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We encounter the weird and wacky to the just plain tacky on a celebrity-spotting jaunt in sunny Los Angeles

Los Angeles might be home to the stars, but trying to catch them is another story– to start with, you’re probably going to need a bigger car. “You’ve got a compact, wanna upgrade?” asks the car hire lady at Los Angeles airport. “No thanks, that’s whatI ordered,” I reply. The keyboard tapping stops. Silence.

“Really? Okaaay,” she adds, staring for just a little too long before frantically poundingat the computer. Going small is apparently not the norm in Los Angeles – a lesson I’m going to need to learn fast. I’m in town for a TNT assignment that seems simple: to go insearch of the stars. My odds seem favourable – after all, LA is the place that most of theworld’s big celebrities call home, right? 

So, unabashed by my smalI set of wheels, I hit the road. But unfortunately, so has the rest of the city. Traffic flows along streets stretching five, six, seven lanes wide each way. Cars weave in and out, indicating optional, tailgating preferable, no lane obviously faster than the next. It’s intimidating to say the least. But my LA buddies on the ground told me I’d be insane to even attempt the city without my own car. And now I can see why.

The fast and the curious

Theme parks and recreation

I get started on my celeb-spotting mission at one of the biggest star factories in town – Universal Studios. No film fan could leave this theme park and movie studio disappointed, but even with my expectations high, the rides still blow me away. Sure, some feel a little dated now (the Terminator 2 ride recently closed for good) but the majority have me screaming, laughing like a lunatic or simply holding on as tight as I can.

A real highlight is the Transformers 3D ride. I’m yet to be convinced by 3D in the cinema, but rides are a whole different world. I’m thrown left and right, up and down, each time ducking and twisting, desperately trying to avoid the Autobots and Decepticons as they enthusiastically get stuck into World War 3 around me. Behind me a child hollers in horror, his mum screaming, “Take off your glasses!”

Nerves suitably jangled, it’s back into the blazing sun for a cool-off on the Jurassic Park log flume. Around we go, dodging the dinosaurs, always edging our way higher, higher, higher. When the drop eventually comes, the turning of the stomach is made even tighter by the perfectly timed lunging T-Rex on the summit, making the rush of the fall and the inevitable soaking all the sweeter.

But of course Universal is not just about the rides. Perhaps more fascinating is driving through the sets on the studio tour: I pass the eerie plane crash from War Of The Worlds and Wisteria Lane from TV’s Desperate Housewives. It’s disconcerting to see the fake scenes that look so real on the screen – little more than huge painted boards with only empty sands stretching out behind. But while I do feel a little closer to the Hollywood great and good here, my celeb count remains on zero. I need to step it up.

Venice the menace

The next day it’s onwards to the full-on freakfest that is Venice Beach, which has long been a major counterculture hub. Made famous by the Z-Boy skaters, White Men Can’t Jump basketball courts and open-air muscle gym once frequented by Arnie, the 2.5-mile strip is an all-day circus of performers, artists and fortune-tellers. 

Down-and-outs hold out placards offering “shitty advice for $2”, while reclining stoners occasionally lift boards claiming they “work for marijuana”. Every 100 metres or so is a marijuana medical centre, places where for about £25 you can see a so-called green doctor, somebody who can legally prescribe you weed. Competition is tough so boisterous hawkers dressed in green scrubs urge you through the doors. Less tough, apparently, is getting approval from the doctor, with the list of required ailments including insomnia, anxiety and “many other disorders”.

But my only problem is still the fact I’ve still not got a celebrity spotting to call my own. With just one day remaining, it’s time for extreme measures. It’s time for the celebrity tours. I head downtown and quickly realise that just about every other vehicle belongs to Starline Tours, who’ve been stalking celebs for tourists since way back in 1935. I figure they’re the ones for me. 

High on Hollywood thrills 

On my way to their base by Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, I stroll up Hollywood Boulevard, taking in some of the 2500 stars that dot the pavement, bearing the names of some of the biggest talents in history. There’s Michael Jackson, Charlie Chaplin and Houdini, as well as some of the real giants of entertainment, like the Rug Rats and Power Rangers. Clambering through the multitude of Spider-Men, Darth Vaders and Avatar characters also lining Hollywood Boulevard, hoping for tips in return for photos, I make it to my Stars’ Homes Tour bus, ready to accomplish my mission. 

Off we go, up onto Mulholland Drive, taking in the views of the Hollywood Sign (recently saved from developers, incidentally, by none other than Hugh Hefner). We’re soon past Jason Statham’s new pad and looking out over Beverly Park, where the average price of a mansion is £15-40m, and the likes of Charlie Sheen and Denzel Washington live. It becomes hard keeping track of the A-list names. Ronald Reagan’s former house was where they filmed Fresh Prince? Elvis’s old home was opposite Michael Jackson’s? Crazy! Also abundantly clear is that imagination is key to the experience. A common theme develops – admiring andphotographing random parts of houses. Well, gates. I get Ellen’s gate, which is next to Ringo Starr’s gate. 

And then there’s Sandra Bullock’s gate, which is opposite Cameron Diaz’s gate. I’m now an expert on gates. But no people. It’s odd to say the least, but the tour is still strangelyenjoyable, giving an eye-popping insight into the staggering wealth that Hollywood creates. However, I’m after people, so line up a second tour – one run by the infamous celebrity news site TMZ.com. These guys promise all the celeb hangouts. I’m sold, so it’s on the bus and back to Beverly Hills. We pass Saks Fifth Avenue (of Winona shoplifting shame) and the Beverly Hills Courthouse (think Lindsay Lohan writing ‘Fuck U’ on her nails). We also pass the Four Seasons Hotel (of Paris Hilton’s sex tape) and L’Ermitage Hotel (think, er, Verne Troyer, aka Mini Me, sex tape). But we don’t see any famous people.

Until, hang on a sec, is that a murmur from the back? Somebody’s been spotted on Rodeo Drive! I look across the street and there she is, a famous-looking person waving at us! But no, it’s too late, the target ducks into a shop. Who was it, we ask? ”Shaunie O’Neal! The star of Basketball Wives!” Eh? “She’s the ex of NBA legend Shaq!” we’re excitedly informed. Hmm, I think that’s a fail.

A Universal Studios ticket is £52pp universalstudioshollywood.com The Stars’ Homes Tour is £29pp and theTMZ tour is £32pp. More information atstarlinetours.com

Getting there

Fly from London Heathrow to Los Angeles with Virgin Atlanticfrom £680pp return. virgin-atlantic.com

When to go: Los Angelesis known for its year-round warmweather, so there’s never a badtime to visit temperature-wise. However, during the time of the bigmovie and music awards (Oscarsand Grammys) in Feb-Mar, it can behard to get bookings.
Currency: £1 = 1.52 USD(US dollars).
Accommodation: Just wanna catch some slebs? Book astay at Hollywood International Hostel, which is right in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. Dorm bedsfrom £13.88pn.

ushostel.com discoverlosangeles.com