You have to keep them separated, you know.”)
“ ‘Cribs’ actually would reward people who watched carefully with little brushes of intimacy,” Thompson said. “The participants in ‘Cribs’ were still innocent enough back then that some semblance of their actual intimate space was being revealed.”
“The show wasn’t traditional,” explained Darryl E. Smith, the director of photography who helped develop the series’s distinctive filming style. “You couldn’t stop and restart. You had to just reset on the fly. . . . We moved, and we captured so much that way, versus stopping and setting up all the time. And it added to the flow of ‘Cribs.’ ”
Catchphrases from “Cribs,” like “this is where the magic happens,” slipped into the vernacular. Not being able to find celebrity participants quickly became a thing of the past.
“The best way to explain it is, there was a shift,” Smith said. “The agents and the celebrities found out that, ‘If I’m on “Cribs,” my stock goes up.’ It became integral to somebody’s career. ‘You’re not on ‘Cribs’? How come you ain’t on ‘Cribs’?”
It didn’t hurt that, in the age of the elaborate and expensive music video shoot, “Cribs” was airtime on MTV that didn’t cost the celebrity anything. Agents started pitching up-and-coming talent to MTV, hoping to give their rising stars a boost. “Like Paul Walker from ‘Fast and Furious,’ ” Smith said. “When we did his place, he had a hole in the kitchen floor, a hole in the wall; nobody knew he was going to be what he became. Ashton Kutcher, same way. Except he had a better place.”
“Cribs” went from shooting a few times a month to almost every week, Smith remembers, and started to feature a broader range of stars: “Not only musical artists . . . but now we’re talking to everybody. We’ve got athletes; we have celebrities. We even have old celebrities like Wayne Newton who pulled a helicopter out of his garage.”
“It got to a point where everybody was wanting to do it,” Dupri said. “People that you thought would never do it. Like Mariah! I would never have thought Mariah would do ‘Cribs.’ ”
Mariah Carey’s 2002 episode — an objectively perfect piece of television — took 24 hours to film. (A typical shoot lasted between five and eight hours.) The pop icon fully committed to the “Cribs” experience, indulging in multiple wardrobe changes and one brief, headline-making slide into her bathtub as she glided through her 11,000-square-foot tri-level Tribeca penthouse, which included a full-service salon, a closet just for her lingerie and a “mermaid room” movie theater where the saltwater aquarium was full of fish she said were “changed to be nocturnal” to match her sleep schedule.
This was the real joy of “Cribs.” It had none of the stuffiness of old money. This was new money, spent by stars who were boisterous and over the top, unabashed in their desire to luxuriate in their success. To see somebody’s “Cribs” was to observe the explosion of their id: every whim indulged, every material dream realized, no matter how extravagant or bizarre.
“When the ‘Cribs’ days were going on, if you liked something, you bought it,” Osbourne said. “If you wanted to have an air hockey machine in the middle of your dining room, you had it. It was the innocence of it. . . . The vulnerability of, ‘I really want this, I’ve wanted this since I was a kid,’ and you can go out and buy it and stick it in your house. There was no embarrassment about the way you lived.”
In time, the show got so big that stars would try to scam their way on. Smith remembers flying out to Barcelona to shoot Paulina Rubio’s segment in “this concrete-mixing place that had been turned into a home” only to find out that the residence belonged to her boyfriend’s father, a Spanish architect. “This was his place, and she basically stayed in one of the towers, like Rapunzel,” he said.
Robbie Williams, the British singer, borrowed a castle from actress Jane Seymour and passed it off as his own, even going so far as to hire butlers to serve him during filming. Pop singer JoJo confessed that she and her mother didn’t have a home when her episode was filmed, so they used her uncle’s place instead. In a preview of his Fyre Fest woes, Ja Rule was also embroiled in a “Cribs” controversy. He rented a mansion for his episode and was sued by the house’s real owner for breaching his lease agreement by taping the show and staging a party for more than 600 people during his four-day stay.
If the original “Cribs” had certain set pieces — infinity pools, fridges full of Cristal, shoe closets larger than many apartments — so, too, does the inadvertent “Cribs” revival of 2020: self-consciously curated bookshelves, the luscious greenery of well-tended houseplants; halfway-decent lighting.
In mid-April, Claude Taylor and his girlfriend, Jessie Bahrey, started the Twitter account Room Raters, which does exactly what the name implies. They have over 250,000 followers; engagement really picked up once pundits started responding to their room ratings, which evaluate decor, lighting, art selections and floral arrangements.
“We’re not going to claim complete credit,” Taylor said. “But when we started in April versus now, the quality of the Skype rooms and Zoom rooms have just improved dramatically.” He pointed to Al Roker as a model: Taylor had a few critiques for Roker’s room, and the next day, “He’d taken our advice to heart, made a couple specific changes we recommended, and the room he had then was just spectacular, just perfect. Ten out of 10.”
This is a tense time, though, to be showing all the world that you live in a 10-out-of-10 of dwelling. That wasn’t the case in the early days of “Cribs.” “Fans loved the materialism,” Diaz said. “I think in a lot of ways, you root for that celebrity you love. They get a pass for that success because you feel that they earned it. It was more of a celebratory than it was a negative.” But that doesn’t seem to be so consistently the case anymore.
On March 20, just days into quarantine, Kylie Jenner tweeted a mirror selfie. In the photo, over 100 bottles of wine stacked on blonde wood shelves shine in the background. Kylie’s body is pressed into the curved back of an off-white chair on an off-white floor in an off-white room; a gilded staircase behind her suggests another tier of blank, beige opulence. The text of her tweet read: “movie suggestions?” The reply, retweeted nearly 28,000 times: “Parasite.” A video shared by Jennifer Lopez from the vast green expanse outside the compound she shares with Alex Rodriguez prompted a similar response: “please check your basement.” After Ellen DeGeneres shared a video from inside her glass-walled mansion: “WHY DO ALL CELEBRITIES LIVE IN THE PARASITE HOUSE.”
“Cribs” flourished in the frenetic, garish early aughts, when “go shopping” was unironically proffered to citizens as the responsible and patriotic response to a terrorist attack. Mansions backed up to private boat docks, whirlpools angled toward wall-mounted flat-screen TVs — it was gaudy, even gauche, but who cared? It was the high before the crash, both for the musicians who didn’t realize their industry was about to be upended by the Internet and the teenagers who would soon find themselves as the first generation not better off than the one before it. Now those millennials are a cohort defined by living through two historic recessions, fighting through unemployment, and being uninsured and smothered under heaps of student loan debt.
There was always a considerable distance between an MTV viewer’s couch and the splendor celebrities flaunted on “Cribs.” In the coming months, for many, that separation will only grow. The pandemic is fueling a housing crisis. An estimated 20 million to 28 million Americans will face eviction between now and September.
With that looming catastrophe as context, a lot of old “Cribs” episodes wilt on the re-watch, as if beamed into your screen from a distant galaxy. Not Mariah’s, though. Hers is still completely charming.
“When I was little, I always wanted a penthouse apartment in New York with a view like this,” she says, her back to the camera and her eyes on the Empire State Building, lit up against the night sky. “Took me quite a while because all the co-op boards told me no. But now it doesn’t matter because I have my own.” She punctuates this swift recap of her staggering cultural and financial ascent with self-satisfied hmm-hmm and breezes ahead on her tour, certain we will watch her wherever she goes.